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Raiding and Bedouin Economy

Faisal´s army, photo by T.E. Lawrence, Imperial War Museum.

“The fortunes of the Arab are as varied as those of a gambler on the Stock Exchange. One day he is the richest man in the desert, the next morning he may not have a single camel foal to his name…. The truth is that the ghazu is the only industry the desert knows and the only game. As an industry it seems to the commercial mind to be based on a false conception on the laws of supply and demand, but as a game there is much to be said for it. The spirit of adventure finds full scope in it - you can picture the excitement of the night ride across the plain, the rush of the mares in the attack, the glorious (and comparatively innocious) popping of rifles and exhilaration of knowing yourself a fine fellow as you turn homeward with the spoil. It is the best sort of fantasia, as they say in the desert, with a spice of danger behind it. Not that the danger is alarmingly great: a considerable amount of amusement can be got without bloodshed and the raiding Arab is seldom bent on killing.”                                                                              Gertrude Bell


Bedouin economy and raiding were closely linked through the camel, as Meeker explains: “The uniqueness of camel-herding nomadism as one type of nomadism, however, becomes evident when one considers the character of the principle resource on which such a life depended. The Bedouins lived a life of camel-herding. The needs of their camels determined the character of their nomadic life. Note two aspects of this Bedouin means of existence. The camel, as a possession necessary for survival, is uniquely vulnerable. The camel can be removed from its owner. It can be run off at a trot. And yet the camel must be ranged and therefore cannot be surely protected. Unlike land, camels are not easy to defend. Unlike land they can be seized in an inadvertent moment. Unlike wealth in land wealth in camel can vanish almost instantaneously. This feature of the camel as a principal resource allows us to understand why notions of property and possession were in question among the Bedouins. “Now let us consider a second, still more disturbing aspect of the camel. The camel, a vulnerable domestic necessity, is also an aggressive political instrument. The camel, as a mount, makes the camel, as a possession even more tenuous. As a domestic necessity, the camel provides meat and milk. Its hair, woven into tent cloth, provides shelter (here Meeker is wrong, annotation by the author), its dung, fuel, and its urine, bath water. But as a mount, the camel can also be used against other men. One can ride to distant unknown groups, steal their camels, and ride home again, sometimes without even revealing one´s identity. The character of this central possession, therefore, throws into question the concept of possession. It is easier to steal camels than to defend them. Possession, in other words, is inseparable from a capacity for theft.” Meeker directs our focus on two decisive aspects of Bedouin society: 1. uncertainness, and 2. contradiction. 

Photos: Carl Raswan

According to Jabbur, the Bedouin did not know of any vocational skills and looked down on every vocational trade as well as on agriculture. To call him sani (craftsman) or fallah (farmer) was an insult. “Among the Bedouins nomadism defined an exclusive aristocracy, the loftiest peak of noble life. But how did the Bedouin earn his livelihood? How did he spent his time? Two ways of earning a living were open to him, the first of which was raising of livestock. If he was a camel-owning nomad, when raising camels was his most important means and every year he sold enough of their male offspring to enable him to live for the rest of the year. If he was one of those who had sheep as well as camels, he raised both. When he was close by the fringes of the settled lands, he sold sheep products: lambs, clarified butter, and curled milk. He also sold truffles if the autumn rains had facilitated their emergence at the end of winter. The other means had been raiding and plundering - that was warfare for the sake of gain or booty (ghanima), or in defense of his livestock so that Bedouins from another tribe could not plunder him. … The ghazu /ghazw was a welcomed opportunity for the adventure-seeking Bedouin to display his heroism, courage and martial skills, and beyond this poor Bedouins could achieve some wealth from it.”


