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Contesting Identities in South Sinai: Development, Transformation, and the Articulation of a "Bedouin" Identity under Egyptian Rule

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Abstract and Figures

In this book, Goodman examines the emergence and articulation of Bedouin identity in the Aqaba region of South Sinai alongside patterns of economic and social change, locating the source of both within the changing landscape of South Sinai's tourist towns. Based on fieldwork centered in the town of Dahab, he provides a bottom-up view of the transformative effects of recent economic development on the Bedouin both as individuals and as a group. By combining history with social science theory, Goodman explains the unintended consequences of tourism including the rejection of Egyptian identity, socioeconomic conflict, and the persistence of economic practices often considered "traditional."
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Contesting Identities in South Sinai:
Development, Transformation, and the
Articulation of a “Bedouin” Identity
under Egyptian Rule
The Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies
seeks to contribute by research, documentation, and publication to the
study and understanding of the modern history and current affairs of the
Middle East and Africa. The Center is part of the School of History and
the Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University.
Contesting Identities
in South Sinai:
Development, Transformation,
and the Articulation
of a “Bedouin” Identity
under Egyptian Rule
Joshua R. Goodman
Tel Aviv University
The Moshe Dayan Center
for Middle Eastern and African Sudies
Copyright © 2013 The Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University
ISBN: 978-965-224-097-2
Production and cover design: Elena Lesnick, The Moshe Dayan
Printed by: Tel Aviv University Press
Table of Contents
A Personal Account ..............................................................11
Introduction .............................................................................21
Chapter 1
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai .........................................................47
Chapter 2
The Evolving Economies of the Dahab Bedouin — Emerging
Trends and Continuities .........................................................67
Chapter 3
Economic Competition and Marginalization ............................97
Chapter 4
Evolving Social Contacts and Frameworks .............................123
Chapter 5
Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Identity Transformation among
the Aqaba Bedouin .............................................................159
Conclusions ...........................................................................199
July 2011 – June 2012 .......................................................217
Bibliography ..........................................................................223
Table of Figures
Figure 1: Map of approximate tribal divisions in Sinai ............................. 30
Figure 2: Conducting an interview on film. ............................................. 42
Figure 3: Ongoing construction in Dahab .............................................. 65
Figure 4: The Dahab Corniche .............................................................66
Figure 5: Urban herds .......................................................................... 80
Figure 6: Dried, preserved fish .............................................................. 82
Figure 7: Cannibis farm in South Sinai .................................................. 86
Figure 8: Bedouin girls selling bracelets ................................................. 94
Figure 9: Bedouin ‘arisha competing with Egyptian construction. ........... 103
Figure 10: Bedouin selling handicrafts on the Dahab Corniche .............. 120
Figure 11: Cairene youths strolling in the Khan al-Khalili ...................... 132
Figure 12: New forms of Bedouin dress ............................................... 141
Figure 13: Two photos of ‘Asala Center .............................................. 148
Figures 14 and 15: Wealthy and poor Bedouin homes in ‘Asala ............150
Figure 16: Graffiti on a wall in a Bedouin neighborhood ....................... 210
Figure 17: Graffiti in ‘Asala declaring “No to the Goverment.” .............. 221
First and foremost, I would like to recognize and thank Eli Sperling,
my close friend, colleague, and research partner. Without him, it is
very likely this project, born from our collaboration, would never
have happened. I would also like to thank him for his continuing
availability for questions, comments, and continuing debate, as
well as his support. Next, I would like to thank Daniel Cherrin, our
documentarian, for his patience, commitment, and hard work during
the course of this project. Special thanks go to him for documenting
and archiving our primary research, providing a number of photos
that appear throughout this work, as well as facilitating our close
relationship with our subjects.
I would like to recognize my thesis advisors, the late Professor
Joseph Kostiner, and Dr. Yoav Alon, both of Tel Aviv University’s
Department of Middle Eastern and African History, for their continuing
support and advice throughout the course of our research and writing.
Without their close help, this project would not have been conceived,
approved, or successfully executed. In a similar vein, thanks go out
to Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and
African Studies for its support in bringing this study to publication.
In addition to my departmental advisors, I would like to extend
my appreciation and thanks to Professor Emanuel Marx of Tel Aviv
University’s Social Sciences Department, who is not only one of the
foremost researchers of the Sinai Bedouin, largely paving the way
for my own work, but who also consistently made himself available
to answer any questions and provide valuable feedback based on his
experiences as well as his area of expertise, anthropology. He was
also kind enough to provide us with some of his own contacts in Sinai
and took valuable time out of his schedule to review a number of
chapters. Additionally, I would like to thank Professor Efrat Ben-Ze’ev
of Hebrew University’s Truman Institute for the Advancement of
Peace, for also agreeing to act as an advisor in an unofficial capacity,
especially in relation to issues of anthropology and field research.
This project is the product of my time at not one but two
institutions, and I must extend my deepest thanks to Yale University
and the MacMillan Center’s Council on Middle Eastern Studies,
Sociologists Jonathan Wyrtzen and Jeffery C. Alexander, and the
participants of the Middle East Social Sciences workshop for their
comments. Special thanks are due to Ellen Lust, my advisor in the
Political Science Department, for her close assistance and comments
on the final manuscript. I would also like to extend my gratitude to
James C. Scott, whose ideas echo throughout this work. His unique
perspective on agrarian societies and their interaction with states
provided a fascinating looking glass for my work with pastoral groups.
Thanks also to William G. Nomikos, a colleague and fellow graduate
student in the Political Science department. I must also thank the
MacMillan Center for providing a finishing grant for the project,
providing me an unexpected opportunity to return to the field in the
summer of 2012 while I was making my final revisions.
Another important individual to acknowledge is Professor Lila Abu
Lughod of Columbia University, whose work Veiled Sentiments on
identity and the Western Egyptian Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin was a primary
source of inspiration behind this study. Also deserving of recognition
in this regard is Thomas Eriksen, whose anthropological examination
of ethnicity provided valuable insights and direction in my own
examination of Bedouin identity.
On a more personal note, I must express my deep appreciation
to my family and advisors who encouraged me to take the risk and
plunge head first into the experience that was picking up my life and
moving it to another country. They would readily acknowledge that
this was a trying moment in my life, but they gave me the unequivocal
support I needed to make the step into that unknown. To my parents,
who never once questioned my decision and encouraged me to follow
my passions, thank you for your support and encouragement. I must
also recognize and thank two professors at Emory, Benjamin Hary
and Kenneth Stein, who both helped me to understand the decision I
was about to make and the opportunities it would present me. Their
support gave me the confidence I needed to succeed abroad, and
while they have not been my official advisors for many years, I will
never forget the impact they had on me as I transitioned to life in the
Middle East.
My warmest thanks and deepest appreciation go to the Bedouin
of Aqaba, the Egyptian migrants, and all the others who formed the
basis for the research presented in this paper. To all the inhabitants
of Dahab, I dedicate this work to your uneasy coexistence and your
attempts to make the best of a difficult situation. Furthermore, a
special and eternal thanks to the members of the Mzeina and Jabaliyya
tribes who welcomed us into their lives, homes, and families, who
showed us nothing but warmth and kindness, whose cooperation was
invaluable to this study, and whose friendship will remain with me for
the rest of my days.
Finally, I want to dedicate this work to the memory of Joseph
Kostiner, who passed away shortly after the completion of the first
version of this study and my departure from Tel Aviv. His guidance
and support were instrumental both to this project as well as my early
encounter with academia. He was the closest thing I had to family
during my time at Tel Aviv University. While we did not always agree,
he was a source of unequivocal support and encouraged me to stand
by my claims and pushed me to develop more convincing arguments.
I can undoubtedly say this project would not have succeeded without
his personal support. He was a source not only of guidance, but of
inspiration, and he will be missed dearly.
Preface: A Personal Account
My story begins late one evening in the winter of 2008 when I was
sitting on the beach in Dahab with a young Bedouin shop-owner and
my close friend and classmate, Eli Sperling. Eli and I had come to
Dahab in search of a break from the bustle of life in Tel Aviv, where
we were both pursuing a masters degree in Middle Eastern History.
While the purpose of our trip was purely relaxation, it was typical of
us to wander off of the beaten path and perhaps stumble into a scene
that a run-of-the-mill tourist might not. After looking into a random
shop and being invited to share a shisha with the Bedouin who
ran it, we found ourselves having a heart to heart with a complete
stranger by the beach. The first thing that struck me was the level
of openness he was willing to show us as he began to rant about
his dissatisfaction with Egypt and the Egyptian “farmers” (fellahin),
as he pejoratively referred to residents of the Nile Valley. “Fucking
Egyptians,” he practically spat, “I hate those Egyptian farmers.” Wait,
I thought to myself, were we not sitting on an Egyptian beach? Wasn’t
this Bedouin also Egyptian?
As he launched into a tirade about the feminine qualities of the
“Egyptian man,” my thoughts wandered to Lila Abu Lughod’s work
on the Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin of the Western Egyptian Desert, and the
almost identical way in which she described their dim perceptions
of Egyptian society.1 As I listened along with Eli, we both began
considering the words of our companion and how his expressions
related to the anthropological concepts we were studying in our
Middle Eastern tribalism seminar in Tel Aviv. As though a light had
been turned on in the attic, we realized that our academic experience
allowed us to place this episode in a greater sociological context.
There was a deeper, more significant meaning behind this seemingly
random display of hostility and bravado, perhaps applicable to a much
wider Bedouin culture. This, I felt, was a significant discovery.
Rewind a year and a half, back to my first visit to Dahab in the
summer of 2007, shortly after my graduation from Emory University,
1. Lila Abu Lughod, Veiled Sentiments: Honor and Poetry in a Bedouin
Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
where I had received by bachelor’s degree, and my arrival in Tel
Aviv. While I had visited Israel on many occasions, this was my first
time in Egypt, in fact my first time in the Middle East outside of the
predominantly Western-oriented State of Israel. I had been eager to
see something of the “real” Middle East: a convoy of camels carrying
goods across the desert, a fireside evening at a Bedouin camp singing
ancient songs about the “good old days,” really anything that made
me feel like I was actually in the Middle East, a region that, as an
American Jew, had been a personal obsession for as long as I could
remember. Looking back, I will admit, my views of the region were
perhaps overly romanticized and I undoubtedly set myself up for
disappointment. Indeed, upon our arrival in Dahab, I was struck by how
phony the presentation of “Bedouin culture” to tourists appeared to
me, how much its manifestation reminded me of tourist reproductions
of Bedouin culture in Israel. That is not to say that there were no
camel convoys or singing by the campfire, but it still felt artificial.
Due to a certain, albeit limited, understanding of the social history
of the Middle East, it was quite apparent to me then that the tourists
were getting duped, and there was very little in Dahab that constituted
anything resembling “traditional” Bedouin culture of the past in my
limited understanding of the subject. I feared that the presence of
the town and the tourists had caused the Bedouin and their cultural
heritage to disappear, replaced by a manufactured cultural experience
presented as authentic in order to give scuba divers and windsurfers
an “exotic” atmosphere meant to enhance their vacations.
But for the longest time, I had great difficulty explaining exactly
why I felt this way. I knew that something seemed phony to me, but
should this come as such a shock in a space devoted to tourism? It
wasn’t until my arrival at Yale, when during a course on Imperialism
in the Middle East I read Timothy Mitchell’s post-Structuralist account
of British imperialism in Egypt, Colonising Egypt, that it hit me. The
key was in Mitchell’s narrative of European visitors’ first experiences
in the chaotic disorganization of Egyptian cities after their exposure to
sanitized reproductions back home:
They were confused, of course, but perhaps the key to their
confusion was this: although they thought of themselves as
moving from the pictures to the real thing, they went on trying…
A Personal Account
to grasp the real thing as a picture. How could they otherwise,
since they took reality itself to be a picture?...Brought up in
what they thought of as a representational world, they took
representation to be a universal condition.2
The problem for these visitors was that they had arrived in Egypt
expecting to find something distinctly familiar, connecting their
experience in the real world to the “world-as-exhibition” they had
experienced back home. I realized my problem had been exactly the
opposite; my disappointment stemmed from the fact that Dahab’s
Bedouin experience did appear to me as “world-as-exhibition,” when
I was distinctly looking for something “authentic” that transcended the
superficiality that I experienced in Orientalized Western perceptions
of the Bedouin. My disappointment, ironically, stemmed from the
unexpected situation in which Dahab met all of my expectations.
But the irony was that while my expectations for the Bedouin were
quite different than most visitors to Dahab, I, too, was guilty of the
same essentialization that had been the source of my disappointment.
Looking back, this was a vitally important experience, as it helped
me understand how the tourists’ expectations and limited knowledge
created demand for certain activities, helping to shape the type of
tourism the Bedouin offered, which in turn shaped the way in which
their culture was articulated.
Returning to that beachside evening conversation: it was then
that I realized that Bedouin culture had not disappeared in Sinai, but
lingered in both altered forms as well as symbolic forms, reflecting
simultaneously an acceptance of development and transformation as
well as an attempt to maintain tradition. Our excitement was palpable.
Eli and I decided to pursue this subject and immerse ourselves in the
Bedouins’ contemporary environment in an attempt to understand
how the Bedouin have changed and what their present condition was.
This was the beginning of our collaboration.
Our new friend invited us back to his home where we shared
tea with his family. From there we were introduced to his cousins
and friends who lived in Dahab. Quickly they came to know us,
2. Timothy Mitchell, Colonising Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1988), p. 22.
and before long we were seldom able to walk through the streets of
Dahab without being recognized and greeted. Over the course of the
next three years, our relationship with the young Bedouin (in their
teens and twenties) deepened and we came to know the community
through their eyes. This group included our friend the shopkeeper,
his older sister, divorced by the time she was 23, his mother the land
activist, his younger brothers and sisters (full and half-siblings), and
their many cousins and friends who formed the core of their social
group in Dahab. We met Bedouin shopkeepers and drivers, tour
guides, windsurfing and scuba instructors, local drug dealers, hotel
owners, community organizers, and school children, Bedouin with
an incredibly wide array of occupations and responsibilities. Each
had a story to tell, with similar origins but widely different hopes and
goals. With all of these individuals guiding us through the developing
landscape of Dahab, we came to perceive the town (both physically
and symbolically) in a way that we never could have imagined. Instead
of understanding Dahab only as a beachside tourist paradise, we came
to understand it as an economic and social conflict zone in its own
unique way.
Our greatest source of information came from the younger
Bedouin, both because of the nature of our encounter as well as the
linguistic skills that the members of this generation possessed. Despite
our limited Arabic, we found communication to be practically effortless
as our English-speaking Bedouin friends would act as translators when
needed. This group of Bedouin mediated our encounter with the
society of Sinai, and in this way, the research we gathered was most
influenced by this young generation of unmarried Bedouin who grew
up almost exclusively in an urban setting under Egyptian rule.3 The
3. While many people would not recognize a town as small as Dahab to
constitute something truly “urban,” the social and economic distinction
between urban (town) and rural (village) is vital to this study. The town of
Dahab is an important manifestation of early urbanization, and contrasts
between Dahab, loosely conceived as a type of metropole, and the
surrounding villages will be continually invoked. The distinction between
town and village is not based on size, but rather on the fundamentals of
A Personal Account
very nature of our field encounter focused our research in a far more
significant way than the types of questions we asked.
It soon became apparent that the relationships that we forged with
the Bedouin had a significant impact on the direction of our research
agenda. As Lila Abu Lughod explains in the introduction to Veiled
Sentiments, “To ignore the encounter [between researcher and
subject] not only denies the power of factors such as personality, social
location in the community, intimacy of contact and luck to shape
fieldwork and its product, but also perpetuates the conventional fictions
of objectivity and omniscience that mark the ethnographic genre.”4
A fair account of the field research preserves the transparency and
integrity of the research. It does not benefit the writer to underplay
the personal connection that inevitably results from the ethnographic
experience. On the contrary, by acknowledging and embracing the
inevitable, we might come to a better understanding of the impact of
the research on the final work, increasing the accessibility and value
of the research itself. Throughout this book, a number of personal
accounts are given. I attempt to present as personal a picture of the
event as possible while maintaining my focus on the issue at hand for
the very purpose of providing a transparent account of the research
Our first important discovery was that as much as we were
interested in learning about the Bedouin’s culture, they were equally
fascinated with ours, listening to our tales from home with an intense
curiosity. This was not limited to stories, however, and our Bedouin
friends viewed our return trips with excitement as we would bring
much promised photographs and souvenirs along with our tales. The
Bedouin, trapped in Egypt because of restrictions against their travel
out of the country, are gripped with a perpetual wanderlust that our
tales of New York, Paris, and Tel Aviv could only partially sate. For
them, we were a window to the outside world.
