Nomads in Jordan and Syria


The modern nation-states of Jordan and Syria encompass most of the Syrian desert (Badiyat al-Sham). Although the desert is, for the most part, unsuitable for farm agriculture, it is good pasture and has been used by Bedouin for thousands of years.

Traditionally, Bedouin divided themselves into three groups based on their main sources of subsistence. The first group was the "true" Bedouin - camel-herders - who made use of the entire desert since camels can live for long periods of time on little or no water. The second group was "small" Bedouin who raised sheep and goats primarily. These tribes migrated for shorter distances, as sheep and goats need water at least once a day. The third group was "herdsmen" who kept flocks of sheep and goats and also practiced farm agriculture.

Economically, socially, and politically, the Bedouin have always been integrated into larger, regional systems. The Bedouin share linguistic and cultural roots with the region's dominant society. Although government policies toward the Bedouin have varied greatly through history, their aim has usually been to control the Bedouin. The Bedouin's mobility, as well as their group and tribal loyalties, have always been seen as threats to the stability and security of centralized states, which have often attempted to sedentarize the Bedouin.

Historical Setting

Most of the Bedouin tribes now inhabiting the Syrian desert moved there from the Arabian peninsula during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries during a period of weak Ottoman rule. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman government began to reassert its authority and made several attempts to force some Bedouin tribes to settle permanently. However, once Ottoman troops withdrew from the settlements, the Bedouin also left. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the Ottoman governor of Damascus successfully forced the Sirhan tribe to settle near Mafraq. Ottoman authority was never fully extended over the Bedouin. World War I brought an end to Ottoman rule in the Arab world.

The modern nation-states of Jordan and Syria were created from the former Ottoman provinces of Greater Syria. The nascent Syrian state of King Faysal was abolished and a French mandate imposed after the Battle of Maysalun in 1920. Jordan was created, under a British mandate, from northern Hijaz and southern Syria. Both Britain and France wanted to control the Bedouin tribes within the borders of their mandates. The British gave a degree of independence to the ruling amir of Transjordan who sought to sedentarize the Bedouin by offering them economic incentives. Lands formerly belonging to the Ottoman sultan were given to the Bedouin, which helped cement the close relationship between the Bedouin tribes and the royal family. Tribal lands were registered in the names of the tribal shaykhs who encouraged tribesmen to settle. The desert - formerly protected by the hima Bedouin land-use system that restricted and regularized use of the desert - was opened to unlimited grazing.

The French faced stiff resistance to sedentarization in Syria. Bedouin were involved in guerrilla actions against the occupation and in the 1925 revolution. In an attempt to pacify the Bedouin tribes and maintain security, the French paid large subsidies to tribal leaders. Ethnic and religious minorities were recruited from urban areas to maintain security in the cities. The French hoped that this policy would divide the resistance and foster mistrust between Syrians. Although the tribal leaders and the urban elite occasionally worked for different goals, the policy proved unsuccessful.

Period of Independence

Both Syria and Jordan became independent following World War II, and the policies of the two states toward the Bedouin reflected their respective political situations. In Jordan the government continued to encourage sedentarization by granting individual plots of land. The amount of usable farmland in Jordan is limited and most of it was already owned by settled agriculturalists, Bedouin were settled on marginal lands or in the arid steppe where agriculture is nearly impossible. Use of the desert was uncontrolled and open to all. Pasture land in Jordan was and still is exploited by tribes based in Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, as well as by Jordanian tribes.

In Syria, the political instability of the late 1940s and early 1950s did not encourage the formulation of a coherent government Bedouin policy. Most tribal lands had been registered in the names of the shaykhs during the French period, and the shaykhs tried to settle their tribesmen. The situation in Syria changed drastically upon the 1956 union with Egypt and the 1958 land reforms. Most of the tribal shaykhs were exiled and their lands confiscated for eventual distribution to individual tribesmen. The desert was declared open for general use. The institution of this policy was followed by a severe three-year drought that killed most of the flocks in Syria and financially ruined most Bedouin. Production of all agricultural produce decreased by over sixty percent. In 1961 the union with Egypt was dissolved and the new Syrian government began to formulate plans for a revised policy of desert use.

Dr. 'Umar Draz, an Arab social scientist who conducted a study for the government, suggested the reinstitution of the traditional Bedouin land-use system, hima, in the form of tribal cooperatives. Hima ("protected") was a system in which land was preserved for designated purposes and seasons. Various types of hima lands existed, such as pastures used only for certain types of animals or during specific seasons. Individuals, villages, towns, or tribes owned hima lands. Usufruct rights were recognized through the application of customary law.

The first hima cooperative was established at Wadi al-'Azib near Horns on the site of a government extension station. Hima cooperatives were acceptable to the Bacthist government which took power in 1963. (The ideology of the Bacthist party is socialist but is inspired by the Arab past and is bent to meet local conditions.) In addition, most of the Bacth leadership is of rural origin and is genuinely concerned with the improvement of conditions in rural areas.

