1 Introduction

The advent of globalisation and recent technological advancements have given rise to communication channels that enable individuals to stay connected more than ever. Like in many places, social media has gained significant traction in the Gulf region as a virtual forum wherein people can express their opinions on a range of local, regional, and global issues (see, e.g. Al-Jenaibi, 2016, p. 61; Gunter et al., 2016, p. 5; Reyaee & Ahmed, 2015, p. 23). The communicative reach of social media means that it has been used for political purposes by both governments and individuals. This was evident during the outbreak of the Arab Spring in 2011 (Allagui & Kuebler, 2011, p. 8; Bruns et al., 2013, p. 871; Markham, 2014, p. 89; Newsom & Lengel, 2012, p. 31; Stepanova, 2011, p. 1; Wolfsfeld et al., 2013, p. 115). The ongoing Gulf Crisis has also seen social media being used as an instrument for political mobilisation. This crisis began when three member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), namely, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, cut off relations with Qatar and imposed a blockade on that country. The measures against Qatar were taken because of its alleged involvement in terrorism (Naheem, 2017, p. 265). Significantly, political social media content during the crisis attempted to mobilise actors by appealing to their tribal identities.

The driving purpose of social media is to establish social connections between individuals through digital tools. Beyond these simple social functions, social media connections can be leveraged to mobilise around and achieve political goals. These characteristics of social media have led scholars such as DeVriese (2013, p. 220) to conceptualise it as an extension of the Habermasian public sphere, reconfiguring civic engagements in a new type of political space. Countless scholars have illustrated the importance of social media as ‘an instrument of local and national mobilization, communication and coordination; [it] helped propagate international revolutionary contagion; and contributed to the enhancement of a pan-Arab consciousness which facilitated the contagion process’ (Howard & Hussein, 2011, p. 36). Other researchers point to how the speed of communication enabled by this technology quickly stabilises individual and group goals: ‘messages to travel in an immediate, instantaneous and spontaneous manner’ (Alqudsi-ghabra, 2012, p. 9). The specific ways that this technological capability is utilised varies between contexts. Geoff Martin found that political activists in Kuwait between 2010 and 2012 largely used Twitter to disseminate general information and ground-level reports of actions (Martin, 2019, p. 9). Moreover, Nathan Brown has identified social media as a ‘new Saudi public sphere’ that citizens regard as a channel for free information flows across borders. The fact that this new public sphere is monitored closely by the Saudi state lends credence to the notion that social media is now a space of huge political significance (Brown, 2017).

Against this backdrop, this paper aims to critically discuss the use and effect of social media on the ways that Gulf tribes are leveraged politically during the Gulf crisis, an event that was marked by domestic social dissatisfaction and international tensions. This theme was covered in a 2019 issue of Review of Middle East Studies. Mitchell (2019) found that during the blockage, social media did not incubate new narratives about Qatar that are related to the specificities of the crisis. Rather, it became a platform for Gulf States to air pre-existing grievances against Qatar. Saudi citizen users and news outlets tended to draw on common, longstanding tropes, discrediting Qatar’s by comparing the government’s liberal attitudes unfavourably to that of the conservative Saudi Arabian regime. Historic border disputes between the KSA and Qatar were also raised. Leber and Abrahams (2019) looked at how, during the crisis, the Saudi state engaged in ‘networked authoritarianism’. This refers to how an apparently organic and potentially liberatory medium such as Twitter is in fact managed by state actors who mould its discursive agendas to their political advantage. Saud al-Qahtani, who was the General Supervisor of the Centre for Studies and Media Affairs, created false accounts to systematically undermine Qatar and muzzle potential sympathisers within the kingdom (Timberg & Dadouch, 2021).

This paper augments this growing literature on social media in the Gulf Crisis by focusing on the discursive construction of tribal identity on social media during the crisis. The paper begins by reflecting on Gulf transnational tribal bonds that transcend national identities and state borders. During the Gulf Crisis, social media technology has facilitated greater tribal solidarity and communication. The three blockading countries used the rhetoric of tribal identity to encourage Qatari tribes to undermine the Qatari state’s domestic political stability. This mobilisation process relied heavily on appealing to long-held tribal traditions and attitudes now able to be disseminated through social media. This paper also illustrates how social media offers a virtual space where tribes can organise politically as cohesive groups. In the final section, this paper discusses the reaction of the Qatari government and the tribes to these online mobilisation efforts. It also explores the gradual consolidation of the Qatari national identity in response to this transnational mobilisation of internal dissidence. The paper approaches these points qualitatively and draws from interviews and observations conducted during in-country fieldwork in Qatar from 2020 to 2021. The paper analyses social media output from Qatari and Saudi actors during the crisis, relating them to the actions taken by the Qatari and Saudi governments to mobilise tribal sentiments.