Raiding has been an important part of the Bedouin society since remote times. Genesis 14 narrates the contra-raid to which Abraham set out to free his kinsman Lot. It is a story worth reading in the context of this chapter as we find many conformities with the unwritten law of the desert which is unfolded in this chapter on the Bedouin society. The nomadic society of Arabia was instable in many aspects, just to name political or economic factors, but not to forget the climatic circumstances. Raiding became a vital part of the Bedouin economy, if we follow Meeker´s above statement on the role of the camel, we could name it an intrinsic necessity. But raiding increased the instability and uncertainness of the badu world. Its importance even led to the argument that these mutual prosecuted raids were mechanism for the circulation of camels (and horses, annotation by the author) among various tribal groups. According to Rasheed this thesis “may be applicable to instances when not more than fifty individuals launch an attack on another group which often result in the capture of camels. However there were large-scale military encounters between competitive and hostile groups, which cannot be described as a means of circulating livestock. Many military actions were called ghazu, but aimed at conquest, expansion, and defense. Those raids were the means which made possible the establishment of political and economic hegemony and became entangled with centralization of political leadership, dynastic ambitions, and territorial expansion” (Rasheed) or in the case of the Ikhwan raids, with religious motives.

Photos Carl Raswan

Raids (ghazu)


Raids in the desert took place only by camel-owning tribes. From ghazw /ghazu (raid) the (Italian) word razzia is derived. The ghazu was not an uncontrolled outbreak of violence and killings; it had specific strategies and rules. Rasheed summarized them as follows: “first the objective of the exercise was not to exterminate the enemy, but to capture booty (ghanima). Second, women, slaves and herdsmen were immune from attack. Third, the life of the defender who submits was spared and it was dishonorable to violate this rule. And forth, raiding parties avoided the dakhil, i.e. those groups who had already placed themselves under the protection of the tribal section. Consequently, if their property was captured by mistake, they could claim it back. Of all these rules, the avoidance of killing the enemy was perhaps the most respected since the consequences were hard to control. The importance of the obligation of revenge acted as a deterrent prohibiting the growth of hostilities into perpetual conflicts” (Rasheed).


Traditionally raiding weapons used in tribal raids consisted of lances, clubs, maces, swords, and matchlocks (Burckhardt). Also a face-to-face engagement with the enemy was usual. “The possibility of identifying the raiders and the dreadful consequences of blood revenge prohibited the development of these raids into bloodbaths. The objective of the military expedition was not to exterminate the enemy, but to gain booty from him. In contrast modern weaponry, in particular firearms made killing anonymous as it was possible to kill the enemy from a distance. Consequently the raiders could ignore the raiding rules and conventions which had been respected not because of good intentions of the raiders, but because of fear that a minor raid might develop into perpetual hostility” (Rasheed).


With time, following the First World War, raids were stopped by the new governments and the mandate powers . But still it used to be that one rarely encountered a Bedouin who grew to young adulthood without owning some kind of weapon, as it was still feared that they could be raided. Indeed, they would still have gladly mounted a raid if opportunity to do so presented itself to them (Jabbur, Glubb).


Oppenheim reports on raids: “ Until world war I, ghazus were in the first place conducted by riders with lances,…. The charge of fighting was with the horse-owners. Smaller ghazus were done nearly only with horses. On the contrary, the long distance raids, numbering hundreds of Bedouins in some cases, and in which the approach could last weeks, were undertaken on riding camels, with the horses led by on ropes. The riders were riding in pairs on a camel. Only in facing the enemy the horses were mounted; the camel-riders had the task to drive of the booty and to give protection to the back or the flanks. They try to catch and take away herds pasturing aside and with less protection. If this does not succeed or the surprised put up a fight, the fighting will be split in a number of single combats, like it was the habit for centuries. Those single combats are a sort of tournament and develop nearly into a sort of game. The weaker fighter, riding maybe a tired horse or camel, can save his life by surrendering weapons and riding-animal to his opponent. If the raiding party comes to the conclusion that their enemy is superior to them, they consider it their right and obligation and in accordance with their traditional fighting ethos, that they rely on the speed of their horses or camels and - to call it this way - seek a “brave” flight. “ The ghazus, on which only the very necessary in food or water can be transported, are an undertaking that requires supreme toughness and renunciation. The sons of the sheikhs take part in it already in their childhood. Without doubt, great courage is required when the Bedouins go out in small number - I have seen such of only 10 - 20 riders - on raids against hostile tribes into areas that have only be visited by the one or the other of them many years ago. Badly fed, always fighting want of water, they have to sneak to the enemy, conscious to be discovered, attacked and cut off and to be eventually destroyed by a superiority. If blood is shed, raids could easily become wars” (Oppenheim, translation by the author).


Brown Edwards writes on the superiority of horses and how the Arabs came to know them: “They may have learnt a thing or two from the Scythians (a riding people from the Asian steppes invading into Mesopotamia in the sixth century BC, annotation by the author), those fierce people whom they could not have avoided in the duration of a quarter-century; and one of these lessons would have been the great advantage of horses over camels as war mounts. Camels are unsatisfactory fighting platforms; whatever advantage their height may give is lost be their lack of agility and the inability of the rider to get close to his adversary (unless he too is on a camel). The custom was to dismount and fight hand to hand. With horses this was changed; moreover, if you lost the fight you could get away from there, fast. Horses are also faster than camels at short distances, making them good for raiding.” The advantage of the camel above the horse especially lay in their perfect desert adaptation. Raids could rely on its milk as food supply for both men and horses. Raiders could sleep on the camels during their approach, as one could sleep on their backs but not on horseback. Therefore Bedouins made use of the best qualities of both animals in their undertakings. 

After the raid (photo matson Collectopn, left) and Rwala raiders (Carl Raswan photo, right)

Raids were mostly performed during dark nights, and “by far the best is the lejlet as-sarra, the last night of the lunar month, when the moon does not appear at all. … Among the seasons of the year the cold period is the most favorable, as there is not so much danger from thirst, which is greatly feared. On the whole, both small and large expeditions are made preferably in the time of abundance, rabi, when edible plants, good pasture, and plenty of water may be found anywhere. This is the time when the inner desert swarms with raiders of every description” (Musil). “Old men and small boys must not go on raids. They are left at home to guard the camp. However, a boy of twelve is old enough to join the raiders and may properly do so, especially in the rabi season when neither thirst nor hunger threatens. In the hot months mainly men between 16 and 40 take part. They do not like to be accompanied by young husbands, ´arris, in the first year of his married life”. Also a seer or sorcerer, saheb as-sirr, often accompanied a raid (Musil).


War (Kowm, Harb)


In times of draughts the tribes were forced to fight among themselves in defense of their grazing lands or to set out for territory belonging to another tribe. This was one of the main reasons for wars in the desert. The strength and standing of the tribe were judged in terms of the tribe´s manpower and weaponry, or rather its horsemen and how well prepared they were to confront adversaries or to mount attacks and monopolize watering places and pasture lands (Jabbur).


“Horses were of no economic value but served merely as weapons for the getting of booty and influence. For this reason they were called al-murnijat, the enriching. As it was said that a mares belly contained treasures and their backs help to win power; for they gave their owners foals which could be turned into money at any time, and it was much easier to make or repel an attack on horseback than when mounted on camels. The more horses a tribe had, the more feared it was by its neighbors and the greater its power. But successes gained on horseback were not lasting” (Musil). Musil reports that “the chief of any tribe may declare war. If several tribes ally themselves under one prince, they do not thereby renounce their right of declaring war independently. … Only when the chiefs of all the allied tribes give him full power, mawwanuh, can he declare war in their name, and war is also waged against all of them, kowm ´ala-l-gami. Peace between two tribes was called saheb, a regular battle, manah . As soon as war had been declared raids, both large and small, began (Musil).


A battle-camp (nawwahhom) is finally erected near the main camp of the enemy in foreign territory. “The tents form as a rule two long rows, which behind the herds graze; in front of them, within rifle shot, stands the tent of the leader and a few others belonging to his retinue. In these few tents there is nothing except the utensils for making black coffee, meals being prepared in the tents behind. All the mares stand saddled by these war tents, bujut al harb, while the riding camels lie fettered between the other tents. The men on foot are posted right and left of the war tents. Before the attack, the men on foot sometimes hide by the war tents. The cavalry attempts to drive the enemy to them and within rifle shot. Before the attack the tribal emblem Abu-d-Dhur is fastened to a camel which walks in the midst of the bravest youths on horseback. These warriors are accompanied by the prettiest women and girls of the camp, who, with their bosoms bared and hair loosened, keep shouting: “He who runs away today shall never receive anything from us….” Their inspiring high-pitched cries, zararit, are heard for a great distance. In order to raise the courage and steadiness of his warriors the chief orders the `Atfa, a fancy litter, to be placed on a she-camel and the handsomest of the girls to take place in it.”


Tactics of Raids


Burckhardt described a tactic used in raids: “The Shammar Arabs had a peculiar custom of attacking by night the enemy´s camp when it happens to be situated near their own. If they can reach it unobserved, they suddenly knock down the principal tent poles; and whilst the surprised people are striving to disengage themselves from the tent coverings which had fallen on them, the cattle were driven off by the assailants.”


“Water in the desert had been the most limited resource in times of draughts or also in normal summer times. It was that need that led some men of the tribes to become warriors. The Bedouins made use of tactics, but not in the ways trained soldiers do. They sought out information about their enemies´activities and movements and tried to keep similar information concerning themselves from reaching their adversaries. They followed routes along which they found water and pasturage and tried not to reveal their presence there to their enemies. They could raditionally recognize advantageous times at which to launch raids, such as a dark night, favorable climatic conditions, and so forth” (Jabbur). The preparations for a raid took a considerable time. However, it was not known beforehand Bedouin society against which tribe it was going, as only the commander in chief and his most intimate friends knew the secret. They also had vanguards sent out ahead to serve as spies on their enemies. They were called ´ajn (pl. ´ujun, eye). And many times they resorted to tricking their enemy by shifting a group of their warriors to attack a band from another tribe or clan from one direction, and launching the main surprise attack on another band from another direction or on the livestock of the same band in its grazing grounds. Jabbur explains: “If the journey of the raiders was to distant lands, the camels would sometimes be accompanied by horses: the raider rode his thoroughbred camel and tied alongside it a mare that he would ride during the final attack or, if the situation so demanded, in flight. At that point the force was called a janib, after the horse (janib) which was led by the riders side. If the land of their adversaries was located nearby, not more than one or two days´traveling distance, the Bedouins also raided on horses only. Sometimes two raiders agreed on riding together on one camel (marduf/pl. mardufatan) and pulling a mare behind them. It was the responsibility of the mare owner to provide provisions and the saddle gear, and the owner of the camel rode behind his companion until they reached their destination. Then the aqid, or war leader, selected three sites where the camel-mounted men (ziml) gathered and awaited the return of the horsemen, who set out toward the enemy. The first of the three sites would have been no more than a mile and a half from the enemy camp, either in a wadi or behind a hill. If the horsemen did not return within the time limit specified, these others hurried on with their camels to the second site and had to wait a whole day there for the horsemen. After that the group moved to the third site, where they were obliged to wait for three or four days if necessary. If the horsemen were successful and made off with camels and other livestock of their enemies, then each camel-owning partner was rewarded with a she-camel. Even if the horseman had not succeeded in stealing more than one. But if the horsemen had been defeated, the partner lost nothing. Sometimes on long-distance raiding expeditions it could happen that the horse-mounted raiders perished because their provisions had remained with the camels and their owners. Raids were not interested in the contents of the tents, but in the halal, camel and horses. Only if raids did not go out far tents were also looted. The raiders divided everything out among themselves or each person was left with what he had been able to carry away, it be property or livestock. Another desert law concerning raids was the right of the women to recover her husband´s stolen camel if she ran after the aqid and implored him to return a camel to her. She had to remain close by him until he gave her one from his own share of booty” (Jabbur).


