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Since Lawrence of Arabia first captivated the west with his romantic image of the noble desert Bedouin there has been a growing interest in this people and in their culture, accompanied by many misconceptions and cliches.

Traditional Bedouin culture reminds us of the Old Testament stories of the patriarchs. Through the Islamic conquests it has infiltrated the cultures of all Middle East groups and they and their lifestyle are regarded as a model by all Muslim people. Understanding the Bedouin therefore will help us in understanding most other communities in the wider area.

The Bedouin are the Arabic speaking nomads of the Middle East who have proudly maintained their pastoral way of life over thousands of years. From the Arabian Peninsula, their original home, they spread out into other lands and now live in the desert regions of all countries between the Arabian Gulf and the Atlantic.

There are other nomads in the Middle East with a similar lifestyle who are not Bedouin (not ethnic Arabs). These are the Berber nomads of North Africa, Kurdish and other Iranian and Turkic tribes, and some African tribes in the Sudan.

Deserts are defined as regions having less than twenty-five cm of rain a year where vegetation covers less than ten percent of the area. In this harsh environment with its limited resources continuous migration with herds of camels, sheep and goats in search of grazing offered the best mode of survival.

Throughout their long history, desert Bedouin have survived on their herds, supplying the surplus meat and dairy products to the urban population. They also controlled the desert trade routes, escorted caravans, and provided them with guides and drivers.

A century ago, nomadic Bedouin still made up a large percentage of the total Arab population. Their numbers have sharply declined since the introduction of new Ottoman land laws in the mid-eighteenth century which abolished the communal ownership of land that was a basic ingredient of their nomadic lifestyle. The decline continued under twentieth century central governments who apply many pressures on them to settle so as better to control them. The oil boom and the rapid industrialisation in the area have further accelerated this trend.


Bedouin, settled, semi-settled and nomadic, now comprise less than ten percent of the total Arab population. True nomads less than one percent. In Saudi Arabia a quarter of the total population are Bedouin - nomadic or recently settled. Sudan, with a third of its population still nomadic, has the largest number of nomads in the Middle East, though not all are Bedouin.







The Arabian Peninsula is the original home of the Bedouin who spread out of its deserts into neighbouring fertile lands in their never ending search for pasture and plunder.

According to Arab tradition they are descendent from two main stocks: the first settled in the mountains of Southwestern Arabia (the Yemen), claim descent from Qahtan (Yoktan of the Bible) and became known as Yamanis. The second settled in North-Central Arabia, claimed descent from Ishmael and are called the Qaysis. Even now every Bedouin tribe still claims descent from one or the other group and the rivalry between the two has caused many civil wars throughout history, not only in the Arabian Peninsula, but all over the Arab world.

Yemen with its mountains and relatively wet climate early developed a settled agricultural and urban civilisation. Its Minaean Kingdom lasted from the 13th to the 7th century BC and was followed by the Kingdom of Saba (Sheba, 9th century BC to 115 BC), which had links with King Solomon and built the famous Ma'rib dam for irrigation around 750 B.C. It was followed by the Himyarite kingdom (115 BC to 525 AD), whose last king, Dhu-Nuwas, converted to Judaism in the early sixth century A.D. His kingdom fell to the Christian Abyssinians and later to the Persian Sassanid empire.

In central and north Arabia the nomadic Bedouin formed the majority of the population. In the oases farming and small urban trading centres emerged, their settled population descended from the nomadic tribes. The farmers grew dates and grains and the small towns served as trading centres for the caravans transporting spices, ivory, and gold from southern Arabia and Africa to the lands of the fertile crescent. The distinction between desert nomads, town dwellers and farmers is still a characteristic of the Arab world.

Bedouin lifestyle involved migrating with their herds in search of pasture, supplying their produce to the oases markets, raiding the settled communities and the trade caravans that crossed the desert and levying tolls from them. There was no private ownership of land as each tribe held its pastures and water sources communally. Bedouin society was characterised by a fierce loyalty to family, clan and tribe which triggered blood feuds and demanded revenge killings. They had a rigid code of honour in which the chastity of their women was very important and which included hospitality and generousity.

Poetry was their greatest artistic attainment. Their poems celebrated heroic deeds of the tribe and its warriors and were recited around the camp fires. They were passed down orally from generation to generation.