2 Identity in the Age of Globalisation

This paper understands tribes to be a form of transnational identity. Actor identities in general and transnational ones in particular feature heavily as contested concepts within globalisation studies. While there are competing definitions of globalisation, most agree that it is a set of technological, economic, sociocultural, and political processes that have weakened the salience of state borders while strengthening economic interdependence and cultural interchange between groups formerly bounded by the nation-state. For Arjun Appadurai, it has constituted global cultural flows carried through demographic movements, capital flows, and technological transfers (Appadurai, 1996, p. 36). Ruggie summarised globalisation as the declining centrality of geographical places and the disintegration of the border (Croucher, 2004, p. 13). According to these theorists, subjective identities and group loyalties followed suit. In the sphere of the cultural economy, media products are exported from rich to poor countries (Croucher, 2004, p. 16). Consuming similar commodities and integrated into a supply chain that extended around the globe, people become less attached to parochial identities tied to certain geographic locations, ethnicities, and religious beliefs. In their place, Western Enlightenment ideas and practices, in particular the rise of a global cosmopolitan public, become the dominant feature of international events (Beck, 2006, p. 2).

The view that international relations were characterised by cultural homogenisation and economic and political integration along Western lines first became popular with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The end of the bipolar Cold War international system supposedly heralded a global order dominated by Western political and economic models and ideals of liberal democracy, capitalist economics, and secularism (Appadurai, 1996, p. 36). In making these arguments, the early globalisation theorists were attempting to understand real processes occurring late eighties and early nineties: the emergence of large transnational corporations, state deregulation, and technologies that increased the mobility of commodities (Savage et al., 2004, p. 1). Yet, scholars questioned this picture after the Balkan conflicts of the nineties suggested that international relations remained riven by sectarian, ethnic, and religious lines. Attention was further drawn to parochial categories of belonging after 9/11 and the war on terror. The rise of terrorism appeared as a reaction against global economic, cultural, and political integration into capitalist networks and liberal Western ideals (Croucher, 2004, p. 3). This phenomenon undermined Martin Albrow’s claim that globalisation has seen ‘peoples of the world […] incorporated into a single world society, global society’ (Albrow, 2004, p. 40).

Yet, the issue of global terror also brought a seeming contradiction within globalisation studies to the fore: transnationalism and sectarian identities can co-exist, even be strengthened, by the very lines of interconnection described by early globalisation theorists. The dissolution of borders had not resulted in global cultural homogenisation but rather in the proliferation of transnational identities that fell outside the purview of Western frameworks. While the membership of such groups transcends geographical boundaries and the historical narratives that underpin their identities are non-nationalist, they are far from universalist or cosmopolitan entities. These parochial categories of belonging defined by religious belief, ethnicity, and tribal networks may appear contrary to the globalisation process as described by the first wave of globalisation theorists. Yet, the very technologically mediated modes of expression and organisation that underpin cross-border cultural, economic, and political ties under globalisation are also what enable traditional particularist identities to gain cohesion. This suggests that the proliferation and consolidation of identities is part and parcel of globalisation itself. New forms and means of integration spark counter-movements that reestablish boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, ones that more easily cut across the borders of the nation-state.

Tribal identity was crucial in the development of the Gulf Crisis as a foreign policy crisis, showing how many in the Gulf still regard tribal identity as a powerful locus of belonging. Yet, the Gulf Crisis also complicates critical responses that reasserted the relevance of local identity in globalisation studies. While tribes are often associated with particular regions, they do not comfortably fit definitions of the local evoked in standard critiques of globalisation theory. In the Gulf Crisis, tribal identity not only gained visibility but acquired substantial regional and international influence by leveraging a quintessential feature of globalisation: digital communication technologies transmit information rapidly across state borders. This consolidated tribal identity as a clearly defined cultural and social unit whose agency, membership, and communicative reach nonetheless extend beyond particular geographical sites. Further, critiques of early globalisation theory often juxtaposed the local and the global by portraying the former as only an ‘instantiation of’ overwhelming and abstract global powers rather than ‘as motors of change’ in their own right (Savage et al., 2004, p. 5). This idea that local identity is a passive subject of universalising forces is forcefully challenged by the Gulf Crisis. The tribe has become an autonomous political organ, a traditional function thought to have been permanently diminished after the rise of the nation-state and the GCC. The character of tribal activity during the Gulf Crisis thus upsets definitions of cultural globalisation as top-down homogenisation. It also adds nuance to the critical literature that characterises local responses to globalisation as reactive, locally bounded pockets of resistance.

3 Tribes in the Gulf Region

At the most fundamental level, it can be argued that tribes are an intrinsic part of human society. This claim is made on the basis that humans are naturally tribal and need the sense of belonging that tribal membership offers (Chua, 2018, p. 2). This psychological aspect of belonging to a tribe is also supported by more pragmatic motivations for membership. Tribal identity is not a feature unique to the Middle East; it also exists elsewhere, such as in Africa and Central Asia. Nevertheless, it is particularly worth investigating the importance of tribal identity in the Arabian Peninsula, where tribes are active on many levels, from the ruling families to the grassroots of society.

It is difficult to define the terms ‘tribes’ and ‘tribalism’ and to place both within a suitable context to clarify their importance. This difficulty is partly due to the multidimensional aspect of tribes: they are blood-based relations that can align with other tribes and take over territories (Bodley, 1994, p. 86; Salzman, 1974, p. 208). A straightforward definition of tribes can be a group of people who share blood ties, while tribalism is the act of mobilisation based on tribal identity. When examining tribes from a social or political perspective, scholars have focused on the idea of inclusion and exclusion (see Hassan, 2019, p. 78; Sonowal, 2008, p. 125). In this case, tribes can also be understood through Benedict Anderson’s (1983, p. 6) Imagined Communities, which looks at the idea of community in the minds of group members who share a feeling of belongingness. ‘Ideal’ group members are supposed to follow precise guidelines and behave as true followers of the group and community. Such connections managed to bring all tribespeople together until the emergence of sovereign boundaries, which placed all tribes within the context of the government ownership of land and also within new national identity projects.

