Saad Hayel Srour (R), from Jordan’s northern tribal area, speaks with his supporters at his electoral headquarters in al-Mafraq city near Amman, on Jan. 19, 2013. (Muhammad Hamed/Reuters)

This post is part of the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” symposium.

In the spring of 2013, a fight between two students of different tribes at a university in southern Jordan killed four people and injured many. Tribe members on both sides reportedly supplied the students with weapons and closed the roads surrounding the area for days after the event so that they could personally punish the perpetrators.

Bystanders complained that state officials’ failure to intervene effectively escalated the conflict. Order was restored only once a pact was brokered between the sheiks of the two tribes in a process known as al-atwa.

This relatively common incident — 40 tribal fights at universities in Jordan were documented in 2013 alone — offers a window into how new forms of tribalism help to sustain political order within increasingly embattled Arab states.

The role of neo-tribalism in local-level political order reframes common theoretical perspectives on how Arab states relate to societal challengers. Despite the predictions of modernization theorists, rapid development in the region has not reduced tribes as a primary source of social identity. Instead, tribes have become an integral element of Arab regime-maintenance strategies, becoming powerful players in civil wars and insurgencies and a key part of the counterinsurgency toolbox developed in Iraq.

Tribes’ impact largely depends on the strength and institutional structure of the states in which they operate. In failing or fractured states, such as Iraq or Libya, tribalism may serious threaten the rebuilding of nations by contributing to the rapid decline of nationalism when states are collapsing. Yet studying non-failed states such as Jordan also helps to highlight the more subtle ways in which “neo-tribalism” sustains both the social power of tribes and the political stability of regimes.

The tribal conflict described above is typical of local dynamics in Jordan. In April 2014, the sheikh al-shiukh (literally, the sheik of the sheiks) of the largest tribe in Jordan, DaifAllah al-Qulab, described for me how the state court will almost always wait until the tribes have come to an agreement among themselves before sentencing a perpetrator. If money for the deceased is paid, the sentence will be significantly reduced. Such arrangements have considerable popular support. In the Governance and Local Development (GLD) Jordan 2014 survey, 29 percent of participants preferred that this sort of tribal law be employed to solve issues involving murder, and 59 percent favored a mix of tribal and civil law. Only 12 percent of participants wanted the formal court system and government officials to resolve the conflict. In other social and political realms, states in the Middle East accommodate customary law and grapple with how much autonomy tribes should be accorded.

What links the local to the national is Jordan’s distinctive conception of nationalism based upon the legitimacy of a ruling sheik of a tribe to which all other tribes in the country have sworn allegiance. In this discourse, all tribes continue to play an integral role in governance. This follows a pattern across the region, by which state-building elites took historically reliable means of social organization and cloaked them in national sovereignty and legitimacy, adapting very traditional forms of social relations to the new realities of rentier or semi-rentier states.

For much of Jordan’s population, tribes provide the main source of access to basic government services and benefits through wasta, which is akin to a personal network of connections. Wasta can mean either the middleman who obtains the favor or the act of his intercession on behalf of someone to obtain a desired outcome or good. Rather than being delegitimized as corruption, wasta serves as a social and economic lubricant in the often-tense interactions between the state and society. Through such practices, in turn, the regime reifies and reinforces tribal structures by relying on — and thus empowering — tribes to take care of their own.

When the state is strong, this strategy of governance can work quite well and can serve to buttress the power of the regime. However, when tribes take over the critical role of administering justice, tribes and states compete for claims to the legitimate use of force in the eyes of their citizens. This is one of the most significant areas in which the tribe confronts and conflicts with the nation-state. Identifying the social spheres in which traditional authority challenges formal state authority also offers an interesting and important topic for future research. Moreover, determining the extent to which tribal identity takes precedence over national identity within differing contexts could illuminate sources of inherent instability and weakness in established states in the region today that rely on tribal governing structures. Even if there is an overarching national ethos that the nation-state has concocted around the idea of shared tribal ideals, in practice, tribes and clans are customarily suspicious of and in competition with one another. For example, about 85 percent of respondents to the GLD survey in Jordan believe that one should worry about being cheated when interacting with members outside one’s own tribe.

The modern nation-state demands that there be only one centralized governing power with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Yet tribes expect to be at least partially autonomous. At their most basic level, tribes are segmented communities based on putative kinship ties. Tribalism is more than kinship, though. It is a cognitive way of looking at the world: an ideology of believing oneself to be part of a tribe, submitting to the social norms, informal rules and formal laws governing that tribe, and relating oneself to the rest of the world through the lens of that tribe. People may simultaneously belong to both a nation and a tribe, just as an American may also identify as a Latina. Tribes and nations tap into a fund of myths, symbols, values and shared memories — and different identities can be mobilized depending on context.

Tribes challenge, rather than support, nations when they become the dominant way of seeing the world for a person in a context that causes detriment to the nation. If tribalism is a government official’s primary source of identification, more of his time and effort in office is likely to be limited in scope to helping members of his kinship network with targeted benefits from the state at the expense of the nation as a whole. Analysis of constituent casework logs I collected from a variety of Jordanian lawmakers confirms that tribal favoritism in the provision of state benefits exists in many areas of the country. In the GLD survey, 75 percent of participants agreed or strongly agreed that elected officials respond more quickly to kinsmen than other citizens. This scenario is a commonly cited feature of politics in states where tribes and clans are employed as official distributors of state resources to the broader population. In this sense, tribalism is antithetical to the nation because it places the interests of kin before all others for no reason other than putative shared ancestral ties. In these circumstances, the tribe mediates the citizen’s membership in the nation-state.

The recent deterioration of states like Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya encourages consideration of whether the nations associated with these states will survive and, if so, how they will adapt to new circumstances. It is easy to see how tribes may shift from bolstering the nation-state to challenging it within the contexts of nation-state collapse. The advantage of the nation’s larger size as an imagined community is most beneficial when there is a stable political institution, such as a state, that can organize, provide for and protect all of its members. When large governing institutions are in shambles and failing in these regards, the smaller size of tribes that results from their stricter rules for membership makes it much easier for them to maintain collective unity and protection for their members. Tribes in the Middle East offer a convenient auxiliary structure for social organization in times of chaos in large part because they already have a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the people, who have long relied on them to resolve disputes, administer justice and provide goods and services. Moreover, the failure of collapsing nation-states to meet their people’s daily needs invites other ideologies and ways of organizing the world to fill the vacuum. Amid current turmoil in the Middle East, tribalism may provide an avenue for reestablishing order, but it also has the potential to exacerbate the decline of the nation, threaten its stability or hinder its reunification once the fighting stops.

Kristen Kao is a PhD candidate in political science at UCLA. Her dissertation research investigates the effect of electoral institutions on ethnic clientelism and tribal voting behavior.