There were also certain rules regarding the horse in raids and battles. Jabbur writes: “They would regard as an evil portent a horse that returned from the fight spattered with blood of its owner, and such a horse was soon sold. If in battle they would capture a mare without knowing who killed its owner, the mare was the share of the `aqid, or raid leader. If the one who killed the owner of the mare was known, the horse was his and no one else had any claim upon him for a share in it. If one of them was able to kill a horseman and make off with his mare, he was a hero. The mare involved in this case was called a qila´a.” On some customs regarding horses and raids, Jabbur has also to add: “… if one of their horseman killed a horseman from another hostile tribe during a raid and made off with the latter´s mare, he would clip off a piece of its forelock and hang it on a pole of his tent to boast of his feat. They would emaciate their horses before a raid so that they would be better to endure hardships and would run faster during close combat and hit-and-run encounters. They did not allow the mares to mate prior to the raid, so that they would remain strong. If a mare had recently foaled they would only ride her on a raid if necessity forced them to do so, for in the mare´s absence her young might die.”


Musil reports on the way Bedouins handled their mares in battle: “When defiling before their prince or commander, ´arza, on a festive occasion or in time of danger, the Bedouins hold their mares up short so that they leap forward, rise on their hind legs, back slightly, and then leap forward again. This performance is called hedeba or tehaddob. In a mock battle, le´eb al-kejl, or during a man-to-man fight, trad, the mares will spring in the same manner. Mares gallop only when racing or in the attack. On the loss of horses Musil writes: “When a Rwejli´s mare has been captured by the enemy and then recaptured by another Rwejli, the latter is obliged to return it to his fellow tribesman but must be paid a she-camel as compensation. A foal of the same mare captured by a Rwejli must also be given back to his owner, six camels being the reward in this case. Such a foal is known as ri´.” If there is a dispute as the new owner claims he has bought the foal, the following would happen: Witnesses are engaged and the original owner “goes to seek the captor. The owner in search of his animal is called kassas; he is free to go even to the enemy, who in this case must help. On arriving at the latter´s tent, he inquires after his stolen mare and her foal. On finding what he seeks, he asks one of the enemy to come with him as a witness that the captured filly is actually the daughter of the stolen mare. Testimony of this kind being indisputable, his tribesman (in whose possession the foal at that time is) says: “Give me the proper compensation and take her!” He then gets five camels, the witness helping in the search, jakoss ´anha, gets one, and the animal is returned to the original owner.” 


And Musil continues: “The owner of the captured mare tries first to ascertain who has captured her and where she is kept. For the earliest reliable report of her whereabouts a reward of five medjidijjat is paid. Often the new owner, although an enemy, sends a report every year of the mare´s condition and of the foals born to her”.


Stallions at the Royal Stud, Bahrain, in 2017.



“The desert knew another type of looting that was not raiding but called hanshal, footmen. A large proportion of their Bedouin tales revolved around accounts of hanshal and their exploits. It was rather a strike after the fashion of commandos with no more than two or three men participating. By night they slipped into the camp of their adversaries and hid among the tents until a good opportunity aroused to steal a charger, a riding she-camel, or some sheep. The Bedouins were quite inventive to camouflage themselves, for example with the help of a sheepskin. In the Bedouin tales the hanshal raiders were also asked to rescue amirs´sons who had been taken prisoner (Jabbur).


Songs of Raid and War


Musil has handed down a wealth of songs and ditties that the Rwala Bedouins sang on the occasion of raids and war. We will have a look on some examples which include horses: “On the road, especially in the morning, the Rwala exercise their horses or let them prance at will, and amuse themselves with songs known as hda´.


ja-llah talabnak ja-l-rafur                    

ja-ba-d-darag al-alije

teg´al lena hazzen jetur

bel-awwala w-at-talije


ja ma hala tari-l-harajeb

w-as-sejkh jowzed naraha

min fowk musmmart as-selil

w-mu´askaran mismaraha


abri atamanna menweti

sakra dehub muhaggala

abri elja lahz at-talab

w-rajjezha ma-aggelha


Talab is a term for camel riders pursuing raiders. While being overtaken, the greedy cowards urge the captured animals to the highest speed in order to make their escape.


ja ´amm wa-star li gemuh

ja budd ma hi sajere

ja budd min jowmen jesir

beh al-kalaje hajere


Gemuh is a mare able to jump over any obstacle. She does not slip on soft salt-covered ground, nor fall from a sunken bank, gurf, nor stick her foot into the holes made by the various field mice; hence she never throws her rider. When such a mare attacks, sajere, the enemy, her rider throws his opponent easily from the saddle, and the enemy´s mare then runs to and fro, hajere.


O Allah! We beg of thee, thou forgiver

O Lord of the stairs which leap up to the heights! To let our luck uplift itself

With the first she-camel and the last one too.

Oh, how dear are the tidings of war

When their fire is stirred by the chief

Riding on a mare with her tail held upright

And with the nails of her shoes inward bent

I wish to explain for what I long:

For a gold sorrel with white forelegs!

I wish, if the pursuing enemy overtakes us,

To let her walk but slowly, not urge her to speed.

O uncle, buy for me a mare that clears all obstacles; Oh, truly, how such a one will attack!

Oh, truly, on the day when she attacks, Mares whose riders have been thrown will run to and fro.

IMG_7556 (2).JPG

The descendents of the Bedouin still sing the old songs: Sheikh Ahmed bin Saqr Al Kalifah surprised the author during an invitation to the Bahraini desert with a presentation of traditonal rider´s songs.

Battle/War Cry (nahawa)


Oppenheim and Musil also report on the habit of the tribes to call out a special war cry when attacking an enemy, like an introduction of themselves and also to cheer themselves up. The Northern Anaza began with ana - I am.

● Rwala: Ana chajal al Alja Ruweli! (Alja is the root-mother of a herd of white camels of the Rwala)

● Fad´an: Ana achu Kutne! or Ana-hu Kutne (Kutne is a name of a woman and stands for the herds of the Fad´an)

● Sba´a: Ana chajal al ´Arfa Sbe´i!

● Ibn Haddal (Amarat): Ana chajal al ´Alja!

● Tai: Ma´n! (The name of a famous old family)

● Jabur: Djabr! Djabr!

● Dulem: Aulad Naser!

● Ibn Rasheed: An-anahu Nura (I am the brother of Nura, the camel herds of Ibn Raseed)


Some Terms connected with Raiding and War (from Musil):


  • ahl al khejl or ahl as-sebaja horse rider

  • sabur camel riders

  • surba troop of ten to twenty riders

  • sihb attacking riders who have divest themselves of their mantels and caftans, entrust them to their returning comrades, radd, and are clothed only in their dirty gray, sihb, shirts

  • sebaja fighters whose task it is to capture the herds of the enemy

  • tard actual encounter or clash, a hand-in–hand fight, trad is a mock fight

  • nahus guerilla warfare

  • talab camel riders pursuing raiders

  • faz´a counter attack

  • al-harb al-awwal first or surprise attack on a camp

  • cemin reserve cavalry

  • tullu riders of the enemy on camels observing the country

  • ujun two or three men on horseback ordered to ride ahead in order to examine the country which the expedition   has to pass

  • sabr (pl. sbur) men sent ahead to count tents and horses of a camp

  • nadir a special messenger

  • sanam warriors, troop of fighters, defending the markab

  • tarrad a warrior circling his mare in order to attack the enemy with the aim to defeat them.

See the parallels of the Bedouin past with the description of the returning Messiah of the Bible and click here.

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