Since the Neolithic period, states in Southern Arabia were built upon pre-existing tribal social relations. Indeed, the early history of the region can be written through the prism of fluctuating tensions and compromises between state-building and permanent settlements on the one hand and nomadic tribalism on the other (Magee, 2014, p. 251). Archaeological evidence for example suggests that South-eastern Arabians abandoned permanent settlements for a nomadic lifestyle based on tribal values around 2100 BC, possibly in rejection of an increasingly hierarchical sedentary society (Magee, 2014, p. 125). The Arabian Peninsula has been inhabited by many different tribes, who each controlled an area of land or territory known as Hijra or Dirah. Each Hijra was ruled by a tribal leader or sheikh, who was responsible for ensuring the protection and prosperity of his tribe (Kostiner, 1990, p. 231). This tribal structure persisted, even throughout the twentieth century, as modern states were constructed in the region. Tribes are a prominent feature in the social fabric of Middle Eastern societies, many of which are founded upon tribal affiliations (Hweio, 2012, p. 111). Indeed, the existence of tribes in the Middle East precedes the establishment of the modern nation-state. According to Collins (2004, p. 224), tribes are ‘informal identity networks’ predicated on ‘kin or fictive kin bonds’. Kinship requires societal recognition regarding the existence of connection between group members (Weiner, 2016, p. 2). Nevertheless, the notion that tribes are not necessarily established on genetic kinship ties has been widely acknowledged in the literature (Wing, 2016, p. 30). As Wing (2016, p. 30) notes, they are ‘essentially imagined or constructed and represent a “state of mind” and model for organisation and action’. Despite this broad recognition, kinship is invariably conceptualised as being linked to tribal identity in the Gulf.

Abdul-Jabar (2003, p. 76) has noted that tribes are ‘the oldest, most enduring social entity in the Middle East’ even if this is, at the same time, ‘the most polemical entity’. Ultimately, tribes consist of individuals who share common cultural, social, and traditional ties. In the Middle Eastern context, tribes have historically had a social function. However, tribal networks have assumed new, varied, and often political forms (Hweio, 2012, p. 111; Yizraeli, 2016, p. 107). Hence, tribes are not static and are in a constant state of flux in response to changes in the state. In the Gulf, tribes did not go into aggressive confrontation with the state; rather, they tried to adapt to the changes in the system to benefit from the new structure (Al-Najjar, 1996, p. 7). Therefore, tribal affiliations have endured. Despite newly formed states being modernised, an environment has been created in which tribal identity can survive (Hweio, 2012, p. 114). Nevertheless, the old tribal structure had to change to adapt to the new situation where tribes are now divided at a national level.

At the core of tribalism is the concept of assabiyah (loyalty) which ‘instils in the members of the tribe a sense of primary or even exclusive solidarity with the tribe over and above any other collective identity and defines social boundaries within the tribe itself’ (Bar, 2020, p. 129). Honigman (1954, p. 307) conceptualises the tribe as a form of social organisation within which individuals have ‘a common territory, a common language, and a common culture’. Both blood ties and culturally constructed kinship bonds bind these informal identity networks (Collins, 2004, p. 224; Wing, 2016, p. 30). Until the beginning of modernisation in the twentieth century, tribalism was the dominant form of identity in Middle Eastern societies. The tribe was a source of both individual and family honour (Bar, 2020, p. 129). Many tribes straddled the borders of new states even while they became incorporated into state institutions. They maintained cross-border relationships with tribal kin which means that ‘the tribal identity tends to reject the demand by the state or the extra-tribal sectarian identity to prioritize the interests of the higher level over the tribe’s direct interests’ (Bar, 2020, p. 129).

Tribal cohesiveness, or what Ibn Khaldun called Asabiyyah, has been affected by sovereign boundaries. This relatively recent political construct obliges tribes to conform to new forms of land ownership. This has divided tribes into national groupings that adhere to territorial boundaries rather than kinship ties. Despite the newly formed Gulf nation, tribes have managed to stay connected across borders through visits and communal events that have mainly taken place in the Gulf. For example, there is the janadiriyyah event in Saudi Arabia that celebrates Arab Bedouin heritage and particularly communal poetry readings (Al-Rasheed, 2005, p. 13). Another is the Dhow festival held in Qatar, which hosts a programme of traditional tribal activities such as pearl diving and camel racing (Cooke, 2014, p. 104). It has been promoted as an event designed to raise awareness of tribal heritage both among national citizens and regional visitors (Oxford Business Group, 2014, p. 251). Moreover, visiting majlis is still the norm in Gulf tribal society and will be discussed later. Majlis, loosely translated as ‘council’ are an all-male council or gathering of tribal leaders who hear community grievances and enforce sanctions to redress wrongdoing (Strobl, 2018, p. 214). This is not the only method that tribes use to maintain cohesion. They have also resorted to the virtual world to disseminate news, keep people updated, and establish virtual forums that approximate majlis where tribesmen express their opinions publicly. Therefore, tribes have found technologically innovative ways to sustain cultural cohesion. This will be discussed next, with reference to social media.

4 Social Media and Tribes in the Gulf Region

Social media serves as a public sphere for interactions based on solidarity and reciprocity. Yet long before social media, tribes in the Gulf region have organised tribal gatherings that serve the same function. These gatherings are known as majlis or communal sittings. Majlis have been a significant part of the cultural fabric of the region. They constitute the main social event where members of the public and rulers can socialise and discuss important issues. During the majlis, tribes discuss issues pertinent to the community, arbitrate disputes, exchange news, and engage in various other forms of socialisation. In parallel to social media, majlis serve as an inclusive space open not only to tribe members and family but also to inhabitants of other neighbourhoods. Arguably, the majlis facilitate an informal participatory process where people may interact with their rulers, just as social media does. During these gatherings, tribal leaders act as representatives of tribal history and genealogical lines. They thus serve as conduits through which tribal bonds are formed and perpetuated. This paper argues that social media has revolutionised the way tribes connect with each other and has brought them closer in a new virtual space similar to the majlis. Moreover, social media has enabled tribal formations to undermine sovereign boundaries in two ways: through tribal mobilisation of people across borders and the dissemination of tribal discourse beyond fixed localities.

This study argues that social media has heightened the transnational character and fluidity of Gulf tribal identity. The shared ancestry of tribes across the region meant that tribal identification was never totally extinguished by state boundaries that emerged in the aftermath of World War I (Bar, 2020, p. 128). This makes sense given that tribes have been an integral part of the cultural and social fabric of Gulf societies for centuries. Their existence pre-dates the formation of the modern nation-state (Abdul-Jabar, 2003, p. 76; Hweio, 2012, p. 111). Moreover, tribes have played an important role in state formation in the Gulf. Ruling families mobilised tribes to establish political power within the new state institutions as well as to defend national sovereignty against incursions by other regional states. For example, Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud established the KSA in 1932 after the fall of two Saudi states by encouraging various tribes to extend their loyalties to him and, by default, the Kingdom that he embodied (Bowen, 2015, p. 105). To varying degrees, all ruling Gulf families established their authority as leaders within new state formations using the enduring social bonds that characterise tribal groups (see Marvin, 2016, p. 401; Rush, 1987, p. 2; Zahlan, 1979, p. 28).

However, during the 1970s and 1980s, the rise of the nation-state appeared to harken the retreat of tribal systems as a political formation (Al-Kuwari, 2018). Once the central state served the basic needs of its citizens, the tribe was no longer needed as a locus of political, social, and economic security for its members. By building a welfare state and granting key political posts to important tribes, the family’s political legitimacy was secured. Ruling families expected subjects in return not to interfere in governance decisions (Valeri, 2018). Yet since the Arab Spring, tribal identity has enjoyed a resurgence. Tribal affiliations were mobilised to criticise the failures of the nation-state, particularly their inability to address ‘extremism and corruption’ in the societies they presided over (Bar, 2020, p. 129; Maisel, 2015). After 2011, tribal rhetoric made increasing historical references to a glorious tribal past to construct a common set of values that would bind the Gulf public during a period of political and economic instability.

Public mobilisation is increasingly constructed through tribal categories rather than national ones (Bar, 2020, p. 129). Individuals responded to regional instability after 2011 by mobilising around various sub-state identities such as the tribe, the clan, and the family. This post-Arab Spring revival of the tribe occurred even outside rural and peri-urban areas where we would expect state loyalty to be more fragile (see, e.g. Dukhan, 2014, p. 1; Fattah, 2011, p. 1; Zubaida, 2012, p. 568). Even in urban centres where tribal identification declined after modernisation, the political salience of the tribe was reasserted as an ‘anchor for the individual’ (Bar, 2020, p. 129). In the KSA, for example, tribal groups are exerting greater influence in the public sphere through tribal events and connections with the government. This renegotiation has been underpinned by traditional forms of identity based on genealogical and kinship solidarity (Maisel, 2015, p. 1) rather than claims based upon the notion of universal human rights or the rights and obligations attached to the state and its citizens. For example, since the crisis began, the Sheikh Shafi Al-Hajri of the Bani Hajer branch of the Qahtan tribe has addressed members to support Mohammed bin Salman in his opposition to Qatar (Alasiouti, 2017). Another example, a Qatari branch of the Al Ghafran tribe fled to the KSA in September 2017 to escape Qatari persecution for its Saudi sympathies, according to its leader Sheikh Taleb bin Shraim (Dorsey, 2017).

These cross-border tribal affinities have become politically consequential particularly due to the influence of social media. Aside from using the majlis as a platform for communication, tribes have communicated, mobilised, and publicised their agenda using other traditional public relations campaigns. For example, between the late 1990s and early 2000s, Saudi tribes competed with Islamist, Shia and liberal ideologies by publishing their agenda through television, literature, poetry, and popular culture (Maisel, 2015, p. 1). According to Maisel (2015, pp. 5–6), examples of television programmes that forwarded the tribal agenda include the popular Ramadan series which covered the Bedouins and their traditional lifestyles, such as musalsal badawi (Bedouin television dramas). For poetry, Kurpershoek (1999, p. 77) argues that poetry both ‘conserves the past in the present, not as a distant memory but as a lived reality’ and provides ‘an important ideological underpinning’ for contemporary tribal society by sustaining their traditionally oral culture. These traditional channels enabled tribes to avoid government reprisals and scrutiny since their message was distributed through cultural channels that appeared to be apolitical. Through these platforms, tribes were able to disseminate their message about the imperatives of renewing tribal values and histories to a wide audience.

