Most Bedouins are animal herders who migrate into the desert during the rainy winter season and move back toward the cultivated land in the dry summer months. Bedouin tribes have traditionally been classified according to the animal species that are the basis of their livelihood. Camel nomads occupy huge territories and are organized into large tribes in the Sahara, Syrian, and Arabian deserts. Sheep and goat nomads have smaller ranges, staying mainly near the cultivated regions of Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Cattle nomads are found chiefly in South Arabia and in Sudan, where they are called Baqqārah (Baggara). Historically many Bedouin groups also raided trade caravans and villages at the margins of settled areas or extracted payments from settled areas in return for protection.
Bedouin society is tribal and patriarchal, typically composed of extended families that are patrilineal, endogamous, and polygynous. The head of the family, as well as of each successively larger social unit making up the tribal structure, is called sheikh; the sheikh is assisted by an informal tribal council of male elders.
In addition to the “noble” tribes who trace their ancestry to either Qaysi (northern Arabian) or Yamani (southern Arabian) origin, traditional Bedouin society comprises scattered “ancestor-less” groups who shelter under the protection of the large noble tribes and make a living by serving them as blacksmiths, tinkers, artisans, entertainers, and other workers.
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The growth of modern states in the Middle East and the extension of their authority into previous ungovernable regions greatly impinged upon Bedouins’ traditional ways of life. Following World War I, Bedouin tribes had to submit to the control of the governments of the countries in which their wandering areas lay. This also meant that the Bedouins’ internal feuding and the raiding of outlying villages had to be given up, to be replaced by more peaceful commercial relations. In several instances Bedouins were incorporated into military and police forces, taking advantage of their mobility and habituation to austereenvironments, while others found employment in construction and the petroleum industry.
In the second half of the 20th century, Bedouins faced new pressures to abandon nomadism. Middle Eastern governments nationalized Bedouin rangelands, imposing new limits on Bedouins’ movements and grazing, and many also implemented settlement programs that compelled Bedouin communities to adopt sedentary or semisedentary lifestyles. Some other Bedouin groups settled voluntarily in response to changing political and economic conditions. Advancing technology also left its mark as many of the remaining nomadic groups exchanged their traditional modes of animal transportation for motor vehicles.
Because Bedouin populations are represented inconsistently—or not at all—in official statistics, the number of nomadic Bedouins living in the Middle East today is difficult to ascertain. But it is generally understood that they constitute only a small fraction of the total population in the countries where they are present.