The Iraqi war really brought the spotlight on the Shia -Sunni struggle within the region, when before, outside of the Middle East, there was no distinction between Muslims. Little be known to the rest of the world there are other layers of discrimination in the region. Two of which affect a Saudi’s marriage and job prospects. The first and most important is whether a person belongs to a tribe or not. You are 220 if you belong to a tribe and 120 if you don’t. There are many tribes in the region and tracking and documenting them is a centuries old science that is still very much alive today. I’ve also heard stories of specialists who were able to track which tribe a person belongs to just by looking at their facial features. Though I don’t believe they exist anymore. The most prestigious tribe to belong to is the Ashraff. People who are even remotely related to this tribe will drag out their family tree at every opportunity. And they are understandably the most prestigious because they are descendents of the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) family. Now most claims to this tribe are bogus but the few true lines of heritance are carefully documented in books. The most famous Asharaff family today is the Jordanian royal family. But personally I think they have diluted their blood with too many British and American commoners.
Then there are Saudis who don’t belong to a tribe. The first of two main reasons why is that they go back to an ancestor who has been disowned by his tribe for committing a crime or taking up a manual job. These families are easy to identify because their last name usually means in Arabic some kind of job like blacksmith or baker. The other main reason is that the family goes back to an ancestor who immigrated here. These families usually have a last name that in Arabic means some kind of nationality like Egyptian, Morroccan…etc. The only exception I know of to the latter reason is the Hindi family who are tribal.
Another layer of distinction is made up of Bedouin or urban. Bedouins are families who only in the past century have settled down. Before they used to roam the desert never belonging to any particular region. Urban are families who belong to tribes that have always lived in towns and cities, only occasionally moving.
Part of a Saudi’s life is to be classified as one of the following:
a) Urban and tribal: These Saudis are the most stuck-up, refined and know how to spend money.
b) Bedouin and tribal: These Saudi are not as sophisticated but are more generous and their women are given a lot more freedom and respect.
c) Urban and nontribal: These Saudis are concentrated in the Western region and they mostly come from ancestors who were originally overstayers after performing Hajj.
d) Salab: These Saudis come from gypsy ancestors.
How does this matter in day to day life? Within their circles, both Bedouins and tribal Urban consider being called the other an insult. Urban mothers tell their children not to be Bedouin when they, for instance, attempt to leave the house in their pajamas. And Bedouin mothers tell their children not to be urban when they get scared of a spider. To urban families, being called Bedouin has connotations of being unrefined and unruly. And in Bedouin families, being called an urban essentially means sissy.
And until recently, the Saudi nationality had been withheld from many salabs. Even though they have been on Saudi land for more than a century.
When it comes to job-hunting, let me just say that if you take a close look at any Saudi establishment, you’ll find that strangely a great number of the employees belong to the same tribe as the head of the establishment.
In marriage, it doesn’t matter much if you are Bedouin or urban. What matters is whether or not you’re tribal. If a Saudi is tribal and marries someone who isn’t, the father of the tribal spouse is expected to disown them. And the whole marriage has long term negative effects. The siblings of the tribal spouse will be limited in their choice of life-partners. A famous case that originated in such a mixed marriage is that of Fatima who after having two children with her husband, was forcefully divorced by her half brothers after her father passed away. Shockingly the divorce was sanctioned by the Saudi judicial system.
Fatima Starts Hunger Strike Despite HRC’s Reunion Assurances
Ebtihal Mubarak, Arab News
JEDDAH, 25 March 2008 – A Saudi woman, who was forcibly divorced from her husband by a court in 2005 at the request of her half brothers, yesterday began the first day of a hunger strike despite officials saying that the couple would soon be reunited.
“I won’t believe it till I see it… I’ll remain stuck in this shelter like an outcaste. Everyone asks me to be patient and wait,” said the woman known as Fatima.
One of my own relatives fell in love with a person who belonged to a non-tribal family. Just when they were about to announce their engagement, my great uncle threatened the father with disowning his whole family. So everything was broken off before it got too serious. This of course is extremely un-Islamic and a great example of how our society is truly ruled by custom and culture rather than religion.