New media advancements, population growth, economic development, and advancements in communication have instigated social changes which tribes have actively responded to. The tribal use of social media in the aftermath of the Arab Spring comes under this. Social media is a powerful communication tool and medium of public discourse in which user participation and interaction are central. As much as tribal uptake of social media is challenging traditional forms of interaction through the majlis, popular culture, literature, and so on, social media has enhanced traditional tribal affinities and reasserted traditional values. Tribal groups are leveraging social media to mobilise themselves around political issues, project their messages, and interact socially. For example, many tribes, such as Al-Murrah and Otaiba, have launched their own messaging services to keep the tribespeople informed of all the events taking place that are related to the tribe or its interests. Such tribal services focus on the interests of a branch and do not provide information about other branches in the tribe. This was observed during fieldwork in the region in 2020–2021 and occurred specifically via Short Message Service (SMS) and WhatsApp.

In the KSA, the advent of social media has provided tribes with new platforms to express and implement their traditional values in the context of modern society (Maisel, 2014, p. 100). Social media has changed interactions between tribes and authorities and between interpersonal communication between tribe members. According to Maisel (2014, p. 100), tribes have capitalised on social media to lobby for a new social pact within Saudi society. This can be seen in northern tribes, such as the Shammar, Anazah, Ajman, and Mutayr, and southern tribes such as the Zahran and Ghamid. All have used social media to contribute to the national discourse around tribal marriage, the interpretation of tribal histories, the role of customary law in arbitrating legal disputes, and tribal solidarity (Maisel, 2014, p. 100). Social media is providing an online discussion board for tribes where, much like traditional majlis, individual and shared opinions are expressed on a range of political, social, and legal issues. Unlike the majlis, however, social media has enabled faster communication and wider dissemination of messages to a larger group of followers. With regard to cell phones, Maisel (2014, p. 100) suggests that tribal members in Saudi Arabia are now better connected, not only within the kingdom but also transnationally because they connect with relatives in neighbouring countries.

These dynamics have changed the nature of tribal communication. In the past, intra-tribal communication was structured by its social hierarchies. In the contemporary context, tribal members can actively engage with their elders and those who are not socially equal to them. Women tribal members are also able to communicate more freely with their male counterparts (Maisel, 2014, p. 102). The Saudi case illustrates how tribal members can engage in discourse and exchange information concerning their history and their future, even if this does not align with state attempts to encourage a culture of national unity. Issues concerning tribes have received significant support among tribal masses and have captured their attention on matters of importance such as nasab or ancestry and history. Northern and Southern tribes have contributed to national debates around marriage strategies, the role of customary law in legal disputes, and increased political participation for tribes through online tribal forums as well as through local and national elections (Maisel, 2014, pp. 116, 118).

The Saudi case illustrates how social media facilitates the development of social capital among tribal members and serves as a tool for group communication. However, the uptake of social media by tribes is not limited to mere social interaction. Tribes have also used social media as an instrument of political organisation and activism. This function was evident during the 2011 uprising in Kuwait, which was largely successful due to social media-led mobilisation by youth movements who adopted tribal opposition as one of their causes (Dazi-Heni, 2015, p. 1). In November 2010, youth movements launched a social media campaign under the banner of ‘al-sha‘b yurid isqat Nasser’ or ‘the people want the fall of Nasser’ (Dazi-Heni, 2015, p. 1). In contrast to previous movements in Kuwait, such as the one in 2006, the 2011 movement adopted a more politicised and tribal approach to political opposition due to endorsements from tribal leaders. In 2010, tribal MPs allied with Islamist and liberal counterparts to defend constitutional and civil liberties in the face of government media repression and restrictions on public association, showing that tribal identities were not a spent force when it came to political mobilisation (Al-Nakib, 2014, p. 733).

This politicised tribal movement was spearheaded by educated young people who, in effect, altered traditional approaches to tribal politics. In the past, tribal politics involved tribes campaigning for access to additional resources from the state (Dazi-Heni, 2015, p. 1). In Kuwait, these traditional approaches were beneficial for the ruling class from the 1960s onwards. They granted tribes access to resources in a way that undermined the restive urban middle class (Dazi-Heni, 2015, p. 3). Tribal mobilisation and activism in Kuwait changed after the power of Islamist movements grew in tribal regions and after an increase in the number of educated people. Social media use has accompanied these changes in tribal political activism among the younger tribal members. It has been noted that:

this evolution contributed to widening the dichotomy between the ancient political order (ruling family, old merchant elites and traditional tribal opposition) and a new generation of political activists coming mainly from peripheral tribal districts, but also from older urban ones (with a mixture of Islamic and secular leanings), all denouncing the lack of economic vision for the country and the rigid administration plagued by corruption. (Dazi-Heni, 2015, p. 1)

Younger Kuwaitis, unlike their predecessors, used Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and WhatsApp for political mobilisation during the 2011 movement. Since 2011, WhatsApp and Twitter have become the primary political communication platforms. Recently, Snapchat have also gained more attention due to its uniqueness and simplicity regarding sharing short videos in a matter of seconds. Tribes are able to broadcast their messages quickly using these platforms (Dazi-Heni, 2015, p. 1). In this sense, social media has allowed younger tribal members to transcend the limits of the tribal majlis, which were confined to a particular locality and had limited audience reach. Despite the social and cultural significance of the majlis, these sittings rely upon face-to-face dialogue which has become increasingly difficult due to changes in lifestyle, among other factors such as COVID-19 pandemic. Technological developments now mean that a larger number of people across a wider geographical range can receive information in a matter of seconds.

