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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