Home inFocus Reassessing Our World (Summer 2022) Cultural Foundations in the Middle East

Cultural Foundations in the Middle East

David Wurmser Summer 2022
President Joe Biden greets Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Friday, Aug. 27, 2021, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

While Americans and Israelis are most unnerved by the weakness and ineffectiveness of the technical terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or “Iran deal), our Arab allies in the region – particularly Saudi Arabia – are far more anxious about the geostrategic impact of the perceived willful abdication by the United States of its regional position implied by Washington’s desperation to reach a deal at almost any cost. 

Cultural Foundations of Regional Politics

To understand how unnerving America’s behavior is to our regional Arab allies, we have to understand how different the foundation of their regional politics is from ours. Americans profoundly believe in the universal nature of our concept of freedom. Thus, we tend to short shrift the influence of culture and civilization on the political mentality of states. In the Middle East, alongside the physical remains of ancient civilizations the remains of their cultures underlie the region’s politics. 

The political imagery of many Islamic cultures emanates from their nomadic, tribal, and clan origins, hardly attenuated by the occupation over the last half millennium by the Ottoman Turks since they too originate from a nomadic culture. 

In some cases, Islam overlays an older urban culture that still shapes politics. Iran, for example, has to be understood in these terms, with the image of the poplar tree bending in the wind (what we know as paisley), the tree is the ancient core of Persian civilization, and the wind is the overlay of Islam. 

The core of Arabia – the Saudi Peninsula, the Hejaz (coastal Arabian Peninsula), the desert area of Iraq, Syria and Jordan, and southern littoral of the Persian Gulf – however, is deeply tribal in its essence. And its culture has a long history, established well before even Islam. 

In ancient times, the most important Arab tribes filled the power spaces between the great urban civilizations rather than function as empires themselves. The period between 100 BCE and 700 CE was marked by regional competition among the global superpowers of the day – Rome (Byzantium), Persia, and Abyssinia. The Arabs divided in their allegiance and aligned their interests accordingly. The Ghassanid Arabs, more in the western end of the Arabian areas, aligned with Rome and to some extent Abyssinia, and those in the east and the Persian Gulf littoral, the Lakhmids (the al-Manadhirha or Banu Lakhm), tended to assist the Persian empire. In the lower Hejaz there was a very substantial Jewish population, especially in the area of Medina. The Lakhmid attempt a century before Muhammad to align with Persia to establish an independent realm in revolt against Rome and Abyssinia is essential to understanding not only the theological ferment, but also the geopolitical influences that shaped early Islamic politics a century later.

The rise of the Umayyad and the Abbasid empires did little to change this tribal essence to Arab culture. True, there were independent Arab empires anchored to the urban centers of Damascus and Baghdad, and they did absorb some traits from the very urban Byzantines and Persians. But these were rather short-lived, ahistorical anomalies. Baghdad fell by 965 to the Persians Buyids. 

The tribal soul, rather than the ethos of urban empire and the strategic behavior that soul engenders, are easily visible in current Arab politics. One need look no further than the most important myth cycle of the Byzantine world, Digenis Akritas (The Dual-blooded Border Guard), which describes the border world of the empire during the 5th – 12th centuries in the deserts of today’s Syria, Iraq and Jordan. One cannot but be impressed by the deeply rooted tribal and clan nature even of these “Byzantinized” Arab-blooded border guards.

The key lesson is that the great Arab tribes – indeed the Arab world – tended to operate in a distinctly tribal way within the lattices of power between geopolitical empires, at whom they looked in a way akin to being a super-tribe. 

When Muhammad wrote his letters to the Persian Emperor Khosrow II, to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, and to the Abyssinian King Negus Armah and a few others (628 AD), the tone was of the tribal leader of one great theological clan to another to convert and align with his. They operated simultaneously with independence, but they ultimately were protected by and also received power from a “superpower” of the day – the ultimate strong horse. Although Islam spread across the region and much of the known world at the time, and though Arabs filled the ruling classes of many lands, the tribal soul and the absolute need to align behind the strong horse great powers of the age for protection and advantage persisted. 