5 Social Media, Tribal Organisation, and the Gulf Crisis

On the 5th of June 2017, the KSA, the UAE, and Bahrain formally severed ties with Qatar. The official narrative from the three countries justified their decision by accusing Qatar’s funding and harbouring of terrorist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS, and Al-Qaeda’s affiliates such as Al-Nusra Front. By meddling in the domestic affairs of its GCC cohorts, their sovereignty was undermined, instigating domestic instability, and backing Iranian attempts to destabilise countries by encouraging revolutions through the use of media platforms (Alshabnan, 2018, p. 1; Solomon, 2017). Qatar was also accused of working collectively with Houthi militias to weaken the efforts of the Arab Coalition to support the Yemeni government (Alshabnan, 2018, p. 1).

Qatar was barred from using the sea routes and airspace controlled by the blockading countries. The KSA closed its land border with Qatar and ordered all its citizens in Qatar to return home. Qatari citizens resident in the KSA were also ordered to leave the country within 14 days. The UAE and Bahrain issued similar directives to their citizens, and Qatar was barred from the Arab Coalition represented in Yemen (Alshabnan, 2018, p. 1; Tawfeeq et al., 2017). Despite all the actions taken by the three countries, most international actors remain unconvinced and interpret the move as an attempt to undercut Qatar’s foreign policy independence (MacDonald, 2021). During the early stages of the crisis, the KSA actively mobilised tribes in its Eastern province who had a common ancestry with Qatari tribes. This was in order to demonstrate loyalty to the KSA and to mobilise oppositional tribal factions against the government of Qatar (Bianco & Stansfield, 2018, p. 615).

The KSA has historically used competing tribal sovereignty claims to exert influence in Qatar, thus betraying their tribal conception of Dirahs or territorial sovereignty (Baskan & Wright, 2011, p. 106; Zahlan, 1979, p. 16). These competing claims of tribal sovereignty have highlighted the ‘historical influences on contemporary attitudes, relationships and prejudices between neighbouring states’ (Baskan & Wright, 2011, p. 106). The KSA has previously mobilised the large Al-Murrah tribe, located partly within its borders and partly in Qatar, for political purposes. The Al-Murrah tribe constitutes one of the largest tribes in Qatar (Al-Shawi, 1994, p. 3; Al-Shawi & Gardner, 2013, p. 54) and different branches of the same tribe are present in various countries. With respect to the Gulf Crisis, tribal notables on the Qatari side publicly pledged allegiance to the Qatari Emir in the aftermath of the blockade. Both Qatari and Saudi-based Al-Murrah groups arranged a number of majlis, as did the Bani Hajer tribe. These gatherings were designed to mobilise dissent and allegiance through traditional forms of media such as the Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera television networks in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In November 2017, for example, Al Arabiya showed a video of Sheikh Sultan bin Suhaim as he addressed thousands of members of the Bani Hajer tribe in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, proselytising upon the imperative of regime change in Qatar (Dorsey, 2017; Elbalad, 2017). He pointed to the evidence of Qatari human rights violations linked to displacement, the stripping of citizenship from Al Ghafran members, and the funding of terrorist groups (Al-Khalifa, 2019, p. 1). Over the course of the crisis, there has been a shift in the way such videos are disseminated. Social media has allowed for videos to be shared in real time and broadcast to a wider audience of tribal members, thus mobilising support for the respective agendas of the opposing sides. For the KSA and the UAE particularly, support for regime change in Qatar has been mobilised via the dissemination of videos of tribal majlis online, particularly via Twitter. In 2017, for example, Mohammad Bin Salman was shown having discussions with the leader of the Al-Murrah. This video went viral on Twitter, stirring up tribal sentiments both inside and outside of Qatar (Aldosari, 2019, p. 10; Bianco & Stansfield, 2018, p. 615). The leader of the Al-Murrah tribe, Taleb bin Shraim, went on record saying that the Qatar government had unjustly treated the Al-Murrah tribe, and that tribal loyalty must be switched to Al-Saud. In a tribal gathering, he was also supported by Sheikh Sultan bin Suhaim who remarked:

I stand before you today in solidarity with Sheikh Taleb bin Shraim and with every Qatari who lost their nationality (Qatari citizenship) unjustly or didn’t have their rights granted or was arrested for demanding their rights. We call on the world to recognise the ongoing violations against the Qatari people who are unable to enter their country and are afraid of entering, even though I am one of them. I’m forced to leave my country and I cannot enter it safely, however, our situation will be better because of God’s power. (quoted in Aldosari, 2019, p. 11)