Hima in Syria

Hima cooperatives have been in operation in Syria since the early 1960s. Cooperatives are formed after thorough studies are conducted to determine which tribe or tribes have legal use of the land. Cooperatives are then formed from these tribes according to guidelines established by the General Union of Peasants. Each cooperative has its own executive board which acts much like the tribal majlis of the past. The boards determine the actions of individual members, act as mediators between the tribes and the government, and help with credit facilities and marketing. Each cooperative controls the use of its own lands. Individual members retain ownership of their herds and flocks, although limitations are placed on the number of animals any one member may graze on the cooperative's pastures. Numbers exceeding the government-established flock size are subject to tax by the cooperative based on the daily per head cost of feeding the animals. Flock sizes are determined by government agricultural experts according to the land's carrying capacity. The cooperatives control migrations between summer and winter grazing areas as well as pasture rotation. Migration to summer pastures in the western regions of Syria has been encouraged by both national and local officials to use fodder available in agricultural regions and allow desert pastures to rest during the dry season.

In addition to the tribal hima cooperatives, the government of Syria has established its own hima cooperatives in each province. Government cooperatives function as experiment and extension stations designed to improve range techniques, develop local plant varieties and hybrids for restocking the desert, and improve the local cAwasi breed of sheep. They serve as examples for the tribal hima cooperatives and encourage the spread of new techniques developed by agricultural experts. These cooperatives also work in coordination with international and national organizations and store fodder to be used during periods when supplemental feeds are required.

The hima cooperatives of Syria, acceptable to both the Bedouin and the nation-state, are a unique amalgam of traditional Bedouin practice and government policy. Both the Bedouin and the Syrian government appear to be dedicated to their success. The government holds annual meetings to hear the grievances and suggestions of cooperative leaders and attempts to address the issues raised. The government, however, remains concerned about the revival of tribalism. In the 1980s tribes have strengthened social and political ties within the cooperative organization. Old rivalries have led to raids on one another's hima lands. Nonetheless, the Syrian program is the most successful government Bedouin policy in the Middle East.


The situation in Jordan is different from that in Syria. The Jordanian government has encouraged private land ownership, and most Jordanian Bedouin tribes are at least partially settled. Only the tribes driven from the Negev by Israel in recent years remain totally dependent on pastoralism. Bedouin have been encouraged to cultivate in marginal areas, i.e., those with annual rainfall of less than 250 millimeters. Agriculture has been one of the major causes of erosion and desertification in Jordan. The desert has been open to free and unregulated grazing. Tribes from Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia use the northern and eastern regions for grazing, and overgrazing has adversely affected the desert's productivity. Despite these problems, the Ministry of Agriculture remains determined to organize farming cooperatives for the Bedouin.

The first Bedouin cooperative in Jordan was established in 1963 at al-Jafr - none of the tribes in the area joined; other cooperatives have been established elsewhere in Bedouin regions. Few tribesmen are attracted to any of these cooperatives because of the five-year apprenticeship imposed on all new members.

Most tribes still have some control over their lands, although their rights are not officially recognized by the national government. Tribes with powerful leaders are able to protect their tribal lands from incursions by other Bedouin and the government. In 1980 the cAmmarin and Layathna tribes fought a gunbattle over the ownership of a well, and in 1983 the Bani Hasan successfully challenged the Jordanian government's right to develop lands near Zarqa'.

Recently, the Jordanian government has become interested in implementing Bedouin hima cooperatives based on the Syrian model. In 1983 four hima cooperatives were established by the Jordan Cooperatives Organization, two near Madaba and two near Macan. The hima scheme has been in the planning since 1980 and is funded by a loan from the United Nations World Health and Food and Agricultural Organizations. The project has a good chance of success should the Jordanian government take an active interest in it. An effective base for an expanded hima cooperative also exists at Azraq near the Saudi border, but for the moment the government does not seem to be interested in the project.


Hima cooperatives such as those in Syria have brought a new impetus to pastoralism in the region. Bedouin, rather than being seen as anachronisms of a past era, are a vital part of the modern Middle East. They make productive use of the vast arid steppe and desert regions, areas that are not otherwise used for economic purposes. Over eighty percent of Jordan and over fifty percent of Syria receive less than the 250 millimeters of annual rainfall required for dry land crops such as wheat and barley. Farming is impractical in these areas which do, however, provide pasture for the Bedouins' flocks and herds. The hima system regulates the use of the desert and protects it from problems of desertification and overgrazing. Hima-based cooperatives demonstrate that nation-states and Bedouin tribes are capable of successfully working together for a mutually beneficial, common purpose.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

CSQ Issue: