Ten years ago, I remember driving my late father to the central region of the UAE to attend the majlis of the head of one of the most respected coastal families, who spends his weekends in that mountainous town. Despite his advanced age, the host stood up for his visitors.
I was told that residents of that region regularly visit him and he generously extends financial and moral support to them and lends them a ear. An elderly gentleman walked in and was seated next to our host, a quiet conversation ensued and two younger companions of the elderly gentleman were introduced and exchanged greetings before talking to our host. A direct bond was created between the generations; next time onwards the younger Emiratis could visit and be recognised in that majlis on their own.
I recalled the above incident amidst the popular calls for democratic reform that are being expressed today in the region. I realised that in our zeal to progress politically, we may be neglecting one of the institutions that for centuries has held us together socially.
Majlis is the traditional community salon that shaikhs and tribal chiefs regularly hold to meet with other members of society, both prominent individuals and ordinary citizens. These gatherings are considered an opportunity to air grievances, discuss public demands, highlight issues of importance to the community and reflect popular sentiment regarding various matters.
In the Gulf states many tribal leaders and shaikhs today set aside a day or two per week to meet with citizens. However, over the past decade there has been a rush towards economic development that saw these very shaikhs and tribal leaders spend less time meeting with citizens and more time in various executive boardrooms. As a result of this rush, a communications gap was created in some parts of the Gulf between not only common citizens but also between the tribal leaders and prominent personalities and thus the concerns of the community were not relayed in the right manner or at the right time.
In fact, a seasoned political observer noted to me that much of the initial demands of the demonstrators who took to the streets in the Gulf could have been assuaged with a series of majlis meetings with leaders of their societies.
The priority must now be in expanding the time allotted to meeting with citizens and instilling this tradition in the younger generation of tribal leaders. The social structure of Gulf societies demands that the coming generations set aside some time to acquaint themselves at a younger age with the very same individuals with whom they will most likely be interacting in the future on a daily basis.
The informal ambience in the majlis, similar to Town Hall meetings in the US, allows visitors to discuss matters in a relaxed manner. Majlises absorb the tension in society; they are where the fabric of Gulf communities are formed. Majlises also allow what begin as minor issues to be exposed and dealt with before they escalate into major challenges. It would be a huge mistake for us to ignore this important institution that we have inherited from our ancestors.
In Kuwait, the diwaniyas, as majlises are known there, have played a vital role in civil society and political reform so much so that when the Saudi Crown Prince visited Kuwait in 2007 he called upon several diwaniyas of prominent Kuwaiti tribal leaders.
Traditions are carried forward in majlises, Gulf dialect is preserved, customs such as Arabian hospitality and respect for the elders are upheld and thus by preserving the tradition of majlises, Gulf societies can advance and modernise without the risk of losing our identities. Similarly, in the Gulf, the wives of tribal leaders play a similarly important role in meeting with female citizens so that their concerns are aired.
Often Gulf nationals would complain that an entourage of usual suspects surrounds the tribal leaders and denies citizens the opportunity to interact with them even during the weekly sessions that are specifically set aside to meet nationals. It is vital that those who continuously find themselves surrounding the shaikhs allow common citizens the time and opportunity to speak their minds freely.
The tribal societies in the Gulf must not neglect the important role that the majlis has been playing over centuries. The reform that the Gulf states have promised their citizens will perhaps take many years to implement.
In the meantime, we have an institution that has existed for generations whose role has been instrumental in maintaining social cohesion. It’s time that this role is acknowledged and strengthened once again.