The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, at a summit in Oman, December 2008
Xinhua / eyevine / Redux

Wander through an old city on the Persian Gulf and you might see markets, a mosque, a clock tower, a palace. You might see the front doors of private residences. Far off in the distance, you might catch a glimpse of oil rigs and tankers anchored offshore. But even a seasoned expatriate may miss what is perhaps the city’s most important space: up on the second floor of many homes, even in the modern villas that dot the newer neighborhoods, is a long room, often decorated with arched windows, intricate ornaments, and fine pillows and cushions. This room is the majlis, or tribal council chamber. It fits all the men and women—they meet separately—of an extended family or tribe. Almost every tribe in the Gulf, rich or poor, has one.

The omnipresence of the majlis helps explain one of the most puzzling features of political life in the Gulf: the fact that most of the region is still ruled by kings and emirs. In theory, Gulf monarchs should fear for their jobs. Their economies suffer from corruption and oil dependency. Vast inequalities divide citizens from immigrant populations. Islamist political currents, together with cultural modernization and a flow of information that increasingly escapes state control, could easily fuel political instability. And the Gulf monarchs have less religious legitimacy to fall back on in times of trouble than the regents do in nearby Jordan and Morocco, because none claims a blood link to the Prophet Muhammad. Scholars of the region accordingly like to predict the monarchs’ imminent downfall. And yet from Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, no such collapse has taken place. Even the convulsions of the Arab Spring did little to shake up political structures in the Gulf. 

The longevity of the Gulf monarchies is not solely the product of oil or of the power and charisma of specific rulers. Much of it stems instead from the majlis, which plays a largely unexamined role in mediating between the tribes and the state. Nonetheless, that relationship has come under strain in recent years, potentially imperiling the implicit social contract that has allowed the monarchies to survive and even prosper. 

Members of the Majlis ash-Shur​a, Saudi Arabia's royal consultative council, in Riyadh, July 2003
Members of the Majlis ash-Shur​a, Saudi Arabia's royal consultative council, in Riyadh, July 2003
Franco Pagetti / VII / Redux

In Western political thought, civil society—the foundation of true representative democracy—is the constellation of organizations outside of government through which citizens organize themselves and define their common interests. These can include universities, professional associations, unions, religious organizations, the media, and more. Western civil society coalesces, perhaps, in the town square or the revolutionary coffeehouses of Habermas’ public sphere. In the Gulf, tribal affiliation, not citizenship, channels political participation, and more often than not, politics centers in the majlis. In these large, fancy living rooms (or, failing that, in a more rudimentary mobile tent), grievances are communicated and power is transferred between ruler and the ruled.

The history of the majlis stretches back to pre-Islamic times. The tribal leader, or sheikh, would regularly convene his extended family, and occasionally the emir, or the sheikh of sheikhs, would attend the meetings. As a ruler in seventh-century Arabia, the Prophet Muhammad held similar assemblies to resolve disputes between the various tribes of Medina. He set up a web of councils that were linked through periodic diplomatic exchanges. 

The longevity of the Gulf monarchies is not solely the product of oil or of the power and charisma of specific rulers.

That system endures today. Formally, government in the Gulf is based on the constitutional authority of the ruling emir, which in many cases is nearly absolute. (Kuwait has a parliament with some real powers, but most authority still rests in the hands of its emir.) Formal laws and government institutions were largely the creation of colonial officers or Western advisers to domestic rulers—outsiders who did not necessarily appreciate the traditional, informal bonds that made society work in the Gulf. 

The majlis is the glue that binds society to the state. At majlis meetings, members might discuss a marriage proposal or the need to fix a water main. Families and notables seek to resolve potential judicial disputes. Most important, they pledge their allegiance to the emir in exchange for his or his representatives’ regular visits. The consultations make the majlis a safety valve of sorts—a place where information is exchanged and grievances can be heard. What is discussed in the majlis quickly makes its way up to the diwan, or the emir’s board of advisers and trustees, which sits atop this network of informal assemblies.

Citizens tend to value the majlis as a means to make their voices heard while avoiding the embarrassment that can come from publicly discussing sensitive issues that implicate their tribes. Rulers, for their part, recognize the value of the majlis as a way of upholding traditional power structures. Most public gatherings and associations are prohibited in the Gulf states, but the majlis system operates with active government support. The longtime ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah, a part of the United Arab Emirates, recently sponsored new majlis chambers, built to accommodate a growing local population. 

Other states, such as Kuwait, have opted for the more formal vehicle of elections to select a body of popular representatives. But instead of undermining the tribal councils, elections in Kuwait have reinforced the councils’ clout. Because only the tribal councils are exempt from legal prohibitions on gatherings of more than 20 people, they have become a natural site for political campaigning, with politicians attending the meetings of various tribes to seek their support. 

Nevertheless, the majlis is not a formal democratic institution. Nor is it immune to changes in politics and society. As the region’s states have become more formalized in recent decades, the personalized style of years past has lost some of its efficacy. Ties of kith and kin now exist alongside Western-style cabinets, taxpayers, and the power of the private sector. In the face of those shifts, informal councils organized around the principle of tribal affiliation run the risk of becoming obsolete.

Most public gatherings and associations are prohibited in the Gulf states, but the majlis system operates with active government support.

More change is yet to come. Like much of the Arab world, the Gulf states still operate, to some extent, as “tribes with flags”—clan-based societies masquerading as nation-states. Yet the region’s leaders seem intent on creating what might be described as “flags with tribes”—unitary societies in which citizenship takes precedence over tribal affiliation. New state-sponsored public institutions, such as the recently inaugurated National Museum of Qatar and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, highlight tribal heritage but appear designed to instill in citizens a single, unifying national identity. 

In a nondemocratic emirate, however, that sense of national identity often becomes synonymous with loyalty to the emir and, ironically, the emir’s tribe. Qatar’s National Day, introduced a little over a decade ago, mostly celebrates the success of Qassim al-Thani, an early-twentieth-century ruler and direct ancestor of today’s ruling family. 

The old social model, explicitly based on multiple tribal identities, allowed at least a degree of power sharing through the majlis. Now the foundations of that system are eroding without an inclusive alternative arrangement in sight. Even the universities, clubs, and new public venues sprouting up across the region are almost all patronized directly by the ruling families and are sometimes less accessible to nonroyal tribes than the majlis.

The future of the Gulf monarchs rests on their ability to maintain their legitimacy through traditional means of consultation, for better or worse. Those rulers trying to break with this model without providing a feasible alternative—such as real democratic reforms—do so to their own detriment.

  • ALLEN JAMES FROMHERZ is Professor of History and Director of the Middle East Studies Center at Georgia State University. He is the author of Qatar: A Modern History
  • JAVIER GUIRADO ALONSO is a doctoral student at Georgia State University’s History Department in Atlanta. He holds an M.A. in Contemporary Arab and Islamic Studies from the Autonomous University of Madrid.
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