Tribes in the MENA Open Cyberspace

By Nachum Shiloh

The tribe is the basic social unit in many countries in the MENA region. In some of them, especially the Gulf States monarchies, the tribal identity of the society, the ruling families and the elites was and still is a source of pride and therefore was highlighted in any way possible and especially in the media. In other states, like Syria and Iraq, tribalism was perceived as a disgrace and as an antithesis to “progress” and “enlightenment”. However the social and political shifts that these countries underwent in the passing 20 years, and which climaxed in the Arab Spring, proved that despite the regimes’ efforts to suppress and hide tribalism and kinship, the family, the clan and the tribe remained the basic unit of society.  

In almost every state in the MENA region, especially in the Arab states, understanding tribal stratifications and tribal affiliations is crucial for understanding social, political and economic life. A presence of a given tribe in the government, the powerful conglomerates and the armed forces is an indication for the effectiveness, power and creditability of a given entity. For example, if the board of directors of a certain company includes figures from a prominent tribe which maintains close relations with the ruling family, we can assume, even before reviewing the company’s financial report, that this company has a good position in that country and probably has a solid financial basis. These issues are highly important upon performing a due diligence inquiry about such a company.

Before the Internet era, obtaining information about tribes in the Middle East beyond the details brought in academic literature was very difficult. Information about the current situation of the tribe, its key figures and its political, social and economic activity was scarce and in many cases not available. However, as internet usage spread, many Middle Eastern tribes launched internet websites and placed their foothold in the virtual cyberspace. Nowadays, these websites serve as no less than profound databases through which we can learn a lot about a given tribe’s life, leaders, history, social stratification, political atmosphere, religious affiliations and also about the tribe’s role in the economic life of its country.

Let’s take for example the Al Awazim tribe – one of Arabia’s most prominent tribes whose clans reside today mostly in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. By entering the tribe’s official website we actually gain access to a huge historical and geographical archive and to an impressive body of knowledge about the tribe’s leaders, customs and cultural affairs as well as to virtual forums dealing with many political, religious, cultural and economic issues relevant to this tribe and to the Saudi and Kuwaiti societies. In parallel, the tribe also maintains an active  Twitter account which refers to current and future events like wedding parties, funerals and donation campaigns in which figures from this tribe are involved.

Another compelling example is the internet presence of the Ruwallah tribe whose clans reside today mainly in the Northern Arabian Peninsula and in Jordan. The first sight upon entering the tribe’s website is a large table containing six banners directing us to the tribe’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube accounts, as well as to local portals of the tribe’s clans in two Saudi towns – Tabuk and Al-Jawf.  The content of these accounts shall give us a profound knowledge about the tribe’s day-to-day life and will update us about the tribe’s future activities.

To sum up, the internet presence of tribes and clans in the MENA region – websites, forums, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and blogs creates impressive databases. Combined with advanced OSINT capabilities, these databases facilitate the work of many researchers, beginning with historians and anthropologists and ending with business intelligence professions.