Diversity and Social Stratification

Diversity and Social Stratification

The Saudi population is characterized by a high degree of cultural homogeneity and by an equally high degree of social stratification. The territory that in 1992 constituted the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia consisted of four distinct regions and diverse populations. Each region has sustained some measure of nomadic and seminomadic population: as recently as 1950, at least one-half the total population of the kingdom was estimated to be nomadic. Tribal identities were paramount among the nomadic population and among those in towns and villages who recognized a tribal affiliation. The Eastern Province had a substantial Shia population with cultural links to Iran, Bahrain, and other places in the gulf region, as well as an Indian, Yemeni, and black African component. Asir was more closely linked to Yemen than to Saudi Arabia both by population and geography. Najd was geographically divided into three regions, with town centers that functioned almost as independent city-states until the early twentieth century. Until the era of development began in the 1960s, Najd remained relatively isolated, located as it was in the center of the peninsula in the midst of three deserts and a mountain chain, but its towns, too, had populations linked to the gulf, the Hijaz, and Africa.

By contrast, the Hijaz, being home to the holy sites of Islam and host to pilgrimage traffic, was directly tied historically into the Ottoman bureaucratic system. The populations of Mecca, Medina, and Jiddah have been infused for centuries by descendants of foreign Muslims who had come for the pilgrimage and stayed. Mecca had substantial Indian and Indonesian communities, and Jiddah had descendants of Persians and Hadramis (from Hadramaut, or Aden), as well as Africans and people from other parts of the Arabic-speaking world. The cities of the Hijaz benefited by donations from pious Muslims throughout the world and became major centers of Islamic scholarship and learning. Jiddah was virtually without peer as the commercial center in the kingdom until the 1960s, and in all the Hijaz towns, mercantile families comprised a powerful elite.

Social stratification was linked to this population diversity. Tribal affiliation constituted a major status category based on bloodline. At the top of the tribal status category were the qabila, families that could claim purity of descent from one of two eponymous Arab ancestors, Adnan or Qahtan, and could therefore claim to possess asl, the honor that stemmed from nobility of origin. To some extent, tribal status could be correlated to occupation, yet manual labor in general, but particularly tanning hides and metal work, was considered demeaning for individuals of qabila status. Qabila families considered themselves distinct from and distinctly superior to khadira, nontribal families, who could not claim qabila descent. Khadira include most tradesmen, artisans, merchants, and scholars, and constituted the bulk of the urban productive population of pre-oil Arabia. Marriage between individuals of qabila and khadira status was not normally considered. The claim to qabila status was maintained by patrilineal descent; therefore, qabila families were concerned to observe strict rules of endogamy (marriage back into the paternal line) so that status might be maintained and children, who were considered to belong to the family of the father, not the mother, would not suffer the taint of mixed blood. Within the qabila status group, however, there were status differentials, some groups being considered inferior precisely because they had once intermarried with khadira or an abd (slave) and were unable to claim purity of descent. The abd was at the bottom of the tribal-linked status hierarchy in the past. Black Africans were imported into the peninsula in large numbers to be sold as slaves until the late nineteenth century. Although slavery was not formally abolished until 1962, intermarriage between khadira and the black population has been extensive and has blurred social distinctions between the two. In contemporary Saudi Arabia, new status categories based on education and economic advantage began to undermine the importance of tribal affiliation to status and were having an homogenizing effect on this barrier to social integration.

An additional status category based on bloodline was that of ashraf, those who claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad. The ashraf (sing., sharif) were significant in the Hijaz but far less so in Najd.

These status categories based on blood have at times in the past and were in the 1990s being transcended by status groups based on religion, commerce, professions, and political power. Religious authority, for example, constituted an additional category of status. The ulama historically have represented a powerful intellectual elite of judges, scholars, imams, notaries, and preachers. Prestige still strongly adhered to religious scholarship and especially to the groups of scholars whose religious authority was recognized by the rulers and who were employed in the government bureaucracy. To some extent, as secular education became more valued and greater economic rewards accrued to those with technical and administrative skills, the status of the ulama declined.

Merchants constituted an additional elite status category based on wealth. Many of the traditional merchant class, especially merchants from the Hijaz and the Eastern Province, lost influence as Saudi rulers ceased borrowing from them and began to compete with them, using oil resources to create a new merchant class favoring Najdis. The rulers also used preferential recruitment for administrative personnel from Najdi tribes, who in turn used their position to favor other Najdis and Najdi businesses. The result has been the creation of powerful administrative and commercial classes supplanting older elite groups based outside Najd.

The interest and status of these groups may overlap others. In the Hijaz, members of an elite group known as the awaali (first families) claimed group solidarity based on past family connections; their association was actually distinguished by wealth and life-style, and the circle of families was constantly in flux. Families who belonged to the group came from diverse backgrounds and included descendants of religious scholars, merchants, and pilgrimage guides.

The Shia of the Eastern Province were near the low end of the social ladder in relation to the fruits of development and access to sources of power. According to literature produced outside Saudi Arabia, Shia opposition groups were active inside the kingdom and constituted the majority of the political prisoners in Saudi jails. Shia were generally disparaged in society by the Wahhabi antipathy in which their rituals were held. The status of Shia, however, was in flux: they began to be drawn into positions of responsibility in government service and since the 1980s have received an increased share of government funding for development.


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