The Need for Protection

The issue of protection is, therefore, the foundation of the tribal core of Islam and its civilizations. To understand what the JPCOA means in regional terms, one must consider the dynamics of hostile relations among tribes. Specifically, a cycle of revenge and counter-revenge among tribes for a murder ends when a tribe signals it lifts its protective status over one of its members. That means he is fair game and can be murdered with impunity, and the cycle is thus broken. So too, any Arab disowned by his tribe, or who believes himself transcending his tribe, or has blurred or mixed origins with no clear tribal pedigree – namely a loner or one detached for whatever reason – is equally imperiled. 

This tribal essence is intertwined with early Islamic history and ties directly to the Prophet Muhammad and his personal condition. One cannot dissociate Islam from its historical origins nor its Arab roots. Moreover, tribal traditions and “laws” hold a special validity in Islam alongside doctrine – making it quite different than for example than Catholicism, in which the validity of doctrine stands above any other consideration. Muhammad’s message threatened the powerful tribal aristocracy of Mecca. His ideology/theology made him suspect and detached him from his fellow Meccans and their tribal elites, wherein they essentially decided he was to be eliminated. 

And yet, he could live in Mecca safely. This was because his powerful uncle, the leader of the immensely powerful banu Hashem clan of the Quraysh tribe, abu Talib ibn Abd al-Mutalib (whose son, Ali was the fourth caliph – the ouster of whom became the origin of the Sunni-Shiite split), extended his protection over Muhammad from other Qurayshi clans after Muhammad’s parents died. The other Qurayshi tribes, becoming more and more irritated with Muhammad’s message, tried to persuade abu Talib, and then tried to bribe him, then confront him, and in the end even boycotted him (in trade and marriages) and his family, but as long as abu Talib upheld Muhammad’s status as under his protection, these powerful elites could do nothing. However, the moment abu Talib died (619 CE) followed by his wife, Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, a few months later, Muhammad was alone and essentially served a death warrant. Even abu Talib’s brother, abu Lahab, refused him an umbrella of protection. Muhammad knew he was fair game and marked for death, so he had to flee to Medina. 

The U.S. and Israel as Tribes, not Nations

In this context, the United States is not really understood as a nation in modern, post-Westphalian (1648 CE) European terms, but more as the most powerful clan on earth, the clan of clans – or the modern equivalent of the Byzantine, Persian, and Abyssinian empires. Think of us as being the “banu Amrika,” the “children” or tribe of Americans. We, the banu Amrika, are seen by other, weaker clans as the patron of an allied league. The region’s clans and tribes align with us and pledge their fealty in exchange for enjoying our power and the umbrella of protection that comes with it. Similarly, the Israelis are not seen in Western terms as a parliamentary democracy, but as the “banu Israil,” and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as tribal leader of the Jews. 

In tribal terms, our concessions to Iran, whose open goal is the annihilation of our local allied tribes – the banu Saud (Saudi Arabia), the banu Maktoum (Emirates), banu al-Khalifa (Bahrain) and the “banu Israil” (Israel) – means the very fact that we are negotiating with Tehran and offering concessions implies that we are downgrading, or potentially even altogether lifting our umbrella of protection over them. Their lives are forfeit, and anyone, internal or external, that wants to kill them is now released to do so without fear of revenge. The Saudis, Bahrainis, Emiratis, and Israelis are now alone and marked with a death warrant issued by their own strong horse. Worse, we have essentially anointed Iran as the new regional power. 

The Arabs in the region are reacting uncharacteristically bluntly, sharply, and acerbically not out of pique, but out of survival. They must immediately find a new strong horse, a new patron, or they are dead. Knowing that they cannot really come to terms with Iran, their only hope is to somehow leapfrog Tehran and reach out directly to their “strong horses,” Russia and China, hoping to leverage oil power, financial gravity, and strategic concessions that make them useful for Moscow and Beijing. But until they secure such a protective status from those powers – which is unlikely since they have been so identified with American power in the region – they must first scramble, follow the American precedent, and bend their knees to Tehran as well despite the knowledge that Tehran will likely not permit their continued survival in their weakness. They have no choice but grovel or die, because to continue to hope for the U.S. is the path of certain death.

