Global Economy's Latest: Arab Nomads Staying Put

Their name still conjures a life traversing hot sands, but the Bedouin today even hire foreign herdsmen.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Life as a Bedouin isn't what it used to be.

For thousands of years, desert nomads throughout Arabia endured searing heat and blasting sandstorms to lead their camels and sheep to sprigs of green in remote valleys.

Such men of the desert were revered as Arab icons, in part because their very existence from one day to the next was seen as a vivid demonstration that all life on earth - even in the midst of a parched wasteland - is a gift from God.

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But that romantic image of an Arab in the wilderness with his family, his herds, and his faith is fading away amid the economic realities of oil wealth.

Today, would-be Bedouins in Kuwait sit in air-conditioned comfort and hire low-wage workers from Bangladesh to tend their herds.

Such armchair Bedouins are a stark example of the globalization of the economy, an illustration that no matter how difficult, dirty, or dangerous the job, someone from someplace else can be found to do it.

In the process, an important chapter in Arab history is ending.

"It is true," laments Ayed Awad, a self-described Bedouin who also serves in the military. "But we can't live without these [foreign workers]. We have other work, and families, and homes," he says.

Abdul Rahman Khalif isn't complaining. The Bangladeshi has been tending camels in Kuwait for two years. He is paid 30 Kuwaiti dinars ($93 dollars) a month, most of which he sends home.

"In Bangladesh it is hard to make a living and eat. But when I come to Kuwait I can send money so my family can live," he says.

As he speaks, the camels crowd around him as if listening to the exchange. They nuzzle Mr. Khalif, as if to comfort him. "They are all my friends," he explains.

These particular camels are kept most of the time in a pen near the Al-Jahra camel market about 25 miles northwest of Kuwait City. Khalif sleeps in a corrugated tin shack beside the pen. He milks the camels twice a day.

Not every Bangladeshi shepherd approves of his work conditions. In the middle of the desert more than 60 miles northwest of Kuwait City, Abdul Moni Hajer has spent the past three months watching a small herd of sheep. He earns $108 a month. He is bundled up against the approaching 40-degree night, with only his eyes exposed to the brisk wind.

"In Bangladesh they told me Kuwait was good, but when I came I was shocked" by conditions, he says.

While shepherds watch over both sheep and camels, camels clearly maintain a higher status among the Bedouin. At one time they were the best source of transportation across the desert. Their milk is considered by Bedouins a kind of all-powerful elixir. Camel fleece is a strong, dependable fiber for cloth. And camel meat is expensive and highly prized.

"There is a verse in the Koran that says: 'Behold the camels how they were created, and behold the land how it has been settled, and behold the skies how they have been elevated,' " says a Bedouin who identifies himself only by his family name, al-Mutairi. He says his best camel is worth more than $9,000.

Mr. Mutairi acknowledges that the ways of the Bedouin are changing, but he makes no excuses for using Bangladeshi workers. "This is inexpensive labor," he explains, adding, "and they learn very fast."

He keeps 150 camels in the desert. They are tended around the clock by a Bangladeshi. Whenever he can manage it, Mutairi drives his red Ford pickup truck out to his herd. "It is like a farm that has its workers," he says. The owner of the farm is still the farmer.

He says the arrangement doesn't make him any less a Bedouin. "I live in the city myself," he says. "My children are educated ... but in the Arabian Peninsula our tradition is to always be Bedouin," he says.

His affinity for the desert came in handy in 1991 when Iraqi soldiers invaded Kuwait. He gathered his camels and headed deep into the Saudi desert.

When he returned, the Iraqis were gone, but a significant threat remained - land mines. Mutairi had served in an engineering battalion in the Kuwaiti Army and knew enough about mines that he was able to steer his herd away from the danger.

Others haven't fared as well. After the war the Kuwaiti government hired private firms to dispose of the mines. But there have been regular reports of shepherds - mostly from Bangladesh - who were killed or lost a leg after triggering an Iraqi mine. Camels, too, have died in this way.

If Kuwaiti Bedouins are saddened by the loss of their simple lifestyle, they don't show it. Many strive to keep the desert in their lives.

Large stretches of open country outside Kuwait City are dotted with tents occupied each weekend by families who prefer wide vistas to a city skyline. But it isn't quite like the old days. Erected beside almost every tent is a satellite dish.

During their brief visit to the wilderness, these descendants of ancient nomads can enjoy their favorite television programs while the family's camels and sheep are deep in the desert under the watchful gaze of a cut-rate shepherd from Bangladesh.

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