It was no small shock for me to discover the strong similarities
between myself and my Bedouin friends, especially when I was
expecting to be confronted by a very foreign, even unrecognizable
culture. But as I listened to the Bedouin speak about their lives, I heard
4. Abu Lughod, Veiled Sentiments, p. 10.
echoes of my own thoughts, ranging from anxiety about their future
success to their attitudes about women, sexuality, and marriage, and
even their growing interest in music and sports. It was impossible not
to view them as part of a global youth that, in my late 20s at the
time of this publication, I am equally a part of. This connection was
facilitated by the openness that we were shown, the extent to which
the Bedouin were able to understand us from their daily interactions
with tourists, as well as the ease with which we were able to understand
their lives, which were not so starkly different from our own. While the
circumstances of their lives were certainly quite different, it was easy
to understand their worries about securing a good job and starting
a family, and whether they would be able to support themselves in
the future. Instead of focusing on the issues that were unfamiliar to
us, we spent much of our time discussing what we had in common,
deepening the bond that formed between us.
Further blurring the lines between the field and our lives back
in Tel Aviv and beyond has been our ability to maintain contact
with our friends from Dahab, through social media and internet
communications such as Skype. Many of our friends have Facebook
accounts that they access almost daily, allowing us to keep in contact
when we are not in Dahab. They have the ability to follow our lives
over the internet, and we often have the opportunity to speak and
catch up, despite being as many as 5,000 miles away. These Bedouin
were not just research subjects, they were, and still are, close friends;
people who opened my eyes to new but familiar realities and gave me
the opportunity to leave Tel Aviv with a sense of accomplishment and
a greater understanding of the world around me.
My greatest regret is that I cannot be more specific when
discussing them. I cannot tell their individual stories or even write
their names. While we all agreed that it was important to produce a
narrative highlighting the sociopolitical trauma of the Egyptian state’s
development scheme and dismantling the idea that the benefits rain
down evenly on all Egyptians, there is no question that challenging
the regime’s sociopolitical hegemony entails a certain level of risk. But
first and foremost, I believe my responsibility is to my friends, and the
following work is an attempt to shed light on their situation.It should
be fairly clear that this type of subaltern or “bottom-up” analysis
A Personal Account
clashes quite strikingly with the “top-down” narratives perpetuated by
state authorities.
Perhaps the most important factors pushing me to focus on the
particular question of identity contestation were the politics that
were unfolding around me during my time in Sinai. While Sinai has
received increasing, and increasingly negative, attention in the media
after the fall of the Mubarak regime in February 2011,the peninsula
has long been considered a hotbed of instability. Narcotics smuggling,
human trafficking, and terrorism are just a few of Sinai’s endemic
problems that have been blamed on the Bedouin. True, Bedouin have
been involved in all of these activities. The problem, which is itself
a core issue treated in this book, is that the activities of a select few
have been generalized as a cultural characteristic afflicting everyone
who considers themselves Bedouin. This is simply not true, and
the underlying circumstances that produce these types of behaviors
have little to do with internal aspects of Bedouin culture. Instead, I
discovered that regional and national factors, as well as basic market
pressures such as supply and demand, pushed certain groups of
Bedouin into certain illicit activities.
The primary distinction to be made among the Sinai Bedouin in
this regard is sub-regional; the social geography of North and South
Sinai are distinct. This has nothing to do with systematic differences in
the nature of the tribes inhabiting each region, but rather the policies
adopted by the Egyptian state and the nature of the Arab-Israeli
conflict. North Sinai, especially the areas bordering Israel and Gaza,
has become rife with the smuggling of weapons and narcotics as well
as of women and refugees across the border, due to the incredibly
high level of demand for these goods and the risk associated with
transport across a national border. Official embargoes on such goods
prevent legal organization of these activities, but the promise of high
profits for those willing to take the risk have pushed some North
Sinai Bedouin to participate, utilizing tightly bound social networks
to facilitate such activities. Their willingness to participate in the black
economy is increased by their marginalization from the legal economy.
Egyptian policies have failed to provide the Bedouin sufficient
economic opportunities in the transforming agricultural and industrial
economy of the North. In the South, production and smuggling of
narcotics is widespread, due not to transnational smuggling pressures,
but to local demand fuelled by the tourist market. The smuggling of
weapons, women, and refugees is entirely absent. Trade routes for
these goods and migrants do not transit the South, and furthermore,
such activities are potentially disruptive to tourism, the primary source
of Bedouin income. The relatively more open access that South Sinai
Bedouin have to the developing economy has led to significantly
different attitudes about the worth of certain types of illicit activities,
as well as economically disruptive violence in general.
The other major issue facing Sinai Bedouin is terrorism. In the
opening decade of the 21st century, South Sinai was targeted three
times by terrorism. In October 2004, the Taba Hilton was attacked
with a car-bomb; in July 2005, a number of explosions rocked
Sharm el-Sheikh, and in April 2006, three bombs exploded in Dahab
itself, leading to multiple deaths and injuries, among both Egyptian
and foreign tourists. In all of these cases, authorities confirmed
Bedouin participation and cracked down on Bedouin throughout
Sinai. However, in targeting Southern Bedouin for early arrests, the
authorities made a serious mistake. While opposition to the Egyptian
state is widespread in Sinai, violent manifestations are generally a
product of circumstances unique to North Sinai, where opposition
ideologies and greater instability have combined to generate violence
on a scale unseen in the South outside of these bombings. In the
South, on the other hand, the political and economic consequences
of terrorism are so devastating that there is absolutely no support for
it among Bedouin in the tourist areas of South Sinai.
Authorities later discovered and acknowledged that the Bedouin
perpetrators were from Northern tribes, just as the economic logic
would suggest.5 Northern tribes resent both the state and Southern
tribes, and the attacks against tourist resorts were as much an outburst
against the latter for their “privileged” economic position as they were
against foreigners or the state. These bombings devastated the tourist
economy in South Sinai, in turn causing severe economic hardship
among Southern tribes involved in tourism. Instead of understanding
that the Southern Bedouin were as much victims of these attacks as
5. Roee Nahmias, “Dahab Bombers Were Sinai Bedouins,” Yediot Ahronot
Online, April 26, 2006.
A Personal Account
were the tourists, the Egyptian state undertook efforts to “shield”
tourist centers from Bedouin living nearby. While Southern Bedouin
were entirely innocent of these crimes, they fell victim to the tendency
to assign cultural blame to groups instead of specific blame to
individuals. They were dangerous and subversive simply because they
were “Bedouin”; the actions of a few led to a generalized stereotype
afflicting the entire group.
The Egyptian state made no efforts to prevent the emergence of
such patently false and damaging stereotypes. If anything, their actions
served to reinforce them. The question is why. I believe there are two
answers. First, we all have a tendency to characterize by culture and
judge entire groups based on the actions of some of their members.
Second, it seems intuitive that the Egyptian state would show little
inclination to acknowledge the effects their own policies have played
in the Northern Bedouins’ turn to violent opposition. The state, by
virtue of its existence as the state, rarely accepts responsibility for the
negative effects of its policies. Instead, it seeks to blame others for
reasons that may be entirely spurious, while attempting to guard the
legitimacy of its actions.
Finally, on this note, I would like to insert a bit of a disclaimer
about some of the analytical decisions I have made throughout this
book. Language is a tricky thing when applied normatively. That is
to say, similar actions may be categorized differently depending on
the ideological proclivities of the speaker as well as the identities of
the actor and recipient of such action; people cannot seem to detach
language from the “good” and “bad” connotations that many words
carry. The maxim “One person’s terrorist is another’s freedom
fighter” speaks volumes about the emotional connotations words carry
and the strength of the responses they provoke. It is my strong belief
that similar actions or attributes should carry similar labels, and when
I select a term, I have done so because of the analytical definition
I have attached to it. Thus, when I describe Egyptian state actions
as “neo-colonial,” this is not an accusation nor is it an attempt to
delegitimize the state. Instead, it is the recognition that the actions
of the Egyptian state (or any other state, for that matter) towards its
national periphery is strikingly similar to the manner in which imperial
centers acted towards their imperial peripheries.Joel Migdal presents
an identical conclusion: “Indigenously ruled regimes… often ended up
employing much the same set of policies as the Western powers did
in colonial territories.”6 Similarly, when I describe Bedouin identity as
“ethnic,” I am not making a political argument but an analytical one,
based on a well-established scholarly literature, albeit an argument
that is still somewhat contested. I hope that readers will withhold
their judgments regarding the legitimacy of such labels until after the
evidence has been presented. Legitimacy should come a posteriori,
not from the normative or emotional response to linguistic markers
used to describe events and actions.
6. Joel S. Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society
Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 56.
Tourism development and an increasing state presence along the
Aqaba Coast of the Sinai Peninsula have motivated a number of
transformations among the local Bedouin population. Most notable of
these changes relate to patterns of social and economic organization
as the Bedouin increasingly settle in towns, pursue economic
opportunities provided by Egyptian development, and come into
increasing contact with foreigners in their daily interactions. While
Egyptian development programs have encouraged many Bedouin to
settle in towns such as Dahab and Nuwayba, they appear to be failing
to incorporate the Bedouin into the social fabric of the Egyptian nation.
This study focuses on the relationship between Egyptian development,
socioeconomic change, and the transformation of Bedouin identity
in the Aqaba Coast region of the Sinai Peninsula in the period
since Egypt reoccupied Sinai between 1979 and 1982 (henceforth
“the neo-Egyptian period”). This period has been characterized by
rapid development and attempts at national integration. Egyptian
state-building has instigated an accelerating process of acculturation
among the Bedouin that reflects the major transformations in
their sociopolitical environment. Absent, however, is exchange of
“traditional” identities for “modern, national” identities as envisioned
by Egyptian authorities. Instead, the Bedouin have retained a strong
sense of their heritage and tradition despite the significant social
transformations they have already experienced. They have developed
a unique sense of cultural distinctiveness and articulate their identity in
direct opposition to an “Egyptian” identity.
The Bedouin living in Sinai’s Aqaba (Southeast) region have
reacted to the increasing presence of both state authorities and
unskilled migrant workers from the Nile Valley with hostility, leading
to the emergence of a social boundary between the Aqaba Bedouin
and the Egyptians who constitute the pool of laborers and authority
figures in Sinai. What is surprising, however, is that this boundary
is strengthening even as empirically identifiable cultural differences
between the two groups appear to be in decline. Furthermore,
and far more interesting, the intensity of this process appears to
be tied directly to the intensity and pace of Egyptian development.
Simultaneously, the Bedouin are forming closer relationships with
foreign visitors and tourists, despite the often significant differences
in their social conventions. These relationships constitute a primary
source of cultural transformation for the Bedouin, and in Dahab many
Bedouin are actively adopting and communicating elements of tourist
culture as their own.
How, then, are the Bedouin maintaining their identity and
heritage in the face of rapid social transformation, and what role, if
any, has the Egyptian government and its policies played in fueling
this process? While the connection between state development and
Bedouin socioeconomic transformation is quite clear, the link between
these processes and Bedouin identity is far less apparent. In order to
more effectively anticipate the sociopolitical outcomes of this type of
development and the resultant relationships formed by different sectors
of Egyptian society, it is important to ascertain the actual effects of
development on processes of integration and identity formation.
The social distance between the Egyptian and Bedouin
communities, reflected by the economic marginalization of the
Bedouin and their self-segregating tendencies, has led to the
reinforcement of the boundary between Bedouin and Egyptian
social categories. This situation has largely been motivated by the
Egyptian authorities’ inaccurate assumptions about Bedouin society
and the social effects of economic development, both of which were
fundamentally challenged by the unanticipated Bedouin reaction to
Egyptian development strategies. This study contends that Bedouin
identity in the Aqaba region of South Sinai, far from disappearing
in the face of new lifestyles, is actually strengthening in reaction to
Egyptian encroachment and development despite processes of social
homogenization caused by integrative development. The structural
integration of the Bedouin into the Egyptian state is not increasing a
sense of “national solidarity” among the Bedouin. On the contrary,
they communicate both a feeling of marginalization by Egyptian
authorities and a lack of national pride and belonging. Instead of
folding the Bedouin into the existing “Egyptian nation,” increasing
contact and transformation is fuelling a conflict between two groups
that see themselves as socially distinct.
Simultaneously, the Bedouin are clearly recognizing a number of
benefits that tourism development has brought to them, acknowledging
the rise in living standards even while lamenting the marginalization
due to perceived discriminatory policies of the Egyptian government.
This suggests that the Bedouin are not opposed to development, but
to the manner in which the Egyptian government is pursuing it.
Due to the economic and political importance placed on the
peninsula in the latter half of the 20th century, Sinai of the past 60
years has been marked by increasing levels of foreign penetration,
whether from Cairo, Jerusalem, or more recently, the “Lonely
Planet.” As scholars most often focus on the political and “big picture”
consequences of this type of penetration, competition, and conflict,
the micro-level social consequences have been given relatively little
attention and warrant closer study. This has been especially true of
the 30 years since Sinai was reoccupied by Egypt and Israeli social
scientists largely ended their research there. However, it is undeniable
that this perpetual instability, marked by frequently shifting regimes,
the intrigues of interested powers, and the recent arrival of tourism on
a global scale has ensured that change has been a constant feature in
the lives of Sinai’s inhabitants. While some of these changes have been
purely political and rather superficial, others have caused significant
dislocations in the socioeconomic patterns of everyday life.
The Bedouin, once caught between competing powers, an
environment of scarcity, and a territory marked by limited centralized
political control, are now faced with a new reality. The Egyptian
government, which regained Sinai from Israeli occupation per the
1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, has discarded its previous plan
for Sinai as military buffer to Israel and instead continued the Israeli
strategy of economic development, especially in the tourism sector.
This development has led to the emergence of urban spaces across
Sinai, sites that have supported emerging markets to create local
jobs and attract migrants from the Nile Valley searching for work in a
stagnating national economy. These towns have given the Egyptian
government a foothold in Sinai, allowing the state to bring a measure
of regulation to the peninsula; they have also created a destination for
an expanding foreign population of tourists and ex-pats, mostly from
Europe and America, who have become a common feature in the
transforming socioeconomic landscape of South Sinai.
A large majority of the indigenous inhabitants of Sinai are
Bedouin, who are often assumed to be disconnected from the realities
of contemporary political life and are usually viewed as traditional
and isolated. On the contrary, it is inevitable that the lives of those
inhabiting Sinai would be dramatically affected by wars, invasions,
peace negotiations, phased withdrawals, urban development, and the
growth of tourism, and not only politically. Economically, these events
have the power to shape markets, and socially, the arrival of new
visitors carrying differing forms of culture has fundamentally altered
the Bedouins’ social space.
The native Bedouin have not ignored the Egyptian-directed
development process; indeed they could not even if they wanted to. On
the most superficial level, significant changes to the economic situation
of Sinai, with the emergence of local markets and a flourishing tourist
economy, have encouraged new types of economic engagement,
while an increasing government presence has limited the ability to
continue a number of traditional activities such as herding and fishing.
Furthermore, with the rapid expansion of available technologies and
increasing contact with Egyptian authority figures, migrants, and
tourists, the Bedouin have been exposed to new forms of culture
that have led them to reconsider their place in society. A notable
consequence is that they have begun to conceive of themselves as
imbedded in a much larger social environment on both a national and
global scale. This has recently become a much greater concern to the
Bedouin, leading to significant changes in cultural conceptions and
Analytical Frameworks
A major focus of this study is political identity. A question immediately
arises as to the best way to conceive of Bedouin identity. Is the
lens of tribalism still the best way to understand socioeconomic and
political transformation among the Bedouin? The answer to this
question is an unequivocal no, for the continuing tendency to study
the Bedouin through the lens of “tribalism” does a double disservice.
First, it perpetuates the fiction that there is some fundamental cultural
difference between tribal and non-tribal societies instead of conceiving
“tribalism” through an organizational idiom. Second, it eliminates
any intersubjectivity with non-tribal populations, complicating any
attempt to apply the study of contemporary political processes to the
Instead, I propose to utilize a significantly different type of identity
theory to examine the identity politics of the Aqaba Bedouin, that
of “ethnicity.” While the term itself carries a number of political
connotations, my decision to adopt this category is entirely analytical,
defined as “a form of interaction between culture groups operating
within common social [and political] contexts.”7 While this definition
may be unfamiliar to some, who instead perceive ethnicity to be similar
to ideas of race, there is a rich literature on the politics of identities
in interaction, to which scholars, notably social anthropologists, have
attached the label “ethnic.” In this way, I draw an analytical distinction
between tribalism, which aims to regulate relations within Bedouin
society, and ethnicity, which operates between the Bedouin and other
social groups. Tribalism is internally regulating; ethnicity is externally
regulating. At its most parsimonious, ethnicity is defined as a form of
social organization based on an idiom of cultural descent.8
This political interaction of distinct social groups within national
contexts is precisely the focus of this book, and I have found that this
concept of ethnicity has provided high leverage for the analysis of
questions of Bedouin identity in a socially heterogeneous setting such
as Dahab.9 “Ethnicity” in this sense, focuses on issues of sociopolitical
7. Abner Cohen, “Introduction: The Lessons of Ethnicity,” in Abner Cohen
(ed.), Urban Ethnicity (London: Tavistock, 1974), p. xi.
8. Note that this definition implies that traits such as skin color and language
are not the sources of ethnic difference in and of themselves, but
instead are signaling devices for different culture groups, whether real or
imagined. See Donald L. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1985), p. 55. Horowitz states, “Ethnic
groups can be placed at various points along the birth-choice continuum.
But there is always a significant element of descent.”
9. J. Clyde Mitchell, “Perceptions of Ethnicity and Ethnic Behavior: An
Empirical Explanation,” in Urban Ethnicity (ed.), Abner Cohen (London:
Tavistock, 1974), pp. 27–28. When reading anthropology that dates
back to the 50s and 60s, as much of Mitchell’s work does, care must
competition and provides a strong approximation of national identities
and those that develop in reaction to nationalism and nation-building.
In all of these ways, the type of identity that is the focus of this study
reflects many ethnic elements, and ethnicity theory, especially as it is
articulated among social anthropologists, provides a compelling logic
explaining the patterns of transformation and articulation of Bedouin
identity in the urban centers of South Sinai.
While the application of an “ethnic” framework is admittedly quite
rare in the study of the Bedouin, its importance to Middle Eastern
sociopolitical organization has not gone unrecognized. As early as
1984, Itamar Rabinovich and Milton Esman hypothesized that a
greater willingness to explore such theories of ethnicity and issues of
ethnic pluralism in Middle East societies could significantly aid in the
explanation of patterns of conflict that dominate many structurally
weak Middle East states, but noted that ethnicity has not often been
used as a basis for analysis.10 Despite this hesitancy, they identified the
sectarian conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as the Sunni-Shi‘i rift
in the Gulf and the Muslim-Christian divide in Egypt all as phenomena
that can be studied in an ethnic framework. This contention is accurate
even though the dichotomies themselves may be religious. This has to
do with the field in which identities are deployed. Whether religious or
racial, in contemporary national interactions, all cultural identities are
“ethnic” in this way.
Philip Khoury and Joseph Kostiner make a related claim in their
edited volume Tribes and State Formation in the Middle East, in
their discussion of the developing relationship between tribesmen
and polities. They argue that in conflicts between the state and tribes,
ethnicity is a vehicle that tribesmen, like other social groups, might
adopt in order to oppose government attempts to increase state
be taken to distinguish between the use of the terms ethnicity and
tribalism. However observers will notice that these terms often reflect the
perceptions of “modern” versus “traditional” societies and are thus quite
10. Itamar Rabinovich and Milton Esman, “Introduction,” in Itamar Rabinovich
and Milton Esman (eds.), Ethnicity, Pluralism, and the State in the
Middle East (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1988).
control over them.11 This statement in their introduction forms the
basis for this study, which seeks to examine social change and identity
formation in the framework of ethnic organization. The focus shall
be on examining the transformations in the social and economic
forms of organization among the Bedouin and how this relates to
the evolution in the articulation of their identity in an increasingly
“national” context.
Bassam Tibi, in his chapter in Tribes and State Formation,
supports a qualified view of Rabinovich and Essman’s hypothesis
by reconciling it with Khoury and Kostiner’s, drawing important
distinctions between tribalism and ethnicity. He shows that ethnicity
as a theoretical framework for studying tribe-state interactions
assumes importance due to the centrality of ethnic organization to the
modern nation-state (see below). Tibi distinguishes between tribes and
ethnicity in that ethnies are “sub-national divisions in the communities
of the modern nation-states of the Middle East,” while tribalism is
fundamentally non-national.12 He continues by asserting that ethnicity
presupposes the possibility of further tribal division, using the example
of the Alawites in Syria, showing how, despite their Arab heritage
and their tribally-divided society, they should be considered an ethnic
category in Syrian contexts due to the articulation of their Alawite
identity in ethnic terms.13 This is equally applicable to the Amazigh or
Berber tribes of some North African states, notably Morocco, Algeria,
and Libya, who have begun to mobilize politically, not along tribal
lines but along ethno-cultural lines.14
11. Philip S. Khoury and Joseph Kostiner, “Introduction: Tribe and the
Complexities of State Formation in the Middle East,” in Philip S. Khoury
and Joseph Kostiner (eds.), Tribes and State Formation in the Middle
East (London: IB Tauris, 1991), p. 3.
12. Bassam Tibi, “The Simultaneity of the Unsimultaneous: Old Tribes and
Imposed Nation-states in the Modern Middle East,” in Philip S. Khoury
and Joseph Kostiner (eds.), Tribes and State Formation in the Middle
East (London: IB Tauris, 1991), p. 139.
13. Ibid., p. 138.
14. See Jonathan Wyrtzen, “Colonial State Building and the Negotiation
of Arab and Berber Identity in Protectorate Morocco,” International
Journal of Middle East Studies 43 (2011). Wyrtzen demonstrates how
The state is the primary factor in ethnic identity formation in two
major ways. First, as a territory with established boundaries, it sets
the scope for national sociopolitical interactions, defining the arena or
political field in which ethnic identity is shaped and deployed. Second,
it is a vehicle for the distribution of resources and the pursuit of group
interests, which are manifested in state policies. In the words of
Barkey and Parikh, “it has already become evident that state policies
constituted one of the major determinants of mobilization and shifting
identity patterns.”15 The social group controlling the state drives the
formation of primary national identities and ideologies, and it will
be against this group that other identities form. In these two ways,
the contemporary state is the primary arena for group mobilization
and the articulation of identities. Furthermore, it is not the state that
assumes importance in an examination of ethnic identities, but it is
ethnic identity that assumes importance in the contemporary reality
of the state system and state-society interaction. This, as Mitchell
explains, is because so often “political oppositions are phrased
in ethnic terms and in so doing provide the sentiments in terms of
which social actions may be justified.”16 It is this link between ethnicity
and national context that makes ethnicity theory applicable in an
examination of tribe-state relations in Sinai, as the state has, to a large
extent, created the basis for a Bedouin ethnicity through its policies
towards the group as a whole.
government policies created the basis for an ethnic “Berber” solidarity that
crossed tribal boundaries. This concept of state policy and identity will be
explored later in this paper. Regarding ethnopolitical Berber mobilization
in Morocco and Algeria in more recent years, see Bruce Maddy-Weitzman,
“Contested Identities: Berbers, ‘Berberism’ and the State in North
Africa,” The Journal of North African Studies 6.3 (2001). For a short
discussion of ethnopolitics between Arabs and Berbers in Libya, see Ishra
Soleiman, “Denied Existence: Libyan-Berbers under Gaddafi and Hope
for the Current Revolution,” Muftah, March 24, 2011, <http://muftah.
15. Karen Barkey and Sunita Parikh, “Comparative Perspectives on the
State,” Annual Review of Sociology 17 (1991), p. 542.
16. Mitchell, “Perceptions of Ethnicity and Ethnic Behavior,” p. 30.
Within this framework, this study aims to analyze the marginal
status of the Aqaba Bedouin as a result of the realities that the
Egyptian state, especially though its development policies, has
created for them, specifically through the link between socioeconomic
transformation, acculturation, and identity formation. This will begin
in chapter one with an examination of Egyptian goals for Sinai.
Chapter two examines the Bedouins’ adaptation of their economic
practices to adapt to the realities of Egyptian development and the
proliferation of tourism in the region. Chapter three examines the
other side of this coin, the increasing economic marginalization of
the Bedouin. Chapter four focuses on the social transformation of the
urbanizing Bedouin. Finally, chapter five examines the transformation
and articulation of a Bedouin identity to determine the relationship
between state policies, socioeconomic transformation, and processes
of Bedouin ethnogenesis, which is defined as the articulation and
emergence of previously non-ethnic identities in an ethnic idiom.17
This study will show that state policies regarding development
and integration in South Sinai are motivating transformations in both
dominant modes of socioeconomic organization as well as Bedouin
identity including expressions of social solidarity. It is simultaneously the
goals of development and the manner in which state policies fuelling
integration have shaped Bedouin-Egyptian interactions that have led
to the emergence of the frameworks necessary for socioeconomic
transformation and the emergence of ethnically-articulated identities
among the Aqaba Bedouin.
Before continuing, a few definitions should be presented in order to
clarify the terms and concepts central to this paper. First and foremost,
the subjects of this study are the Bedouin of the Aqaba Coast of the
Sinai Peninsula, and more specifically, the sedentary Bedouin of
Dahab. The focus of the research has been on the younger generation
of Bedouin who did not spend a significant portion of their lives living
17. Horowitz, Ethnic Groups in Conflict, p. 64.
in the desert or under Israeli rule and whose social experiences have
developed exclusively under expanding Egyptian rule from 1982
onwards. As a trend, these Bedouin are the ones most active in the
urban markets of Dahab, and thus represent the “cutting edge” of
Bedouin transformation. They also embody the core of an emerging
Bedouin elite at the top of distribution networks connected to tourism,
which has become the primary source of revenue for the Bedouin.
Figure 1: Map of approximate tribal divisions in Sinai, reproduced from
Murray, G.W., Sons of Ishmael: A Study of the Egyptian Bedouin
(G Routledge & Sons Ltd. London, 1935)
As the geographical focus of this study is Dahab, which lies in
the territory of the Mzeina Bedouin (see Map, Figure 1), a majority
of these subjects come from the Mzeina tribe, inhabiting the Sinai
coast along the Aqaba Gulf from Nuwayba to Sharm el-Sheikh, and
inland to Santa Katarina. However, tribal divisions have not mirrored
developments in Egyptian policy and do not constitute a primary
source of differentiation for the purposes of this study. Within Dahab,
Bedouin from other tribes, such as the Jabaliyya and ‘Aleqat, also
seek work. Furthermore, the area north of Nuwayba is the territory
of the Tarabin tribe, whose members also participate in development
and tourism but are not from the same confederational grouping as
the Mzeina and other southern tribes: the Tawara, and therefore
hold a much different tribal identity. For the purposes of analytical
accuracy, then, tribal identities will only be used in specific reference
to tribal issues. In other contexts, the term “Aqaba Bedouin” will be
used to identify them primarily on the basis of their nationally-defined
territory (the Aqaba Coast of Sinai, Egypt) and the activities which are
dominant in the region, notably tourism, as opposed to their tribally-
defined territory. In instances where I am specifically referring to the
sedentarized Bedouin of Dahab, I use the term “Dahab Bedouin.”
Two terms that must be defined are “state-building” and “nation-
building,” considered here to be two distinct but related processes,
both integral to a study of state-sponsored development and
identity transformation. State-building is a process aimed at building
institutions that reflect regime preferences while increasing state
control over its territory and inhabitants. It seeks the integration of
the periphery into the center for this purpose, through the creation
of transportation and communications infrastructure, coercive control
(such as army and police), the application of national laws and
policies and the effective collection of taxes. Nation-building, on the
other hand, is psychologically-oriented. As defined by one political
scientist, nation-building is a process of “weld[ing] disparate elements
of the populace into a congruent whole by forging new identities at
the national [=state] level at the expense of localism or particularistic
identities.”18 In other words, it is the state’s (or other elite groups’)
18. Amitai Etzioni, “A Self-Restrained Approach to Nation-Building by
Foreign Powers,” International Affairs 80.1 (2004).
dissemination and reification of nationalist ideologies and values
across the whole of its population. The goal of this process is the
standardization of values, ideologies, and identities among a state’s
population to increase national solidarity and specific patterns of
sociopolitical conformity. While state-building seeks to strengthen
the state or the polity, nation-building seeks to forge a unified social
body, the nation, to overcome the inevitable existence of sub-national
social divisions. In blunter terms, nation-building may be thought of as
a process of legitimization of a social and institutional order created
by those controlling the state. Nation-building strategies are pursued
through mandatory education and national media outlets, tourism,
museums and other public spaces, and mandatory national service,
all of which play an important role in the socialization of identity and
values.19 State- and nation-building are the two processes by which the
Egyptian state seeks to increase its authority in Sinai. These processes
will be repeatedly addressed throughout this work.
Finally, a major concept presented in this paper is “modernization.”
Modernization most accurately refers to a cluster of theories seeking
to explain the effects of economic development and the sources of
social and political change. Originally, the founders of modernization
theory sought to locate the sources of participatory government
in contemporary trends of economic development, notably
industrialization and its accompanying social trend, urbanization.
Seymour Martin Lipset, considered one of the formative scholars
of modernization theory, showed a correlation between economic
output and democracy.20 The mechanisms through which this process
supposedly operates were given greater expression in various other
works, notably Daniel Lerner’s The Passing of Traditional Society,
which presents a theory linking economic development to participatory
19. See for example Byron G. Massialas, Education and the Political System
(Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1969); see also Benedict Anderson, Imagined
Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,
2nd ed. (London: Verso, 1991).
20. Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic
Development and Political Legitimacy,” The American Political Science
Review 53.1 (1959), pp. 69–105; See also Lipset, Political Man: The
Social Bases of Politics (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960).
government through processes of social change allegedly caused by
economic growth. For Lerner, industrialization yielded urbanization,
which in turn promoted the emergence of a mass media, which drove
increasing literacy, culminating in greater demands for participatory
government (democracy).21 In a nutshell, the idea is that economic
development drives social development which yields positive political
development, and by implication, all good things go together.
This is not to say that my own analysis in any way relies on the
components of modernization theory. Instead, it recalls a comment
once made by the renowned Middle East scholar Elie Kedourie, who
said, “When…policies… together with the doctrines and principles
which justify them, are considered, then it is realized what a large
part verbal traps and dubious dogmas have had in the construction
of doctrines and the shaping of policies.”22 Modernization theory can
be considered one of Kedourie’s “dubious dogmas,” enjoying little
empirical support at the micro-process level. Samuel Huntington
was more explicit in declaring modernization theory an “erroneous
dogma,” which simply cannot account for the abundance of anomalies
whereby industrialization and economic development have failed to
produce positive social and political developments.23
The abundance of critiques and the persistence of anomalies,
however, have not prevented the emergence of a number of extensions
and inversions of modernization theory. Perhaps the most problematic
have been social variants of modernization focusing on the role of
economic growth and institutional change in the disappearance of
traditionalism and the emergence of national identities. This strand of
modernization theory conceives of ethnic or particularistic identities
as “primordial sentiments forg[ing] ties of emotion rather than
interests … [that] would be replaced through modernization by loyalties
21. Daniel Lerner, Passing of Traditional Society: Modernizing the Middle
East (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1958). Moreover, the parallels
between modernization and structural conceptions of nationalism, notably
by Gellner and Anderson, should be apparent and will be addressed later.
22. Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House Version, and Other Middle-Eastern
Studies (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1970), p. 2.
23. Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), p. 6.
to the class and the nation,” loyalties that are labeled rational instead
of emotional.24 In a political sense, “modernization” entails a “marked
redistribution of power within a political system: the breakdown of
local, religious, ethnic, or other power centers and the centralization
in national political institutions [my emphasis].”25 Not only does
the mantra of modernization enshrine the national state as the sole
legitimate authority, but by combining economic and political strands
of the theory, it also casts state development as both benevolent and
efficient when the reality may be much more traumatic for regions
undergoing this development.
The impact of modernization theory on economic ideologies
and development paradigms has had serious consequences for the
direction of national and global development. Since economic growth
is assumed to produce positive social and political outcomes, then by
implication more or faster growth is better than less or slower growth.
This produced a focus on maximizing economic efficiency. Moreover,
since the principal unit of political and economic organization is
assumed to be the state (this is certainly the case if we are interested in
outcomes such as democracy), the primary focus of the modernization
paradigm is not the individual, but the state. Modernization supports
a developmental strategy based on top-down economics singularly
focused on maximizing efficiency and growth through privatization,
reliance on international fiscal institutions, free trade, and foreign
investment and control; it focuses more on national economic interests
than on microeconomic successes and often does little to address the
economic needs of a great portion of the population.26
Simon, in an excellent and critical review of development rhetoric,
argues that defining modernization in terms of economic efficiency has
meant that we no longer predicate modernity on increases in individual
24. Barkey and Parikh, “Comparative Perspectives on the States,” p. 542.
See also Andreas Wimmer, Nationalist Exclusion and Ethnic Conflict:
Shadows of Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002),
pp. 42–43.
25. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, p. 142.
26. David Simon, “Development Reconsidered: New Directions in
Development Thinking,” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human
Geography 79.4 (Current Development Thinking) (1997), p. 187.
wellbeing.27 Policies aimed at maximizing economic efficiency have
often ignored questions of whether economic transformations have had
positive or negative impacts on the quality of life of a state’s subjects,
whether it empowers locals to make their own decisions, and whether
this development is socially and environmentally sustainable.28
Regardless of the observed consequences of economic development,
the modernization paradigm’s tendency to privilege the welfare of the
state has rendered it an attractive model for state-building projects
and top-down development. The combination of social and economic
strands of modernization enables the state to dismiss peripheral
concerns and competing interests by casting them as “traditional” or
otherwise irrational. Modernization, as a development paradigm, is
very friendly towards states and national goals by legitimizing them
and delegitimizing regional development concerns that clash with
central interests, which are framed in the rhetoric of the greater
good or the national interest. Further perpetuating the centrality of
the modernization paradigm in global development and post-colonial
state-building has been the dominance of neoliberal policies favored
by USAID, the IMF, and the World Bank.29
In this way, modernization is given an objective existence
as the foundation of the state’s development strategy, guiding
assumptions and expectations for development, and thus has very
real consequences for the Aqaba Bedouin. Borrowing from political
scientist Alexander Wendt’s constructivist approach to objectivity, “If
men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”30
27. Ibid., 185. See also a discussion of economic reconstruction of Iraq:
Haytham Bahoora, “Shock-and-Awe Nation Building: Iraq’s Neo-Liberal
Reconstruction,”, Arab Studies Institute, May 14, 2012.
Web. <
nation-building_iraqs-neo-liberal-re>. For Lenin, this was the sacrifice that
modernization entailed.
28. Ibid., p. 187.
29. Ibid., p. 185. Simon calls neoliberalism the “contemporary incarnation”
of modernization. See also Hutington, Political Order in Changing
30. Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge,
UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 330.
What is important to note here is that I am not claiming that these
development authorities necessarily adopt an explicit modernization
paradigm in their approach to development, that is to say, that
the state does not claim that the modernization of such peripheral
populations is the overarching goal of development.31 However, the
coincidence in the case of Dahab is striking, and the rhetoric of the
state and its developmental agencies appears predicated on many of
the assumptions of economic modernization to justify policies whose
benefits have tended to target a narrow, politically connected group
of officials and entrepreneurs. This issue will be explored in greater
depth in chapter one.
What is important to clarify is that the processes of “modernization,”
notably economic development, urbanization, the construction of
transportation and communications infrastructure and the rise of mass
media, the expansion of education and literacy, and the emergence
of bureaucracies, to name a few, are better defined as “integrating”
processes. These processes lead to the adoption of similar
organizational forms and similar expressions of dependence on state
structures. This encourages cultural homogenization, but is superficial
and not necessarily linked to an adoption of “modern” or “national”
identities as predicted by proponents of social modernization. Samuel
Huntington acknowledges this reality in Political Order in Changing
Societies when he states that in contrast with the above “facts” of
integration, “progress towards many of the other goals which writers
have identified with political modernization [including]… national
integration—often is dubious at best.”32
This study is not interested in distinctions between “modern” and
“primitive” societies, and instead focuses on the relationship and
interactions between various social groups bounded by a state as
levels of “stateness” increases in Sinai. I define stateness, following
Joel Migdal, as the state’s appropriation of forms of social and
economic control from non-state actors.33 In this regard, the state
31. The Development reports, though, do clearly show this to be at the very
least an ancillary objective.
32. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies, p. 35.
33. Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States. See discussion in Chapter
One: A Model of State-Society Relations, pp. 10–41.
should be understood as “regime,” one of a number of social actors
competing for sociopolitical influence within its defined territory.
To be “modern,” in the rhetoric of the state system, is to willingly
subordinate non-state forms of sociopolitical control and solidarity to
state interests and organs, a demand that has met much resistance
along the peripheries of the developing world. This is one potential
explanation for the persistence of “traditional” societies within
hegemonic “modernizing” states and suggests a coincidence of
identity and interest. In fact, a basic premise of this argument is that
the modern-traditional dichotomy, far from providing useful analytic
leverage on issues of social change, actually obfuscates the dialectical
and co-produced nature of social transformation. The link between
this structure of competition and identity will be discussed in chapter
The Bedouin are not autarkic, a society able to exist independently
from the rest of Egypt (as in thinking about Egypt as a “modern”
society and the Bedouin as a “traditional” society), but have come to
constitute a unique social category within Egyptian society. It would
be helpful to recall the words of Friedrich Nietzsche when he noted,
“The general imprecise way of observing sees everywhere in nature
opposites (as for example “warm” and “cold” [or in this case “modern”
and “traditional”]) where there are, not opposites, but differences in
degree.”34 Instead of examining a transition from “traditional” to
“modern” modes of living, the focus shall be on increasing levels of
state control and integration and how the Bedouin have responded to
these changes.
Research and Methodological Approaches
While this work is based in large part on ethnographic field
research conducted in Sinai, it draws on a number of other sources
34. Frederich Nietzsche, Der Wanderer und sein Schatten, in R.J.
Hollingdale (ed. and trans.), A Nietzsche Reader (Harmondsworth:
Penguin, 1988). Quoted in Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Ethnicity and
Nationalism—Anthropological Perspectives (Anthropology, Culture
and Society), 2nd ed. (New York: Pluto, 2002), p. 162.
of information. It will be beneficial to discuss the particulars of the
research as well as the location, Dahab. However, this project relies
on a number of other disciplines and methodological approaches in
addition to ethnography, and some words should be said about my
preference for a multi-disciplinary approach. I have attempted to rely
as evenly as possible on the different disciplines chosen for this study
instead of relying exclusively on one. The primary disciplines engaged
in this study are social anthropology, sociology, and history, though
support was sought further afield, including from political science,
social psychology, and the emerging field of tourism studies. More will
be said about each discipline and their interaction.
The decision to make Dahab the geographical focus of the project
stems from the special attention this part of Sinai has received
for the development of tourism, which has been a primary tool
highlighting and magnifying the identity processes under study. As
the mainstay of the Aqaba Bedouin economy, tourism has led to
a “traditionalization” of Bedouin economic practices, that is, the
communication of these practices through the language of tradition
as a way to make these economically valuable practices symbolically
meaningful to consumers, who search for an “authentic” cultural
experience. Effective symbolism, in this case, legitimizes these
activities as “authentic.” Tourism can, in this way, be considered the
commercialization of culture for economic gain. This culture, however,
far from being a true representation of how the Bedouin live today,
is largely constructed based on perceptions about the Bedouins’
heritage and “traditions,” and is thus economically analogous to other
symbolic identity processes that are the focus of this study. This type
of culture under-communicates aspects of acculturation and focuses
instead on elements preserved from an idealized, distant past. Just
as ethnic identity links contemporary culture to images of the past,
tourism does the same.
Heritage tourism in Dahab has the effect of exaggerating the
communication of culture, allowing for a clearer examination of the
processes involved in the formation and communication of identity.
Furthermore, heritage tourism provided the opportunity to contrast
tourist conceptions of Bedouin culture and the actual progress of
socioeconomic transformation in order to analyze the role of culture
in identity formation. Tourism as a lens was an invaluable aid in the
study of identity politics, especially the construction of culture and
tradition and the symbolic purposes they serve.35 Special attention
was given to manifestations of identity through tourism, a central
theme in the research. However, tourism so strongly connects culture
and economics that it may be the case that the economic aspect of
social conflict, a well-established but contested theory, is somewhat
overdetermined by the force of particular circumstances.
The field of tourism studies played an important role in studying
the economic and social effects of tourism development. While this
field is still fairly new, tourism as a global, cultural phenomenon
undoubtedly deserves the attention of social scientists, and a number
of works on the subject in general, as well as in the Middle East
specifically, had a profound impact on this analysis, and even played
a role in shaping the direction of the research conducted in the field,
providing for the use of certain aspects of tourism as way points and
bases for further analysis, such as the state’s role in formal versus
informal tourism and how each might approach a single concept,
such as employment. Tourism is an issue that cannot be divorced
from the Aqaba Coast; it was vital to this work to explore the ways
in which tourism affects communities and economies. The volume on
tourism in the Middle East edited by Rami Daher is an excellent and
encompassing look at the various aspects of tourism—combining such
fields as economics, cultural anthropology, sociology, and political
science—and demonstrates how truly dynamic tourism studies can be
as an independent field of inquiry.
Further increasing the value of Dahab as a research site is its
origin not as an administrative center, colonial outpost, or military
base, but as a Bedouin date oasis, a traditional forum for Mzeina
social interaction. Dahab’s origin as a tourist center dates from the
establishment of traveler camps set up by Bedouin to serve Israeli
visitors to Sinai after the 1967 War instead of a tourist resort
35. Rami Farouk Daher, “Reconceptualizing Tourism in the Middle East,”
in Rami Farouk Daher (ed.), Tourism in the Middle East Continuity,
Change, and Transformation (Minneapolis: Channel View Publications,
2006), pp. 16, 19.
planned and built through government projects.36 Dahab’s Bedouin
neighborhoods around ‘Asala comprise the largest urban Bedouin
settlement on the coast, and they have developed organically from an
exclusively Bedouin space to a bustling commercial and tourist center.
Since Bedouin neighborhoods in Dahab are not the result of an
Egyptian urban plan, the space remains a manifestation of authentic
Bedouin transformation instead of a Bedouin tourist façade reflecting
external assumptions about the Bedouin; the Bedouin presence in
Dahab is more reflective of the Bedouin condition than the spaces
constructed to fuel Egyptian tourism.
The bulk of our field research was conducted in Sinai between
March 2009 and May 2010, in which I, along with my research
partner, Eli Sperling, would take trips to Dahab for about a week
every other month. Additionally, I was able to undertake two longer
periods of research, each consisting of about four weeks, in the
summers of 2011 and 2012. From our base in Dahab, spending the
majority of our time with the Bedouin around town, we were able to
acquire a unique perspective on the effects that development in Sinai
and Egyptian policies have had on the lives of the Bedouin. We had
the opportunity to explore the ties between the Bedouin and foreign
tourists, through the relationship we forged with our subjects, as well
as the relationship between the Bedouin, the authorities, and the
Egyptian migrants. As a town about half-way down the Aqaba Coast,
Dahab provided a perfect base to travel throughout the sub-region.
Our excursions ranged from visits to Sharm el-Sheikh to compare the
economic roles of the Bedouin between the two towns, to trips into
the desert to participate in Mzeina social functions such as weddings
and even a ritual goat slaughter, to Bedouin tourist camps in order to
explore the role of Bedouin culture in Sinai tourism. While we felt that
these excursions did not greatly inform us about the historical practices
or lives of the Bedouin, we were able to construct a broad picture of
how development has affected the lives of the Sinai Bedouin today
36. Interview with a Bedouin Divemaster, July 24, 2009; see also Smadar
Lavie, The Poetics of Military Occupation Mzeina Allegories of
Bedouin Identity Under Israeli and Egyptian Rule (New York: University
of California, 1991), p. 68.
and were shown how Bedouin notions of tradition were reconciled
with the changes to their world.
The goal of the field component of the research was to construct a
broad picture of the realities of contemporary Bedouin life, especially
in an urbanizing setting, as well as to immerse ourselves in the Bedouin
tourist economy. From this it was possible to draw conclusions about
Bedouin self-identity and image, notably how Bedouin imagine
themselves and their cultural heritage and how they communicate
themselves and their community as separate from Egyptians.
Additionally, we focused on patterns of socioeconomic organization
and attempted to compare these forms to those adopted by other
social groups within the Egyptian state in order to draw conclusions
about the factors motivating certain socioeconomic transformations.
The ultimate goal was to ascertain whether the transformations we
identified within the community were motivated by internal structures
and dynamics or by external pressures.
The field research came from a mix of observational methods
including mapping demographic patterns in the town, charting
types and locations of construction and development, and observing
Bedouin-Egyptian-Tourist interactions through what ethnographers
describe as participant observation as well as formal interviews (See
Figure 2). This raw data was then filtered through intense analytical
sessions between myself and my partner in which we discussed our
observations and used “thick descriptions” to analyze the events we
had witnessed and attach underlying meaning to them.37 While the
number of formal interviews we conducted were quite limited, with
no more than ten individuals being recorded, our method of informal
interviewing, based on the concept of “snowball sampling,” brought
us into contact with dozens of Bedouin holding many different
occupations and social positions. Additionally, we were able to
interview about ten migrant laborers, from Egypt and Sudan, who had
traveled to Sinai in search of employment. Snowball sampling, which
entails the assistance of current subjects to recruit future subjects,
while a non-random sampling process, has the benefit of allowing
us to construct a clear picture of the social networks that exist both
37. Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description, Towards an Interpretive Theory of
Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic, 2000).
within Dahab itself and how they connect to villages outside of the
town. This non-randomness was an important element in tracing
distribution networks that have emerged through tourism and inter-
familial as well as inter-generational relationships.
The reflections of the previous paragraph raise two major issues
that we confronted over the course of our fieldwork. The first is highly
complicated and had the potential to threaten our ability to collect
data. This has to do with our interview methodology. We quickly found
our attempts at formal interviewing frustrated by the Bedouin, who
appeared to react to our questioning with suspicion. It was important
to find a method of accessing this information while simultaneously
building trust with those we were interviewing. In order to accomplish
this, we were largely required to turn off the cameras and recording
devices and be less direct in our questioning.
We found that the greatest level of success came when we posed
our questions anecdotally and in a largely quid-pro-quo manner. By
this I mean we would exchange stories with our Bedouin interviewees
Figure 2: Conducting an interview on film.
Photo by author, September20, 2009.
and compared their answers with experiences from our lives, or, more
commonly, attempted to lead the Bedouin to a certain issue by framing
it against the backdrop of our culture. For example, if we wanted to
discuss Bedouin marriage requirements, we might tell the Bedouin
about marriage practices in America, or tell a story of a particular
friend or family member’s marriage, and then ask about their own
experiences. We found that this worked quite well, and often it would
set the Bedouin off on long stories with valuable tangents that gave
us more information than a simple question and answer would have.
Furthermore, this allowed the Bedouin to volunteer information that
they felt was important to the topic, providing an opportunity to study
concepts from their perspective.
The second aspect of our research design was the issue of teamwork
in the field, which, from the anthropological literature guiding our
research, appeared to be quite rare. Nevertheless, working in a team
was invaluable. Not only did this kind of work allow one of us to fill in
gaps the other might have missed, it also encouraged discussion and
debate, fuelling analysis and the consideration of multiple points of
view. While we did not always agree on the meanings behind what
we saw, our differences of opinion more often than not added to
the quality of the material as we attempted to reconcile, convince,
or disprove each other’s concepts. Working as a team allowed us
to support one another, and gave each of us an advisor intimately
familiar with the research. We continually challenged each other’s
ideas, which forced us to carefully construct our theories and raise the
quality of our work. While in the end, each of us authored our own
papers and focused on different aspects of our experience, there is
no doubt that Eli’s ideas are reflected in my own work and mine are
reflected in his.