The tribal chief was the Sheikh who was elected by the elders and was advised by a council of elders called the Majlis. He ruled by virtue of his personality and the respect it engendered, by negotiation, consensus and arbitration rather than by dictat. The office of Sheikh was often limited to a noble family, and did not pass automatically to the eldest son, but was open to any suitable member of the family who could gain the approval of the elders. This system could lead to violent quarrels between brothers.

The custommary law of the ancestors, called the Sunnah, regulated all affairs of life in Bedouin society. A very important custom was blood vengeance which ordained that the relatives of a murdered man must kill the murderer or one of his relatives in revenge. The negotiated acceptance of blood money as compensation was the only way to stop the feud.

Mecca was the most important town in Arabia as its shrine, the Ka'ba, contained some 360 idols and served as a pilgrimage centre for all tribes. It was also an important trading town.

Over the centuries there were many cycles of overpopulation and drought that caused the Bedouin to move into the richer neighbouring lands of the Fertile Crescent.

Nabataean Arab tribes created a strong kingdom with its capital at Petra (the rock town in the mountains of Edom) during Roman and Byzantine times. Their main wealth came from their control of the caravan trade routes, but they were also industrious desert farmers and merchants. The town of Palmyra (Tadmor) in the Syrian desert was another important Bedouin kingdom which flourished in the 3rd century until destroyed by the Romans in 273 A.D. The language and culture of these states was Aramaic with a strong Hellenistic influence.

In the first centuries AD some Arab tribes were converted to Christianity, an important centre being Najran in south Arabia. Other tribes all over the Arabian Peninsula converted to Judaism, Yatrib (Medina) being one of their centres. Most tribes however retained their old polytheistic religion.

Some Bedouin tribes on the edge of the desert established important buffer states between the Empires of that time. The Kingdom of Ghassan with its base on the Yarmuk river and loyal to Byzantium was established by Christian Monophysite tribes. Christian Nestorian tribes established the Kingdom of Hira, a vassal of the Persian Empire, near the southern Euphrates valley.





At the turn of the 7th century the Byzantine and Persian Empires had exhausted themselves by their incessant wars against each other. Muhammad had succeeded in converting most Bedouin tribes to Islam before his death. After a brief rebellion his successor, the Caliph Abu-Bakr, reunited them, and this new unity, coupled with the missionary zeal of their new religion and a desire for plunder, motivated their expansion out of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Bedouin warriors were the nucleus of the Muslim armies that invaded the Middle East and North Africa. In a short while they had conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Iraq and Persia and established a vast Muslim empire. Used to the simple desert lifestyle, they were at first astonished by the luxuries and riches of the civilisations they conquered.

Some southern (Yamani) Bedouin tribes were already living in Syria and Iraq from pre-Islamic days and they were now joined by related Muslim tribes from Arabia who settled in the Levant. Northern (Qaysi) tribes settled in the Jezirah of north Syria and Iraq (the area between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers). The Bedouin grazed their herds in the rich fields of these new areas, cut down forests, and caused soil erosion and desertication.

The original population of the fertile crescent lands was Semitic and Aramaic speaking. They were oppressed by both Byzantines and Persians, so many of them welcomed the Muslim Bedouin invaders from the desert as liberators.

The first Caliphs built new garrison towns like Basrah, Kufah and Qairouan for their Bedouin soldiers that later became important trading and cultural centres. From these bases they fanned out to conquer ever new areas for the expanding Islamic Empire. They regarded themselves as the elite ruler and warrior class, and looked down on all conquered people, even on those newly converted to Islam (Mawali) who attached themselves as clients to various tribes. The Bedouin warriors were paid by a fixed share in the booty. Later they were given pensions and endowments of new lands.





The Umayad Caliphs of Damascus tended to concentrate power, wealth and influential posts in the hands of the royal family. They also built up a professional army of Syrians to help them control the Empire and depend less on the undisciplined and freedom loving tribes. The Bedouin felt that they had been cheated of their fair share of the spoils of victory and this led to much civil unrest. There was a renewed outbreak of the old North (Qaysi) versus South (Yamani) feud, the Caliphs playing off one group against the other. Bedouin tribes also played a major role in the civil wars during 'Ali's Caliphate and in the later Khariji and Shi'a rebellions.

The Caliphs initiated new wars of expansion and promises of booty as a means of diverting Bedouin discontent. Eventually, a new elite emerged in the 'Abassid Empire, made up of Syrian and Persian converts with experience in statecraft. They controlled the state bureaucracy and supplanted the Bedouin in terms of real political power. At the same time the Caliphs came to rely more and more on Turkish slave soldiers for their military needs, thus marginalising the Bedouin warriors.