During this speech, he further declared the king of Saudi Arabia to be the leader of the entire Muslim Ummah (Aldosari, 2019, p. 11). The presence of Sheikh Sultan in the event of Banu Yaam aimed at showing that he enjoys wider support from tribes as a prospective leader of Qatar if the blockade were successful. This suggested that the blockading countries would support a coup attempt in order to disrupt Qatari stability. The viral video makes it apparent that technology has played a central role in allowing tribes to virtually congregate, thus reinvigorating the political function of the tribe once extinguished by modernisation and the rise of the nation-state. The instantaneous nature of social media also enabled Qatari tribal members to quickly deny allegations that they were loyal to their counterparts in the KSA (Aldosari, 2019, p. 11). For example, on Twitter, members of Al-Murrah in Qatar launched and used the hashtag #Al_Murrah_soor_Qatar, which translates as Al-Murrah is the wall of Qatar (The New Khalij, 2017). Moreover, Qatari members of the Al-Murrah pledged loyalty to the Qatari state and supported the government initiative to consolidate the Qatari national identity (Almasri, 2017). This illustrates how social media’s interactive format enabled rapid dialogue between tribal groups—dialogues that responded quickly to developments in inter-state relations. Through this dialogue, new understandings of tribes as political formations emerged. Now, it was undeniable that tribes were political formations with substantial influence over and impact upon the contemporary Gulf state and, in the light of the crucial strategic importance of the Middle East, upon the global stage. This case study demonstrates the positioning of social media platforms, such as Twitter, as online discussion boards for tribes where, much like traditional majlis, individual and communal opinions are expressed on a range of political, social, and legal issues.

On the 24th of December 2017, a senior sheikh within the Al-Murrah tribe named Sheikh Mansour bin Rashed once again used social media to mobilise support for anti-Qatar dissent on the basis of tribal solidarity in the aftermath of the blockade. Sheikh Mansour bin Rashed recorded a video that was distributed via Twitter which rejected the policies of the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad and documenting hostile actions against the Al-Murrah tribe (Habib, 2017). The video featured Sheikh Mansour bin Rashed saying, ‘I denounce the ruling regime’s policy, which supports terrorism, deploys Turkish and Iranian troops in the emirate and persecutes members of [the] Al-Murrah tribe’ (Habib, 2017). According to Habib (2017), ‘Sheikh Mansour broke his long silence and explained that his existence inside the rich gas state makes him fear being arrested by the authorities, adding that he may have his citizenship revoked by the Qatari regime’. Through the video circulated on Twitter, Sheikh Mansour was attempting to spark debate about the dispute between the Qatari authorities and Al-Murrah tribe members in Qatar who had decided to side with Qatar against their fellow tribesmen. Those tribesmen who challenged Qatar had their citizenship revoked for supporting the blockading countries and for their agenda regarding Qatar. For the government of Qatar, these tribal members constituted a potential threat that could disrupt the domestic front. For Saudi members of the Al-Murrah tribe, the revocation of citizenship constituted an arbitrary act that violated human rights provisions. Twitter was used by the Saudi branch of the tribe to oppose what they considered to be destabilising policies propagated by the Qatari regime. The narrative that the Al-Murrah tribe was wronged by the Qatari government has been a popular tactic used by Saudi tribal members to mobilise dissent within Qatar’s borders and other neighbouring countries. This has historical precedent: the Saudi government used General Ali Muhsin, who was one of Saleh’s former allies, and other tribal leaders as proxies within the Yemen War while it has long played on tribal lineage as a marker of sectarian belonging (Kamrava, 2018, pp. 61, 198).

The Banu Yaam tribe in Saudi Arabia has also used social media to criticise the Qatari government in the aftermath of the blockade and to exert pressure on the regime. The Banu Yaam tribe has its origins in the Najran province of Saudi Arabia (Ismail, 2012, p. 412), but it also shares a common ancestry with the Qahtan branch of Arabian tribes—the Banu Hamdan (Habib, 2017). Consequently, the Banu Yaam originate from southwestern Arabia although they have gradually migrated to small villages and no longer live a nomadic way of life (Habib, 2017). The Banu Yaam share a common ancestry with the ’Ujman and Al-Murrah tribes, and they all have their own triple tribal alliance. In 2017, hundreds of members of the Banu Yaam tribe mobilised on the Saudi borders with Qatar to exercise dissent against the Qatari regime because they had stripped tribal leaders such as Sheikh Taleb bin Shraim of Qatari nationality (Habib, 2017).

The gathering exerted pressure on the Qatari regime and as it had been organised by Saudi members of the Al-Murrah tribe, social media was used by Saudi Banu Yaam members to mobilise support for their cause. Here, we see how social media lead to the snowballing of inter-tribal support concentrated around their opposition to a common opponent, the Qatari regime. Members of the tribe used social media platforms including Twitter and Facebook to disseminate videos and photos of the gathering using the hashtag #Ajtima_Qabayl_Yaam, which translates as meeting of Yaam tribes (BBC, 2017). These gatherings represented the enactment of tribal pride as people in the Arabian Peninsula see tribal meetings as huge events that allow the tribe to defend the rights of its members. The Qahtan tribe in the KSA also used similar techniques to protest against the Qatari regime. They used videos and photos on social media to provide real-time documentation of their demands for the Qatari government to define a roadmap for dealing with violations against tribal opponents and its sour relations with GCC neighbours (Maguid, 2017). In November 2017, after the tribal meeting of Qahtan and Bani Hajer, videos and photos have been circulated showing hundreds of vehicles moving in the direction of the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia to show support for Sheikh Shafi bin Nasser Al-Hajri, the leader of the Shaml of the Bani Hajer tribe (Maguid, 2017).

