Saturday, September 1, 2007


"The Jordanian authorities repressed last Thursday 30 August a demonstration by more than 1000 livestock farmers who were protesting the government’s decision to lift subsidies on feed. The demonstrators blocked the airport road with burning tires. The police used tear gas and sticks and the demonstrators, most of whom are Bedouins and tribesmen, threw stones at the mayor of Amman and at a high official in the Ministry of Trade. The demonstrators appealed to King Abdullah of Jordan to cancel the government’s decision, which would increase the price of feed from $126 per ton to $360 per ton. They also threatened to slaughter their flocks in front of the prime minister’s house.”

I seize this opportunity to post about the Bedouins of Jordan (Baduw al Urdunn) because: 1) it is impossible to fully comprehend the significance of this news item without knowing the changes in Bedouin society over the past 150 years. 2) my friend Mustapha Mond has asked me earlier to write about the pastoralists and tarch (animals that are herded). Here’s to you MM.

Before starting, one must realize the following:

1) There is a global increase in the prices of food and feed due to: a-the removal of some subsidies in the EU, b-droughts attributed to global climate change, c-the biofuel industry which is displacing food and feed production, and d-increased demand by China and India on limited world food and feed supplies.

2) The Jordanian State is described as politically surrogate to the US, and economically surrogate to the World Bank-IMF. The regime is said to be kept in place by a combination of repressive policies and of incentives. The Bedouins are the protectors of the kingdom, its praetorian guard. They play a significant role in Jordan’s internal power politics.

Paradoxically, the Bedouin are also socially and financially less favored than other classes in Jordan. Individuals Bedouins may benefit from state services. However the state does not assist the Bedouins as a social group. Moreover, the nature of these services (formal employment, enrollment in the armed forces) contributes to the atomization of Bedouin society.

Jordanian Bedouin tribes were fully nomadic and camel-dependent during the Ottoman Empire. Camels were the symbol of their strength and gave them the ability to live in the desert where they could retreat to avoid governments, their taxes and their armies. The largest Jordanian tribe is probably the Bani Sakhr. Tribes had very diversified livelihoods: they sold camels and camel meat; they took money from the Ottomans to protect the caravans, which they attacked when they were not paid. They also extorted protection money (“khuwwa”) from towns, villages and from smaller tribes. They regarded themselves as a race of aristocrats to whom manual labor would be humiliation (John Glubb).

The modern transformation of Bedouin society started in 1867 when a Turkish expedition defeated the Bani Sakhr and abolished the practice of “khuwwa”. Concurrently, demand on wheat and on some other crop products increased in Europe, and cultivated areas expanded onto pasture lands. Tribal chiefs and rich urban merchants appropriated vast land areas, brought in poor farmers (fellahin) from Palestine to farm them, while the tribesmen guarded the land and the crop, thus establishing individual tenure on what used to be collective lands.

However, the Bedouins continued to keep camels. Their transhumance route took them to Wadi Sirhan (in today’s Saudi Arabia) in winter and to Transjordan in summer.

Several events took place concurrently in the late 1920s-early 1930s, when Jordan was under the control of the British mandate. These events contributed to a major change in Bedouin society in Jordan.

1)The camel market shrank as the consumption of camel meat in Egypt declined,

2) Motorized trucks replaced camels for transportation

3)The Ikhwan rebellion led by Ibn Saoud was particularly murderous. The raids of the Ikhwan (a conglomeration of warrior tribes held together by the Wahhabi doctrine) were particularly murderous as they sanctioned the physical eradication of their enemies, not just the appropriation of their belongings. Ibn Saoud annexed Wadi Sirhan to Saudi Arabia and imposed a tax on the grazing tribes.

4)The tribes also had to pay a tax to the mandatory authorities for their summer grazing in Transjordan.

5)A major drought and a concurrent locust invasion took place in two successive years.

The Jordanian tribes experienced famine as a result of these combined factors.

The British mandatory authorities interfered and provided help to the tribes. Besides the obvious humanitarian reasons, this emergency relief also aimed at preventing the tribes from revolting and joining the ranks of the Ikhwan and of Ibn Saoud. Taxes on livestock were reduced, subsidies were given to the sheikhs and tribesmen were employed in the Desert Force Patrol. The process of sedentarization was initiated in order to calm the ardor of the nomadic tribesmen by changing their society and cultural values.