One final but immensely important issue to mention in a discussion
of fieldwork is the issue of potential bias. While we interacted with a
wide variety of people in Dahab, the focus of our research was the
Bedouin, and thus a large majority of our time was spent interacting
with Bedouin. There was a danger, I was warned, that my feelings for
my new-found friends would affect my ability to analyze the situation
objectively. This concern was voiced through my advisors, who
warned me that my sympathies might lead me to developa narrative
that is overly critical of the Egyptian government or overly delicate in
regards to the Bedouin. In short, the objectivity of the researcher, and
by implication the integrity of the work, is called into question because
of an emotional connection or a tendency of the subjects to present a
biased view that is accepted and adopted by the researcher.38
In this way, ethnography more often than not is a double-edged
sword necessitating a delicate balancing of two very distinct identities
that may very well be impossible to separate: the first being the friend
and the second the researcher. Without the friend, the researcher’s
job would be impossible. At the same time, it is the friend that
endangers the objectivity of the researcher, who is supposed to be
dispassionate and analytical. Thus, to the researcher, the friend is both
indispensable and a liability, and in the field, not a moment went by
without consideration of the balance that we had to maintain between
Unfortunately, there is no scientific method to counter this
tendency towards sympathizing with one’s subjects. In the words
of John Van Maanen, “Neutrality in fieldwork is an illusion.”39 In
this case, all scholars who conduct this type of work might be
susceptible to accusations of bias, whether personal or ideological;
it is the responsibility of the researcher to navigate this path with
as much attention to avoiding such traps as possible. From my own
experience, to ignore the friend is impossible and only calls attention
to the researcher, generally leading to concerns and suspicion among
the ethnographic “subject.” The Bedouin have little use for formal
data gathering methods such as surveys, and are generally less willing
38. This has been a perpetual concern to ethnographers, both inside and
outside of the field of anthropology. See, for example, Annette Lareau and
Jeffrey J. Shultz, Journeys through Ethnography: Realistic Accounts of
Fieldwork (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996).
39. John Van Maanen, “Playing Back the Tape,” in W.B. Shaffer and R.A.
Stebbins (eds.), Experiencing Fieldwork: An Inside View of Qualitative
Research (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1991); quoted in Timothy Pachirat,
“The Political in Political Ethnography: Dispatches from the Kill Floor,”
in Edward Schatz (ed.), Political Ethnography: What Immersion
Contributes to the Study of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 2009).
to participate in these formal environments. The only alternative
is to always maintain self-awareness and to understand that this
emotional response is an inevitable consequence of the experience of
field research. This process, I imagine, is very personal, varying from
researcher to researcher, and it would be difficult, if not impossible, to
draw an accurate picture of the relationship between the researcher
and the subjects just by reading the work without any mention of
the personal experiences of the research. It is my goal to present as
transparent a picture of the research experience as possible, allowing
readers to understand my own ethnographic perspective.
The research we conducted in the field did not present a complete
picture of the historical development of the Bedouin community, only
their present situation. Thus, this type of data was insufficient to address
the types of historical questions that were vital to this study, including
how and why Egyptian development was undertaken, as well as how
this development has transformed the Bedouin socioeconomic order.
History was just as important to this analysis as anthropology, and so
constituted a second, yet equally important methodological approach.
Historical information about Sinai comes from two main sources:
first, the diaries and surveys produced by visitors and colonial officials
during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, and
second, the accounts and analyses of historians and social scientists
who spent time researching in Sinai in the 1970s and 80s, as well
as a number of studies published by their Egyptian successors. Since
the Egyptian reoccupation of Sinai, however, the freedom to conduct
research has been limited and our record for the past 20 years is not
as detailed as it was in the 20 years before that.
Many of the early diaries and surveys of Sinai have already been
digested by historians and social scientists and consequently held little
value for this work, as subsequent analyses published in the 1970s,
80s, and 90s proved significantly more useful. These sources blurred
the lines between anthropology and history, as they were often
social histories or anthropological studies from previous decades
that provided the opportunity to construct a coherent timeline of
events and an encompassing picture of the Bedouin community and
its transformations across the previous decades. Reliance on history
enabled the analysis of the transformative processes that development
in Sinai has instigated. This is an adaptation of a practice that is gaining
favor among anthropologists, increasingly utilizing historical texts; I
took this practice and reversed it by taking past anthropological studies
and using them as historical texts, providing sufficient information to
compare, for example, employment patterns of the Aqaba Bedouin in
the nineteenth century, the 1970s, and today. In this way, it became
possible to examine not only the shape of the Dahab Bedouins’
current socioeconomic order, but to trace its development over the
past decades to analyze the transformative effects of development.
Chapter 1
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
This chapter presents an analysis of the Egyptian development project
in Sinai in order to ascertain why Sinai development was undertaken
and how Egyptian authorities went about setting and attaining their
goals. Additionally, it will examine how a number of specific Egyptian
policies have shaped the direction of socioeconomic development
within the Bedouin community. With this perspective, Egyptian
priorities for development and the role envisioned for the Bedouin in
relation to the Egyptian vision for Sinai will become clear. In a study
of Bedouin reactions to development, an examination of Egyptian
approaches is the key to understanding Bedouin transformational
responses and identity processes.
The Egyptian development project in Sinai is merely a single
aspect of a larger plan for the development and integration of Egypt’s
vast, unsettled territory. In May 1974, faced with serious economic
stagnation and the beginnings of a population crisis, the government
of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat prepared a plan, known as “A New
Map of Egypt,” that aimed at extending Egyptian central authority to
territories far from the Nile Valley and developing them so as to make
them productive contributors to the Egyptian economy.40 As Sinai
at this time was still under Israeli control, the Egyptian development
plan focused on areas such as the Western Desert, the Mediterranean
coast, the Red Sea coast, and the Lake Nasser region. The project
had the broadly-stated goal of relieving social and economic pressures
on the population, and by implication, on the central government.41
40. Dames and Moore International, Sinai Development Study, Phase I:
Final Report (Washington, D.C.: United States Agency for International
Aid, 1985) Vol. 1, “A Strategy for the Settlement of Sinai,” 3.1 “National
Goals,” p. 47.
41. Lavie, The Poetics of Military Occupation, p. 75.
Chapter 1
The plan eventually adopted to oversee the development of
the Sinai Peninsula, as a piece of this greater strategy to increase
industrial and agricultural development in Egypt, was aimed at fulfilling
goals identified by the government to address central problems; the
primary concerns were not the wellbeing or interests of peripheral
populations, but those of the central state. One of the stated aims of
the Sinai Development Study (SDS-I), published in 1985 by Dames
and Moore, Inc. in conjunction with USAID, was to “ensure social
justice for the residents of these regions [under development],” to aid
in the reduction of “regional disparities.”42 However, this would only
be the case inasmuch as the goals and interests of these residents
aligned with those of the state. In fact, in the research and planning
stages of the project, the Bedouin were treated only superficially and
were never actually consulted on potential courses of development
or Bedouin-Egyptian cooperation. Central Egyptian planners viewed
the Bedouin as a marginal population that did not need to be directly
included in Sinai development, but would react to development by
assimilating into Egyptian society.
In their attempt to impose “legibility” on the Bedouin, the Egyptian
state made a number of incorrect assumptions about the fundamental
nature of Bedouin society and the natural consequences of economic
development.43 Egyptian development strategies ultimately resulted
in the socioeconomic marginalization of the Sinai Bedouin. These
assumptions, compounded with their “modernization”-oriented
approach, facilitated the emergence of a number of obstacles
frustrating Bedouin participation in budding tourism industries in the
Aqaba region. Many of these assumptions or miscalculations were
based on Egypt’s focus on the critical crises that the regime faced
in central Egypt, for example the need to maximize tax revenue,
provide jobs, and spread the population. In focusing on these goals,
the Egyptians neglected to consider a situation whereby specifically
Bedouin interests might clash with Egyptian development goals. Not
42. Dames and Moore, Sinai Development Study, Vol. 1, p. 48.
43. James C. Scott, Seeing like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve
the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press,
1998). Scott refers to legibility as the manner in which a state categorizes
and defines a concept so that the state may interact with it.
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
only did they not make an effort to ensure the Bedouin a dominant or
even a protected place in the developing tourist economy, they failed
even to undertake a comprehensive study of the Bedouin and their
standards of living in order to determine how best to harmonize their
plan with existing conditions on the ground; the Bedouins’ customary
socioeconomic order and recent transformations were not examined
or considered in the scope of development.
Egyptian National Crises and the Need for
Development and Integration
In the early 1970s, Egypt faced a number of social and economic
crises stemming from major demographic shifts, destructive economic
policies, and President Gamal Abd al-Nasser’s fixation on the conflict
with Israel. Egypt’s economy, which Nasser had based on the socialist
model of import-substitution and nationalization, was on the verge
of collapse. Compounding a lack of productivity, a rapid population
increase created a shortage of employment. While Nasser promised
jobs to all university graduates, stagnant economic growth and rampant
corruption meant that there were not nearly enough opportunities to
satisfy Egypt’s population.
Making matters worse, the urban centers of Egypt experienced
rapid population increases due to the dual processes of urbanization
and accelerating population growth. Cairo, which in 1960 had a
population of three and a half million,44 and in 1989 of 14 million,45
today has an estimated population of 20-25 million inhabitants.46 As
Cairo’s population expands, the conditions in the city have deteriorated
44. Janet Abu Lughod, “Migrant Adjustment to City Life: The Egyptian
Case,” The American Journal of Sociology 67 (1962), p. 22.
45. Thomas W. Lippman, Egypt After Nasser: Sadat, Peace, and the
Mirage of Prosperity (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. 166.
46. André Raymond, Cairo, trans. Willard Wood (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 2000), p. 13. In 2000 Raymond supports the lower
figure of 18 to 20 million. The higher estimate of 25 million comes from
a consideration of the potential contribution of the unofficial residents of
Cairo as well as the figure stated by everyone in Egypt.
Chapter 1
for its inhabitants. Overcrowding is now a fact of life and living
conditions for many have become less than sanitary. Additionally, the
huge population has put an incredible strain on Cairo’s aging urban
infrastructure, which is in severe need of renovation and replacement
and has barely been able to support a city of 20 million inhabitants.
Population growth and urbanization have had a devastating impact
on Egypt’s ability to maintain food self-sufficiency.47 Processes of
urbanization, concentrated heavily in the Nile Valley, have created a
situation whereby land suitable for agriculture is being converted into
residential zones to accommodate an increasing number of citizens.48
While Egypt’s population has grown rapidly in the Nile Valley, the
amount of cultivable land has not increased despite Nasser’s massive
land reclamation scheme, which aimed at converting unproductive
desert into cultivable land suitable for agriculture. As settlements
expand, they continuously encroach on the limited amount of arable
land. Egypt, once a major exporter of agricultural products, has
become dependent on massive food imports to supply the needs of
the population.49
When Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt in 1970,
overpopulation, under-employment, food shortages, and economic
stagnation were the major socioeconomic crises facing the Egyptian
state. In order to address these crises, the Egyptian government
enacted a number of policies aimed at bringing economic as well as
social relief to Egypt. Perhaps the most well-known of these policies
was Sadat’s program of Infitah, or “Open Door” economics, aimed
at attracting private and foreign investment, and bringing an end
47. While World Bank figures show that the rate of population growth
is slowing, it is still well above rates in Europe and North America.
Moreover, this has done little to relieve pressures on the state to continue
supplying sufficient food to urban populations. Source: Google Public
Data from World Bank, updated Jan 17, 2013. <
48. Dina F. Ali, “Case Study of Development of the Peripheral Coastal
Area of South Sinai in Relation to its Bedouin Community” (MA Thesis,
Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 1998), p. 13.
49. Lippman, Egypt After Nasser, p. 128.
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
to the state-dominated economic policies of Nasser.50 As a clear
rejection of the Nasserite economic model based on etatism, Sadat’s
freer-market Infitah was a highly visible concept. It was not, however,
the only plan developed to address Egypt’s ills. Another of Sadat’s
programs, geared simultaneously at relieving both the population and
food crises, was the “Green Revolution.” This “revolution” strove to
tame the Egyptian frontier, extract valuable natural resources, convert
deserts into farmland, and relieve the immense population pressures
in Egypt’s cities and along the Nile River.51
With this “Green Revolution,” Sadat envisioned a massive
population shift out of Egypt’s urban areas along the Nile into the
desert, namely the Western Desert around the oases of Siwa and
Bahariyya, the Eastern Desert along the Red Sea Coast, and later,
the Sinai Peninsula. It was the government’s hope that relieving
overcrowding would increase economic productivity, bringing added
relief to the economy in addition to alleviating urban congestion. It
additionally hoped to convert the desert into cultivable land, bringing
Egypt back to food self-sufficiency.
The goals of the Sinai Development Project, as outlined in the
development reports published in the 1980s and 90s, are consistent
with the crises mentioned above. As stated in the SDS-I study prepared
in 1985, the national goals were the following:
Slower population growth in Cairo and the cities of the •
Reversal of Brain Drain, in part by creating well-paid, high •
tech, modern economic activities within Egypt
Expanded private sector•
Foreign aid reduced, later eliminated•
Food self-sufficiency, improved yields and land reclamation •
50. P.J. Vatikiotis, The History of Modern Egypt, 4th ed. (London:
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991), p. 430; see also Raymond Hinnebusch,
“The Politics of Economic Reform in Egypt,” Third World Quarterly
14.1 (1993).
51. Lippman, Egypt After Nasser, p. 126.
Chapter 1
Integration of remote areas into the mainstream of Egyptian •
The final goal, the integration of remote areas into “Egyptian
civilization,” suggests an added aim of increasing state control over its
territory and simultaneously working for the socialization of peripheral
populations and regions to integrate them into the Egyptian nation.
These goals, far from striving to protect the unique characteristics
of Egypt’s peripheral populations, suggest that a major aim of the
Egyptian government is to transform the character of these territories
to reflect Egyptian national values and characteristics. This is a major
element in the process of nation-building. Economic development in
Sinai aimed both to increase Egyptian state presence and control in
Sinai and to socialize peripheral populations into Egypt’s national
It is clear from even this superficial examination of the crises Egypt
faced and the goals the government set that regional integration and
development in Egypt was undertaken to serve the center instead
of the peripheries. Despite claims about the importance of regional
equality, Egyptian development was less about extending the amenities
and services available in central Egypt to the various peripheries as it
was about the development of these peripheries in order to solve the
problems of central Egypt.
From the “Green Revolution” to the
National Project for the Development of
Sinai — A Plan for 2017
Between 1979 and 1982, when Egypt re-gained Sinai after the Camp
David Accords and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, the concept
of developing the deserts was extended to the Sinai Peninsula. The
values and goals of the Green Revolution were reproduced in the Sinai
Development Studies and played a primary role in shaping Egyptian
goals for Sinai. Soon after the Egyptian reoccupation, planning
for Sinai development began. The SDS-I Sinai Development Study
was commissioned by USAID in order to survey Sinai and present
52. Dames and Moore, Sinai Development Study, Vol. 1, p. 48.
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
its recommendations for the best development strategies. This plan
eventually yielded the Egyptian Ministry of Planning’s National Project
for the Development of Sinai (NPDS), which was adopted by Egyptian
authorities as the official strategy to develop Sinai between the years
1994 and 2017. These plans hoped to transform Sinai into a multi-
sector economy through large-scale foreign investment and the
settlement of over a million Egyptians in the peninsula.53
There is remarkable similarity between the two development
reports, and the NPDS can easily be considered a continuation of
the development strategies recommended in the 1985 SDS-I report.
The major difference between the two is in the scale of development.
The SDS-I had for its goal one million Egyptian settlers in Sinai while
the NPDS hoped to attract over three million,54 reflecting an ever-
increasing need to relieve Nile Valley population pressures by both
enticing urban Egyptians to seek better working conditions in Sinai
as well as convincing rural Egyptians to seek employment in Sinai
instead of in the urban centers of the Nile Valley.
The development reports identify tourism as a huge potential
market in Sinai, suggesting that Sinai could compete with international
tropical vacation destinations; the Aqaba Coast was recommended
as particularly suitable for international tourism development.55
They further suggest that basing tourism on large-scale private
and foreign investment could potentially fund other development
projects, highlighting the economic importance of tourism and tourist
development to the Egyptian authorities in their endeavor to create
industry and infrastructure in Sinai. The SDS-I study, and later the
NPDS, proposed to expand the Aqaba Coast’s tourist capacity by
attracting “major international beach tourist resorts along the Gulf of
Aqaba,” as this would be the most direct way to maximize both growth
and (taxable) profit.56 The plan foresaw continuous development along
53. David B. Ottaway, “Egypt Tries Hard to Lure Settlers to Sinai Region,”
The Washington Post, April 25, 1983.
54. David Homa, “Touristic Development in Sinai,” in Tourism in the Middle
East Continuity, Change, and Transformation, ed. Rami Farouk Daher
(Minneapolis: Channel View Publications, 2006), p. 239.
55. Dames and Moore, Sinai Development Study, Vol. 3, “An Economic
Development and Investment Plan, 1983 to 2000,” p. 80.
56. Ibid., p. 77.
Chapter 1
the Aqaba Coast and the eventual growth of Dahab’s population from
just over 2,000 to over 90,000 inhabitants between 1994 and 2017,
and the growth of Sharm el-Sheikh’s population from just over 2,000
to over 130,000 in the same time frame, almost all of whom would
be Egyptian families enticed to move from the Nile Valley.57
While an in-depth analysis of the two development plans is beyond
the scope of this study, there are two major aspects that must be
discussed in relation to how the Egyptian government chose to relate
to the Bedouin in their development scheme. The first is to what
extent the reports consider the needs and probable reactions of the
Bedouin; the second deals with the issue of the formalization of tourist
The Bedouin and Development
The SDS-I report purports to have conducted an in-depth study of
the population of Sinai, and volume six of the report deals exclusively
with Sinai’s social development. However, the study focuses
overwhelmingly on migrant social development and questions of how
to attract and maintain such a high number of Nile Valley migrants
in Sinai. There is little said in this report about the Bedouin outside
of population estimations, and even less is said about the proposed
integration of this population into development strategies beyond the
need to provide “opportunities for employment.” While the SDS-I
does not contain a sufficient treatment of Sinai’s Bedouin populations,
the NPDS contains even less.
The SDS-I report predicted that increasing service- and
construction-sector jobs would induce the Bedouin the shift away from
“traditional employment” which, according to their understanding,
was “livestock grazing,” and attract the Bedouin populations to settle
closer to the coasts.58 In this, the report identified and described the
57. “Distribution of the Existing and Target Population in South Sinai,”
Final Report on the National Project for the Development of Sinai,
translated in Ali, “Development of the Peripheral Coastal Area of South
Sinai,” p. 24.
58. Dames and Moore, Sinai Development Study, Vol. 6, “Settlement and
Social Development,” p. 17.
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
major transformation in Bedouin economics experienced during the
Israeli occupation, the shift of Bedouin populations to coastal centers
for purposes of employment. It failed, however, to recognize the fact
that this process had already begun and that by the 1980s, herding
and “livestock grazing” were not these Bedouins’ primary sources
of subsistence. The authors were unable to see the link between
increasing sedentarization and the growth of urban economies and
employment opportunities. They failed to recognize the effects of
development and increasing state control on the declining access
of the Bedouin to pastures and wells needed to maintain a pastoral
economy. There was no discussion of how jobs would be allocated
between the local Bedouin and unskilled migrants from the Nile Valley
seeking the same service and construction sector jobs mentioned
above. Finally, there was no provision or discussion regarding the
potential recognition of Bedouin claims according to their customary
laws, specifically regarding certain rights of access, for example to
valuable stretches of shoreline for fishing or tribal gatherings. Nor was
there any discussion as to the proposed legal status of the Bedouin or
their land claims, nor any discussion of compensation for developing
on Bedouin land or of providing housing and other services to the
This is the extent to which the SDS-I treated the Bedouin.
Conspicuously absent are any recommendations regarding the
integration of Bedouin populations into the developing economies of
Sinai, or visions of how the Bedouin would function in close proximity
to these estimated one million migrants. Additionally, in the section
dealing with tourist development, the authors mention a number of
possible types of tourism, ranging from beach and resort tourism to
religious and cultural tourism. This discussion, however, makes no
mention of the possible role the Bedouin might play in this industry,
notably in the culture tourism sector. Culture tourism, according to the
SDS-I, would focus on incorporating Sinai into the existing “Cairo,
Luxor, Giza circuit,” integrating Sinai into Egyptian heritage instead
of focusing on its own unique culture.59
The goals for the NPDS focus even more heavily on the issues
facing central Egypt, and the previously mentioned desire to ensure
59. Dames and Moore, Sinai Development Study, Vol. 3, p. 82.
Chapter 1
social justice for peripheral populations is absent from this version.
Not once in the section outlining objectives for Sinai development
are the Bedouin even mentioned, and instead the report focuses
on its goal of “building new societies” to vary the lifestyles available
to Egyptians.60 Thus the role ascribed to the Bedouin by those
responsible for development has been peripheral at best.
The report does, on the other hand, set the goal of appropriating
over 90 percent of Bedouin land for development, allowing Bedouin
to retain a mere seven percent of the territory they once exploited.61
While the Bedouin had previously used this land for fishing, holding
tribal gatherings, and more recently, running tourist camps, Egyptian
authorities hoped to utilize this land for the development of large
multinational resorts that had the potential to yield large tourism
revenues for the central government.
Egyptian development authorities, in conjunction with USAID,
based this land appropriation goal on the assumption that Bedouin
do not value land the same way that the development agency would
due to their “nomadic lifestyle,” and believed this appropriation would
be accepted by the Bedouin. The report went even further, stating
that “the NPDS works for the urbanization of the tribal population
and at the same time [for] maintain[ing] their tribal cultures as it is
part of Sinai heritage.”62 How, then, did the Egyptians propose to
reconcile the confiscation of Bedouin territory for development with a
desire to preserve the cultural heritage of the Bedouin? Furthermore,
how did they expect to achieve the urbanization of the Bedouin
while neglecting to envision a formal role for them in the developing
tourism-based urban economy? Finally, assuming that there were
more migrants at any given time than available jobs, how would
employment be allocated between migrants and local Bedouin? These
are questions that Egyptian planners and developers, as well as their
American counterparts representing USAID, failed to address.63 The
60. David Homa, “Touristic Development in Sinai,” p. 241.
61. Ibid., p. 252.
62. Ibid., p. 241. Quote taken from Sinai report titled “Sinai: Location and
Natural Resources,” Government publication (1995).
63. While many defend organizations such as USAID for their good
intentions, Joel Migdal rightly points out that there is a huge disparity
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
fact that the Bedouin have intended to participate in the development
and future economies of Sinai, notably the tourist sector, has all but
ensured that the vision the central government created for Sinai would
be complicated by a clash between local Bedouin and central Egyptian
Tourist Development along the Aqaba
Coast — Egyptian Preferences
The Egyptian development strategy is best examined through a lens
of “modernization.” While as an academic theory, modernization has
been the subject of ongoing debate, and the mechanisms through
which the process supposedly operates produce questionable
outcomes, modernization continues to hold relevance for developing
states as a popular paradigm for third-world development.64 This is not
to argue that Egyptian authorities adopted an explicit “modernization”
approach to Sinai development, which would assume that a primary
goal was social development of the periphery instead of revenue
maximization. In fact, the state appears little concerned with the
Bedouin outside of the implications for maintaining a tight security
presence in the Peninsula. Instead, both written and anecdotal
evidence strongly supports the revenue maximization approach. The
positive externalities anticipated by the modernization paradigm, such
between declarations of intent by state leaders and the actual execution
of policy on the ground. Furthermore, good intentions and the desire
for macro-level transformation say nothing about their knowledge of
micro-level social and economic dynamics. Migdal, in 1988, argued that
scholars need to examine the impact of social policies from a bottom-up
perspective. Ten years later, Simon suggested that while “sustainability”
had become an ostensible goal of development agencies, the addition of
the label “sustainable” was accompanied by few policy changes and no
greater sensitivity to the micro-level impact of development. Today, while
progress has been made on the scholarly side, aid agencies have not
changed significantly. Migdal, Strong Societies, Weak States, pp. 260-1.
Simon, “Development Reconsidered.”
64. Simon, “Development Reconsidered,” p. 185.
Chapter 1
as social integration, economic rationalization, and increasing state
control of its territory, are often assumed to be associated with the
type of neo-liberal development policies in play in Sinai. The failure
of these policies to yield the assumed benefits warrants the same
type of criticism that has underpinned the modernization debate for
decades. Furthermore, it would be hard to deny that the promises of
“modernization,” notably rationalization of the economy and political
stabilization, are themselves attractive goals for state authorities,
and it is quite probable that both neo-liberal goals and sociopolitical
“modernization” arguments work together in this regard.
The course of tourism development in South Sinai was shaped by
the requirements that the Egyptian government needed this sector to
fulfill and reflect the basic assumptions stated above. As one of the
earliest established sectors of the developing Sinai economy, tourism
has become the primary economic activity along the Aqaba cost (as
opposed to industry, concentrated on the West coast, and agriculture,
concentrated in the North). The authorities have favored courses of
tourism development guaranteeing high returns for the government.
This has led them to place major emphasis on formalized tourism
development, focusing on large, multinational resort chains which
invest large sums into development, and from which high taxes and
fees can be extracted.65 In one extreme example, a recent report states
that one of the major casinos in Sharm el-Sheikh pays $24 million in
royalties to the government each year, in addition to its annual taxes.66
While the major resorts undoubtedly pay less, international companies
must maintain the proper permits to operate their businesses, and
these companies have no trouble paying the high fees. This focus
has maximized revenue for the state; however, it has ensured the
marginalization of local inhabitants by channeling revenue flows out of
the local economy and to national projects and foreign shareholders.
The formalization of tourism has made it harder for the Bedouin to
participate in and benefit from Aqaba tourism.
65. Homa, “Touristic Development in Sinai,” p. 252.
66. Adel Abdellah, “Even Tourists and Tourism Operators Say Yes to the
MB,”, Jan. 4, 2012. <
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
Smaller hotels have been discouraged due to the perception that
these will not generate the same level of revenue and channel it back
into further development. In a similar fashion, tourism advertising has
focused on expensive resorts and vacation packages aimed at families
and wealthier tourists rather than at backpackers and young travelers.
The government has reasoned that focusing on wealthier tourists will
generate the most revenue per visitor.
This focus on development of formal tourism in Sinai has two
major implications for the Bedouin. The first has to do with revenue
leakage, a consequence of the preference for large, foreign-owned
hotel chains. While these chains build resorts that have the potential
to generate significant revenues, a majority of these profits flow out of
the locality where they are generated. For example, the Hilton, one of
the largest and most expensive resorts in Dahab, channels most of the
revenue it generates out of Sinai, into the accounts of the company and
its owners and as payments to the Egyptian government for permits
and as taxes, translating into high leakage out of the local economy.67
Formal tourism development, while favored by Egyptian authorities
for its potential to generate high returns, is actually an obstacle to the
Bedouins’ ability to access locally generated tourist revenue.
This is in direct contrast to smaller hotels and local operations,
which guarantee relatively low leakages as they are prone to be
owned, operated, and staffed by locals instead of foreign investors
and migrants. Small-scale tourism is therefore “capable of higher
integration into the local economic structure; it is capable of producing
a higher multiplier effect on the local economy than the formal
tourism sector,” whereas the formal sector relies heavily on foreign
or external elements.68 For the Bedouin, smaller hotels and locally-run
tour companies would ensure a significant amount of revenue would
remain in the community, allowing the Bedouin to realize more profit
from economic activities within their territory. However, Egyptian
preferences to work with foreign tourism agencies and international
hotel chains make it harder for the Bedouin to access their share of
the profits being collected. Additionally, the regulations have made it
67. Daher, “Reconceptualizing Tourism in the Middle East,” p. 22.
68. Ibid., p. 24; see also Martin Opperman, “Tourism Space in Developing
Countries,” Annals of Tourism Research 20 (1953).
Chapter 1
significantly harder for the Bedouin to build and own their own hotels,
which the Egyptians have attempted to replace with larger chains,
using the justification that the Bedouin do not meet the safety and
quality standards of the large resorts, and that Egyptian regulations
are for the safety and benefit of its tourists.69
The second implication for the Bedouin is their marginalization
from the tourist spaces in general. As one of Egypt’s main national
goals has been the creation of jobs for Nile Valley Egyptians, migrants
from those areas, not the Bedouin, are considered to have first
priority when it comes to access to employment. Additionally, the
Bedouin are considered to be less reliable because they do not have
the professional levels of education favored by the modernization
paradigm; many businesses avoid hiring Bedouin altogether, due to
conceptions of the Bedouin as stupid, lazy, or something more sinister
(see chapter four). For the Aqaba Bedouin, this limits their ability to
engage the formal tourist sectors in any manner more substantial than
as menial employees in the large resort hotels, leaving them searching
for ways to protect their livelihood by ensuring the continuation of
informal economies.70 Primary ways in which they establish informal
economic connections are through hiring out jeeps and pickup
trucks to carry travelers between locations, by organizing Bedouin
cultural events such as camel treks and oasis visits independently of
the resorts, and through the operation of illicit economies such as
drug dealing or smuggling. All of these issues, and how the Bedouin
cope with them, will be discussed in greater depth in the following
chapters. It is important, in any event, to highlight that the nature of
Egyptian development policies have had profound effects on courses
of socioeconomic transformation among the Aqaba Bedouin by
creating obstacles to Bedouin participation in Aqaba tourism.
69. Ben Beasley-Murray, “The Tourism Development Agency uses
environmental rhetoric to justify demolishing Bedouin-owned camps in
favor of big hotels,” Cairo Times, September 30, 1999.
70. Heba Aziz, “Employment in a Bedouin Community: The Case of the
Town of Dahab in South Sinai,” Nomadic Peoples 4.2 (2000), p. 32.
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
Dahab and Development
Dahab has been affected by formalization to a significantly lesser
extent than the other major Sinai tourist center, Sharm el-Sheikh,
which is dominated by international resorts. This only serves to
increase Dahab’s significance as a center of Bedouin life, as their
access to economic opportunities in Dahab is freer than in Aqaba’s
other tourist centers. This has to do with the origins of tourism in
Dahab, which was pioneered by the Bedouin themselves, as opposed
to state-directed tourism in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
During the Israeli occupation in the 1960s and 70s, Dahab became
a popular coastal location for Israeli travelers and backpackers. The
Aqaba Bedouin quickly seized upon this concept and began building
campgrounds for the backpackers to stay. As recently as the mid-
1990s, Dahab continued to be dominated by Bedouin-owned
campgrounds.71 As Dahab’s popularity increased among these
low-budget travelers, the number of campsites increased, soon to
be complimented by restaurants, and later, hotels, dive shops, and
surf clubs, increasingly owned by Egyptian businessmen and some
foreigners. Dahab, over the past 20 years, has transformed from
a backpacker destination into a major center for water sports such
as scuba, sailing, and surfing, but it continues to be defined by its
laid-back, Bedouin/backpacker character, reflecting the informal or
grassroots origins of Dahab tourism.
Large-scale development in Dahab did not truly begin until the
mid-1990s, more than a decade after the Egyptian reoccupation. At
this point, Egyptian authorities began focusing development in Dahab
on formal tourism, and a number of large multinational resorts have
sprung up by the beach, including a Hilton, a Le Meridien, and a Sofitel,
in addition to others. However, the smaller-scale tourist establishments
have remained a permanent fixture in Dahab proper, as they were
well established by the time the Egyptian development project began.72
These cater to middle- and lower-budget travelers, such as young
backpackers, and involve the Bedouin to a much greater extent than
resorts such as the Hilton. This has allowed the Bedouin a significant
71. Conversation with a Dahab business owner, February 12, 2010.
72. Aziz, “Employment in a Bedouin Community,” p. 32.
Chapter 1
role in the economy of Dahab by encouraging the establishment of
informal economic ties directly with tourists, cutting out the state or
its foreign representatives, with limited success.73
Recently, however, state-supported resort tourism development
has begun to expand, and discriminatory Egyptian policies have led
to land appropriation and even the demolition of Bedouin-owned
businesses.74 The number of remaining Bedouin camps has begun to
decline as land is being purchased or claimed for three- and four-star
hotels. With its large Bedouin presence and ever-increasing Egyptian
attempts to force the town to conform to Egyptian ideals, Dahab has
become a primary arena for competition between the Aqaba Bedouin,
attempting to preserve their livelihood, and Egyptian authorities,
attempting to utilize Sinai’s resources to pursue national goals.
