Focused Discussions, Race & Society, Regional Studies

The Gulf Family Working Group Meeting II

The Gulf Family Working Group Meeting II

On November 15-16, 2015, the Center of International and Regional Studies (CIRS) hosted the second working group meeting under its research initiative on “the Gulf Family” at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar. Over the course of two days, ten experts—five of whom are CIRS grant-awardees who have carried out fieldwork—presented papers that covered a wide range of issues related to the family in the Arab states of the Gulf. Papers presented and discussed at the meeting touched on a variety of topics, including tribalism and the family; the marriage institution; cross-national or “mixed” marriages; social stratification and the family; Family Law and the rights of the child; sexuality and the family; the impact of war on Iraqi families; gender relations; power and politics; and bilingualism.

The family has historically been an integral unit of society, and its structure and formation are continuously adapting to evolving social, economic, and political developments. The states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have witnessed massive transformation since the discovery of oil, having emerged over the past few decades as strategically important and ostensibly modern states. This transformation across the region brought with it changes to the nature and functions of the state that were paralleled with equally rapid changes in society, culture, and economy. The Gulf family has of course been influenced by these broader social dynamics, but academic scholarship on the topic remains limited and the family in the Arabian Peninsula is still quite understudied.

CIRS’s research initiative has supported original research that explore questions related to the family institution in the Gulf, including those that focus on family structure, demographic dynamics, the role and impact of policies, tribes, kinship ties, customs, and values. CIRS awarded five competitive grants to scholars proposing original fieldwork on the topic. Building up on the first working group meeting, at the November meeting scholars presented papers and core research findings. During the meeting, participants engaged in critical discussions of each paper, providing comments and feedback on the various contributions.

The working group kicked off with Sebastian Maisel’s examination of “Tribalism and Family Affairs.” Maisel’s paper examines the tribal character of Gulf families, focusing on the influence of tribalism in the conduct of family affairs. The paper investigates whether or not current social and cultural practices of families from the region can be classified as “tribal”. Since there is debate over the notion and meaning of “tribalism” in existing literature, this study begins by introducing a framework and definition of what tribal values actually are, and how these have impacted the pre-oil and post-oil dynamics of the Gulf family. Maisel’s research effort provides a historical lens of analysis, and is based on a series of structured interviews that have been conducted in three Gulf States.

Jihan Safar, another CIRS grant recipient, has carried out research on “the Soaring Bride-Price (mahr) in a Context of Modernization: A Complex Variable that is Affecting the Formation of the Gulf Family: The Case of Oman.” Safar’s research answers some fundamental questions on how the mahr amount is determined and negotiated in Oman, and how this is impacting trends in marriages in the Sultanate. Her research unravels some of the main reasons as to why the costs of mahr in Oman continue to escalate despite trends of modernization, the education and employment of women, urbanization, and new individual aspirations. Safar identifies variables that determine the mahr amount, including geographic location, arranged and non-arranged marriages, religious affiliation, and ethnic identity. This study provides us with a more nuanced understanding of patriarchal family structures, state regulations, notions of masculinity and femininity, and how the family, as a unit, continues to influence the marriage institution in Oman.

Mohammed Mohieddin, Sanaa Alharahsheh, and Feras Al Meer of the Doha International Family Institute presented their research that focuses on “Mixed Marriages among Qataris.” The study provides an in-depth analysis of the phenomena of Qataris marrying non-Qataris, which, they argue, has been a growing and visible trend over the past few years. This research project, based on existing data sets on marriage in Qatar, explores a relatively understudied subject. Amongst other things, this research demonstrates that there is a high number of Qatari women marrying foreigners, and the authors highlight the constraints for the children of Qatari women who are denied citizenship rights if their father is not Qatari. The paper suggests that changing demographic and economic conditions have had a direct impact on marriage trends in Qatar.

Another contributor, CIRS Research Analyst Islam Hassan, has studied “Family, Marriage, and Social Stratification in the Qatari Society.” Hassan’s paper fills-in a gap in literature by examining the role of social dynamics, specifically the family and marriage institutions, in the sustenance and reproduction of the social order and stratification scheme in the Qatari society. The study tests available literature against datasets that have not yet been systematically analyzed. Hassan’s analysis shows how the family institution—through influencing marriage choices—preserves and reproduces the culture; traditions; values; customs; and social hierarchy in the Qatari society.

