Date: Fri, 9 May 97 09:24:30 CDT
From: rich@pencil.CC.WAYNE.EDU (Rich Winkel)
Subject: Saudi Arabia: Nomadic Life Disappearin

/** headlines: 145.0 **/
** Topic: Saudi Arabia: Nomadic Life Disappearing **
** Written 9:10 AM May 5, 1997 by newsdesk in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 10:20 AM Apr 28, 1997 by in hrnet.development */
/* ---------- "SAU: Nomadic Life Disappearing" ---------- */

Edited/Distributed by HURINet - The Human Rights Information Network

The Nomadic Life Dries Up in Arabia

By Richard Covington, IHT. 22 March, 1997

[This article has been excerpted.]

QTAN, Saudi Arabi, 22 March 1997 (IHT): Reclining in the shade of his billowing tent, Ziab Galib lamented the depressed prices his nomadic flocks of sheep and goats fetch at the nearest market in the dusty crossroads of Radwan 30 kilometers away.

To make ends meet, Mr. Galib said, he took a job as a part-time ranger at the nearby Mahazaf Azet wildlife refuge, guarding privileged oryx, ostriches and gazelles that feast on protected forage...his own flocks are denied.

Globalization has arrived at the tents of Saudi Ariabia's nomads, pulling them into the market economy and downsizing their once-independent lifestyle. As rangelands evaporate and cash becomes necessary, camels are out and sheep are in.

Once self-sufficient herders largely roaming free of the 20th century's economic forces, the nomads are being drawn...into the market by the need to pay for the water trucks and barley they need to nourish their flocks.

At the same time, they are faced with a decline in prices for their camels, sheep and goats, requiring them to herd larger numbers of smaller animals to make the same amount of money. This practice has gravely taxed the overgrazed rangelands and forces an increasing number of nomads into the cities to seek paying jobs.

The Bedouin tribes of Saudi Arabia have ranged the northern half of the country since Biblical times, when they paid camels as tribute to Assyrian overlords. Renowned as warriors and poets, they rallied behind T.E. Lawrence to expel the Turks during World War I. In a country about the size of India, the present population of 100,000 nomads is concentrated around the scrub desert region northwest of Medina.

...being a Bedouin is not what it used to be.

The cost of maintaining camels, the once-economical schooners of the desert, has shot through the roof of the nomads' camel-hair tents.

The shift from camels to sheep has meant...nomads have had to abandon their self-contained subsistence economy and compete with importers who flood the market with 12 million sheep a year, shipped from as far away as Uruguay and New Zealand.

Instead of roaming hundreds of kilometers in trackless desert, most nomads are now content to range within 30 kilometers...of a home base so they can send their children to school and take advantage of government health clinics.

But the unkindest cut has been the expense of living the tented life. In the Tasiyah region of central Saudi Arabia, Bedouins now require $100,000 in initial capital outlays to enter the nomadic sheep-herding business, according to Timothy Finan, an anthropologist with the University of Arizona's Office of Arid Lands Studies. Much of this money goes toward the purchase of a 5-ton truck to haul water and a pickup truck to haul barley and grain, Mr. Finan said, with about $35,000 going to buy sheep at around 500 Saudi riyals ($133) a head.

''The true nomad is fast disappearing and is...being forced into becoming more of a rancher,'' he said. ''The Bedouins are having to behave like economic firms even though they still retain a privileged, even mythic status in Saudi society.''

Mr. Finan, who is conducting a yearlong survey of Bedouin culture under the auspices of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Environment, was among a hundred Western and Saudi scientists in Jidda for an international workshop, co-sponsored by the Saudi government, on the sustainable use of rangelands and desertification control.

As nomads become more and more like ranchers, they graze far too many sheep across a greatly reduced area, turning seasonal rangeland into barren desert.

''The flocks...roam over a perimeter of less than two kilometers and have multiplied to 1,500 head - seven to eight times what they used to be,'' said Mohammed Habib, assistant professor of geography at King Abdulaziz University in Jidda.

Along with trucks, refrigerators and, more rarely, televisions, nomads are acquiring a taste for the settled life. Their only mobility today is upward.

''Children now attend schools 30 kilometers away from their homes,'' Mr. Habib said, ''and sons prefer to become security guards in Riyadh rather than to stay herding with their families.''

An increasing proportion of Saudi nomads are not nomads at all, but herd owners who hire Indian, Sudanese and Somali herders to graze their sheep and goats, according to Abdulbar Gain, the minister for meteorology and environmental protection.

In contrast to sub-Saharan Africa, where governments have been pressuring nomads into fixed settlements, the Saudis have come to a belated appreciation of Bedouins as symbols of the tribal kingdom's resourceful spirit and frequently liken this vanishing breed to the cowboys of the American West.

''For a long time, nomads were stigmatized,'' Mr. Gain said, ''but now we realize their way of life is not primitive and anachronistic.''

To protect the nomads' traditional way of life as well as the rangelands, the government has turned to satellite technology to help nomads like Mr. Galib find greener pastures.

In this proposed marriage of technology with an ancient occupation, the Saudis will use a U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration high-altitude satellite, a Landsat medium-altitude satellite and low-altitude aerial surveys to help the remaining nomadic herders find spots where the grass is truly greener.

Precipitation over the 170 million hectares...of rangelands, roughly three-quarters of the kingdom, is less than 150 millimeters (6 inches) a year.

Data on rainfall, wind and plant growth will be fed into computers for mapping areas for the best grazing and areas to avoid. Reports will be made available to the nomads at the distribution points for government-subsidized barley and eventually broadcast over local radio and television channels.

The government has spent half of the $10 million projected cost for the project, which is scheduled to begin operations next year.

The environment minister is spearheading the satellite project as a means of ''acting like advance scouts'' for the nomads, to encourage them - in carrot-and-stick fashion - to stay on the rangelands but not to overgraze, and to keep away from urban centers.

''The carrot is the barley subsidies,'' said Paul Bailey, an American consultant with the Ministry of Environment. ''The stick is the threat of fencing off degraded land.''

...nomads have made isolated protests over fencing off of wildlife preserves.

Some Saudi observers are skeptical...the nomads - who have managed to track rainfall for millennia - need satellite surveys to help them find water.

''Nomads can identify plants in the pitch dark and tell you what clan a camel comes from by its footprint,'' said Eisa Haratani, a Saudi anthropologist. ''How could satellites help them find forage?''

Mr. Habib doubts...the satellite data will prove useful to the nomads. ''I have a doctorate in geography and I can't even interpret the data,'' he said. ''How will illiterate nomads understand it?''

There is also the fear...the very efficiency of such high-tech solutions may worsen overgrazing.

''When the nomads first started using trucks, we thought it would benefit them,'' Mr. Haratani said. ''Now we see that the trucks allow the nomads to spot-graze, bringing water to the animals instead of animals to the water and placing much more strain on the rangeland than before.

''Giving them satellite pictures may mean the nomads will now be able to rush their flocks even faster to the best grazing spots and destroy them that much more quickly,'' he said.

World History Archives Gateway to World History Images from World History Hartford Web Publishing