These actions prevented the famine from taking hold and decimating the tribes. But they also increased the power of the British and the Government over the tribes. One of the immediate outcomes of this new power structure was the end of camel herding.

Most of the camels of the Jordanian tribes had died during the drought, and herds needed to be rebuilt. However, female camels are slow breeders, and herds are difficult to rebuild naturally, through offspring. Traditionally, tribes who had experienced hardship such as droughts reconstituted their herds by raiding other tribes to whom nature had shown more clemency. But raids (gazou) had been prohibited by the government, and enforcing this ban was the responsibility of the Desert Forces Patrol. This led most tribes to abandon camel herding. This was the end of the traditional camel-dependent nomads of Jordan.

The aid measures introduced by the Government under the direction of John Glubb (Glubb Pasha) saved the Bedouins from famine, but created dependency on the state support system. The policy of sedentarization meant that communal lands were distributed to the sheikhs as well as to the tribesmen as private property. Seeds were offered in order to encourage land cultivation. More employment opportunities were created, especially in the armed forces. Glubb gained tremendous influence over the Bedouins. By a combination of carrot and stick policies (small carrot and big stick), he brought in the tribesmen and their sheikhs. The tribes were turned into a collaborating elite. The sheikhs became large landowners and joined the “palace clique”, a role they continue to play to this day.

In spite of the land “reform”, Bedouins did not become fully sedentary: they just reduced their area of transhumance by becoming sheep herders. Sheep produce milk, meat, wool and lambs. With these products, the Bedouins entered a broader market economy. With the income from the sheep products, they bought luxury items, like tea and sugar.

It is, once again, droughts that caused the decline of the Bedouin herds. The droughts of 1959 and 1960s decimated the sheep flocks of Jordan, in spite of the support offered by the Jordanian government. It is in the aftermath of this catastrophe that motorization became an integral part of nomadic sheep farming. Motor vehicles can bring water and feed to the flocks, and move flocks to more welcoming environments. They reduce the vulnerability caused by climatic uncertainty.

In spite of motorization, the sheep farming system remains dependent on the vagaries of the climate. This is compounded by the squeezing of flocks into tighter grazing areas which makes them more vulnerable to droughts. Land is increasingly moving into urban, military or industrial use, to the detriment of sheep herders. As a result, traditional Jordanian Bedouin society has all but disappeared.

The Bedouin tribes of Jordan have silently watched the unfolding of these extreme changes in their culture. For a long time, they never contested state policies. Because they are fractioned, and because their leadership was co-opted by the regime, united political action was late to emerge. But in 1983, the Bani Hassan collectively stood up to the state to defend tribal land rights east of Amman, where land prices had increased exponentially. The state repressed their uprising and imposed a ruling according to state law rather than to tribal law.

In 1989, the implementation of the IMF reform package caused a price increase in basic commodities, such as bread. Riots erupted in the town of Maan and spread throughout the tribal areas, which were traditionally considered to be loyal to the King. King Hussein reacted by blaming the government, dissolving it and canceling most of the reforms. This increased the King’s popularity among the Bedouins who saw him as their protector, a role he was always keen to play.

The events of August 30, 2007 are very reminiscent of the Maan 1989 riots. They were also triggered by economic policy reforms of the type that is promoted by the IMF. Jordan recently joined the WTO, and it is very probable that the meat exporting countries are pressuring the Kingdom into canceling subsidies to local sheep producers, the Bedouins. The information I have presented indicates that the combination of political pressures (policies blind to the needs of a whole social group), natural events (droughts) as well as market pressures have always been detrimental to the fragile Bedouin society. The events currently taking place may well deal it a final deadly blow.

In writing this post I have used 2 main sources:

Tell, Tareq. 1993. Paysans, nomades et etat en Jordanie Orientale : Les politiques de developpement rural (1920-1989). In : Steppes d’Arabie. Bocco, Jaubert, Metral eds. Presses Universitaires de France.

Lewis, Norman. 1987. Nomads and Setters in Syria and Jordan, 1800-1980. Cambridge University Press.


Ms Levantine said...

Tks for the excellent post Rami.

Considering the Jordanian regime traditionally needed the tribes support to survive, it would be interesting to see how they will deal with the curent problem.

In my cheerful ignorance I was not aware of the Ikhwan revolts. I will check it out.


Khalil said...

Hey Rami-
I just dicovered your blog.
Interesting outlook.
I will try to visit it from now on, specially when it comes to mouneh and olive oil.
Bon Courage,
Khalil from Cairo