Saudi Arabia Table of Contents
The word beduin is derived from the Arabic word bawaadin (sing., baadiya), meaning nomads, and is usually associated with a camel-herding life in the desert. The word, therefore, describes an occupation and is not synonymous with the word tribe (qabila), despite the fact that the two are often used interchangeably. The word bawaadin, furthermore, refers not only to camel-herding but is an elastic term that is understood in relation to hadar, or settled people. People from the city, for example, were likely to view villagers as part of the bawaadin, but the villager would consider only the nomadic people as bawaadin. Villagers and nomads, on the other hand, would make a distinction between shepherds who tend sheep and goats, staying close by the village, and the beduin who raised camels. "While the physical boundary between the desert and the sown is strikingly sharp in the Middle East . . ." notes Donald Cole, "the boundary between nomadic pastoralist and sedentary farmer is less precise." Beduin and farmers were united in a single social system. Each relied on the other for critical goods and services to sustain a way of life; they shared substantial cultural unity. Tribal loyalties transcend differences in livelihood; many tribes had both sedentary and nomadic branches.
There is a nomadic-sedentary continuum; at one extreme are completely settled farmers and merchants, at the other are camel herders who produce primarily for their own consumption and have little recourse to wage labor. A host of finely graded distinctions exist between the two extremes. Wealthy beduin frequently established a branch of the family in an oasis with commercial and agricultural investments. Individual households moved along the continuum as their domestic situation changed. Part of the family might settle to attend school, while others maintained the family's flocks.
Beduin father and son
Courtesy Saudi Aramco
Beduin driving camels
Courtesy Aramco World
Among nomads there is a dichotomy--as well as a status differential--between those who herd sheep and goats and those who herd camels. Because sheep and goats are more demanding in their need for water and thus more limited in their migrations, their herders migrate shorter distances and have greater contact with the oasis population. Camels, on the other hand, can endure much longer periods without water, and camel herders are thereby able to range much more widely than other pastoralists. Camel-herding tribes were usually the most powerful militarily and had more status than other herders.
Alliances between beduin and townsmen have historically been a defining feature of the politics of the peninsula. Just as beduin could opt out of raiding a particular town, the town could pay an agreed khuwa, the payment being the exchange of a portion of their surplus production for a guarantee of peace.
At the same time that town and village relied on nomad protection, nomads themselves relied on the sedentary populace for sustenance and diverse services. Nomadism has never been a self-contained system. Even camel-herding beduin relied on the oasis population for a variety of needs. Their diet was supplemented with dates, grains, and, more recently, processed foods; the sedentary population provided medical care when home remedies failed, education, and religious practitioners, tent fibers, and tent pins. Farmers who owned animals entrusted them to nomads' care and the nomads in turn received the animals' milk; beduin left their date palms in the farmers' hands in return for a portion of the harvest.
Development policies in Saudi Arabia have encouraged the sedentarization of most nomadic groups in the kingdom. The percentage of fully nomadic people is unknown, but it was certainly declining in the early 1990s. Those who continued to maintain their livestock faced economic difficulties in spite of government assistance. The rise in the cost of living in Saudi Arabia, coupled with the decline in the commercial value of camels and other livestock, occasioned a need for greater cash income. Consequently, beduin men had begun migrating to the cities for wage work, often as drivers of cars, trucks, and tractors. They frequently left their families behind to tend the animals.
A study among Al Saar beduin shows that urban migration of men resulted in increased work for women and, at the same time, denied them the economic benefits of government programs designed to improve the welfare of nomadic families. With the family together, women generally tended only the sheep and goats; men herded the camels. In addition to caring for animals, producing food, and caring for the household, nomadic women also engaged in crafts, primarily weaving household textiles, such as mats, tent cloth, tent dividers, and sacks to contain their belongings.
The women in the study were left alone with children and had total responsibility for caring for all the animals, camels as well as sheep and goats, while their husbands remained in the towns as much as six months at a time. However, because they were not entitled to a separate citizenship card, being listed as dependents on their husbands' citizenship cards, they were unable to apply for livestock subsidies or for land or home loans issued through government-run service centers near their summer grazing areas. Similarly, women were denied use of the pickup truck, now ubiquitous among nomadic families and indispensable for transporting wood and water and for transportation between the encampment and the herds as well as to government service centers. Although the burden of labor was left to women, the truck could only be used by women in the desert where they could not be seen by government authorities because women were not allowed to drive.
One result of the increased burden on women has been the social reorganization of labor based on the combined efforts of women. Women with infants tended to carry out traditional female work of child care and food preparation, whereas older women, widows, and women without infants cared for the herds and also sold their animals at the service stations, another task traditionally the responsibility of men.
Data as of December 1992
Saudi Arabia Table of Contents