In spite of these developments, the Bedouin had made a deep and lasting impression on all nations subjugated by the Arabs, coupled with the conviction that their lifestyle was the model for all Muslims at all times. Bedouin culture infiltrated local customs and tradition in all the conquered areas, and Arabic became the main language of the Middle East, supplanting Syriac, Greek, Coptic, Persian and Berber.

The power centre of the new Empire was in the large cities of the conquered areas such as Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo - not in Mecca and Medina which only retained a religious significance as the Holy Cities of Islam. The Arabian Peninsula was depopulated by the mass movements of whole tribes who joined the wars and settled in richer lands - a procees that lasted for several centuries and marginalised the heartland of Islam politically.

In the 12th century two large Bedouin tribes, the Beni Hillal and the Beni Sulaym, were encouraged by the Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt to move into North Africa from Egypt. They slowly spread westwards, fighting and intermingling with the Berbers and are now an integral part of the Maghreb and Saharan populations.

Under the Abassids and the Fatimids the grat cities saw a remarkable cultural flourish and their sophisticated populations came to look down on the Bedouin as crude and uncivilised bandits. Paradoxically they still regarded Bedouin lifestyle as the model for all Muslims, an attitude that still persists in most Arab lands.





The fall of Bagdad to the Mongols in 1258 AD accelerated the existing trend of the leadership of the Muslim world passing from the Arabs to the Turks and the Mongols. Even the Sharifs, descended from the Prophet and rulers of Mecca and the Hejaz province, had to accept nominal Ottoman authority. Only in the thinly populated desert interior of Arabia did Arab tribes retain their independence. The Ottomans also succeeded in subduing the Yemen in 1537, but were driven out in 1635, the Yemen going its own extremely isolated way under the Zaydi Imams.

A reformer named Muhammad Abd al-Wahab arose in Najd in the mid-eighteenth century. He preached a militant puritan revival modelled on first century Islam. He rejected Shi`ism as a heresy, and Sufism because of its veneration of saints and holy places. Abd al-Wahab converted the Amir of Najd, Muhammad ibn-Sa'ud, to Wahabism in 1745 and the sect was then spread by force over most of Arabia.

The Ottomans encouraged Muhammad 'Ali, pasha of Egypt to send an army to Arabia and break the power of the Wahabi state. When it revived again, they instigated the Shammar tribe to fight against it. The Wahabis however survived and swept back to powert at the beginning of the twentieth century under the famous Abdul-Aziz ibn-Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia.

In the nineteenth century the British penetrated the coastlands of the Arabian peninsula in their efforts to ensure their strategic hold on India. They suppressed piracy and founded trading and naval bases such as Aden. During WWI they encouraged the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein, to rebel against the Ottoman Empire, an uprising made famous by Lawrence of Arabia's involvement in it. One of Hussein's sons, Abdallah, was later made Emir of Transjordan and his other son Feisal King of Iraq under British hegemony.

'Abd al-'Aziz ibn-Saud with his capital at Riyad, consistently extended the borders of his Wahabi kingdom using his fanatic Bedouin Ikhwan forces to overcome all opposition. In 1913 he conquered the province of Hasa, in 1921 Jabal Shammar fell into his hands. In 1925 he conquered the Hejaz and drove out the Hashemite Sharifs. In 1934 he took the province of Asir from the Yemen. Ibn-Saud thus succeeded in uniting most of the Arabian Peninsula and its tribes for the first time in many centuries, creating the large new Bedouin kingdom of Saudi-Arabia which was proclaimed in 1932 with its capital at Riyad.

The discovery of large ammounts of oil in the 1930s and the development of the oil fields by British and American firms completely changed the face of this once poor kingdom. The oil wealth flowing into Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in the second half of the twentieth century has catapulted the desert states into the modern world in one generation, creating many pressures and tensions between the old and the new. It has had a radical impact on traditional tribal Bedouin culture, endangering their survival as a distinct community in the Middle East.








In the Middle East there have always been three mutually dependent population groups: The nomads (Bedouin), the settled farmers (Fellahin, Hadhar), and the urban city dwellers. Because they are often on the move, the Bedouin traditionally had few material goods, their main possessions being their animals and their tent. The Bedouin lived off their herds and were employed as guides and drivers for the trading caravans. They were also paid safe conduct money for pacifying the desert trade routes. The Bedouin are excellent trackers, recognising animal and human tracks and are able to find their way without compass or map in the desert. This has made them valuable as scouts for various armies.

The largest social unit amongst the Bedouin is the tribe (qabila) which is divided into clans (qawm). Each clan owns its own wells and grazing grounds, and it was the raiding unit of past generations. Clans are divided into family groups (Hayy, Fakhida) which consist of all those related back to five generations (having the same great-great-grandfather in the paternal line). The Hayy is the herding unit, its member families camping together most of the year. It is subdivided into kin groups, (extended families), which consist of the relatives through three generations. The kin group is responsible for all its individual members in matters of morals and honour, including blood vengeance.

Family ties are very strong and are reinforced by intermarriage within the tribe, preferrably to cousins (father's brother's daughters). Each unit has a strong sense of collective honour and loyalty which it defends against all other groups.

Bedouin society is patriarchal, all members of a tribe claiming descent by male line from a common ancestor. The Sheikh as leader of the tribe has considerable power but is limited by custom, precedent and the advice of the council of tribal elders. Age is respected as it has the experience crucial for survival in a difficult environment. The Sheikh is elected from a noble family, any member of that family being eligible for the position when he dies. The eldest male is accepted as ruler of each family unit.

The Bedouin have kept their lifestyle through the centuries, controlled by a strict code of rules which it is shameful ('Eib) to break. It stresses the values of loyalty to the tribe, obedience, generousity, hospitality, honour, cunning and revenge.

Each tribe has inherited rights to carefully defined grazing lands which include a summer and a winter camping ground. Bedouin in the past spent much time in raiding, hunting and war in the pursuit of which they were capable of enduring severe physical hardships. Today smuggling often is a substitute for these forbidden "manly" activities.

Although there are loose tribal confederations, there has rarely been a large scale political organisation into anything like a state. Bedouin history is a repeated cycle of inter-tribal warfare giving way to some sort of centralised rule, and then disintegrating back into chaos. Feuds, warfare and instability have always characterised desert life.

The noble tribes are those who can trace their ancestry back to either Qaysi (northern Arabian) or Yamani (southern Arabian) origin. There are also "ancestorless" vassal tribes living under their protection who make a living by serving them as blacksmiths, tinkers, artisans and entertainers.

The Salubba are one such special client tribe of tinkers and trackers who exist as separate families attached to other tribes. They are at the bottom of the Bedouin social scale, mending pots, making saddles, acting as guides and as entertainers. The Salubba have only a rudimentary knowledge of Islam. They are monogamous and their women are relatively free. They have a non-Semitic appearance and traces of foreign roots in their Arabic. Some think they are descendants of Crusaders (their name means little cross, and they use a cross as their brand mark). Others think they are Gypsies, and some see them as descendants of aboriginal Arabian stock.

Other aborigine tribes are the Qara, Mahra and Harasis of the south, in the border regions between Oman and Yemen.

In Arabia and the adjacent deserts there are around 100 large tribes of 1,000 members or more. Some tribes number up to 20,000 and a few of the larger tribes may have up to 100,000 members.

The Anazah is a powerful confederation of tribes in the north of the Arabian peninsula. In it, the Rwala tribe with more than 75,000 members is the largest, migrating between the deserts of Syria, Jordan and northern Saudi Arabia. Their High Sheikh lives in Damascus. They belong to the northern, Qaysi group. The ruling Ibn-Saud family of Saudi Arabia, and the Sabah family ruling Kuwait, both belong to the 'Anazah tribes.

Another very large tribe is that of the Shammar with its headquarters at Hail and led by the Rashid family. They were the main rivals of the 'Anazah for power in central Arabia in the early part of this century. They belong to the southern Yamani (Qahtani) group.

In the south the al-Murrah with some 15,000 members still wander along the fringes of the Rub' al-Khali desert herding only camels.

Other important tribes in Arabia are the Huwaitat, Dawasir, Harb, Mutayr, 'Utayba, Qahtan, and Yam.






The Bedouin have always lived in the long, low, black tent made of goat and camel hair cloth woven by the women. It is supported by a line of tall central poles in the middle, whilst the front, back and sides are supported on lower poles. The number of poles is an indication of the owner's wealth and social standing.

The tent is very well adapted to desert life. It can be packed up and ready to be moved within an hour. It is waterproof as the wool and hair from which it is woven expand when wet. It is warm in the cold desert nights and provides shelter from the wind. At midday, when the desert is extremely hot, the sides and back can be rolled up to let the breeze through, and it then offers a shaded and cool space. It can also be easily repaired when damaged.

The men's living quarter is at the front of the tent and is divided by a curtain from that of the women. The men's quarter is also used for receiving guests. The all important coffee hearth is scooped out of the sand in front of it, and the coffee making and serving implements lie nearby. The women can watch their menfolk and their visitors by looking over the dividing wall. The family lives, sleeps and cooks its food in the women's quarter.

The floor is covered by rugs and cushions for sitting and sleeping. The stores of water and food are stacked at the back in sacks and containers. The more affluent may have an electricity generator for light and power, a TV set, a sewing machine and other modern appliances. Outside the tent, a tractor and pickup van may compete with the camels and the flocks.




Bedouin traditionally wore loose flowing robes that covered them from head to foot as they knew from experience that the best protection from the fierce sunshine, wind and sand of the desert is to cover every part of their bodies.

Men wear a long cotton shirt (thawb) with a belt, covered by a flowing outer garment ('abay). In winter they may wear a waterproof coat of woven camel's hair. Their heads are covered by a large headcloth, the Keffiya, which can be white, red and white, or black and white in colour. The Keffiya is held in place by a double black cord known as the 'Agal, and it is used also to protect face and neck.

Bedouin women wear long sleeved, ankle long dresses, and beneath them ankle length pantaloons. The dresses are beautifully embroidered and sometimes dyed in brilliant colours. A black headcloth covers their hair.

Many Bedouin today have taken to wearing western style dress, so both types of clothing and their various combinations can be seen.





The status of women is low, although Bedouin women are less segregated than town and village women and they are not generally veiled. Women have to work hard as they tend the flocks, do the housework, cook, take care of the small children, draw water, spin and weave. They are also responsible for dismantling the tent and setting it up again. They used to be worn out and old by forty.

Women are protected by a strict code of honour and they can move about relatively free and talk to other men. The women's long hair is often dyed with henna. Older women have their faces tattooed with blue dots.

Children usually help with tending the flocks and collecting brushwood for the fires.

Marriages are prearranged but the young people do know each other and have some say in the matter. Marriage is always preferred between cousins, especially children of the father's brothers. The cousin has the first right to the girl's hand, and if she wants to marry another man she needs his permission.

Women share in the inheritance so the family property remains intact. Polygamy, though allowed by Islam (up to four wives) is rare, but divorce is easy and common. The divorced woman and the widow return to live in their father's tent.

In the past, great Sheikhs would have many wives and concubines, these marital alliances cementing political ties. It is claimed that King Abdul-Aziz ibn-Saud, founder of Saudi-Arabia, had at least twenty-two wives representing most major Arabian tribes (plus many concubines) who bore him forty-seven sons and many daughters. Their descendants now number over 30,000 Saudi-Arabians, and are the elite of the kingdom binding it together by their blood ties.

Weddings are a festive occasion when a sheep or sometimes a camel is slaughtered. The young couple join the husband's family clan.

The main Bedouin crafts of weaving, pottery and basket making are mostly practiced by the women.





The Bedouin were often on the brink of famine and children are still often undernourished because of the low nutrition diet. Bedouin food can be monotonous. Wheat, barley and rice are the cereals used and small amounts of dried fruits, mainly dates grown in the oases, are also eaten.

Milk, yoghurt and cheese from their herds form the staple part of their diet. Thin, unleavened loaves of bread are baked on a hot, convex iron plate over an open fire. Meat, usually mutton, is a luxury eaten only a few times a year by the poorer Bedouins, usually at a festival or on the arrival of a guest. Samneh (clarified butter) is the fat used for cooking

The main meal of the day is eaten in the evening after the animals have been milked. It is usually cooked in a large tinned copper pot over an open fire and may consist of rice cooked with samneh, and some dates for dessert. The family members squat around the large platter on which the food is piled. One leg is folded underneath them and the other knee is raised in front of them to rest their arm on. They use only their right hand for eating, (the left hand used for wiping themselves is considered unclean), and with it they tear pieces of bread from the thin loaves with which they scoop up some food and carry it to their mouths.





Hospitality (diyafa) is the highest Bedouin virtue. Any stranger, even an enemy, can approach a tent and be sure of three days board, lodging and protection after which he may leave in peace. A complex code of manners regulates this and all other relationships.

When a guest arrives, a rug is immediately spread out and he will be first served sweet tea in small glasses. The main ritual of Bedouin hospitality is the preparation of coffee. The beans are roasted and then pounded in a mortar. A long beaked brass coffee pot is filled with water, and the ground coffee mixed with some cardammon seeds is poured into it. The mixture is brought to the boil three times, and after allowing it to settle for a few minutes it is served in tiny, egg cup shaped china cups. The visitor is served again and again. Coffee making is an art, and Beduin women (and men) are proud of their skill in it.

Bedouin will offer their guests a rich meal, even if they have to slaughter their last sheep, or borrow from their neighbours to do it. Their honour is bound to their hospitality and lavish generosity.





Historically the Bedouin regarded themselves as free shepherds and raiders - these were the only manly jobs. They scorned other labour in agriculture, trade and crafts which were performed by slaves or by the settled population.

Bedouin life flowed in a slow rhythm dictated by the great heat and the scarcity of food and water. "Hurry is of the Devil" was a favourite proverb. Their main work consisted in sitting and watching over the flocks as they grazed, of moving camp, and of going to the markets.


Today Bedouin men have adapted to modern life and many have farm or city jobs. They are good at handling tractors and cars and many work as drivers. Some are moving into higher education and the professions. They are also recruited into the armed forces of their countries where they are especially valued as scouts and trackers.







Cold nights and hot days, vivid colours of blue sky, brown or yellow sand, and multicoloured rocks. Total silence in vast empty spaces. Hot desert winds and sand storms that fill everything with sand grains and can cover a tent in a short time - this is the desert environment Bedouins have to cope with.

Geographically, Arabia is a large plateau sloping gently eastward from the top of the mountain ranges that run along the whole length of its western side. It is one of the most driest regions in the world and extremely barren, except for the Yemen, Asir, Oman and scattered Wadis in the western range. It has three large sand deserts - the Great Nafud in the north stretching over 65,000 square kilometres, the Dahna, a narrow strip stretching 640 km south from the Nafud, and the Rub' al-Khali (the empty quarter) covering 650,000 square kilometres in the south.

The summers are very hot, tempratures averaging 44 degrees centigrade. The interior is dry, but the coastal strips are very humid. Rainfall is scarce, averaging only 8 cm a year. When rain does fall it is torrential, causing dangerous flash floods in the wadis. It is not unusual for a drought to last for several years.

Water is essential to the survival of life in the deserts (defined as areas having less than 25 cm of rainfall a year). It is too precious for much washing, so the Qur'an permits the use of sand for the ceremonial ablutions in the absence of water.

In the very short autumn, winter and spring, the Bedouin watch for rain clouds and send out scouts to find out where the rain actually fell. They then follow the rain, taking their flocks and herds to areas where it has fallen. A drought is the worst possible catastrophe, especially if it lasts for more than one year as it then spells famine and death.





Natural pasture is very scant and the grazing available for herds in one spot is quickly finished, so the Bedouin have to move on in search of fresh pastures elsewhere. They migrate into the desert during the rainy season (December-January) and move back towards cultivated lands at the start of the dry season (April). Trees are very rare, but desert bushes furnish some grazing and firewood. Bedouin sow patches of grain in the moist wadi beds in the autumn and the harvest depends on the amount of rainfall during that season.

The Bedouin are true nomads, meaning that they move horizontally from one district to another in search of pasture (another form of nomadism, transhumance, is practiced in mountain areas by Kurds, Berbers and others who move from lower to higher altitudes in the different seasons).

During their winter and spring migrations some Bedouin tribes travel 4000 km and more. The camel owning tribes travel the greatest distances, the sheep and goat herders are limited by the sheep who need water frequently. Camels can go seven to ten days without water, sheep four, cattle only two.

The Camel breeders are regarded as the noblest tribes. They occupy huge territories, travel great distances, and are organised in large tribes and tribal confederations in the Sahara, Syrian and Arabian deserts. Lower in rank are the sheep and goat breeders who stay mainly near the cultivated regions of Jordan, Israel, Syria and Iraq. Cattle breeding Bedouins are found mainly in South Arabia and in the Sudan. The Marsh Bedouin are a unique group adapted to life in the swamps of southern Iraq where they herd water buffaloes. Following the Gulf War many had to flee to Iran to escape Saddam Hussein's persecutions, many swamps are being drained, and their traditional lifestyle is disappearing.

The camel enables the Bedouin to move far away from water sources (it can drink 150 litres and then go for ten days without further watering). Bedouins can survive for months on its milk and if necessary slaughter it for meat. It also provides hair for tent cloth and clothes, fuel (dung), transportation (it can carry up to 180 kg) and power for drawing water or for ploughing.