The Emergent Reality of Dahab
While development in Sinai has been largely successful, and tourism
along the Aqaba Coast has boomed in the past two decades, one aspect
of the NPDS has been a resounding failure. While initially, Egyptian
authorities were optimistic that Egyptian families could be enticed out
of the cities to settle in Sinai, this rarely occurred; the Egyptians failed
to devise a strategy to settle Sinai with Nile Valley migrant families
and create a new Egyptian society in the peninsula. Very few families
agreed to move to Sinai (most are the families of the few doctors,
teachers, and businessmen working in Sinai, but not of those involved
73. Laleh Behbehanian, “Policing the Illicit Peripheries of Egypt’s Tourism
Industry,” Middle East Report 216 (2000), p. 33.
74. Personal observations from multiple trips to Dahab, combined with
repeated statements from the Bedouin asserting that the discriminatory
treatment of the Bedouin regarding land and economics is getting worse.
See also Beasley-Murray, “The Tourism Development Agency uses
environmental rhetoric to justify demolishing Bedouin-owned camps in
favor of big hotels.”
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
in tourism or other menial labor).75 This has rendered Dahab, similarly
to other tourism towns along the Aqaba Coast, unviable as an Egyptian
community or an Egyptian society as envisioned by early Egyptian
and American planners. Instead, a majority of Egyptian migrants in
Sinai are young, unmarried men traveling in search of work so that
they can make the money necessary to start a family according to
Egyptian social custom.76 A secondary source of Egyptian migrants is
the pool of married, but underemployed, Egyptian males who pursue
migratory labor in Sinai. Egyptian development plans have, to a large
extent, already compensated for this by adjusting their population
goals down and altering the course of development in Sinai’s towns
from residential construction for families to residential construction for
male workers, resulting in dormitory-style living in the town centers.
Egyptian migrants have decided to relate to Sinai employment
in a similar manner to other forms of Egyptian migrant labor, as a
means of making money to send back to support the family at home
in the form of remittances. Egyptian migrants in Sinai interviewed
for this study had stories of migratory remittances, and admitted
that their only interest in living in Sinai was to make money to send
home to support their families, who remain either in rural villages or
in the cities of central Egypt. Sinai, specifically through tourism, has
become a source of foreign capital for Egyptians. In this way, Sinai
is emerging as an alternative to migratory employment in Gulf oil
industries or education, which, since the 1960s, has been the primary
means to bring foreign capital into Egypt.77 The major difference is
that in Sinai, Nile Valley migrants are favored by authorities, while
those seeking employment in Gulf states are often denied civil rights
and are subject to many other restrictions on their movement and
employment. Egyptian migrants in Sinai say that working there is
preferable to traveling to the Gulf because it is significantly closer
75. Conversations and home visits with Egyptian migrant laborers in Dahab,
March 2009–February 2010.
76. Personal observations of Dahab’s demographic structure, multiple trips to
Dahab, March 2009–February 2010.
77. Nazih N. Ayubi, The State and Public Policies in Egypt Since Sadat,
Political Studies of the Middle East Series (Reading, U.K.; Ithaca Press,
Chapter 1
to home and migrants in Sinai are subjected to less discriminatory
treatment from Egyptian authorities. For these reasons, there is
an increasing desire for Egyptians to seek migratory labor in Sinai
than abroad.78 This trend is a clear result of the relative benefits of
Egyptians seeking employment within their own borders.
Many Egyptians come to Sinai from the cities and the villages
of the Delta and Upper Egypt in search of work, and follow their
acquaintances and kin. Jobs are most frequently allocated along kinship
lines or among friends. A majority of laborers interviewed in Dahab
acknowledged that their job came from an opportunity given to them
by an older brother or cousin, who acts as a host to new migrants.
Thus patterns of development and employment in Sinai suggest that
to central Egyptians, Sinai is not a place to settle and raise a family,
but to make money to support the rest of the family at home. This
concept of remittances will appear occasionally throughout this work,
showing the types of employment and settlement patterns resulting
from Sinai development.
Development in Sinai has been closely controlled by the Egyptian
state in order to reflect the goals of the Egyptian state as opposed to
the interests and developmental concerns of any periphery. In this,
attempts to increase state presence and instruments of control in the
Egyptian periphery are clearly visible. Egyptian security forces exercise
tight control over the main transportation routes across and around
Sinai, able to regulate or restrict the movement of all but the Bedouin.
Furthermore, Egyptian utilities and services have given the Egyptian
government the role of primary caretaker and distributor of goods
78. None of the Egyptian laborers in Sinai interviewed for this study
challenged this statement; they all declared their preference to remain in
Egypt to pursue work, and many stated that Sinai was their only viable
option, as there were no jobs in the cities of central Egypt. A majority of
migrants from urban Egypt indicated that their desire to move to Sinai
was to seek better paying jobs and escape the crowded conditions of the
city. When asked about the possibility of seeking employment outside of
Egypt, not a single respondent declared a preference to give up their
Sinai jobs for foreign employment. It is clear from their responses that
there is a certain feeling of entitlement among Sinai laborers, that they
feel more comfortable there than in a foreign country.
Egypt’s Vision for Sinai
and services in Sinai’s growing towns. Elements increasing Egyptian
control in urban spaces include utilities such as water and electricity,
which have been made widely available, as well as services, notably
health, security, and education, all of which, however, suffer from
under investment, resulting in poor quality public goods. Through
development, Egypt has been able to extend these services to the
towns of South Sinai, increasing the reliance of Sinai’s residents
on Egyptian goods and services. This dependence has developed
unevenly, however, and the Bedouin have, to differing extents, been
able to avoid relying on the outcomes of Egyptian development. As
a trend, the Bedouin living in desert villages enjoy relatively greater
independence than those in the towns. The following chapters
examine a number of consequences of increasing Egyptian control
and increasing reliance on Egyptian goods and services.
While the Egyptian authorities have invested a great deal of time
and effort into determining how best to utilize the available resources
to maximize the benefit to the central state, they did not adequately
prepare themselves to deal with an Egyptian population that was not
ready to commit to national life in Sinai or a Bedouin population that
would attempt to participate in the Egyptian project according to their
own interests. Egyptian goals have clashed with the interests of the
Bedouin and their vision for the future.
Figure 3: Ongoing construction in Dahab.
Photo taken by author, February 10, 2010.
Chapter 1
Figure 4: The Dahab Corniche. Photo taken by author,
February 20, 2009.
Chapter 2
The Evolving Economies of
the Dahab Bedouin —
Emerging Trends and
The development of urban centers along the Aqaba Coast is a new
phenomenon for the Bedouin. Whereas historically, these Bedouin
had to travel long distances to access towns and their markets and
practiced subsistence economics within their tribal territory, Israeli
and Egyptian development has led to the emergence of local towns
with their own markets. This has had a noticeable impact on Bedouin
economic practices by encouraging the Bedouin to participate in the
opportunities these towns generate, producing a perceptible shift
towards greater reliance on the market economy and a simultaneous
decline in the productivity of their subsistence economies. Far from
leading to a rejection of pastoral economies in favor of those in the
towns (a shift from “traditional” to “modern” economies), the Bedouin
have adapted their economic practices to the changing situation by
increasing their presence in tourist centers and altering their lifestyles
to help them access new sources of income while attempting to
preserve the security their subsistence economies provide. These two
economies do not operate independently of one another; rather, each
system is shaped by the limitations of the other, and elements of one
may be applicable in the other. The Aqaba Bedouins’ contemporary
subsistence economy can only be understood in relation to the
prevailing conditions of the expanding market economy.79 A stylized
ideal-type model would view these economies as mutually dependent
79. Emanuel Marx, “Changing Employment Patterns of Bedouin in South
Sinai,” in Emanuel Marx and Avshalom Shmueli (eds.), The Changing
Bedouin (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1984), p. 185.
Chapter 2
but separate; however, it would be more useful to understand Bedouin
economic practices as existing on a continuum of “market” on one
extreme and “subsistence” on the other. In practice, all Bedouin
economics fall somewhere in between the two poles, and Bedouin
economic practices simultaneously rely on and benefit from the rules
of both.
The Bedouin have never subsisted from a single-sector economy,
despite popular images that they focus solely on pastoralism. While
a major focus on Bedouin economic practices deals with nomadic
pastoralism, the husbandry of camels, goats, and sheep, the Bedouin
could not possibly subsist off of animal products alone, and the sparse
resources of the Sinai desert render pastoralism unfeasible as a single-
sector economy.80 They have instead engaged in a practice described
by Philip Salzman as “multi-resource nomadism,” which includes not
only animal husbandry, but also some combination of agriculture,
trade, smuggling and raiding, as well as wage labor.81 While Salzman
discusses this phenomenon regarding Baluch nomads, his ideas have
been applied, almost wholesale, to the Arab Bedouin. Of Salzman’s
notion of “multi-resource nomadism,” Emanuel Marx states, “All
Bedouin, except a small number of highly-specialized camel-breeding
groups, engage in a ‘multi-resource economy,’ combining pastoralism
with a variety of other occupations.”82 Similarly, as various studies of
Sinai Bedouin economic practices have revealed, these Bedouin have
80. Aziz, “Employment in a Bedouin Community,” p. 33; cf. Emanuel Marx,
“Economic Change among Pastoral Nomads in the Middle East,” in
Emanuel Marx and Avshalom Shmueli (eds.), The Changing Bedouin,
ed. (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1984).
81. Philip C. Salzman, “Multi-Resource Nomadism in Iranian Baluchistan,” in
William Irons (ed.), Perspectives on Nomadism (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972).
Salzman specifically refers to “multi-resource Nomadism,” however
subsequent studies of the Bedouin, notably by Marx, have qualified this
concept by demonstrating that these Bedouin need not maintain nomadic
lifestyles to continue pastoral or multi-resource modes of living. Thus when
considering this ‘multi-resource’ economy of the Bedouin, we should not
assume that it is only applicable to groups that remain nomads.
82. Ann Gardner and Emanuel Marx, “Employment and Unemployment
Among Bedouin,” Nomadic Peoples 4.2 (2000), p. 22.
The Evolving Economies of the Dahab Bedouin—Emerging Trends and Continuities
never maintained an autarkic economy, and interaction with centers
of trade and labor has always played a role in their subsistence.83
Reliance on towns and markets, while variable to some extent, has
been a fixture of Bedouin economic practice.
In this way, the economy of the Aqaba Bedouin is varied, and
different aspects of their economy have occasionally assumed more
or less importance due to the sociopolitical circumstances they have
faced. It is not a case where “traditional” aspects of the economy
are in permanent decline, and even with the presence of the town
and its markets, “traditional” or subsistence-based economic practices
continue to hold economic importance for the Bedouin, especially as
a source of economic security.
The major transformation of the Aqaba Bedouin over the past
40 years has undoubtedly been a result of the proliferation of wage-
labor employment in the towns along the coast. While income from
this type of labor has become the primary source of income for the
Bedouin, they have not abandoned other economic practices. Non-
income generating economic practices, such as the preservation of
flocks and orchards, have either been adapted to take advantages of
new economic opportunities or stem from perceptions of political or
ecological instability, not cultural factors demanding the maintenance
of “traditional practices.” While some of these practices have been
preserved, their relative importance to the subsistence of the Bedouin
has changed. Cash-income labor is now the mainstay of the Aqaba
Bedouin economy.
83. See various studies on Bedouin economies, notably in South Sinai: e.g.,
Dan Rabinowitz, “Themes in the Economies of the Bedouin of South
Sinai in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, “International Journal
of Middle East Studies 17.2 (1985); Aziz, “Employment in a Bedouin
Community”; Marx, “Changing Employment Patterns of Bedouin in
South Sinai.” See also Marx, “Economic Change Among Pastoral
Nomads in the Middle East” for a more general discussion of the Bedouin
and “multi-resource” economies.
Chapter 2
Wage Labor and Employment
among the Mzeina
Wage labor is not a new practice among the Aqaba Bedouin. In fact,
they have known migrant employment since the mid-1800s, when
it played a supplemental role to Bedouin subsistence. Since then,
wage labor has transformed from a source of supplemental income
into a primary source of Bedouin livelihood; it has risen and declined
in cycles reflecting periods of political instability in Sinai, when
employment tends to become insecure and subsistence economies
allow the Bedouin to weather the turbulence. Wage labor is actually
complimentary to the Bedouin economy, and furthermore, is not
a radical new innovation but an increasingly important source of
Before wage labor, the Bedouin of South Sinai relied on a number
of practices to supplement their subsistence economy. While the
Bedouin did operate a pastoral economy, in reality, most of their
food was imported from markets like Cairo and Gaza and had to be
purchased.84 Before the accession to power of Muhammad ‘Ali in
the early 19th century, the Sinai Bedouin, like many other Bedouin
tribes, derived this income from raiding, the extortion of khuwa or
protection money from towns, and the transportation and protection
of people and goods across their tribal territories.85 The income from
these practices would be used to purchase the agricultural products
that the Bedouin relied on but could not produce themselves including
cereals, grain, tea, and sugar, as well as other necessities such as
clothing and weapons. In the 1810s, however, Muhammad ‘Ali began
to pacify the Bedouin in the Egyptian deserts and Sinai.86 Despite
vigorous attempts to resist ‘Ali’s advances, the Tawara Bedouins’ free
reign in the towns of Egypt and their ability to raid caravans traveling
through Sinai was substantially curbed.
84. Emanuel Marx, “Oases in South Sinai,” Human Ecology 27.2 (1999).
85. Rabinowitz, “Themes in the Economies of the Bedouin of South Sinai,”
p. 219.
86. See Gabriel Baer, “Some Aspects of Bedouin Sedentarization in 19th
Century Egypt,” Die Welt des Islams 5.1/2 (1957).
The Evolving Economies of the Dahab Bedouin—Emerging Trends and Continuities
Due to the limitations of a pastoral economy, particularly when
relying on territory that is underproductive and undependable, the
supplementation of animal husbandry with some kind of income-
earning practice is necessary.87 Various studies (e.g., Salzman, Marx,
Sweet88) have shown that pastoral nomads must supplement their
animal-based economy. In the past, additional income was largely
derived from raiding and trading; however, the profitability of these
practices has declined as states have used their military might to pacify
the tribes and increase security along trade routes. In response, some
tribesmen began selling their labor to Egyptian industry, including the
manganese mines at Umm Bogmah and the petroleum fields of Abu
Rudeis on the west coast of Sinai. More substantially, young men
began traveling to Egyptian cities such as Suez and Cairo in search
of employment as migrant laborers.89 Although this work was largely
supplemental, many Aqaba Bedouin did engage in wage labor at some
point in their lives starting from the mid-19th century.
Until the Israeli occupation of the Sinai in 1967, wage labor
functioned as a supplement to the subsistence economy of the
Aqaba Bedouin. A number of factors encouraged a shift towards
greater reliance on a cash economy after the Israeli occupation. First,
increasing Israeli security and policing, as well as the imposition of
an international border at the Suez Canal, brought activities such as
smuggling—an offshoot of raiding that developed independently of
wage labor—to a halt. The Israeli preference to employ the Bedouin
in Sinai development increased both the number and proximity of
jobs, allowing the Bedouin to seek employment significantly closer
to home. The Aqaba Bedouin began working in infrastructure and
construction within Sinai, operating motor vehicles, and participating
87. Salzman, “Multi-Resource Nomadism in Iranian Baluchistan,” p. 66.
88. Louise E. Sweet, “Camel Raiding of the North Arabian Bedouin: A
Mechanism of Ecological Adaptation,” in Louise E. Sweet (ed.), Peoples
and Cultures of the Middle East, vol. 1 (New York: The Natural History
Press, 1970). This study demonstrates that the most specialized Bedouin
groups, the Arabian camel-rearing Bedouin, are equally dependent on
markets to accrue their food supplies.
89. Marx, “Changing Employment Patterns of the Bedouin of South Sinai,”
p. 178.
Chapter 2
in the budding tourist economy, from setting up camps and coffee
shops to guiding desert safaris to selling drugs to young backpackers.90
After the 1973 War, the Israeli authorities increased their
employment of the Bedouin by giving them free access to towns and
cities in Israel, and the Bedouin began pouring into Eilat and Be’er
Sheva in addition to Sharm el-Sheikh; in the mid-1970s, almost all
working-age Bedouin males were employed in a wage-paying job.91
This had two major consequences. First, the economic opportunities
available to the Bedouin both increased and diversified, resulting in
a decline in the relative significance of pastoralism to the Bedouin
as it comprised a smaller and smaller share of Bedouin economics.
This additionally shifted the foundations of the Aqaba Bedouin
economy from multi-resource nomadism to wage labor, fully realized
in the 1970s. Despite this shift, the animal producing economy of
the Bedouin has been maintained, and at times has even been in
resurgence. Increasing reliance on employment opportunities closer to
home is also leading to a decline in nomadic movement and increased
sedentarization. This has to do both with increasingly secure access to
water and fodder for flocks as well as increasing reliance on the towns
for livelihood instead of the natural environment.
Employment trends among the Bedouin in
Dahab under Egyptian Rule
A consistent and continuing trend under Egyptian rule has been
the increasing localization of employment. While before the 1960s,
employment was limited to Egyptian cities, and during the Israeli
occupation was extended to the large urban centers of Sharm el-
Sheikh, Eilat, and Be’er Sheva, during the neo-Egyptian period, from
1982 onward, there has been accelerating growth of employment
centers even more locally, with the emergence of market towns in
Taba, Nuwayba, and Dahab. The number of jobs is increasing, as is
their proximity to the homes of the Aqaba Bedouin.
90. Aziz, “Employment in a Bedouin Community,” p. 34.
91. Marx, “Changing Employment Patterns of the Bedouin of South Sinai,”
p. 181.
The Evolving Economies of the Dahab Bedouin—Emerging Trends and Continuities
Tourism continues to be the primary source of income for the
Aqaba Bedouin under Egyptian rule, but the market has undergone
a significant change in transition from Israeli control back to Egyptian
sovereignty. While the Bedouin did not have to compete with Israelis
for jobs, as the Bedouin monopolized the unskilled labor pool and the
tourism industry, under Egyptian rule, competition for employment
between the Bedouin and unskilled migrant laborers has been intense.
These unskilled workers have come to Sinai from both Egypt and the
Sudan to take advantage of the jobs that Egyptian development has
promised them.
In Dahab, patterns of employment in the tourist industry have
experienced a major transformation. In the years of the Israeli
occupation, tourism in Dahab was largely run by the Bedouin
themselves. They set up campsites and restaurants and employed
other tribesmen. Non-Bedouin businesses during this period had
to purchase land directly from the Bedouin. Even after Dahab was
reoccupied by Egypt, development remained slow in the 1980s and
early 1990s, giving the Bedouin a large degree of freedom. This early
period of low-budget tourism development cemented for the Bedouin a
place in the Dahab economy. At the turn of the millennium, however,
the Egyptian government placed higher priority on economic growth
in Dahab, and began implementing large-scale tourism development
along the beaches according to the goals outlined in the NPDS.92 This
gave the Egyptian government the primary responsibility of regulating
Dahab’s tourist economy and deprived the Bedouin of a great deal
of their economic freedom, increasingly forcing them to rely on the
goodwill of the state to maintain Bedouin employment and ownership
Consumerism is a relatively new concept for the Bedouin, but a
major issue when examining social attitudes towards employment. In
a pastoral economy, there are a number of ways to display wealth,
notably through practices of granting hospitality, as the ability to host
others is a sure sign of prosperity, as well as through the production
of luxury items instead of subsistence items, for example raising
92. Interview with owner of a dive shop in Dahab, video archives, May 14,
Chapter 2
horses in Arabia.93 The Western conception of consumption, based
on the concept of saving money to accrue luxury items, appears to
have been imported into Sinai only through the arrival of Israeli and
European tourists, who introduced the Bedouin to consumer goods.94
The availability of these items close to home, coinciding with the rise
of local markets, has been the major factor encouraging the adoption
of consumer lifestyles, which has, in turn, encouraged more and more
Bedouin to pursue wage-paying jobs with the goal of accumulating
capital. This process, however, is incomplete and is supplemented by
a common trend of gift-giving, whereby the Bedouin accrue consumer
items through the relationships they have formed with foreigners. In
this way, the maintenance of close relationships with foreigners is as
important to patterns of Bedouin consumerism as employment, and
wage labor is not the only path to consumerist lifestyles. Furthermore,
these consumer goods are not always kept by the Bedouin; they are
occasionally sold for cash, and should be considered a form of savings
or investment that can be converted into currency when necessary. In
this way, the turn towards a consumerist economic orientation is also
a product of the rising cost of living.
For the Bedouin, employment does not differ significantly from
other forms of subsistence: it is a means to provide basic necessities
such as food, shelter, and security, and secondarily for purposes of
consumption. An implication of this approach is that Bedouin attitudes
towards employment differ from those in Western, industrialized
nations: maintaining oneself in a job to ensure a continuous flow
of income is unnecessary, and perhaps even wasteful, taking away
from other activities that contribute equally to the subsistence of
the family or the maintenance of relationships with foreigners. The
Bedouin work to earn the money they require to purchase items the
family needs, mostly food, clothing, and locally available consumer
goods. Bedouin concepts of saving place a higher value on preserving
and storing necessities for times of emergency than on cash, which
has no real utility except in the short term. While the adoption of
93. William C. Young, “The Bedouin: Discursive Identity or Sociological
Category? A Case Study from Jordan,” Journal of Mediterranean
Studies 9.2 (1999). p. 289.
94. Aziz, “Employment in a Bedouin Community,” p. 34.
The Evolving Economies of the Dahab Bedouin—Emerging Trends and Continuities
consumerist tendencies is accelerating and wage labor is increasingly
viewed through a lens of consumerism, many of the Aqaba Bedouin
continue to view employment as one of a number of practices geared
towards subsistence.
This being the case, many Bedouin seek temporary employment
in Dahab. This means that a Bedouin will work for a limited period of
time, perhaps one to two weeks, make some money, and then take
an equal or longer period off. A Bedouin working as a waiter at one of
the restaurants on the Dahab corniche explained that he only worked
when he needed the money, whether it was to provide food for the
family or buy a new bathing suit, and that he might work a week or
two to make what he needed and then stop until he needed more.95
This tendency, not uncommon today among the Dahab Bedouin,
has encouraged a view of the Bedouin as lazy and unreliable, leading
to accusations that the Bedouin despise work and prefer poverty.96
Such attitudes, however, reflect the values of a capitalist society that
favors steady employment, the accumulation of capital, and saving,
which are necessary to drive a consumerism-based society; they do
not accurately reflect the values of the Bedouin. A pastoral economy
simply cannot be maintained by sloth, and claims that it is are entirely
divorced from the reality of life in the desert.
Another Bedouin described his employment history as one of
low duration and high mobility. He changed jobs according to where
the tourists were concentrated and when. His first job, as a Bedouin
tour guide, was only successful during the cool winter months, so he
would limit his time working as a guide, and in the summer he worked
as a waiter at his brother’s beachside restaurant before becoming a
Divemaster.97 He explained that he maintained both a summer and
a winter job, not because he needed the constant flow of money for
himself, but so that he would be able to send continuous money home
to his mother and sisters who live in a desert village. Dahab is a source
95. Conversation with a Bedouin employee, September 22, 2009.
96. Proof of the existence of these attitudes needs no citation as it is recounted
in almost every traveler’s journal and official recollection regarding the
Bedouin. These attitudes continue to be held by many Egyptian migrants
working in Dahab. This topic will be addressed in greater detail in chapter
4 of this study.
97. Interview with a Bedouin Divemaster, July 24, 2009.
Chapter 2
of remittances for the Bedouin as much as it is for Egyptian migrant
workers. All of the Bedouin living in Dahab have family in Sinai’s
desert villages, and their sedentarization has created permanent
channels for the flow of tourist revenue to the Bedouin not living in
Dahab or other urban centers. Many more Bedouin rely on tourist
revenue than live in Dahab.
Furthermore, these Bedouin have grown accustomed to labor
insecurity, because in addition to political instability having the
potential to undermine their access to employment, they also know
that they can be dismissed by their employers without any notice. This
being the case, the Bedouin value the ability to work in a number
of different occupations and quickly change from one occupation to
another. This allows them to pursue a wide variety of job opportunities
whenever they might be available in order to mitigate the insecurity
of the job market or the potential fickleness of Egyptian employers.
While providing a measure of flexibility for the Bedouin, this practice
has also limited their vertical mobility in the tourist economy because
it has created a lack of specialization among Bedouin workers. This
lack of specialization is caused by reluctance to make risky, expensive
investments in a single skill. This, according to Dan Rabinowitz, “in
turn, limits the Bedouins’ incorporation into the wider economics
on which they are dependent. They tend to perpetuate themselves
as pools of unskilled laborers, available for hire by the economies of
Egypt… at any time.”98 This allows the Bedouin to pursue a wide
range of jobs, but prevents them from progressing beyond the level
of menial employment and generates negative perceptions regarding
their work ethic.
The major exception to the above discussion has been the
increasing employment of young Bedouin, in their early twenties, in
the windsurfing clubs attached to the multinational resorts along the
Dahab Lagoon, as well as in a few scuba shops that employ Bedouin
as Divemasters in addition to drivers and gear carriers.99 Many of
these Bedouin began windsurfing and diving as a hobby during their
98. Rabinowitz, “Themes in the Economies of the Bedouin of South Sinai,”
p. 225.
99. Divemaster being a high-skilled job and drivers and gear carriers being
The Evolving Economies of the Dahab Bedouin—Emerging Trends and Continuities
teenage years, and have become natural candidates for employment
in these sectors of the tourist economy. More will be said in the next
chapter about the willingness of some foreign employers to work with
the Bedouin, but for now it is important to note that these Bedouin,
who have turned their hobbies into steady careers, represent a small
minority of Bedouin employees in Dahab.
Bedouin employment, for the most part, is limited to the peripheries
of the Dahab tourist economy. Since Egyptians prefer to hire other
Egyptians, there is little Bedouin presence at the larger resorts or the
Egyptian-owned hotels, with a few exceptions. Instead, the Bedouin
occupy jobs that can be considered self-employment such as driving a
jeep or selling handicrafts, working for other Bedouin, or working as
menial laborers in shops and restaurants. These occupations allow the
Bedouin more freedom, both to pursue a wide variety of jobs and to
decide when to work and when not to. While wage labor has become
the primary source of income for the Bedouin, its insecure nature and
reliance on a single sector of the developed economy, tourism, has
led the Aqaba Bedouin to maintain other economic practices as well.
The Maintenance and Adaptation of
Subsistence Economies
The maintenance of Bedouin subsistence economies in the urban
environment, as shown by the previous generation of Sinai researchers,
is a type of economic insurance against political and economic
instability. The Bedouin have experienced this instability in the past
and know that these periods often lead to increased unemployment
or shocks to the tourist market. In times like these, the Bedouin fall
back on their subsistence economy and the social patterns comprising
it.100 These structures help prevent food shortages, deprivation, and
starvation among the Bedouin in times of crisis or instability. The
strength and vitality of the subsistence economy is directly dependent
on the state of the market economy.
A number of events that occurred in the Sinai over the past
century have reinforced the need for the Bedouin to maintain these
100. Marx, “Oases in South Sinai,” p. 343.
Chapter 2
modes of subsistence. Most notable were the wars fought in Egypt
and the Sinai: World War I and the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948, 1956,
June 1967, and October 1973, a number of which, most notably
the October War, froze the economies of the Sinai and led to full
unemployment. More recently, the waves of unrest and terrorism
that struck the Aqaba Coast in the early 2000s in Dahab, Taba, and
Sharm el-Sheikh, discussed in the preface, as well as in the aftermath
of the national uprising in January 2011 that I detail in the epilogue,
brought an immediate halt to the flow of tourists, leading to a spike
in unemployment in a depressed tourist economy.101 Through these
events, which had devastating economic consequences in South Sinai,
the Bedouin have learned that they cannot rely on governments to
provide and maintain stable economies and that in times of crisis, the
Bedouin must be able to rely on themselves. Additionally, they have
discovered the fragile nature of international tourism and the danger
of having to rely on a single sector for a majority of their income.
By maintaining a subsistence economy in times of prosperity and
activating it in times of need, the Bedouin have largely avoided major
food and financial crises.
Perhaps more importantly, while this alternate economy has often
been viewed as economically unproductive, especially compared
to the wage labor opportunities available in the towns, it has great
contemporary relevance to the Bedouin as they integrate into Dahab’s
tourist market.102 Despite this lack of productivity, these practices have
not been abandoned, nor have the tribal social structures that support
them. Largely based on pastoralism and agriculture and grounded in
tribal social structures, the subsistence system is often viewed as the
remnant of the Bedouins’ “traditional” modes of living. However, they
have been largely adapted to fit the developing reality in Sinai and
are more reflective of contemporary conditions, such as the political
101. I had the opportunity to visit Dahab in July 2011, four months after
the end of the January Revolution; tourism had only slightly begun to
recover. Despite the absence of instability in the Aqaba region itself,
the protests led to a virtual disappearance of tourists from all of Egypt
immediately following the uprisings.
102. Marx, “Changing Employment Patterns of Bedouin in South Sinai,”
p. 173.
The Evolving Economies of the Dahab Bedouin—Emerging Trends and Continuities
situation and the availability of market opportunities, than of conditions
of the past. Many economic practices have been maintained, such as
herding, fishing, and smuggling, but the form that they have taken is
significantly different today, as old practices have been adapted to fit
new circumstances born from processes of urbanization and tourism
development. In fact, a number of these “traditional” practices have
only recently become quite lucrative and have given the Bedouin a
competitive edge in the market economy.
Perhaps most central to the study of the Bedouin is the role of herding
and pastoralism. One of the most popular images of the Bedouin is
as herders of goats and camels, and it has even been suggested that
herding is the major criterion defining the Bedouin. For the Aqaba
Bedouin, however, pastoralism has always been a limited-value
In the subsistence territory, flocks are taken to pasture by the
young girls and camps would move in order to ensure the flocks would
get sufficient food and water.104 Today among the Aqaba Bedouin,
the picture is significantly different. The label “nomadic pastoralism”
suggests that camps move in order to ensure the provision of food
and water to their flocks, the source of the nomad’s livelihood. In the
subsistence territory, technological development, notably pumps and
generators, have largely mitigated the need for nomadic movement.
In Dahab, this necessity is further mitigated by the overabundance
of organic waste left around Bedouin neighborhoods. Instead of
having to bring the flocks out to pasture, they are let loose in the
streets of ‘Asala to graze on the heaps of trash available to them (see
Figure 5). As water is also readily available from government-sunk
wells and urban plumbing, the Bedouin do not need to move their
103. Emanuel Marx, “Tribal Pilgrimages to Saints’ Tombs in South Sinai,” in
Ernest Gellner (ed.), Islamic Dilemmas: Reformers, Nationalists, and
Industrialization: The Southern Shore of the Mediterranean (New
York: Mouton, 1985), p. 113.
104. Gardner, “At Home in South Sinai,” p. 53.
Chapter 2
flocks in pursuit of water and pasture. Urbanization and technological
development have negated the need for nomadic movement.
While many Bedouin families living in Dahab own goats and sheep,
very few own enough animals from which to subsist. The Aqaba
Bedouin seem to agree that 50 to 60 goats are needed for subsistence.105
In the 1980s, Ann Gardner estimated the average flock size to number
fewer than 20 goats, with a large herd consisting of 40.106 Flock sizes
began to further decline in the 1970s as increasing opportunities for
employment rendered herding less financially attractive.107 Today, the
average size of goat flocks is somewhere between six and ten animals,
and their function has not changed. These herds are not for subsistence
purposes; it would be very hard to maintain larger, subsistence flocks
due to the sparse vegetation available for grazing, which needs to be
supplemented by expensive food purchases. Furthermore, the urban
dietary staples of these flocks, consisting mostly of garbage and poor
quality fodder, have undermined the quality of the products derived
105. Marx, “Tribal Pilgrimages to Saints’ Tombs in South Sinai,” p. 113.
106. Gardner, “At Home in South Sinai,” p. 52.
107. Rabinowitz, “Themes in the Economies of the Bedouin of South Sinai,”
p. 223.
Figure 5: Urban herds.
Photo by Eli Sperling, May 15, 2009.
The Evolving Economies of the Dahab Bedouin—Emerging Trends and Continuities
from them. The quality of the meat has suffered significantly and the
Bedouin have claimed that the milk from urban goats is essentially
useless unless the goats are maintained inside and fed with purchased
grains or vegetables, which quickly become financially prohibitive. In a
day-to-day context, these flocks are at best unproductive and at worst
a drain on Bedouin resources. Instead of considering