The Bedouin Way of Life in Rub’ al Khali

tl;dr: The impact of oil on Bedouin is a useful entry into thinking about the systemic risk of urban settlements. The historical record over the last 10,000 years provides numerous examples of abrupt climate changes, pandemics, Empire collapse and other crises that suggest that our current global, interconnected civilization presents an unprecedented source of systemic risk. (1803 words)

“In the desert I had found a freedom unattainable in civilization; a life unhampered by possessions, since everything that was not necessary was an encumberance. I had found, too, a comradeship inherent in the circumstances, and the belief that tranquility was to be found there. I had learnt the satisfaction which comes from hardship and the pleasure which springs from abstinence: the contentment of a full belly; the richness of meat; the taste of clean water; the ecstasy of surrender when the craving for sleep becomes a torment; the warmth of a fire in the chill of dawn.”
—Wilfred Thesiger, Arabian Sands. New York: Penguin, 2007, 37.

“And the price we paid was the price men have always paid for achieving a paradise in this life—we went soft, we lost our edge.”
—Frank Herbert, Dune.

Rub’ al Khali, also known as the ‘Empty Quarter’, is a vast desert in Saudi Arabia. It is hyper-arid, receiving an inch of rain or less a year. Without water, there is no agriculture, and the only pastoral land consists of spots of green marking the path of some passing rain cloud from weeks before. The tribes of nomadic Bedouin that lived around the edges of the Empty Quarter — i.e., the Saar, Rashid, Manahil, Awamir, Bani Yas, and Dawasir — were able to eke out a living by living off the dairy of their camels and goats, hunting, trading, taking tribute from caravans, charging to take goods across the desert, raiding other tribes, etc. Camels were their transportation, and they had to constantly be on the move looking for patches of green in the sands to survive. But, the Bedouin had survived this way for millennia.

A three year project plagued by cave-ins, broken drills, and other ills, changed all of that. On March 3, 1938, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia. In 1948, Ghawar Field was found. It was producing oil by 1951, and it remains the largest conventional oil field in the world. Later on in the 1990s, Shaybah Field was also developed. Both of these oil fields are in the Empty Quarter.

How did the discovery of oil in the Empty Quarter impact the Bedouin living there? A National Geographic article states it plainly:

“‘Today the Bedu still conduct trade and business, but from the towns. They hire others—mostly Pakistanis and Bangladeshis—to do their herding.’ Because oil money is finally trickling down to the Bedu, Imad tells me, the government has created population centers in the desert. These are called markaz, often with free housing and schools and medical care. In the Rub al Khali many of the Bedu have moved to the markaz. ‘To meet Bedu these days,’ he laughs, ‘you may have to go to the towns.’…After two weeks and 3,000 miles (4828 kilometers), we finally find our Bedu herdsmen. And, as Imad Khalid thought we might, we find them in a town.”
—Donovan Webster. The Empty Quarter. National Geographic: February 2005.

It seems the Bedouin way of life in Rub’ al Khali is undergoing extinction. But, if you raise your eyes to the horizon and look out a bit, two questions loom: What happens when the oil runs out? And when will that be?

Saudi Arabia keeps very tight control over the information on their oil production. So, it is difficult to estimate when their fields will peak and decline and at what rate. But, for the purposes of this essay, the only thing necessary to know is that in order for Saudi Arabia to cover their state budget of $237 billion dollars, they need oil prices around $89 dollars a barrel. Oil prices have not been above $89 dollars since October 2014. Add in a war in Yemen and the inevitable increase in oil production costs from oil well depletion in the future, and there is a pressing need to implement cost containment measures and invest into income diversification long before the oil wells in Saudi Arabia run dry.

The trickle down of oil money to the Bedouin — and the free housing, schools and medical care that comes with it — will soon dry up. It won’t happen tomorrow, but the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 initiative points to one possible timeline, a mere 13 years away. And then what? Will the Bedouin return to their traditional way of life? Will they re-learn the skills necessary to live in the periphery of the Empty Quarter and to herd their own animals again? Will they incorporate new technologies, such as Warka Water structures, to form the basis of modern oases? Will they maintain the existing markaz settlements in the desert? Or, will they choose to move to the cities to be assimilated into larger Saudi Arabian society?