Camels were obviously the Bedouin's best investment and trading commodity. They are called "God's gift", and the Bedouin will cater to their need before taking care of their own. The best breeds of the one-humped Arabian camel were bred in Oman.

Sheep and goats provide milk, wool and meat for the Bedouin's own consumption and cash from supplying them to village and town markets.

The Arabian horse is famous for its beauty and endurance and is still used for fast travel and hunting. The Salukis, a breed of fast hunting dog, are also popular.





Raiding (ghazw) used to be an important means of supplementing the tribal economy, especially in times of drought, and it followed strict rules. Settled communities and caravans had to pay tolls and protection money to avoid raids.

The swift raids employed cunning and guile. Bloodshed was avoided as far as possible. Goods, women and children become property of the victors. Successful leadership in raiding was a way of building up the leader's personal reputation and power. Muhammad led his followers on some caravan raids. King Ibn-Saud conquered all of Arabia through successful tribal raids on a large scale.

Strong central governments now severely punish raiding, and it is dying out. Smuggling has become a favourite alternative to raiding.




Until the discovery of the new sea routes to India, caravans were an essential part of world trade, linking China, India, Central Asia (the "silk road") and parts of Africa to the markets of the Middle East and Europe. Some caravans would number thousands of camels and have hundreds of merchants, guides, guards and drivers. The routes were long and dangerous, suitable only for camels. All along the long route from South Arabia to the Mediterranean (some 2,400 km), tolls, taxes and protection money had to be paid.

The Bedouin specialised in breeding camels for the caravans and in controlling the routes. They served as guides, guards and drivers and offered protection in return for a fee. Raiding caravans under another tribe's protection was a way of increasing profits.

Motor vehicles and planes are today reducing the importance of the trading caravans as new roads are built in the deserts. But in the vast expanses of Arabia and the Sahara, caravans are still used as a cheap method of transportation and may never quite be replaced by the more expensive mechanised modes of transportation.








The Bedouin usually form the poorest social group in the lands they live in, but they are proud of their superior way of life, and see themselves as the most noble class in Arab society.

All Arab countries in the Middle East have Bedouin populations. Once dominant, they are now marginalised and often scornfully regarded as primitive (the exception to this rule is in the Arabian peninsula). This is often joined by a paradoxical admiration of noble Bedouin virtues as the model of the pure Arabic-Islamic culture.

They face many problems because of the rapid shift from nomadic to a settled way of life. Central governments expropriate their grazing lands and force them into villages to become sedentary farmers or into towns to become a new proletariat seeking employment in the industrial and service sectors.

It is only in countries where they form the original population, such as Saudi-Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf States, that they have some power and status and can help determine the means and pace of their shift to the modern world.

For the bureaucratic modern states, intent on the taxation, conscription and political control of their populations, the Bedouin with their contempt for central authority and free roaming life style are a constant irritation. They have steadily reduced the mobility and power of the Bedouin tribes, and weakened the power of the great tribal confederations of Syria, Iraq and North Africa. Only in the Arabian peninsula did the Bedouin retain much of their influence.

Nomadism survives at a much reduced level. The settled Bedouin keep up strong ties and loyalties to their tribes. Tribal leaders have become settled landowners who continue to wield much political influence.

The rapid pace of economic change since the middle of the twentieth century eroded the traditional foundations of Bedouin economy, forcing them to seek employment in the towns and oil industries to supplement their incomes. The oil industry created new opportunities for them to be employed as labourers, drivers and guides. Rapid urbanisation opened up jobs in construction and services. Governments recruited Bedouin as policemen, soldiers and guards.

Governments have also launched agricultural settlement programmes for Bedouin, concentrating them in villages, and supplying them with permanent water supplies and cultivable lands. In Saudi Arabia rangeland deteriorated as a result of the livestock concentration near wells provided by the government. Imports of cheap meat from abroad to feed the growing urban population weakened the economic base of the tribes.

In North Africa, nomads have suffered from the repeated cycles of drought and the resulting desertification which forced them to reduce their herds and seek employment in the towns.

In the late 20th century, migrating Bedouin make up only an average 1 percent of the total Arab population as compared to 10 percent in the 1960s. However, the recently settled Bedouin still cling to their separate identity and tribal loyalty, and farmers and town dwellers still venerate the Bedouin way of life and often claim kinship with the great desert tribes.

Bedouins today are still organised in tribes of varying sizes. In the context of the modern state the power of the Sheikhs is diminishing, and the tribal structure is weakened. The dependence of the individual on the tribe's support and approval has diminished, and though it is still unthinkable for women to act against the will of their male relatives, individual men have more freedom and personal choice.

Older Bedouin tend to be illiterate, but most of the younger generation have had access to public education and can read and write. A growing proportion of them are graduating from high schools and universities. The camel herding tribes in the more inaccessible parts of the deserts are the most deprived in terms of availability of education.

In place of the older illiterate but powerful Sheikhs a new elite of younger educated men is emerging who have acqired the knowledge necessary to protect Bedouin interests in a modern state.





Land is an issue of great importance to the Bedouins because they need immense areas to sustain their traditional pastoral way of life. However, the vast desert and semi-desert expanses are being continually infringed on by the population explosion and industrialisation of the last decades. Modern armies also need large tracts for bases and maneuvers and large areas have been fenced off. Governments also take over traditional Bedouin lands for oil production, urbanisation and the military.

Historically, Bedouin tribes regarded themselves as collective owners of their grazing grounds. These rights were respected for centuries, but were not documented on paper. Modern governments however base land registration on proven private ownership and inevitably came into conflict with the Bedouins over these rights. The first sign of change came in 1858 with the new Land Law of the Ottoman Empire that defined the various categories of land and issued title deeds to the owners. Those who failed to register out of ignorance or for fear of having to pay taxes eventually lost their ownership rights as Ottoman law is still the basis of land ownership in all countries of the region.

Forced expropriation of land by the state backed by its military might is a fact of life in the Middle East. These lands are then given to settled farmers and used to found new industrial centres. The Bedouins retain only a small part of the lands they consider their own if they submit to the plans of the authorities to settle them in villages and townships.

In the 1950's Saudi-Arabia and Syria nationalised Bedouin range lands and Jordan severely limited goat grazing. Israel reduced the amount of land in the Negev available to its Bedouin in an effort to induce them to settle in villages and towns.




Ancient Bedouin religion was animistic, and they worshipped the spirits of trees, fountains and sacred stones. Later they worshipped many gods of whom the most important were Manat, 'Uzza and Allat who were subordinate to a high God called Allah. There were also tribal gods, symbolised by a stone or other holy object, guarded by the Sheikh and his family and carried in a red tent into battle.

In the pre-Islamic age, most Arabian Bedouin tribes were pagan. Some had converted to Judaism and others to Christianity. With the rise of Islam most accepted the new religion, the Jewish tribes were exterminated and the Christian ones expelled.

Islam became the basis of Bedouin social and religious life, although many pre-Islamic beliefs and customs were retained. Most tribes are still devoutly religious, in Arabia due to the impact of the Wahabbi revival of the last two centuries, and lately as a reaction to the Shi'a fundamentalism of Iran. Prayer times fit naturally into their daily routine, and the fast and religious feasts are strictly kept.

Bedouin are fatalists by nature as a result of their precarious existence in the desert. Folk-Islam is widespread, especially fear of the evil eye and evil spirits. Charms and amulets are worn as protection against them. The desert is believed to be inhabited by Jinns, and mad people are said to be possessed by them. Bedouin are careful not to praise anything directly, for fear of the evil eye. Men, animals and motor vehicles carry charms to protect them from it.

Evangelism amongst the Bedouin has always been difficult due to their mobile life style, their communal loyalty, and the fact that in most of the countries they inhabit evangelism to Muslims is strictly forbidden. Missionaries traditionally tended to operate in the large towns and thus had less contact with the rural Bedouin.

We are still waiting for a breakthrough in Bedouin evangelism. Pioneers are needed who will break fresh ground and approaches. Radio and video work should be increasingly effective with growing wealth. In lands were the Bedouin are looked down on by the sedentary majority, they are especially receptive to personal friendship and visitation. Literature distribution is another avenue as more and more of them are literate. Above all we will need people willing to live amongst them adapting to their lifestyle and traditions, respecting their history and culture and sharing their faith in Christ with the Bedouin in the context of a friendly relationship, using traditional modes of storytelling, and ready for power encounters to prepare the ground.





Total number of Bedouins (nomadic, semi-nomadic and settled) in the Arab world today: 15 - 20 million.




Saudi Arabia - 4m

Sudan - 5m

Egypt - 1.1 million

Syria - 1m

Maghreb - 1m

Gulf States - 0.5m

Kuwait - 0.5m

Yemen - 0.5m

Jordan - 0.3 m

Iraq - 0.2 m

Libya - 0.2m

Turkey - 0.15m

Israel - 0.1 m