Lena-Maria Möller has carried our research on the subject of “Gulf Family Law and the Best Interests of the Children: The Multiple Meanings of a Vague Legal Concept.” Mölller’s paper highlights the international framework in which the recent reforms of child law in the Gulf have been situated. She also considers the influence of the introduction of the “best interests of the child standards” on the codification of family law in Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE. Finally, Möller explores the relationship between the interpretation of the concept of “best interests of the child” and the changing societal values, family structures, and present-day attitudes towards motherhood and fatherhood in the Arab states of the Gulf.

Haya Al-Noaimi, formerly with CIRS and currently a doctoral candidate at SOAS, presented a paper entitled “Hiding and Masking Your Sins: The State of Sexuality in the Gulf Family.” Al-Noaimi’s paper has three main foci. First, it highlights how the Gulf nuclear family and the larger society define sexual norms and scripts. Second, it examines the role of the state in policing sexuality through a brief analysis of sexual morality laws, and highlighting the strengths and weaknesses such legislation posits. Finally, it concludes with some of the ways in which Gulf families, in collaboration with the state, can attempt to implement realistic policies that protect youth and sexual minorities through discussion, education, and legislation.

Laura Sjoberg’s contribution centered on “War Families and the Iraq Wars.” This paper looks at Iraqi war families, families constituted by and constitutive of the Iraq wars. She reviews stories of the complexity of families living the wars, and explores changing demographic, nutritional, and health dynamics of Iraqi families over the progressive years of war and conflict in Iraq.  Sjoberg concludes with a contextualization of war families, and a look forward for families in Iraq’s near future.

Sophia Pandya presented a paper entitled “The War Took Us Backwards: Yemeni Women Activists, Revolution and War.” This study analyzes gendered dimensions of the “Yemen Spring” and the subsequent 2015 war, with a focus on the role of religious groups. It examines the reasons behind the failure of Yemeni women’s extraordinary activism to produce significant change in their gendered statuses. The study also highlights the conditions in which political activities offer potential for change, in this case offering women greater lasting access to formal political power instead of “reintegration” into the way things were before the “Yemen Spring.” 

Dionysis Markakis, formerly with CIRS, contributed with a paper entitled: “A Family Affair: Power in the Persian Gulf.” This paper explores the role of family in relation to the exercise of power in the Gulf states, and argues that the variable of familial kinship is crucial to understanding the exercise of power and the continuity of the Gulf ruling families. It also explores the main characteristics, features, and trends present in familial governance in the Gulf, examines the processes of succession in the Gulf, and considers the main threats to the continuity of the phenomenon of “ruling families” in the Arab states of the Gulf.

The final paper, presented by Ali Kemal Tekin, focuses on “Bilingual Children of the Gulf: The Case of Oman.” Tekin’s fieldwork explores why and how Omani parents promote bilingualism, to what extent bilingualism impact the inter-generational relations, and the effects of bilingualism on children’s everyday lives. The study concludes with offering implications and areas for further research, and recommendations for policy makers.

Zahra Babar, Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Regional Studies, concluded the working group meeting by highlighting the participants’ contributions to scholarship through their papers, which will be published in an edited volume by CIRS in the near future.

It is worth mentioning that this working group is part of the Center of International and Regional Studies Research and Scholarship’s initiatives that aim to fill in existing research gaps, and contribute towards furthering knowledge.  Each of these initiatives involves some of the most prominent scholars of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region who address prevailing issues related to the security, economic stability, and political realm of the region.



Participants and Discussants:

  • Rogaia Abusharaf, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Sanaa Al Harahsheh, Doha International Family Institute, Qatar
  • Feras Almeer, Doha International Family Institute, Qatar
  • Haya Al-Noaimi, School of Oriental and African Studies
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Amira El-Zein, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Sebastian Maisel, Grand Valley State University
  • Thomas Michel, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Suzi Mirgani, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Mohamed Mohieddin, Doha International Family Institute, Qatar
  • Lena-Maria Möller, Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law
  • Sophia Pandya, California State University at Long Beach
  • Jihan Safar, Sciences-Po, France
  • Ayman Shabana, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Laura Sjoberg, University of Florida
  • Ali Kemal Tekin, Sultan Qaboos University
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar


Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS