Background and Scope of the Project

In the greater Gulf region (the GCC states, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran) the tribe has traditionally served as the oldest social institution, and the family is recognized not only as the fundamental group unit of society, but also as the fundamental agent for sustainable social, economic, and cultural development. Social relations are set by the cultural norms and values derived from culture, upon which social interactions with family members and with other members of society are based. Rapid development in the GCC states (Kuwait, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman) since the discovery of petroleum resources has brought significant changes to the traditional political, economic, and social structures underpinning these Gulf societies. Outside of the GCC, families in Yemen, Iraq, and Iran have been impacted by political conflict, war, foreign occupation, civil war, and revolution. The purpose of this research initiative is to gain a greater understanding of the challenges facing Gulf families and how structural and ideational forces of change have been reflected in the everyday lives of Gulf families and households.

The characteristics of families in GCC states have been influenced by urbanization, technology transfer, educational progress, migration patterns, globalization, the changing status of women, and new ideological implications relating to social equality, social justice, and human rights. Outside of the GCC, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran have also experienced family transformation despite the political and economic trajectories that differ from that of the GCC states, namely, political conflict, war, foreign occupation, civil war, and revolution. In the wider Gulf region it has been argued that a shift in family demographics, whether due to globalization or political and socioeconomic difficulties, has led to a contraction or decline in traditional family roles, functions, authority, and structure. In the face of this perceived threat to traditional values, governments in the Gulf are searching for strategies to address the challenges facing the family in the context of the global forces at play in the Gulf region.

Existing studies on family transformation draw on population data and generalize tendencies in the wider Arab world. However, what is lacking from the literature is an exploration of societal values based on an analysis of public attitudes towards perceived family change. Typically, studies on family focus on observable trends in marriage, fertility, urbanization, household formation, women’s participation in the labor force, access to and levels of education, and other measures typically associated with modernization. In the context of these demographic trends, the “modern family” is commonly understood as one that exhibits a low fertility rate, high investment in children’s education, a nuclear rather than extended household formation, and more equitable gender roles within the family. While there has been some work focusing on household formation and other generalized family characteristics in the Arab world, there has been little published data relevant to the Gulf region.

The process of globalization has exposed families in the GCC to an ever-growing flow of ideas, technology, capital, and people, affecting the functions, roles, authority, and structure of the family and its members. Petroleum wealth in the GCC states in particular has undermined the traditional functions of the Gulf family by providing generous public social services and providing monetary subsidies and incentives to the national population. Rapid industrialization and infrastructure development have created an influx of foreign laborers, giving rise to insecurities on the part of the GCC nationals about the integrity of the Gulf family, and a perception of vulnerability to erosion or even loss of the cohesive local cultural tradition. Increasing wealth has allowed families to depend on migrant domestic workers that have reshaped family life and the responsibilities of family members.

The socialization of children growing up in contemporary GCC society is influenced by: technology, especially the internet; education, particularly imported Western curricula and teaching methods; and domestic help, which often takes on the role of parenting. With mobile phones, satellite television, and the internet, children are exposed to new conduits of information that may challenge their respect of parents’ and their elders’ authority, altering the power dynamics within a family. Generational divides undoubtedly grow as young children educated and socialized in the transforming society have trouble relating to their elders who grew up in the time when traditional systems prevailed.

Yemen, Iraq, and Iran are each unique, but experienced similar shifts in the policy and legal environments pre- and post-conflict within each state. Each experienced a period of secular social policy that granted women an accepted ability to contribute to society outside the home. Each state underwent shifts in policy throughout their histories including after periods with significant social impact, such as civil war and unification, war and economic sanctions, and social change and revolution. Conservative actors in these societies mobilized against what could be perceived as the modernization of the family, often resulting in the adoption of Sharia-based jurisdiction in lieu of formerly secular family laws.

Not only is it important to study the features of Gulf families and the ways in which they are influenced by global forces; but also it is imperative to take into consideration that families may yet strongly adhere to the traditional customs and values of tribe and kinship despite these powerful pressures prevalent in contemporary Gulf society. In fact, it has been argued that in times of rapid social change, socioeconomic difficulty, or political crisis, the family question comes to the fore, especially for conservative actors within a society. As mentioned above, many states experience conservative backlash against the “modernization” of the Arab family. Studies on transformation of family structure and relations within the family must be studied alongside the persistence of traditional values from one generation to the next. What is of greater interest than an account of family demographics is the extent to which the traditional tribal and kinship structures prevail, if in fact they do, for what reasons, and at what cost to their presence in the global market in which the Gulf states have made themselves key actors.

The issues outlined above are only a brief glance on the considerable amount of research required to gain a better understanding of the transformations Gulf families are undergoing as a result of global forces. In an effort to fill some of these research gaps, CIRS is launching a new multi-disciplinary research initiative entitled “The Gulf Family.” The ultimate goal is to explore questions related to the topic through funding empirically-grounded, theoretically-informed research proposals. To read about how to submit a research proposal, click here. 

Areas of Inquiry:

  • Is there a prototypical family structure in the Gulf region? If so, what does it look like? How have the family’s social, economic, and cultural roles in society been shaped by global forces? What does this mean for everyday family life in the Gulf?  
  • Do Gulf societies exhibit family demographic trends parallel to those of the broader Arab world? If not, what factors contribute to the characteristics of the Gulf family? What do these characteristics tell us about societal values and ideals about family in the Gulf?  
  • From a policy perspective, how are the governments in the Gulf using policy and law to mitigate what they see as a negative influence of globalization on the Gulf family? What is the salience of local, national, and global discourses presenting definitions for and ideal values of a family? How have international organizations influenced government policy and law related to family, marriage, citizenship, etc.? How do Gulf families react to these discourses and deal with them in daily family life? Does family behavior align with public policies meant to influence those very behaviors?  
  • Has the expansion of industrialization, urbanization, and state-sponsored education undermined tribes, the extended family unit, and patriarchal family authority? Does the redistributive welfare of the state assume the productive function of the family by providing generous social services, subsidies, and other financial incentives? How has the State’s safety-net socialized younger generations and their values relating to hard work and monetary gain?  
  • How are decision-making structures within the home changing with greater access to information from external sources such as: school, media, the internet, television, and shopping malls and other public spaces? How has the intergenerational gap between pre-petroleum and post-petroleum generations influenced familial relations? How has parenting been altered with the presence of domestic workers in the home?  
  • How have the political, economic, and violent difficulties of life in Yemen impacted Yemeni families and households? How has the financial, social, and political status of single female-headed households in Yemen and Iraq changed in recent years? Does social policy in Iran reflect the behavior of contemporary Iranian families?  
  • Have Gulf families managed to retain their traditional tribal customs and values in the face of globalization? Are traditional customs and values at odds with globalization or can they co-exist? How do Gulf families reconcile these two notions of traditional and global values in their daily life? Are traditional values able to maintain prevalence in contemporary Gulf society? If so, how? If not, at what cost?  
  • With the increasing ratio of older persons to the overall population, and the rise in life expectancy that comes with development, caring for aging relatives is a growing cause for concern. Traditionally, extended families cared for their elders in their own homes, but with the growing prevalence of nuclear households and increasing costs of urban living, families struggle to provide the support their elders require. How are families in the Gulf managing to care for their elder relatives? How does the form of care impact their everyday life?


Article by Elizabeth Wanucha, Project Manager at CIRS