Where's the 'Bedouin' in 'Tribe'? Tribal Ruling in Urban Kuwaiti Society
In the contemporary era, tribalism has been reframed, time and again, as a primitive social form antithetical to modernity, and by extension, to development. Yet, the inverse is often true. In Kuwait, individuals of tribal background admit that there is no 'Bedouin' in the true sense of the term - enveloped in pastoral nomadism. Rather, the 'badu' term is a reflection of historical roots that inadvertently underscores both an evolution within and acclimatisation to an urbanised environment. Within Kuwait's statist framework, the official narrative to dichotomise hadar (urbanites) and badu (sedentary groups) has implications in citizenship, and its corollary state benefits. Even for Kuwaiti citizens, the 'badu' label comes with a baggage; one that has completing claims against other social groups. In this light, this paper examines tribal ruling in the urban Kuwaiti context, positing tribalism as a guide to everyday conduct in social relations. More than a means of preserving traditions, tribal ruling addresses specific material conditions and political circumstances. Far from Tétreault's designation of tribes as a 'shadow government,' this study leans towards Gardner's argument that tribalism is a "feature on the palette from which individual and collective identities are constructed". In other words, the tribal face is only manifested in competing claims, whether social or political. Crucially, tribalism acts as a coping mechanism for redress - whether needs, wants, or grievances. Employing the Otaibi tribe as a case study, this paper will show that invoking tribal identities has stakes in power and status, in part owing to how Kuwait straddles between kinship governance and the impersonal, centralised state apparatus. Accordingly, the paper revisits the difficulty in defining tribal lexicon, particularly when much of anthropological estimation is unable to escape the atavistic image of tribes.