Clients or Challengers?: Tribal Constituents in Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE

By Courtney Freer
Submitted to Session P4869 (Loyalists in the Gulf: Reliable Partners or Independent Actors, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Gulf;
Middle East/Near East Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Traditional understandings of Gulf politics place members of tribes as critical supporters of ruling families, with the smaller Gulf states oftentimes referred to even as “bedouinocracies.” While tribes undoubtedly hold political capital inside of Gulf states, it remains to be seen to what extent they still act as clients of regimes or whether they are in fact independent, and potentially oppositional, actors. The fact that tribes influence policy-making and shape political systems has been documented in extant work. Therefore, while tribes certainly hold political capital inside the Gulf states, this paper will assess what factors – whether political interest, shared ideology, or economic concerns – determine the direction of this influence towards the opposition or regime support.

The role of tribes, logically, varies by country, depending largely on political systems and networks of patronage in which they can participate. This paper will examine the degree to which tribes act as political parties, lobbyists, or state clients in the Kuwaiti, Qatari, and Emirati cases, as well as what factors determine the direction of tribal support. To that end, we will analyse electoral outcomes for the Kuwaiti legislature, Qatari municipal council, and Emirati consultative council to understand the extent to which certain major tribal groups take collective action through electoral campaigns. We will then use original data from fieldwork to assess the degree to which identification along tribal lines is self-conscious, as well whether it is considered a social or political alignment.

Such research will enhance understanding about the extent to which tribes have changed in terms of (a) their willingness to participate in elected bodies, (b) their ability to hold sway over policy decisions in such bodies, and (c) their participation in political patronage networks inside the state. Due to the comparative nature of this study, we will come to a better understanding of how these small rentier states, which, at first glance, seem highly similar, house very different tribal dynamics. In addition, this study will debunk incorrect assumptions about political life in Gulf states and contribute to comparative work between the tribes in states of the Gulf and tribes elsewhere in the Middle East.