History of the Modern Middle East–Lecture 4: The Military-Industrial Complex of the West vs. the Military-Commercial Complex of the Islamic World (part 3)


The original title of Prof. Richard Bulliet’s lecture given on January 29, 2009 at Columbia University lecture is “Inequality” vs. “Difference”, but I found after listening to his lecture, that the above title more specifically addresses the contents.  

The next post covers the military traditions in the Middle East, which does not stem from  the tradition of hereditary aristocracy as it does in Europe.  The first military tradition in the Middle East that Prof. Bulliet describes is developed from tribal kinship.

7. The Tribal Ethos in the Middle East

This aristocracy does not exist in the Middle East and North Africa. This doesn’t mean that you do not have a warrior tradition, but the notion of the military is very different. If you were to compare it with China, you would similarly find a profound difference. Chinese generals don’t become famous iconic philosophical types; they are employees of the state who are given military assignments. From a Confucian point of view, the warrior is comparatively insignificant compared with the sage, the great humane advisor to emperors, and the learning tradition associated with the sages.

So this is a particularity of Indo-European societies. In the Middle East, you have one warrior ethos that is associated directly with pastoral nomadism, so that tribes have warriors; indeed one could argue that tribes consist of warriors. Although it is often exaggerated, the theory of segmentary kinship structure, which was one of those post-World War II enthusiasms, maintains that in a society without law like that in the desert or in the mountains or wherever, if there is no legal system, then what does the law consist of? How are disputes regulated? The answer is the balance of kinship units.

Therefore it is crucial to know who is related to you, and if they are related to you, they have to acknowledge that relationship. They will come to your defense as you will come to their defense, and your kinship unit will muster its strength against their kinship unit, and so you get a standoff that leads to a pacification of disputes because nobody really wants to go into an all-out war. This kind of notion of tribal kinship support has not entirely vanished.

Prof. Bulliet knows, for example, in recent years of a man in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia who was a man of some prominence, but not quite of the prominence that he aspired to. He was from a certain tribe, and the people who were trying to keep him from the prominence that he aspired to doubted that he was from that tribe. And they would rumor that he says he’s from the tribe Beni so-and-so, but that really isn’t true; he’s making it up. When you move to the city you can do those things; you can fake your lineages.

Well it turned out that the tribe he was from was a tribe that ruling one of the Emirates in the Persian Gulf many, many miles away. They had never heard of him, but he communicated with the Emir of that Emirate and said, “I am of your tribe, and here’s the problem I’m having.” So the Emir and a large number of his followers came to Riyadh to visit, and to show “yes, we support him and he is a member of our tribe.” And the result was that he achieved the social status to which he aspired, because he was able to prove that his tribe would stand by him. This is uncommon these days, but it has not totally disappeared. At one time, it was much more common.

The notion of the head of a tribe, say in the Arabian Peninsula, is often thought of as being the first among equals or primus inter pares. He was the head of the tribe because he was reasonable, mature, prosperous, had a record of making good decisions, and he was generous and hospitable. In terms of importance, being generous and hospitable probably trumped the other factors like being reasonable, making good decisions, and so forth. So if you go to the Peninsula today, you will find that generosity and hospitality are enormously important values.

8. The majlis or open-house tradition

For example, every prince of any significance in the Saudi royal family holds on a regular basis, either weekly or more often, an open house or majlis. It doesn’t mean that everybody can come, but if you go to a majlis, which might involve a meal or might not, nothing in particular happens.

Prof. Bulliet has gone to a majlis, where you go and sit down, and a servant comes around with a tray with incense. Or maybe he is holding an incense burner with frankincense, and just so you know, the protocol if you are a Westerner and you are presented with incense is that you waft yourself with incense so it is good to practice wafting if you are going to Saudi Arabia in an official position (laughter). Then after that they bring around coffee, with miserable boiled cardamom seeds. It’s green and not brown, and you get about 3 ccs of coffee in an itty, bitty cup. They pour it, you drink it, and then the guy comes back and he pours 3 more ccs, you drink 3 more, he pours 3 more—you have to stop him (laughter). But you have to drink 3 first, and then after that you take your little coffee cup (?) and you wiggle it. Then he takes it away from you and you are done with your coffee. Then he goes and gives the same thing to someone else.

The coffee is a ceremony. Prof. Bulliet relates that he can’t stand Saudi coffee, because it ruins his stomach lining (laughter). Then after the coffee, there is tea to wash it down, , and then you get after that Coke or Seven-Up—the ritual goes on. So far there has been no conversation. This will go on in a place the size of this classroom. The majlis of the governor of Riyadh was in a room about 2/3 the size of the classroom, and there were 75 chairs arranged around the wall, and the center of the room was empty. There were servants who were distributing the coffee—no incense there, just coffee—to everyone in the room. Then the prince would come in with a couple of military orderlies and a couple of advisors, clearly distinguished from each other because the military men wear trousers and everybody else was wearing a robe. One by one everyone in the room is given an opportunity to go and talk to the Prince, but you don’t know what they are saying, because they are saying it in a whisper (laughter). Maybe the Minister will press a little piece of paper with his problem into the hands of the Prince, and maybe the Prince will call one of his orderlies and direct him to go off and give some instruction. But everyone gets their chance to talk personally with the Prince.

You can’t do that with Mayor Bloomberg (laughter). The idea that every common citizen can go and talk to the leader and be guaranteed, not necessarily to a speech because there is no public speech, but just be guaranteed to have 30 seconds of private, one-on-one conversation with the leader. This is high politics in Saudi Arabia; you could say it’s democracy. Everyone gets to talk directly to the leader, but of course it’s non-electoral.

Prof. Bulliet made that distinction once in some Congressional testimony; he told the Senator, “you’re the first Senator I’ve ever met, whereas I’ve met more important people in Saudi Arabia just as a casual visitor.” But you have different notions of what is important.

What’s important in this tribal setup is this notion of hospitality, the sense that the leader cares about, communicates with, and listens to every person who is part of a tribe. You look around the room of petitioners in Saudi Arabia, and you don’t see any Indians or Pakistanis; they’re Saudis. Maybe there’s an Egyptian who snuck in (laughter); but the guest workers don’t have that because it’s for the Saudi society. It isn’t for all people who are living and working within the Kingdom.

Tribes with this kind of emphasis, upon a leadership that is legitimized in ways quite different from what we normally imagine and in ways that are utterly different from the hereditary status of European aristocrats, were powerful in the Arabian peninsula and in the desert areas of Iraq, Jordan, and Syria north of Arabia. They became very important at various times in Iran, in Turkey, in North Africa, where you had some tribes that were from the desert and others from the mountains. The tribal ethos or the whole variety of tribal ethoi that are important in that part of the world constitute a major aspect of legitimate violence.

You do have certain parts of Europe where tribes play a role, but they are very, very few. Scotland has something like this in certain clans, and even there the lords of the Scottish clans are hereditary aristocrats. So a lot of the military that is associated with the hereditary aristocracy in Europe is associated with tribes in the Middle East and North Africa.

In the next post, Prof. Bulliet describes a different military setup in the Middle East and North Africa that is different than the tribal system and bears little resemblance to anything in Europe, and that is the Mamluk system that developed in the Ottoman Empire.

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