The Arabic concept of balance (“mu-wazana”) plays a critical role in virtually every aspect of life in the Arab world.
Unlike its Western version—“keeping up with the Joneses”—mu-wazana does not have a negative connotation. Rather than depicting the need to amass material goods to match the status or worth of one’s neighbors, mu-wazana means maintaining balance with other tribes or nations. In the Middle East, this is considered not only a positive, natural phenomenon but a matter of survival.
The U.S.-brokered Abraham Accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, announced by President Donald Trump on Aug. 13, is especially relevant in this context. Its key genius lies in the way that it plays into the culture of mu-wazana. Indeed, to restore and maintain this type of balance, the rest of the Gulf States—and other Arab countries—will wish to follow Abu Dhabi’s lead.
More importantly, they will not want the UAE to be the sole beneficiary of Israeli hi-tech, defense systems and agricultural advancements—or the only one among them with an embassy in the Jewish state.
The flip side in Arab culture—revealed in folklore that dates back to the period prior to the advent of Islam in the seventh century, when nomads would sing to the hoofbeats of their camels as they trekked through the desert—is revealed in a widely quoted Bedouin proverb: “I am against my brother; my brother and I are against my cousin; my cousin and I are against the stranger.”
This apothegm sums up the importance of competition between and among groups, sub-tribes and individuals. In such a hierarchy, without balance, one person’s or group’s gain is the other’s loss.
This concept of balance derives from the nomadic “way of the desert,” when it was common for tribes to fight over scarce resources, including water. Tribal raids were common, and reciprocity or proportionality of war did not exist. A weak tribe raided by a stronger one, therefore, would be enslaved, taken over or obliterated. It was thus advantageous for a tribe to have more people and better weapons, for example, to safeguard its survival.
Tribal competition in the Middle East is not simply a thing of the past, however. In today’s popular Arab culture, even television shows, such as soap operas, tell tribal stories. Museums in the Gulf display family trees of their countries’ leaders and powerful tribes.
In the corporate world, too, photos of ruling families and tribes line the walls of major companies. In the political arena, key cabinet positions—including those of defense, foreign affairs and intelligence—are allocated according to tribes, not only giving their representatives a seat at the table, but helping to establish loyalty to the country’s ruler and maintain mu-wazana.
Even Jordan’s parliament is dominated by tribal, rather than religious or ideological, parties. One reason for this is that the tribe as a unit supports all legal, financial and social aspects of the lives of individuals.
This primacy of the collective and “balance” in the Arab world is foreign to Western culture, which emphasizes the rights and freedoms of individuals. Westerners doing business in the Middle East, thus, frequently encounter difficulty as a result of this difference.
Western corporations in Arab countries often make the mistake of allocating benefits to their local employees based on individual merit, for example, rather than recognizing the authority of the tribal leaders to decide on such matters. The unwitting “imbalance” created by the heads of such corporations has led tribal chiefs to restore mu-wazana by orchestrating problems in the workplace to serve as a reminder of their “balanced” status with CEOs.
This brings us to Iran, which created “imbalance” in the region through expansionism, backed by its military and many proxies, and by spreading fear among the Arab countries.
This is why Bahrain—whose population is predominantly Shi’ite, but whose ruling family is Sunni—has expressed willingness to follow the UAE’s lead and make peace with Israel. Even neighboring Saudi Arabia appears interested in making a similar arrangement, as was evident in the permission it gave to an El Al Airlines plane to use its airspace at the end of August to transport a delegation of American and Israeli dignitaries to Abu Dhabi for the purpose of ironing out the details of the Abraham Accord.
Herein lies the great success of the peace plan, brokered by Trump between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE President Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan: It is the fruit of identifying an opportunity of an “imbalance” caused by Iran, and formulating a treaty that fits into the culture of mu-wazana.
As such, it is bound to be a precursor to many more such treaties.
The writer is CEO of Sussman Corporate Security and editor of the book, Variety of Multiple Modernities: New Research Design.