Focused Discussions, Regional Studies

Informal Politics in the Middle East Working Group I

Informal Politics in the Middle East

On March 10, 2018, the Center for International and Regional Studies held its first working group under its research initiative on “Informal Politics in the Middle East.” During the working group, a number of scholars were convened to discuss various questions on a number of related topics: tribes and the Yemeni state, women and non-governmental organization (NGOs) in Iran, the role of the Diwaniyya in Kuwait, the informal politics around access to natural resources, and spaces for activism and inclusion in the Middle East.

Charles Schmitz started the working group discussions with his session on “Social Organization or Political Actor: Tribe and State in Yemen.” Schmitz argued that there has been no agreement in the literature on what “tribe” constitutes given the ostensible differences in the structures of and roles played by tribes. For instance in Yemen, there are major differences between tribes based on where they are geographically located. In his discussion, Schmitz focused on the northern tribes who play a major role in relation to the state. He argued that Yemeni tribes are unique as they have always been settled unlike tribes elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. This contributed to the establishment of tribes in Yemen as small sovereignties. Such sovereignties are usually strong when the state is weak, and are weak when the state is strong. However, although the tribe was originally merely a social order for which the Sheikh had collective responsibility and mediated and arbitrated between its members after the Republican Revolution sheikhs became influential in the political realm of the state. Since then, the state used tribes as administrative circles and often distributed “tribal subsidies” to the Sheikhs to take care of their communities’ needs.

Shahla Haeri shifted the discussion to “Women and NGO Participation in Iran”. In her session, Haeri discussed the issue of citizenship and women in Iran, the history of NGOs, and women who established NGOs in Iran. Finally, Haeri listed a number of understudied topics related to her discussion. With regards to the issue of citizenship, she claimed that the relationship between state and society, and particularly women, in Iran has been inconstant. In the wake of the Islamic Revolution, the state supported women education. This contributed to women’s perception of their autonomy. Hence, the state tried to control and restrict their agency fearing challenges to the principles the Islamic Republic was founded on. Such principles, which are embedded in Iranian legal structures, place women somewhere between a subject and a full citizen. That is to say that while both men and women have the capacity to execution, women’s capacity to obligations always remains restricted. With regards to NGOs, Haeri drew a distinction between NGOs and GNGOs (NGOs that are sponsored by the government). It was only when Khatami came to power that the state in Iran approved the bylaws of the Charter of NGOs. Yet, there seems to be significant mistrust between the state and NGOs that results in the state supporting and funding GNGOs while neglecting real NGOs. Haeri listed a number of cases of women who started NGOs in Iran, such as Touran Mirhadi, and initiatives by women such as schools for Afghan immigrants in Tehran, and the Thursday Bazaar for women, on which the film Braving the Wave was made. Finally, Haeri suggested conducting research on issues around informal women organizations, known as dorehs, and women as entrepreneurs who create jobs and help women thrive in these NGOs.

Clemens Chay shifted the discussion to Kuwait in his session on “Social and Political Influence of the Diwaniyya”. Chay argued that most of the literature discusses the role of the diwaniyya during elections in Kuwait disregarding the social and diplomatic aspects of the diwaniyya. Historically, the diwaniyyas were located on the shore of the Persian Gulf, and were used by big merchant families in Kuwait to observe the sea state. However, the social role of tribal diwaniyyas has significantly changed. Now, the diwaniyya has extended inland. Almost every house has an attached diwaniyya. The purpose of the diwaniyya has also metamorphosed as it has become a space for collective belonging, sharing ideas, and expressing issues and concerns. Recently, there has been a proliferation of “youth diwaniyyas” that are ostensibly distinctive from traditional diwaniyyas. These new youth diwaniyyas are less strict on diwaniyya etiquette, and serve as a space for young Kuwaitis and their invitees to spend their spare time. However, tribal diwaniyyas remain central to Kuwaitis lives. This is for the role they play in bringing members of the tribe together, discussing political issues, hosting diplomats and ambassadors, and serving as a medium of communication between the state and the tribe. Towards the end of his discussion, Chay raised a number of questions, among which: Is Kuwaiti exceptionalism related to the establishment of the parliament, or is it a social space that is continuously evolving? What role does the diwaniyya play for the opposition when the parliament is dissolved? And to what extent is social media replacing the diwaniyya?

Nejm Bennessaiah focused his session on “Informal Politics and Access to Natural Resources in the Middle East”. In his presentation, Bennessaiah focused on three main issues related to the access to natural resources in the Middle East: voluntary association, infrastructures, and local customary regulations. With regards to voluntary association, he claimed that rural population makes up about 41 percent of the Middle East’s population, and in countries such as Egypt and Syria these numbers can go up to 50 percent. Such high percentages add pressure on access to resources and markets. At the same time, the Middle East has been witnessing a significant constriction insofar as participation in natural resources decision-making processes is concerned. However as maintaining such constraints have become difficult for states in the Middle East given their limited institutional capacities, voluntary associations were allowed in many countries across the region. In Morocco, for example, associations were allowed in 1998 after the food riots as long as they do not have political agendas. However, some associations, such as the Farmers Association, have succeeded in putting pressure on elected officials to meet their demands. This increase in associations’ strength and influence led to their thriving. In Morocco, the number of associations has mushroomed from around 73,000 associations in 2008 to about 93,000 associations in 2018. With regards to infrastructure, Bennessaiah claimed that a new field in anthropology has been building on political ecology. In light of this, there seems to be limited research on the impact of desalination, particularly in the UAE, on the development of knowledge, and how new infrastructure projects serve as sites for political engagement by local communities. Moreover, to what extent does informal politics play a role in influencing policy-makers in determining which areas receive better maintenance and higher pressure insofar as water distribution is concerned? Finally, Bennessaiah highlighted the role of local customary regulations that are based on local consultation and verbal agreements on land uses. He argued that local sanctions and customary law remain understudied in the Middle East.

Deen Sharp concluded the working group discussions with his session on “Informality and the City: Spaces for Activism and Inclusion in the Middle East”. During the Arab uprisings of 2011, public squares have shown to be vital sites of mass political activism. However as much as the urban landscape of many of the region’s old cities facilitated political action, relatively newly developed cities seemed to be designed in ways that foreclose certain types of politics. In light of this, Sharp discussed the role of multinational and international construction corporations in the political life in the Middle East. Despite the fact that that the corporation is not in any of the constitutions in the Middle East or viewed as a formal political actor, Sharp argued that the corporation could be considered to be one of the most powerful political entities in the region. The joint-stock corporation is increasingly becoming a key institution in the Middle East and integral to shaping contemporary urban life in the region. Since the 1990s, there has been a significant expansion in corporate power particularly within the urban context in the Middle East. Today, if you look at the skyline of downtowns throughout the region, in particular in the Gulf cities like Dubai and Doha, but also in Cairo and Casablanca, the joint-stock corporation has transformed the urban landscape. The joint-stock corporate city makes itself present by the proliferation of its urban mega-projects, including skyscrapers, downtown developments and gated communities; retail malls and artificial islands; airports and ports; and highways. Such projects are not only being executed in urban cities, but have expanded to urbanize rural areas that have acted also as sites for protests during the Arab uprisings. Corporations, such as Emaar and Damac, are now household names. Stock markets have also recently opened in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and significantly expanded in Egypt and Iraq. In sum, Sharp argued that the corporation is more than a mere business and is a key component of contemporary political life in the Middle East.

Participants and Discussants:

  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Nejm Benessaiah, Georgetown University
  • Clemens Chay, Durham University, UK
  • Kristin Smith Diwan, Arab Gulf States Institute, Washington, DC
  • Shahla Haeri, Boston University
  • Islam Hassan, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar
  • David Ottaway, Wilson Center, Washington, DC
  • Marina Ottaway, Wilson Center, Washington, DC
  • Charles Schmitz, Towson University, Baltimore
  • Deen Sharp, Terreform, Center for Advanced Urban Research & CUNY Graduate Center
  • Elizabeth Wanucha, CIRS – Georgetown University in Qatar

Article by Islam Hassan, Research Analyst at CIRS