Tribal Modern; Sectarian Politics in the Gulf

In This Review

Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf
by Miriam Cooke
University of California Press, 2014
224 pp. $65.00
Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings
by Frederic M. Wehrey
Columbia University Press, 2013
352 pp. $45.00

These books present two very different takes on the most dynamic part of the Arab world. Cooke explores tribalism in the hypermodern Gulf; Wehrey examines the causes of the region’s Shiite-Sunni divide.

Cooke’s eclectic depiction of the reinvention of tribal identity makes use of the Arabic term barzakh, which she defines as the meeting -- but not commingling -- of two distinct elements, to capture the chemistry between tribal heritage and modernity. Yet what she describes seems like extensive commingling, with the arrival of such new “traditions” as racing remote-controlled camels, staging national contests in Bedouin poetry, and even women dressing as men -- but wearing the de rigueur thawb.

Wehrey dispassionately chronicles sectarianism in the three Gulf countries where Shiite-Sunni tensions are arguably most significant: Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. He details how regional developments, above all the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and Hezbollah’s confrontation with Israel in 2006, all fanned the embers of sectarian animosity. Nonetheless, in Wehrey’s view, the root causes of the conflict lie in weak political institutions, the systematic disenfranchisement of minority groups, and the irresistible temptation of local political actors to exploit sectarian sentiments to advance their agendas. The royal families that rule all three countries seek at all costs to prevent any alliance, in the name of a reform agenda, between moderate Shiites and moderate Sunnis, although one could easily argue that such an alliance would serve the long-term interests of all three monarchies.

Both authors show how complex these societies are in terms of class and highlight their complicated mixtures of Bedouin and urban cultures and Arab and Persian origins. It is not clear if the mythologizing of lineage and heritage detailed by Cooke is unique to the Gulf, but surely the resources these societies have devoted to it are unrivaled. Wehrey might leave the reader wondering when artificial disputes instigated for short-term political gain become bloody enough to be considered real and possibly become intractable.