The Gulf Family: Working Group I

On March 14-15, 2015, CIRS held its first working group on “The Gulf Family” where scholars convened to discuss both historical and current issues that affect the Gulf family structure. In contrast to the literature on the family in the greater Middle East, significant gaps in scholarship still exist in relation to the dynamics of the Arab Gulf family. Five grant proposals were awarded to various scholars to conduct fieldwork and original research on topics related to the Gulf family. In conjunction to the grant awards, CIRS held a two-day working group to discuss issues such as tribalism, mixed marriages, and the effects of religious education on family dynamics amongst other topics. Alongside the five grant awardees who presented their research proposals and preliminary findings, working group participants discussed issues currently facing the region.

The Gulf family has witnessed an immense amount of change over the past sixty years. In understanding the historical importance of the Gulf family one has to structure a comprehensive narrative that includes the different tribes and ethnicities which have resided in the region. By challenging the idea that the Gulf family is contingent on consanguinity for its existence, modern discursive narratives can be further disseminated. This illustrates the various historical constructions around nationalism, modernization and class. Housing and rent were examined in an effort to understand how space related to the family in the past and how physical change impacts the structure of the family living within households.

Underlying the presence of the Gulf family lie the notions of tribalism and asabiyya (tribal solidarity). In the Gulf, tribalism is a central feature in understanding the social dynamics prevalent in the region. The functional logic of the system uses kinship to explain solidarity through practice, which can be seen in expressions of tribal unity through literary, legal, political and media outlets. Discussants questioned to what extent was tribalism prevalent in family affairs and the significance of belonging to a tribe upon an individual’s identity. At present, the modern tribal identity is rarely expressed through the nomadic lifestyle it was once associated with, instead permeating societal sentiments and intellectual thought. However, in the case of Yemen, the impact of political and economic instability of the state has pressed citizens to rely upon their respective tribes to provide necessary services such as electricity and water. Rising prices of fuel and declining subsidies offered by the Yemeni government meant that citizens’ access to education and healthcare ultimately deteriorated. The permanence of the tribal order and solidarity in Yemen, amidst the state of political chaos, has helped maintain a sense order and organization within the country. Discussants later questioned the impact of tribalism on the nuclear family and the repercussions of re-tribalizing urban areas within the cities.

Tribalism has also had deeper ramifications on societal issues such as marriage. Amongst the local population, tribal inter-marriages are generally the norm. In the absence of a class system amongst locals in the Gulf, tribal lineage determines the social hierarchy present. In an effort to understand societal forces affecting the institution of marriage in the Gulf, discussants recognized the intensive structural transformations that the Gulf region has been undergoing in the past twenty years. As a result, consanguineous marriage has been undergoing changes, whereby data on Qatar shows mixed marriages are on the rise for men but on the decline for women. Previously, the rate of divorce amongst mixed marriage couples was much higher from 1985-2000 as compared to non-mixed marriages. However, in 2010-2013 the gap between mixed marriages and non-mixed marriages began to diminish. Discussants questioned the reversal of trend in divorce amongst the two groups of marriages hypothesizing the reasons to be increasing globalization, education and transnational flows.

Given the rising statistics on divorce in the Gulf, the legal systems’ negligence towards reforming child custody law has become increasingly problematic. Family law reforms have traditionally focused on the relationship between spouses, often neglecting the parent-child relationship that determines custody and guardianship. Case studies on Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have shown that further development on the concept of “best interest of the child” is in order. More specifically, Qatar has made efforts to promote the concept of “best interest” as a tool to reform custody determination whereas Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates chose to formulate guidelines for judges to follow in cases of custody determination.

While transitions within Gulf society have been taking place over the past decades, the impact of modernization efforts can be witnessed in the religious, linguistic, and educational aspects of family life. The formation of family life in the Gulf in itself is a religious act, encouraged by sunnah and hadith, which is often embraced by couples as a fundamental element to the marital relationship and their childrearing ways. Previous scholarship has explored the role religious education plays in women’s positioning within society. Theoretically, the rise of modern education was seen by scholars as a way to empower women into assuming roles within the public sphere. Yet, case studies have shown that the quality of education women were receiving tended to reproduce the traditional system and enforce gender segregation. Discussants also emphasized the rise of religious education within the household, whereby female Islamic preachers would conduct house visits in segregated spaces in an effort to educate women on relevant Islamic values to the home.

Islamic values within Gulf households have also hindered channels of communication between parent and child on more sensitive issues such as sexual and reproductive health education. As the median age of marriage is increasing, youth are increasingly confronted with their sexuality prior to marriage. The cultivation of shame rather than genuine guilt, especially within the family, is a byproduct of religious and tribal sentiments that dictate social relations in Gulf states. As a result, youth are expected to source their own information on sexual issues often resorting to the internet as an impartial source of education. However, the lack of sexual and reproductive health education amongst Gulf families raises youth’s vulnerabilities when confronted with issues such as rape, sexual harassment, and transmitted diseases. Parents often struggle with establishing open and honest channels of communication with their children, partially due to the linguistic barriers that bi-lingual families face and stigma attached with this sensitive topic. Discussants argued that religious teachings in fact encourage open discussion on such issues, within the scope of legally sanctioned marriage whereas, social pressure and familial inexperience constitute the biggest obstacles in the face of sexual health education. 

Participants and Discussants:

  • Rogaia Abusharaf, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Nadwa Al Dawsari, Sheba Center for International Development
  • Sanaa Al Harahsheh, Doha International Family Institute
  • Haya Al Noaimi, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Zahra Babar, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Barb Gillis, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Mehran Kamrava, CIRS – Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Sebastian Maisel, Grand Valley State University
  • Dionysis Markakis, CIRS – 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
  • Lena-Maria Möller, Max Planck Institute for Comparative and International Private Law
  • Sophia Pandya, California State University at Long Beach
  • Jihan Safar, College de France, Sciences-Po
  • Laura Sjoberg, University of Florida
  • Amira Sonbol, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar
  • Ali Kemal Tekin, Sultan Qaboos University
  • Valbona Zenku, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar

Article by Haya Al-Noaimi, Research Analyst at CIRS