The Sumerian myth, Innana Prefers the Farmer, presents a similar choice. Innana has to choose either a shepherd or a farmer for her husband, and as one would expect from the goddess of the first urban civilization in Mesopotamia, she chooses the farmer. The text we have of this myth suggests that even though the shepherd is wealthier, the levels of specialization settled life can support provide a foundation for greater wealth, because it frees a community up to create more finished products from raw materials, such as better clothing, wine and bread.

But, taking the long view, there are systemic risks to urban life. In the past twelve thousand years, there have been several instances of abrupt climate changes that caused significant areas of abandonment of sedentary agriculture and associated settlements, adoption of pastoral lifestyles, and mass migrations.

In Sumeria, for example, there was a major shift in their population to the north as their soil became increasingly acidic from 2,100 BC to 1,700 BCE that was partly brought on by climate change. It was the central cause of the decline of their civilization.

And the same pattern repeats itself with different causes. In 1,200 BCE, there was the Late Bronze Age collapse that ended with the destruction of almost every major city in the Eastern Mediterranean. Possible causes? Climate change, a volcanic eruption, drought, and general system collapse.

A good example of a localized general system collapse may be the Ancestral Puebloans. In the 12th and 13th centuries CE, they abandoned their settlements in Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde in the Southwestern United States. While the exact causes are still unclear, an article in the New York Times describes the most likely explanation this way:

“As [Ancestral Puebloan] society became more complex, it also became more fragile…Corn was domesticated then wild turkeys, an important protein source. With more to eat, populations grew and aggregated into villages…When crops began dying and violence increased, the inhabitants clustered even closer. By the time the drought of 1275 hit, the [Ancestral Puebloans] had become far more dependent on agriculture than during earlier droughts and they had become more dependent on each other…’You can’t easily peel off a lineage here and a lineage there and have them go their own way,’ Dr. Kohler said. ‘These parts are no longer redundant. They are part of an integrated whole.'”
—George Johnson. Vanished: A Pueblo Mystery. New York Times, April 8, 2008.

Settlements concentrate people. Groups can provide protective functions, just as a schools of fish can be protective against aquatic predators. But, they also introduce systemic risks, which only become apparent on the day the school of fish is found by a fisherman with a net, they suffocate in an algal bloom, or some other crisis reveals what was previously hidden.

In human terms, whether it is climate change, collapse of Empires, famine, drought, major epidemics, war, flood or some other acute cause, the infrastructure necessary to support complex settlements, indeed entire civilizations, can be pushed beyond the breaking point by Black Swan events. After a major urban epidemic such as the Plague of Justinian (541-542 CE) or the Black Death (1346–1353 CE), which killed between a third and a half of the European population, a few survivors are going to deeply consider a pastoral or nomadic existence as a survival strategy.

More generally, nomadic strategies — whether hunter-gatherer, pastoral, or itinerant individuals or communities — forgo size in exchange for small groups with less complexity and greater resilience in a crisis. These societies are simpler and easier to sustain, but they are harder lives to live.

Perhaps the situation of the Bedouin in Rub’ al Khali is a situation we all face. In a world where populations continue to grow and coalesce into an interconnected network of global mega-cities depending on international markets and agricultural “bread baskets” to feed their populations, what would happen if a neo-Black Death emerged and was responsible for the deaths of a third or half of the world’s population? Or, if a super-volcano, such as the Yellowstone Caldera, erupted resulting in a decades long ash cloud and low crop yields, among other problems? Or, if modern farming techniques result in a depletion of soil that had an impact similar to the acidification of the soil of the Sumerian civilization that only become apparent over a few centuries? And, this is before we have even touched on the possible risks of the unprecedented anthropogenic climate change that is so frequently discussed.

Humans are not good at thinking about problems that are measured in decades, much less centuries or millennia. A global system of settlements provides economies of scale that are very good at weathering local and even some global catastrophic events. But, there are always limits, particularly of carrying capacity. There is a peak beyond which the fertility of soil, the reserves of the aquifers, limits of resources such as phosphorus for fertilizer and so forth cannot be pushed, and when these limits are reached, often after a crisis, it can result in precipitous declines. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. Further, the one major difference between our present moment and the past 10,000 years is that global “climate change” could potentially bring desertification to the equatorial region of much of the world, possibly turning portions of it into another Empty Quarter. The difference between us and the Bedouin in Rub’ al Khali is we don’t know how to survive in that climate.