Blockading countries and their tribal affiliations used the principle of citizenship to agitate tribes in Qatar and convince them that the Qatari regime had treated them unfairly. It is also evident that social media enabled the leaders of the blockade to mobilise the tribe as a tool against Qatar, although one might argue that they were not able to create an effective rebel movement by using this strategy. With tribal opposition against the Qatari regime increasingly being launched via social media platforms, pro-Qatari tribes located within its borders have also responded via social media. They rejected the attempt of the KSA and the UAE to exploit tribal connectivity for political purposes, voicing their support for the Qatari government’s attempts to consolidate an overarching national identity. Qataris have launched and widely used the hashtag #Qabylati_Qatar, which translates as My Tribe is Qatar, on Twitter (Murad, 2018). The hashtag was also used widely by expats and migrant workers who were included in this renewed sense of national unity. It has been argued that there is immense value in the hashtag as it demonstrates that Qatari society is civilised and what connects its members is the state. The positioning of Qatar-based tribes provides empirical evidence that contemporary tribes do not act in the same way as their predecessors in terms of mobilising around tribal sentiments. The different responses of Qatari and Saudi-based tribes indicate that the strength of national identity intervene. While the KSA attempted to rally tribal sentiments among the Al-Murrah tribe to support its political agenda in Qatar, Qatar-based factions of the tribe did not mobilise on the basis of tribal solidarity and sentiments.

Social media has provided a platform for tribe members to engage in critical political discourses in a more nuanced way that transcends and does not rely on traditional markers of solidarity and bonding. These trends have nevertheless not prevented leaders of the blockade from using social media to disseminate the outcomes of meetings and conferences for affiliate tribes to support their cause against Qatar. Aside from the social media-led response, other strategies to counteract Saudi attempts to exploit transnational tribal affiliations via social media have been exploited by the government of Qatar. For example, tribes participated in the National Day celebrations as one group and in one place known as Ardat Ahl Qatar (sword dancing of the people of Qatar) instead of having a tribal celebration for each tribe. Consequently, Qatari tribes have resorted to similar tactics to show their support for the Emir of Qatar and to reject the acts of their fellow tribesmen in neighbouring countries.

6 Conclusion

This paper aimed to critically discuss the use of social media and its effect on the tribes in the Gulf. The paper began by arguing that tribes in the Gulf region have long organised themselves in the public sphere in the form of tribal gatherings known as majlis or communal sittings. However, this is changing due to the advent of social media and other forms of technology. Social media has provided tribes with new platforms to express and implement traditional values, albeit in the context of modern society. In examining this phenomenon, the study contributes to the literature on globalisation, identity, and social change in four ways. First, it reveals how a sub-state, non-Western identity with transnational reach is interacting with the foreign policy and domestic policy decisions of nation-states. Nation-states exploited cultural ties and rhetorical references to traditional customs, challenging realist frameworks that explain state behaviour by referring solely to material pressures exerted by the anarchic international order. Second, it shows how the resurgence of parochial identities is often predicated open, and not necessarily in competition with, quintessential processes of globalisation such as rapid information flows, technological transfers, and digital communication. Third, it shows how these identities, in utilising cross-border channels of communications, are not dissolving the state construct in any straightforward way. Throughout the crisis, the tribal identity and unit were not necessarily poised in opposition to the state as an abstract notion, nor did they always display a self-understanding that positioned themselves as external to the state. When tribes were involved in the crisis for political mobilisation, tribes within Qatar asserted their right to belong to the Qatari body politic while their counterparts in Saudi Arabia equally insisted on their rights to the same.

Finally, the case study upsets simplistic notions of cultural identities as geographically bounded sub-units of the global international order that react in an ad hoc manner to deterritorialising tendencies from above. The crisis was shaped by sub-state, transnational identities that were not limited to narrow geographical locales while nonetheless adhering to sharply particularistic notions of belonging. Not only did tribal identity reassert itself in the rhetoric of anti-Qatar opposition, but tribes also served as sites through which political practices were enacted. They leveraged their potential to set in motion domestic changes in order to affect inter-state relations, showing themselves as active agents. Of particular interest is how the blockading countries and their tribal affiliations used social media platforms to assert the principle of citizenship and agitate tribes in Qatar against the regime. This shows how tribes can represent a source of unrest when mobilised or central authority weakens, something that has also occurred in Iraq and Libya. Yet beyond their negative destabilising potential, tribes have also shown themselves to be motors of domestic social change in a more substantive sense. They have used social media to lobby for a new social pact within governing states by showing loyalty and support to respective governments, generating new ideas about the relationship between state and citizen. Moreover, digital technologies prompted new communal tribal practices that were not in evidence previously, showing the historical plasticity of the tribal form. Social media is serving as an online discussion board for tribes where, much like traditional majlis, individual and shared opinions are expressed on a range of political, social, and legal issues. Unlike the majlis, social media has enabled more rapid forms of expression and has facilitated the wider dissemination of messages to a larger group of followers. In short, the Gulf Crisis underlines how tribal identities are neither static nor anti-modern but are instigators and legitimators of social change at the domestic and state levels.