Israel is Different

Israel of course is a Western country, and such a construct is not inherent to its understanding of itself. Operating under a Western understanding of its own communities may work internally as a different political framework with its own Arabs, but it cannot work strategically in its position and relations with the region. Indeed, it is dubious that it would even work internally. Mansour Abbas and his Ra’am party did not join the current coalition government in Israel out of a kumbaya-like sense of coming to terms with the legitimacy of Zionism, but because he argued that the Jews are permanent and powerful and thus for the Arab community to secure its interests, they have to accept that the path of gain lies through accepting Israeli protection and acknowledging its power, wealth and assets. It is essentially the choice the Druze leadership have made, as did the Arab tribal leaders of the town of Abu Ghosh in 1948, which has made its a developed and popular tourist village not only for foreigners, but for Israelis. 

Israel may have an urban soul and a Western outlook, but it lives in the region and must understand that it too now is seen as a tribe marked for death by its patron. 

Perception of Israel Wobbling Between Strength and Weakness 

If Israel appears weak and concedes on an issue such as Jerusalem, Jewish history, or Jewish rights, it compromises itself and devalues what it can deliver for Druze and Arab populations – which will lead to their distancing from Israel and even reaching out to Israel’s enemies and engaging in violence. This is what happened in the Oslo process and is beginning to happen again as the Biden administration is seen as abandoning Israel, and as Israel convolutes its sense of “largesse” in the context of strength with the Arab’s sense of goodwill gestures as an expression of weakness and retreat. It is in this context that one must interpret the rising tide of Arab violence and disregard for Israeli or Jewish sensitivities not only in Jerusalem, but in the Israeli cities of Lod, Ramleh, Jaffa, Haifa, Beer Sheva and across the Negev desert; Israel is increasingly seen as orphaned by the U.S. and behaving weakly, and thus has become more questionable as a strong horse of protection.

From a regional perspective, Israel is at a crossroads. It has three paths: It can delude itself into believing it still survives under U.S. protection, which practically in the context of regional perceptions means accepting its elimination. Or it can scramble like its Arab kin to grovel in front of Russia and China. Or it can leverage its raw power to emerge as the region’s strongest tribe to become a strong horse itself. The second path will fail in violence – Israel’s fate is tied to the West inherently – leaving Israel only the choice of the first (accept death via delusion) or third (establish itself as a great regional power).

For the moment, Arab tribes have only the choice of the first or second paths. Which means they face death since, as with Israel, the second path will eventually fail – with Iran, but also because Russia and China will never truly reconcile with them and become their patrons. But if Israel chooses the third path and emerges as the strong horse, then it opens for the Arabs a path for survival with Israel as their new protective strong horse. But Israel must act to prove it is the strong horse. 

The Abraham Accords

In many ways, it was precisely the expectation that Israel will choose this third path that led the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, and possibly soon the Saudis, to make peace with Israel. Moreover, it is precisely the tribal foundations of that peace, rather than Islamic doctrine, that undergird the Abraham Accords. There was no theological revolution that led to Abu Dhabi becoming Zionist; it was the sober politics of survival and the geopolitics of protection.

But it is also a sign of the extreme dangers Israel faced in navigating its amicable relations with the United States and manage its own internal coalitional demands over the last few months. 

There were two Arab-Israeli summits in March this year. One in Sharm el-Shaykh, Egypt excluded the United States, but the second, in Sde Boker in the Israeli Negev desert, involved it. The first revolved around Arab-Israeli dynamics that were unimaginable only a few years ago not only in their warmth, but seriousness of common strategic purpose – establishing an independent regional cooperative structure that deals with Iran and global crises in unison (such as the impending grain and raw materials shortages). It was symbolized perfectly by the astonishing and heart-capturing speech by the UAE’s foreign minister, His Excellency Shaykh Abdallah bin Zayid, in which he expressed his regret for knowing so little about Israel and his determination to remedy that. That summit marked the American irrelevance resulting from its collapse as the strong horse.

