Copyright 2014 David Belt
One of the things I enjoy doing is studying different cultures to see how they live and gain a better understanding of human social behaviors. Prior to the discovery of oil in 1958, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) largely consisted of a nomadic, desert dwelling culture. The precept of such a culture never really made sense to me, so on my recent visit to the UAE, I had many questions about their culture.
Why be nomadic; why not settle in one place?
How did they survive in the desert?
How has the cohesiveness of their culture remained so tight and unchanged for thousands of years?
First and foremost, a nomadic culture is not formed by choice, but by necessity. In the desert, resources are scarce and replenish infrequently. So a large group would need to move from resource to resource in order to maintain a steady flow food and goods necessary for survival. Generational nomadic cultures would learn where resources are common to exist and probable locations of future resources.
A nomadic group is dependant upon each and every member for their very survival. The bond between them is very tight and must remain so if they are to prosper. For this reason, a nomadic group must share certain ideals in order to function. Such ideals would be inherent in their personal manners, social structures, governing bodies and religious orders. Any member not adhering to these principals would have to be removed for the good of the group. In a desert nomad culture, removal from the group is a death sentence, as one could not long survive, alone.
In such a culture, words like “family,” “honor,” and “tradition” are not merely social values, but a means of survival. A nomadic group would have generations of families living together. Careful organization of families between groups becomes a necessity to foster healthy generations without inbreeding. Thus, most marriages are arranged, and brides rarely meet their husbands in advance. Trade is an essential aspect of survival as resources are limited, not only in quantity, but in variety as well. The opportunity to trade with other groups is based on the honor of the group. Thus, if even a few members are known to lack honor in anyway, the group may be shunned from trading, which could doom them all.
In modern Arabic countries, many of these cultural foundations persist. Though the people have moved from camel skin and straw huts to modern condominiums, the culture of the people remains very much intact. Generational families will still often live in a single household. Honor, once lost, can never be regained. And many laws persist to unify whole countries in social manners and religious values.
The traditions by which the people of the UAE live today were carved out of the harsh desert by their ancestors, only a few generations ago. It is difficult to imagine the conditions by which the people of the Emirates lived only 60 years ago, yet it is impressive to see a culture thrive so well.