The American Position

The second summit was the U.S.-Israeli-Arab regional meeting, at which America attempted to redefine the agenda and interject itself between Israelis and Arabs and reintroduce the Palestinian issue with the implied framework of Israeli concessions to the Palestinian Authority. In truth, the summit should have been an Israeli-Arab summit only, namely an escalated continuation of the Sharm a-Shaykh summit, with no Americans. Its purpose needed to be strategic planning among regional partners for a period of American absence or even hostility. 

Bringing the United States changed the summit’s dynamics and transformed that part of the summit into a catastrophe. The Biden team was empowered to reassert its primary goals of:

Trying to maintain rapidly dissipating American control over regional allies.

Sabotaging the operational cooperation emerging among regional partners to set an effective strategy of confrontation and even war against Iran.

Reasserting the primacy of America’s obsession with the Palestinian issue. The statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the summit not only captured perfectly that aim, but also humiliated the Israeli host and registered a partisan dig at the previous administration by forwarding the idea that the Abraham Accords were neither significant nor real peace, saying these “agreements are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis.”

Throwing Israel on the defensive by publicly blaming and shaming it in front of its regional partners. The Blinken- Bennett press conference preceding the summit made no mention of Palestinian terror (which had already claimed four elderly Israelis the day before), the PA’s refusal to negotiate with the Israelis directly for the previous decade, the constant incitement that led to a dangerous war last year and threatens an internal uprising of Israeli Arabs, and the persistence of the pay-to-slay policy of the PA. The focus, stated bluntly, was “curbing settlement expansion, settler violence and halting evictions of Palestinians from their homes.” U.S. behavior tarnished Israel’s image as a strong horse worthy of alliance and reduced it to groveling for American approval.

Even more disturbing was the news that Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz – who embodies the collective Israeli defense establishment and its “concept” – even tried to insert Palestinian Authority leader Muhammad Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan, who increasingly sets the purpose of Jordanian foreign policy as being the champion Palestinian Arab nationalism. His failed intervention reveals a depth of misunderstanding of regional political and geo-strategic dynamics that would be mind-numbing if it were not so horrifying.

The second summit could have been salvaged, however, had Israel rebuffed the American challenge and signaled to its Arab interlocutors that Israel was choosing to assert itself as a strong horse and regional power even in the absence of American acquiescence or approval. Had Prime Minister Bennett issued a rebuke of Secretary Blinken in public, it would have demonstrated to the Arabs in attendance that Israel was on the same page as they, and it is so strong an ally and so self-confident that it can stand on its own, even in tension with this American administration.


It is tempting to compare the faltering of the United States’ regional stature to the collapse of the British and French positions in the late 1950s and 1960s, which was indeed was catastrophic. It exposed the region to Soviet penetration and triggered a new age of indigenously-inspired radical challenges to traditional leaderships (the long-term effects of which we continue to suffer). 

And yet, even that cataclysm will pale in comparison to the current collapse of the United States’ position, as the British and French retreat six decades ago seamlessly transitioned into the parallel rise of American power, which to a large extent compensated for its negative effects. The American retreat has no global force to replace it other than our adversaries, China or Russia. Regionally, perhaps Israel can fill the void left by the United States and buffer the impending collapse of American power. Perhaps it can help our jilted allies survive, preserve some of our regional interests, check our regional adversaries and prevent our global opponents from seizing full control over the region. 

But while Israel is powerful, it is not a global superpower. It cannot replace an American administration that regains its senses and returns to lead and protect. 

David Wurmser, Ph.D., is a senior analyst and director of the Project on Global anti-Semitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship at the Center for Security Policy, and a senior fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum. He served as Middle East advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney.