Shaykhs and tribal entrepreneurs: Tribal hierarchies, governmental development policies, and the struggle over representation in Petra’s tourism economy

by Nicolas Reeves*

Abstract: Beyond transforming the city into the Hashemite Kingdom’s tourism capital over the last 40 years, Jordanian state tourism development efforts in Petra have ignited conflict between local Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople and government actors over access to the city’s tourism revenues. Through analyzing Bidūl and Layāthnā oral histories and narratives related to present-day economic competition, this study finds that intra- and inter-tribal power imbalances among the Bidūl and Layāthnā have damaged traditional, tribe-based systems of local community representation in Petra. This situation prevents Bidūl and Layāthnā entrepreneurs from voicing their opinions of government policies, marginalizing them from the development process.


Minutes after entering Petra Archaeological Park, visitors encounter the first elements of the city’s tourism economy. What starts as a trickle of children selling postcards quickly turns into a jumble of commercial activity as tourists approach the Treasury, Petra’s architectural jewel.[1] Further into the park, tent-like souvenir stands dot the landscape, and men on horse-, donkey-, or camelback encircle visitors to sell them a ride. As a result, even casual tourists realize the degree to which Petra’s local Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople depend on revenues derived from tourism.

Nestled in the Sharah Mountains, 240 kilometres south of Amman, Jordan’s capital, tourists flock to Petra to witness the imposing temples carved into the cliffs that surround the city. Under the Nabataeans, Petra’s principal architects, the city prospered due to its location at the confluence of ancient trade routes linking Damascus, the Arabian Peninsula, and Egypt.[2] After making Petra their capital in the first century B.C., it remained the centre of the Nabataeans’ empire until it was sacked by the Romans in 106 A.D. The city continued to flourish for 250 years under Roman rule, but a devastating earthquake in 363 A.D. and the northward shift of regional trade routes led to Petra’s gradual abandonment. Until Swiss explorer Johannes Burckhardt visited the city in 1812, its whereabouts were known only to tribespeople who lived near Petra.[3] Two hundred years after its “rediscovery,” Petra has become Jordan’s most popular tourist destination, receiving 828,952 visitors in 2018.[4]

Although Petra is Jordan’s tourism capital today, it constituted little more than a scarcely-visited rural backwater fifty years ago. Back then, most of the Petra region’s inhabitants worked in agriculture and raised livestock. Meanwhile, the city’s caves, appreciated by tourists today as physical remnants of Petra’s Nabataean past, were instead valued by members of the Bidūl tribe in particular for their practical use as winter homes. In reminiscing about this period, older local community members speak of a time “when people depended on the land and each other.”[5]

In the 1980s, however, Petra’s emergence as a key element of the Hashemite Kingdom’s economic growth agenda transformed tribal life in the city. Specifically, Jordan’s government turned to tourism development to counter strains placed on public expenditures by expatriates returning to the country from the Persian Gulf economies, which were hard hit by falling oil prices at the beginning of the decade. As part of these efforts, the government sought for Petra to be recognized as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in order to improve the city’s international profile. To smooth the designation process, which stalled initially due to UNESCO’s fears that the Bidūl’s presence in Petra’s caves would cause long term damage to the archaeological site, state authorities evicted the tribe from the city, resettling them in nearby Umm Sayhoun village.[6] The Layāthnā, meanwhile, began building hotels and restaurants in nearby Wadi Musa to accommodate Petra’s growing visitor numbers,  which doubled between 1984 and 1985, the year the city was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list.

By 1995, life in Petra had changed radically. The tourism sector became the chief source of most Bidūl and Layāthnā families’ livelihoods, which remains the case to this day. Moreover, Petra’s transformation into a world-renowned tourist destination, fuelled further by its 2007 designation as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, has driven investment by multinational hotel chains like Mövenpick and Marriott. These features of Petra’s recent development have created a web of tribal, governmental, and international stakeholders that compete for access to the Nabataean capital’s tourism revenues. Even when tourism demand is high, balancing these actors’ interests is a complicated task for the Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority (PDTRA), the Layāthnā-led government institution tasked with developing the city’s local community and tourism product.[7] In recent years, however, the national tourism industry’s slow recovery from demand shocks precipitated by the 2010-2012 Arab Uprisings has triggered widespread financial hardship in Petra, heightening tensions between the Bidūl, the Layāthnā, and the PDTRA.

Against the backdrop of Petra’s continuing commercialization and ongoing local financial struggles, I interviewed fifty-six Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople between August 2018 and March 2019 to determine how competition in the tourism economy impacts intra- and inter-tribal relations among these groups and the PDTRA. By examining study participants’ orally-produced tribal histories and narratives related to the current conflict over Petra’s tourism revenues, I found that intra- and inter-tribal power imbalances among the Bidūl and Layāthnā have led to the breakdown of traditional, tribe-based systems of local representation in the Petra community. In particular, this failure has limited the ability of Bidūl and Layāthnā entrepreneurs to voice their opinions of the PDTRA’s tourism development policies. This situation portends violence, as a recent attack on a PDTRA-owned bus by a Bidūl tribesman demonstrated.[8] To ensure that conflict over tourism resources does not stir more violence, PDTRA officials must involve Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople from across the city’s socioeconomic spectrum in development policymaking, thus ensuring that underrepresented groups are not marginalized by this process.

Tribal History-Making and Petra’s Tribal History

The narratives produced by study participants to describe  competition in the tourism economy are impacted by their perceptions of the power dynamics within Petra’s local community. These are, in turn, shaped by the tribal histories of the Bidūl and the Layāthnā. To establish a framework for analysing these orally-produced accounts of the past and their present impact on tourism development politics in Petra, I review the methods of Andrew Shryock’s (1997) study of the oral histories of the ʿAdwan and ʿAbbad tribes of Jordan’s Balqa’ region. I then use oral accounts related by my study participants and written histories of the Petra region to trace the development of tribe-state relations in the Petra region from 1890 to the present.

Challenging the Dominance of Temporality and Textuality over History

            In this study, I will reveal that oral histories related by the Bidūl and Layāthnā reflect the intra- and inter-tribal distribution of power in Petra’s tourism economy today. Shryock (1997) observed that engaging with spoken histories in this way entails distancing oneself from Western approaches to analysing historical accounts and assessing their value. According to Shryock, the Western historiographical emphasis on finding texts in archives, aligning them chronologically, and establishing a narrative that links the events they describe together renders tribal history “a logjam of variant and equally irreconcilable traditions.”[9] Shryock argued that this flawed assertion arises from a failure to recognize that orally-produced, tribal accounts of the past reject Western historiography’s central tenets of textuality and temporality, which limit the credibility with which spoken tribal history can be revised and re-appropriated to fit the context at hand. By recognizing that the current tribal inhabitants of the Balqa’ view the region’s pre-1921 history as practical, context-dependent, and in a constant state of reconstruction, Shryock demonstrated that ʿAdwanis’ and ʿAbbadis’ reproductions of pertinent events in their tribes’ pasts can be analysed for dialogic clues about the power dynamics between these two groups, both in the past and in the present day.[10]

The content, context, and performative aspect of Balqa’ tribespeople’s accounts of the past enabled Shryock to identify ʿAdwani historical rhetoric as a “dominant discourse” and the ʿAbbadi variety as a “subaltern” one.[11] For instance, Shryock observed that ʿAdwani narrators were authoritative and eager to discursively link their identities with the glorious exploits of past ʿAdwani shaykhs from whom they were descended. In contrast, ʿAbbadi narrators preferred to remain anonymous and told only stories about the collective achievements of the tribe with sparing individual references.[12] Moreover, the ʿAbbadi defined themselves historically in relation to the ʿAdwani while ʿAdwani historical narratives rarely contained references to the ʿAbbadi. In fact, ʿAdwanis refused to acknowledge that the central event of ʿAbbadi oral histories, the ʿAbbadi -ʿAdwani war, even occurred. For Shryock, this alludes to the uneven state of historical and contemporary power relations between the ʿAdwan and ʿAbbad in the Balqa’.[13] In this study, I use Shryock’s framework of identifying dominant and subaltern discourses within historical narratives to identify power differences not only between the Bidūl and the Layāthnā, but within these tribes as well. What follows is a historical review of the development of tribal and state systems of authority in the Petra region from 1890 to the present. As was the case among the ʿAdwan and the ʿAbbad in the Balqa’, Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople supported their claims to Petra’s tourism revenues through arguments rooted in interpretations of Petra’s past, revealing the extent to which the region’s tribal history continues to inform the dynamics of competition between these groups in the present day.

Tribe-State Relations in Abdullah’s Jordan

As was the case with Ma’an, Karak, and other towns located along the Ottoman Empire’s southern frontier, Wadi Musa and Petra did not come permanently under direct Ottoman rule until the 1890s.[14] Southern Jordan’s short exposure to Ottoman authority complicated then-Emir Abdullah’s task of imposing central rule over the area following the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan on April 11, 1921. To secure tribal loyalty to Abdullah’s newfound state, his British colonial supervisors assigned Colonel John Bagot Glubb to create the Desert Patrol, an exclusively Bedouin police force tasked with controlling tribal raiding, in 1930.[15] In addition, Abdullah adopted a patron-client system that rewarded shaykhs’ support with goods, services, favours, and titles from the government.[16] In the case of Petra, for instance, Abdullah designated Mu’amar bin Bashir al-Nawafla, paramount shaykh of the Layāthnā, as Muḥāfiḏ ʾĀthār Wādī Mūsā [Guardian of the Archaeological Artefacts of Wadi Musa] in 1927, granting him custodianship of Petra and bringing him into the Hashemite fold.[17] Today, Wadi Musan souvenir sellers use this historical allusion to justify their assertions that the Layāthnā should enjoy exclusive access to work in Petra’s tourism economy.

Abdullah’s designation of Mu’amar as Muḥāfiḏ ʾĀthār Wādī Mūsā symbolized not only an attempt towards shaykhly co-option, but also the marginal importance accorded to developing Petra for tourism in the early years of Hashemite rule. In fact, a paved road and a telegraph line built between Petra and Ma’an in the 1920s represented the extent of state efforts to make the city more accessible to visitors until 1950, when a government rest house was constructed between Wadi Musa and the Treasury.[18] Shoup observed that the rest house’s location on the Wadi Musa side of Petra enabled the Layāthnā to establish an early monopoly over the tourism hospitality business by selling postcards, stamps, souvenirs, and horse rides only a short walk from their homes.[19]

Although the state’s interest in developing Petra for tourism remained minimal through the 1950s, its policies aimed at limiting shaykhly influence expanded during this time with the official re-establishment of the Ottoman-era office of mukhtār [headman].[20] Shoup (1990) observed that since the position’s re-creation as an elected government post under the Hashemites, the prescribed duties of mukhtārs have been nearly identical to the shaykhs’.[21] As a result, the mukhtār’s authority sometimes rivals that of the shaykhs, as is the case with the Bidūl. Shoup observed during his 1988 fieldwork among the Bidūl that Umm Sayhoun’s mukhtār always convened the shaykhly majlis at his home in the village. Moreover, he had taken over the shaykhs’ traditional responsibility of lobbying the state for goods and services on the tribe’s behalf.[22] In contrast, the paramount shaykh of the Layāthnā told me during my 2018-2019 fieldwork that Layāthnā shaykhs’ power usurps that of Wadi Musa’s mukhtār.[23] He detailed that the shaykhs still play a central role in traditional tribal dispute mediation and represent the interests of their tribespeople at al-Dīwān al-Malakī [the Royal Hashemite Court] and at the PDTRA through a recently-created Consultancy Council. Wadi Musa’s mukhtār, meanwhile, told me that he convinced the PDTRA to employ Layāthnā drivers for its planned tourist shuttle service from Wadi Musa to Petra’s back entrance, indicating that Layathna shaykhs and the mukhtār both play an important role in representing Wadi Musans.[24]

Petra and post-Black September Tourism Development Efforts

The Hashemite Kingdom’s defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War engendered an economic and political shift towards the country’s East Bank and its native inhabitants, including the Petra region and its tribes. Losing the West Bank represented an economic blow; tourism to Jerusalem alone contributed nearly one-third of the country’s gross national product before 1967.[25] Furthermore, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank damaged King Husayn politically by igniting doubts among Palestinians over his ability to safeguard the interests of their people, a feeling that galvanized support for the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in Jordan.[26] The PLO’s increased assertiveness and militancy, combined with regime violence against Palestinian civilians in refugee camps near Amman, paved the way to outright war between the Royal Jordanian Army and the PLO beginning in September 1970. After expelling the PLO’s leaders to Lebanon following Black September, Husayn replaced Jordanian-Palestinians in the bureaucracy and the military with “ethnic Jordanians” (i.e. ‘East Bankers’.)[27] Husayn’s endeavours to “Jordanize” the government and security apparatus mirrored his efforts to create a new national storyline in which East Bank Bedouins – as opposed to Jordan’s majority population of Palestinian migrants and refugees – became the paramount representatives of Jordanian identity, with Bedouin traditions becoming the essential symbols of the nation’s heritage.

Petra came to the forefront of post-Black September identity politics as well. Regime authorities endeavoured to establish a golden-age narrative for Jordan’s new Bedouin representatives of national identity by tying Petra’s rich Nabataean past to its tribal present.[28] The Bidūl lent legitimacy to Husayn’s efforts because they lived in Petra’s caves, establishing a spatial connection between the city’s Nabataean builders and this East Bank tribe. The Bidūl’s presence in Petra’s architectural space thus symbolically linked Hashemite Jordan to the Nabataeans, allowing the royal family to present itself as the civilization’s current heirs.[29]

In 1984, however, state authorities moved the Bidūl from the caves to government-built housing units in Umm Sayhoun. Beyond breaking the spatial link that helped legitimize the Hashemites’ Nabataean golden-age narrative, this relocation ended the semi-nomadic lifestyle that many Bidūl had maintained up to that point. Shoup revealed that before 1984, a large portion of Bidūl families lived in camel-hair tents near Bayda during the summer and returned to the shelter of Petra’s caves during the cold, winter months.[30] After settling in Umm Sayhoun, however, most Bidūl tribespeople abandoned this lifestyle completely, becoming sedentary.[31] The Bidūl’s transition to a fully sedentary lifestyle in Umm Sayhoun instigated a shift in the tribe’s economic activity as well. In particular, Shoup observed that Bidūl women began creating rugs, bags, and other homemade crafts to sell to tourists in Petra. Over the last thirty-five years, Bidūl women have come to participate extensively in the tourism economy as sellers of (largely-imported) souvenirs, including scarves, refrigerator magnets, and keychains.[32]

While the politics of place positioned the Bidūl as messengers from Jordan’s Nabataean past, Wadi Musa’s location at Petra’s entrance made the Layāthnā the chief local economic beneficiaries of state-led tourism development efforts that began in the 1980s. Beyond the building of the rest house in the 1950’s, the Layāthnā benefitted from Jordan’s national bus company, Jordan Express Tourist Transportation (JETT), contracting directly with one of their tribesmen, Hani Fallahat, to bring its service to Petra.[33] Fallahat’s bargaining became a windfall for his tribe as he became JETT’s official tour guide, bringing visitors to Layāthnā-owned souvenir stands on their way around Petra.[34] Furthermore, JETT located its Petra bus station at Wadi Musa’s lower parking lot, enabling the town’s restaurants and hotels to become the focal point of the tourism sector’s lucrative hospitality industry, which remains the case to this day. The Bidūl, who live four kilometres away in Umm Sayhoun, do not benefit from this business or its spillover effects, such as access to pharmacies, twenty-four-hour health centres, and public transportation connecting the community to the rest of Jordan.

Although tourism has transformed Petra from a rural backwater into a commercial hub, development has proceeded unevenly, creating income disparities not just between the residents of Wadi Musa and Umm Sayhoun, but also within the Layāthnā tribe in particular. In Wadi Musa, top-down efforts to develop the hospitality sector froze many poor Layāthnā out of this lucrative industry. To attract affluent tourists to Petra, the government offered incentives for the construction of four- and five-star hotels in the area. Since most locals lack the capital to build such establishments, these businesses are owned primarily by foreign investors and wealthy elites from Amman.[35] Beyond the hospitality sector, the profit-making abilities of Layāthnā tribespeople working as souvenir sellers are constrained by prohibitive monthly rents imposed on their shops by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. In contrast, most Bidūl souvenir sellers do not pay these rents because their shops are not permitted by the government. Even though local authorities occasionally punish these unlawful souvenir sellers by confiscating their merchandise, the perception that illegal Bidūl commercial activity goes largely unpunished aggravates many Layāthnā, particularly because the implementation of this observed double standard limits the profits these tribespeople can bring home to support their families.[36]

The struggles the Bidūl and Layāthnā experience in the face of government efforts to attract wealthy investors to Petra reflect a growing trend across the country that conflicts with the monarchy’s positioning of the Bedouin as the symbol of post-Black September Jordan. Since coming to power in 1999, King Abdullah II has pursued an agenda of economic liberalization to address spiralling public expenditures, control inflation, and preserve access to International Monetary Fund loans.[37] Abdullah’s efforts to reduce public sector entitlements and jobs have created a disparity between the financial woes of government-dependent, rural East Bank communities and their privileged position in state discourse on national identity.[38] In Petra today, the PDTRA’s agenda reflects Abdullah’s embrace of neoliberal economics. In spite of Bidūl and Layāthnā claims that the PDTRA does not provide enough opportunities for locals, the Authority has introduced substantial incentives for international investors, including unlimited repatriation of profits and simplified procedures for employing non-Jordanians in foreign-owned businesses.[39]

It is within this context of socioeconomic transformation that study participants position themselves, their tribe, and other tribal and governmental stakeholders in Petra’s tourism economy. The continued impact of past governmental policies towards Petra, particularly the PDTRA’s creation in 2009 and the state’s prolonged efforts to co-opt the shaykhs, manifests in their prominence in Bidūl and Layāthnā narratives today.


I employed a participant-centred approach to explore how economic hardship and government development policies impact Bidūl and Layāthnā positioning strategies used to describe the dispute over local access to Petra’s tourism economy. To effectively communicate these narratives, I positioned myself as a learner during my fieldwork in Petra, recognizing that study participants, as long-time members of the local moral order, represented the true experts in my inquiry. My semi-structured interview method reflected this idea. The following questions served as conversation starters that participants could use to take control of the discussion, enabling them to choose the narratives of local life they wished to convey:

  1. How does your life differ from that of your father and grandparents?
  2. What is your tribe’s history in Petra?
  3. How has tourism impacted your life? How has this impact changed across generations?
  4. Has tourism impacted your relationship with other governmental or tribal stakeholders?
  5. If you could change one thing about your current situation, what would it be?

Although I approached Petra as a student, time constraints forced me to make informed assumptions about the city’s tourism economy to guide my purposive sampling method. In particular, I assumed that if tribal identity was a distinguishing feature in narratives related to competition in Petra, this distinction would be more salient among the Bidūl and the Layāthnā than among other tribes in the region, like the ʿAmmārīn. Shoup’s fieldwork visits to the Petra region between 1983 and 1988 point to the soundness of this assumption. While the building of the rest house, the bus station, and the village of Umm Sayhoun had laid the groundwork for the Bidūl and Layāthnā’s present reliance on tourism-related work, Shoup (1990) observed that the ʿAmmārīn’s location in Bayda and preference for nomadism kept the tribe on the periphery of the tourism economy.[40] Throughout my fieldwork, I did not meet any ʿAmmārīn tribespeople during my walks through Petra Archaeological Park. Two study participants also confirmed that the ʿAmmārīn’s tourism-related economic activity is limited to their work as souvenir sellers, guides, and camp hosts in the Little Petra archaeological site in Bayda.[41]


Between August 2018 and March 2019, I conducted fifty-six semi-structured interviews with Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople in Wadi Musa, Petra, and Umm Sayhoun.[42] I conducted the interviews in Arabic. Twenty-eight interviewees were from the Bidūl tribe. The other twenty-eight were from the Layāthnā. I coded the subjects as follows: Participants 1 through 28 are interviewees from the Bidūl, while Participants 29 through 56 are from the Layāthnā. My initial participants were souvenir shop owners working in Petra Archaeological Park and Wadi Musa. I found additional participants through a snowball sampling method in which I asked interviewees to refer me to other members of their tribe who they believed could provide me with additional information. I repeated this process until the data were saturated, meaning that themes and narratives conveyed by new interviewees conformed to those heard in previous interviews.

Sample Description

            Study participants agreed that the vast majority of the Bidūl and Layāthnā participate in the tourism economy, whether directly or indirectly. Participant 42, Wadi Musa’s mukhtār, observed that “ninety percent of the local population work in tourism,” a statement repeated by a number of Bidūl and Layāthnā interviewees.[43] Study participants who worked directly in the tourism sector managed hotels or restaurants, worked as sellers of souvenirs, horseback rides, or refreshments, or were employed by the PDTRA or the Capital of the Nabataeans Cooperative Society (CNCS). The remaining group of interviewees consisted of two Bidūl shaykhs, four Layāthnā shaykhs, and Wadi Musa’s mukhtār. As discussed earlier, the occupants of these leadership positions are tasked with lobbying local and national authorities on behalf of their tribal constituencies. In the following subsections, I describe the jobs of tribespeople working in Petra’s tourism economy and the dynamics of inter-tribal competition inherent to some of these occupations.

The Tourism Development Sector

Two of my tourism development sector interviewees work in the PDTRA, while the other three sit on the Board of Directors of CNCS. Among my interviewees from the PDTRA, one stated that he works as a manager, while the other is an advisor to the deputy chairman of the Authority’s Board of Commissioners. The mission of the PDTRA is to “develop the Petra region economically, socially and culturally and [to] contribute to the development of the local community.”[44] The goal of CNCS is similar to that of the PDTRA. Participant 17, the head of CNCS, stated that the organization works with UNESCO and the PDTRA to “help the local community and preserve Petra’s architecture.” To accomplish the first tenet of its mission, the organization established an investment fund to finance community improvement projects. For instance, CNCS recently financed the establishment of an automobile repair garage in Wadi Musa. According to Participants 17, 18, and 19, local community members who contributed to the fund receive a portion of the profits derived from this venture.

The Entrepreneurial Sector

Forty-four of the participants in my study work in the entrepreneurial sector of Petra’s tourism economy. Twenty-eight of these are souvenir sellers, two are donkey owners, two are refreshment stand owners, one is a taxi driver, one is a tour guide, two are horse owners, seven are hotel managers, and one is a restaurant owner. Varying degrees of inter-tribal competition characterize work in the entrepreneurial sector. Among Bidūl and Layāthnā entrepreneurs, perceptions of inter-tribal competition are best summarized by the oft-repeated phrase, “they are taking our work!”[45] “Inter-tribal competition” in the entrepreneurial sector is thus best understood outside of the phrase’s strictly economic definition, whereby any individuals working in the same market could be considered competitors. For instance, inter-tribal competition between Bidūl and Layāthnā refreshment stand owners is low because the water, soda, and snacks they sell are always in high demand among fatigued tourists, especially given the fact that Bidūl and Layāthnā stands are located far apart from one another. As Figure 1 reveals, Bidūl stands are located between the Treasury and the Monastery, while those owned by Layāthnā vendors are concentrated over two kilometres away around Petra’s visitor centre. Meanwhile, there is no inter-tribal competition between taxi drivers and tourist restaurant owners because these occupations are dominated by the Layāthnā due to their location in Wadi Musa, where most visitors return to spend the night after a day in Petra.

The hotel managers interviewed, all of whom were Wadi Musans, expressed concern about competition from foreign-owned luxury hotels and the spread of Airbnb rentals, a recent phenomenon that had captured the interest of several Bidūl and Layāthnā participants. For instance, Participants 4 and 28, both of whom are Bidūl souvenir sellers, expressed interest in opening an Airbnb as a means of creating a second stream of income for their families. Meanwhile, Participant 1, a Bidūl souvenir seller, and Participant 37, a Layāthnā horse owner, had begun advertising their homes on Airbnb. Speaking about Bidūl-owned Airbnbs, Participant 48, the owner of a budget hotel in Wadi Musa, said, “It is unacceptable. I, for example, open a business and pay for a permit and taxes. I also pay for workers, electricity, water, and everything else. Then you come, for example, and do not pay for a permit, do not pay taxes, do not pay for workers, and work via email.”


Figure 1: Depicts Wadi Musa, Petra, and Umm Sayhoun, ʿAin Musa, āl-Ḥay, the Monastery (A), the Treasury (B), the Visitor Centre (C), Layāthnā commercial areas (yellow), Bidūl commercial areas (red), and the Back Way (blue).

While the increased popularity of Airbnbs has brought about the beginnings of inter-tribal competition in Petra’s hotel industry, the largest degree of competition in the entrepreneurial sector occurs between Bidūl and Layāthnā horse owners, donkey owners, souvenir sellers, and tour guides. Layāthnā interviewees working in these professions attempted frequently to discredit their Bidūl competitors. For instance, Participant 50, a souvenir seller, said, “All of the work of the Layāthnā in Petra is lawful, in contrast to that of the Bidūl, none of which is lawful. The Layāthnā have received permission from the state for their work; the Bidūl have not.” After a similar outburst, Participant 52 informed me that tourists rarely buy souvenirs from Layāthnā-owned shops, which are located near Petra’s entrance, because they satisfy their demand for souvenirs through purchases from Bidūl-owned shops within the city. For their part, the Bidūl responded to allegations of unlawfulness by insulting Layāthnā tribespeople’s characters. Participant 4, a Bidūl souvenir seller, exclaimed, “They are crazy. They are people who like to use others. They are financially driven and do not think of anyone besides themselves. They try to slander us. If it was in their power, they would make us leave [Petra].”

Similar reasons exist for the stiff competition between Bidūl donkey owners, Layāthnā horse owners, and tour guides from both tribes. Typically, tourists learn the price of a horse or donkey ride only after they reach their destination and are often surprised when they are asked to pay over ten dinars, or fourteen U.S. Dollars. For this reason, most tourists only ride a horse or donkey once during their visits to Petra. Meanwhile, PDTRA-employed Layāthnā guides and unofficial Bidūl guides compete to shepherd tourists to a scenic viewpoint at the top of a canyon that overlooks the Treasury. Since the point is accessible via a trail from Wadi Musa and a path that ascends directly from the Treasury, tourists employ either a Layāthnā or a Bidūl guide, depending on their location in Petra. When I visited the overlook during my fieldwork, a verbal altercation erupted between a Bidūl and a Layāthnā guide over the “right” to accompany a group of European tourists back to the Treasury.

Theme Analysis

I identified two themes that resonate across discourse propagated by my Bidūl and Layāthnā interviewees. In “Theme 1: Tribal Histories,” members of each group relate competing versions of Petra’s past. The differences between these narratives indicate the intra- and inter-tribal power dynamics in Petra’s community today. These gaps are reproduced in Bidūl and Layāthnā statements related to “Theme 2: Uneven Opportunities for Development.” My discussion of the narratives contained in Theme 2 demonstrates that the power imbalances revealed in Theme 1, combined with governmental politics of representation that widen these gaps, have created a system of uneven growth today that marginalizes many Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople from the tourism development process.


Statements related by study participants in connection to “Theme 1: Tribal Histories” and “Theme 2: Outside Intervention” reveal asymmetries of power within and between the Bidūl and Layāthnā tribes. In this section, I explore the contradictions between oral histories related by my study participants, their perceptions of the efficacy of current governmental and tribal systems of local representation, and the inter- and intra-tribal power dynamics these narratives reveal.

Theme 1: Tribal Histories

In Theme 1, study participants recounted competing versions of Petra’s tribal history in order to criticize or affirm their socioeconomic position within the Petra community. In my sample, only Bidūl and Layāthnā shaykhs and entrepreneurs working in jobs characterized by high inter-tribal competition-related such accounts of Petra’s pre-Hashemite history to me. With the exception of Layāthnā shaykhs, these interviewees emphasized their Bidūl or Layāthnā ancestors’ connection to Petra while simultaneously casting doubt on the other tribe’s historical association with the city. In doing so, these participants attempted to legitimize their tribe’s presence in Petra at the expense of the other, creating a dialogic rationale for why either the Bidūl or the Layāthnā deserve a larger proportion of the economic benefits associated with visitor flows to Petra today. In contrast, the oral histories produced by Layāthnā shaykhs ignored this background of inter-tribal competition altogether and focused instead on the heroism of previous shaykhs without mentioning other Layāthnā tribespeople or the Bidūl.

Histories propagated by Bidūl working in high-competition occupations

Of my twenty-five Bidūl entrepreneurial sector interviewees, one was a refreshment stand owner, two were donkey owners, and twenty-two were souvenir sellers. While the refreshment stand owner did not talk about tribal history in our interview, interviewees who worked in occupations characterized by high-intertribal competition told me stories of Petra’s tribal past that emphasized their ancestor’s connection to the city. Participants 1, 7, 8, and 9, who are souvenir sellers, and Participant 3, a donkey owner, asserted that “the Nabataeans are [our] ancestors,” taking advantage of the spatial link the Bidūl’s working presence in Petra establishes with the city’s ancient builders. Although this claim did not feature explicitly in the historical narratives of other Bidūl souvenir sellers and donkey owners, Participant 22 captured the generally-held consensus of this group, stating, “The Bidūl are a group that is present in Petra and in ālḤamayma, a region located on the way to Aqaba near Wadi Rum…300 years ago, all of them were in ālḤamayma, but then two sub-tribes of the Bidūl, the Samāhīn and the Faqīr, departed and went to Petra through the valley.”

Beyond positioning themselves as long-time inhabitants of Petra, Bidūl donkey owners and souvenir sellers claimed that the Layāthnā used to live far away from the city. Participant 7, a souvenir seller, recounted, “The Layāthnā were in āl-Ḥay. We were the only ones here. There were twenty families, but by the grace of God, people began to marry, and the population increased.” By asserting that the Layāthnā lived “in āl-Ḥay,” which is located on the plateau that extends northward beyond the hills of Wadi Musa, this Bidūl narrative establishes a clear spatial distinction between Petra and the Layāthnā. As Figure 1 (above) reveals, āl-Ḥay is also close to ʿAin Musa, the spring that served as the region’s main water source before the spread of tourism. This detail emphasizes the Bidūl’s ancestors’ willingness to endure harder living conditions to reside in Petra, strengthening their connection to the city. By spatially distinguishing their Petra-dwelling forebears from the far-off Layāthnā, Bidūl souvenir sellers and donkey owners leverage their history of living in the city’s caves and their continued working presence in Petra to justify their claim that they are the city’s original inhabitants.

Histories propagated by Layāthnā working in high-competition occupations

While the Bidūl claim that their ancestors were willing to die in Petra, their Layāthnā competitors assert that their forefathers were prepared to die for the city before the Bidūl even came to the region. For instance, Participant 49, a Layāthnā horse owner, said, “A long time ago, Petra was ruled by the Ottomans. The Layāthnā were the ones that fought and removed the Ottomans from Petra. Because of this, Emir Abdullah gave Petra to the Layāthnā. He said, ‘The land of Petra is for you.’” In contrast, “The Bidūl came to Petra between 1935 and 1940. Before that, they lived in ālḤamayma. The Bidūl are not real Bedouins because they beg for money from tourists and do not live in camel-hair tents. The Bedouins are known for their karam [generosity] and ḍayāfa [hospitality].” Participant 44, a tour guide, concurred,

The Layāthnā got rid of the Turks in an alliance with [Ḥuwayṭāt paramount shaykh] ‘Auda Abu Taya and Sharif Husayn. The Bidūl, meanwhile, came in 1950 or 1960. The Bidūl are not Bedouins. Bedouins are not people who stabilize in one place. They move around; they own camels and horses. They are also generous. The Bidūl are none of these things. The Layāthnā, on the other hand, were the generous ones when the Bidūl came. We let them live next to us and befriended them because of karam.

Like their Bidūl counterparts, Participants 44 and 49 built their tribal histories in opposition to their inter-tribal competitors. Specifically, both participants juxtaposed the Layāthnā’s fight to remove the Ottomans from Petra with the Bidūl’s more recent arrival to the city, ostensibly to strike it rich as they “beg for money from tourists.”

Several souvenir sellers related this claimed imbalance between the two tribes’ historical commitment to Petra to assertions that the Bidūl are not committed to upholding the rule of law in Petra today. Echoing the statements of Participants 44 and 49, Participant 32 stated that “the Bidūl came recently, less than 80 years ago, during the generation of our grandparents,” adding that “inside Petra, there are no laws, no government. Nothing. We are the only ones who follow the laws.” Participants 52 and 53, who own a souvenir stand next to the visitor centre, agreed. Pointing to their shop and those next to it, Participant 52 said, “These shops, we built them using our own, personal funds. After we built them, the authorities said that you must pay rent. This rent is not symbolic; we pay six thousand Jordanian Dinars per year for these shops.” Referring to the Bidūl, Participant 53 added, “Those people are governed by a different God; not one of them pays a single cent. There are no more than five permitted shops in Petra. There are 200 non-permitted shops.”

Bidūl Shaykhs’ Positioning

While Bidūl souvenir sellers and donkey owners sought to discredit the Layāthnā by asserting that the tribe lived far away from Petra, Bidūl shaykhs aimed to accomplish this by questioning the Layāthnā’s claims of wartime bravery. Participant 23, a shaykh, began his narrative by stating that “the Bidūl are from ālḤamayma. In winter, they came to Petra and lived and wintered over in the caves…they had settled in Petra by 1812 [the year that Burckhardt visited the city].” Next, he asserted that “a long time ago, the Wadi Musans were with ‘Auda Abu Taya, who was working with Sharif Husayn. ‘Auda was the paramount shaykh of the Ḥuwayṭāt. Everything from Aqaba to the end of Wadi Araba belonged to ‘Auda Abu Taya, and he commanded 350,000 men.” Following this statement, I asked Participant 23 about the claim that Emir Abdullah had given Petra to the Layāthnā. He responded,

Ṣalī ʿalā āl-Nabī [pray to the Prophet Mohammad, a phrase used to express agitation, especially in response to a false or dangerous claim]. The rights to Petra return to ‘Auda Abu Taya, and only him. ‘Auda was responsible for all of this land…‘Auda Abu Taya took all of these lands by force.”

In asserting that “Wadi Musans were with ‘Auda Abu Taya,” who truly possessed the “rights to Petra,” Participant 23 questioned the Layāthnā’s historical sovereignty over the city, as well as their claimed instrumentality in defending it from the Ottomans. In doing so, however, he also rendered his ancestors, whose longstanding presence in Petra anchors current Bidūl claims to the city, an anonymous entity among the grander exploits of the former Ḥuwayṭāt chief.

Layāthnā Shaykhs’ Positioning

In contrast to Wadi Musans working in the tourism sector, whose historical narratives painted the Layāthnā tribe as heroic, their shaykhs produced oral histories that emphasized only the bravery of members of their shaykhly genealogies. Before recounting the Layāthnā’s battles against the Ottomans, Participant 51, the tribe’s paramount shaykh, showed me the government document that appointed his grandfather, Shaykh Mu’amar bin Bashir, “Muḥāfiḏ ʾĀthār Wādī Mūsā.” The following conversation ensued.

Participant 51: Emir Abdullah appointed Shaykh Mu’amar bin Bashir, of Wadi Musa, Emirate of Transjordan, the Guardian of Petra, on the Twentieth of July 1927.

Nicolas: Did he give this designation only to your tribe [the ʿAlāyā] or to the Layāthnā qabīla [tribal confederation] as a whole?

Participant 51: No. He gave it only to my tribe. Only to Mu’amar bin Bashir.

Nicolas: Ok, so only to your tribe.

Participant 51: No. No. Only Mu’amar.

Nicolas: And the Ḥasanāt and the other ʿashāʾir [tribes]?

Participant 51: No. No. He did not give it to them. Only to him: Mu’amar bin Bashir.

Next, Participant 51 showed me his family tree, saying,

This is Rashid bin Nofl, 210 or 215 years ago. He was my grandfather’s grandfather. He was shaykh of the ʿAlāyā tribe. After he died, his oldest son assumed the chieftaincy. His name is ‘Auda. After he died, his brother, Bashir, inherited the chieftaincy. When Bashir died, his oldest son, Mohammad, assumed the chieftaincy. We gave him the nickname, ʿUzrāʾīl: The Angel of Death. Why? Because he was a good marksman. The Turks came in 1910 and executed him and twenty-four shaykhs from the region. These shaykhs were from Ma’an, from the Bedouins, and elsewhere. The Turks executed them via firing squad and let the birds and the beasts eat their remains…After Mohammad died, Mu’amar assumed the chieftaincy. This is my grandfather. After Mu’amar died, his oldest son, ‘Ugla, assumed the chieftaincy. After ‘Ugla died, it was my father, ‘Ali Mu’amar. After that, Mohammad bin ‘Ugla, and now, it is I.

Several minutes later, Participant 51 detailed how the Layāthnā avenged ʿUzrāʾīl:

There were a number of battles over Petra between the Layāthnā and the Turks. The Turks were trying to occupy Petra…Why were they trying to occupy Petra? In order to store their heavy weaponry and munitions in Petra, because it is surrounded [by mountains]…There were two battles that the Layāthnā commanded. The inhabitants of Rajif helped them as well. The Layāthnā stopped the Turks and broke their lines. They did not let them occupy Petra.

Participant 55, another shaykh, explained, “The Turks did not enter Wadi Musa. They only made it as far as the hills surrounding it. There was injustice during the time of the Turks, and the shaykhs of Wadi Musa refused these politics.”

The oral histories related by Participants 51 and 55 reveal the contrasting agendas of the Layāthnā shaykhs and their entrepreneurial constituents for telling stories of tribal heroism during the Ottoman period. Most conspicuous in this regard is the juxtaposition between Participant 44’s assertion that “the Layāthnā got rid of the Turks in an alliance with ‘Auda Abu Taya and Sharif Husayn” and Participant 55’s claim that only “the shaykhs of Wadi Musa” refused Turkish politics of injustice. Furthermore, Participant 51’s statement that Emir Abdullah gave the guardianship of Petra only to Mu’amar bin Bashir contrasts with Participant 49’s statement that “Emir Abdullah gave Petra to the Layāthnā.” Moreover, the Bidūl, who are mentioned repeatedly by Participants 44 and 49, are absent from the accounts of Participants 51 and 55.

Shryock (1997) demonstrated that genealogies connected his ʿAdwani and ʿAbbadi informants to their heroic forefathers, enabling his study participants to appropriate their ancestors’ feats into their conceptualizations of their own honour and identity.[46] By refusing to engage the discourses of ordinary Layāthnā tribespeople and the Bidūl, the Layāthnā shaykhs’ dominant narrative establishes their hegemony over a tribal past from which these subaltern groups have been eliminated. As I will demonstrate in Theme 2, this discursively-revealed power imbalance between Layāthnā shaykhs, ordinary Wadi Musans, and the Bidūl remains salient in the present day. Far from the abstract conflict that control over Petra’s tribal past represents, however, these intra- and inter-tribal fissures reveal themselves in narratives related to concrete issues Petra’s tribespeople currently face, including the distribution of wealth, opportunities for social advancement, and avenues for local representation in the tourism development process.

Theme 2: Uneven Opportunities for Development

In this section, I will demonstrate how the inter- and intra-tribal power differences indicated in “Theme 1: Tribal Histories” are confirmed by Bidūl and Layāthnā narratives related to “Theme 2: Uneven Opportunities for Development.” In particular, I will show how these gaps manifest in a lack of representation in the development process for groups described as “subaltern” in Theme 1. Finally, I will reveal how the inefficacy of tribal and governmental modes of representation resulted in the marginalization of the Bidūl and large portions of the Layāthnā tribe during the planning phase for the Back-Way Project. In so doing, I will highlight sections of Petra’s local community whose interests are not currently taken into account and the dangers associated with continuing this status quo.

Who benefits? Who is represented? A controversy over perceptions

Among the Bidūl and Layāthnā, the intra- and inter-tribal disagreement over Petra’s past manifests in contradictory rhetoric over the distribution of tourism-related wealth in the present. Participant 55, a Layāthnā shaykh, claimed that “people who work in tourism, regardless of whether they own hotels, shops, or participate in other ways, are better off economically than any other element of society.” Participant 54, another shaykh, added, “if there are people who say there is no work here, they are lying to you. The economic situation is good. The people who work in the tourism sector, their financial situation is good.”

The Layāthnā shaykhs’ assessments contradict those of almost all other interviewees, who emphasized that the distribution of tourism wealth in Petra is uneven and that most families struggle to pay their monthly expenses with their meagre, tourism-derived incomes.[47] For instance, Participant 27, a Bidūl souvenir seller, stated that “in each family, there are two or three people who are out of work. For every ten families, one benefits [from tourism]. Out of the 25,000 people living in Petra, only about 2,000 benefit.” Participant 41, a Wadi Musan hotel manager, said, “in Petra, about forty percent of the people benefit, while sixty percent just barely stay afloat with tourism.” This statement was echoed by the Mukhtār, the CNCS Board of Directors, a horse owner, four shop owners, and one tour guide, all of whom estimated the portion of the local community benefiting from tourism to be at or below forty percent.

Although most Bidūl and Layāthnā study participants agreed that only a small portion of Petra’s tribespeople derive significant financial benefits from their work in the tourism sector, their beliefs about the roots of these inequalities differed based on tribal identity. Layāthnā tribespeople working in the entrepreneurial sector often blamed their shaykhs. Participant 29, a taxi driver, revealed that “shaykhs are no longer responsible to the tribes they represent. Before, it was possible to get rid of a bad shaykh through popular consent. Now, with approval from al-Dīwān al-Malakī saying that ‘you are the shaykh,’ this responsibility to the people disappears.” As a consequence, “the shaykhs take the government salary from al-Dīwān al-Malakī and do not do anything good for the people. They extract rents from all the places in the local community, like the mosques.” Participant 34, a souvenir seller, confirmed, “the shaykhs take money for themselves and do not help the people.” Participants 31, 32, 33, 35, 36, 37, and 38 made similar assertions. In contrast to the views of Participant 51, who asserted that āl-Dīwān āl-Malakī provides a forum for shaykhs to represent their tribes’ interests to the king, Participant 29 pointed out that the official recognition provided by this institution removes the link of accountability between the chiefs and their tribal constituencies.

In contrast to this intra-tribal attribution of blame, most Bidūl believe that their disadvantage in Petra’s tourism economy occurs due to inter-tribal inequality stemming from their lack of representation in the PDTRA. Participant 20, a souvenir seller, explained,

The problem is with the people who direct the PDTRA. Their interests do not line up with those of the Bidūl. For example, their excuse for not providing more services [in Umm Sayhoun] is that Umm Sayhoun is within the Archaeological Park. The king came in 2000 and said that he would provide more services, but the PDTRA refused, citing this reason. Therefore, there is discrimination against the Bidūl.

Participant 8, a souvenir seller, added, “All of the people in the PDTRA are from the Layāthnā. Since they are farmers, they are racist against us Bedouins and only employ people from Wadi Musa.” Participant 23, a shaykh, confirmed, “the issue is that there are people in high positions who work just for themselves and the interests of their families. Bidūl rights and interests are not represented in the PDTRA because of this behaviour.”

Although they do not view the PDTRA as biased against the Bidūl, Layāthnā participants also believe that the PDTRA often works against local interests. For instance, Participant 41, a Layāthnā hotel manager, asserted, “The PDTRA is terrible. What happens is that the moment someone gets an important job, he stops caring about his community. I have good ideas about how to improve tourism development while simultaneously helping the local community, but there is no place for me to present these ideas.” The shaykhs of the Layāthnā, in contrast, expressed support for the PDTRA. Participant 51 said, “The people who work in the PDTRA are from the Layāthnā and the Bidūl. There is no preferential treatment.” Participant 55 asserted, “The government and the PDTRA have provided a lot of goods and services to preserve Petra and to make sure the visitors have a good experience…The people who work in the PDA must have experience and a certificate. If they have both of these things, they can receive a job.” Just as was the case with their oral histories, the Layāthnā shaykhs offered a perception of the PDTRA’s role in Petra that contradicted with the statements of their fellow Layāthnā tribespeople and those of the Bidūl. I demonstrate in my discussion of local reactions to the Back-Way Project that Layāthnā intra-tribal disagreement regarding the distribution of wealth in Petra, the trustworthiness of the shaykhs, and the role of the PDTRA manifests in the struggles Layāthnā entrepreneurs face in voicing their opposition to PDTRA policies.

Deficiencies in Local Representation: The Back-Way Project

Local reactions to PDTRA policies mirror the inter- and intra-tribal divisions reflected in Bidūl and Layāthnā perceptions of the distribution of Petra’s tourism-related financial benefits. This is true of the Back-Way Project, a recent PDTRA effort to build a paved road from Umm Sayhoun to Petra’s Qasr Bint āl-Faraʿūn monument to allow tourists to access the city by bus, eliminating the need for them to walk through the kilometre-long Sīq to access Petra.[48] Although the road was completed in 2017, it has not yet been used for its original purpose amidst widespread local opposition to the project. Statements from across Petra’s socioeconomic spectrum reveal the reservations many participants feel towards the Back Way, as well as the consequences the PDTRA may face if it continues its unilateral push to complete the project in spite of these local concerns.

According to Wadi Musa’s mukhtār and one Layāthnā shaykh, the Back Way will benefit the local community. Āl-Mukhtār asserted:

“The Back Way will give Wadi Musans money. It will especially help people like the taxi drivers, who will earn a few extra cents driving people from Qasr Bint āl-Faraʿūn to Wadi Musa. Members of the Layāthnā will also work as bus drivers. The people who are complaining are the Bidūl. They see the Back Way as a threat to their work on the donkeys.“

Participant 55 confirmed, “The bus companies that will drive on the Back Way will employ people from the local community.” By emphasizing that the project will “give Wadi Musans money” and “employ people from the local community,” these Layāthnā leaders positioned the Back Way as a positive development not just for taxi and bus drivers, but for the tribe as a whole. Thus, only the Bidūl should have seen the Back Way “as a threat.”

Contrary to Participant 42’s expectations, Layāthnā owners of souvenir stands and hotels positioned the Back Way as a threat to their businesses. Participant 52 argued that “the Back Way does not benefit the local community. People will only come for one day. They will not stay at hotels or eat at restaurants in Wadi Musa.” Participant 48, a hotel owner, added, “the Back-Way project will completely destroy the people here. We do not have money to invest in lands near Bayda.” Both participants opposed the Back Way because they believed that its implementation would shift the hospitality industry to Bayda, freezing Wadi Musans out of the most lucrative piece of the tourism sector.

Bidūl tribespeople, meanwhile, completely opposed the Back Way. Participant 23, a shaykh, stated, “The government built the Back Way and finished it, but the Bidūl are against it. If they do bring buses to Petra, there will be a battle involving the Bedouins and there will be violence.” Participant 7, a souvenir seller, added that “the Layāthnā will be the ones who drive the buses down to Qasr Bint āl-Faraʿūn. They will put the donkey owners out of business and Umm Sayhoun will die of hunger.” Participant 11, a refreshment stand owner, added, “The Back Way was designed without our input. If the PDTRA allows a tourist bus to enter Petra via the Back Way, we will create a problem.” Beyond threatening their incomes, the Back Way symbolizes the marginalization of the Bidūl from the development process. In August 2019, this loss of agency led to a violent incident in which a Bidūl tribesperson shot at an empty PDTRA bus as it passed through Umm Sayhoun towards the Back Way.[49] Given the prevalence of narratives that indicate the marginalization of Layāthnā actors in the tourism economy as well, the bus attack reveals the possible consequences the PDTRA could face if it continues to implement development policies without consulting local stakeholders that will be impacted by these actions.


In this study, I set out to determine how conflict over tourism revenues in Petra impacts inter- and intra-tribal relations among the Bidūl and Layāthnā. By analysing orally-produced tribal histories and narratives detailing the uneven distribution of development opportunities in Petra, I found that power imbalances within and between the Bidūl and Layāthnā have marginalized many local tribespeople from the tourism development process. The PDTRA’s implementation of the Back-Way Project illustrates this phenomenon. Deficiencies in both tribal and governmental systems of representation prevented Layāthnā entrepreneurs and Bidūl tribespeople from effectively voicing their opposition to the PDTRA’s plan, to which the Bidūl responded with violence.

The finding that systems of tribal and governmental representation fail to account for the perspectives of Bidūl and Layāthnā entrepreneurs, who are often the party most affected by changes in development policy, suggests that achieving widespread local participation in the development process requires the PDTRA to change how it engages with the local community. To his credit, Participant 56, an advisor to the PDTRA’s deputy chairman, recognized this challenge, asserting that “the PDTRA is separated from the community.” To bridge this gap, Participant 55, a Layāthnā shaykh, said that the PDTRA established a Consultancy Council “to collaborate with influential people representing the interests of certain aspects of the local community.” For this approach to succeed, however, the PDTRA must ensure that the “influential people” it chooses are not solely representatives of the current power structure, whose “interests,” I have shown, do not encompass those of all of Petra’s citizens. By instead involving marginalized Bidūl and Layāthnā in the Consultancy Council, the PDTRA can limit the possibility of future violence in Petra.

However, truly addressing the uneven distribution of power, and with it, the issue of unsatisfactory representation for large portions of Petra’s local community, will also necessitate a fundamental change in how the PDTRA conceptualizes the local community itself. Participant 56, for instance, discussed the existence of “six [tribal] communities in Petra, some of which are Bedouin, some of which are semi-sedentary, and some of which are sedentarized.” Instead of addressing the problem of local representation in Petra, this antiquated division of Petra’s community serves to reinforce flawed, shaykh-centric systems of tribal involvement in the development process. Bureaucrats at the local and national level must acknowledge that socioeconomic subgroups exist within these “six communities,” a dividing scheme also used by the PDTRA in its 2011 Strategic Master Plan for the Petra Region.[50] Ignoring this reality makes the inequality that permeates the Petra community inevitable and facilitates the exclusion of marginalized groups from the development process.

At its root, the tribe-centric approach to development policy in Petra reflects an administrative preference for maintaining established loci of power over creating new ones to accommodate changes resulting from the community’s rapid commercialization over the last forty years. To overcome the issue of marginalization along socioeconomic lines that accompanies this reliance on existing systems of authority, the PDTRA must create new channels of representation to complement and challenge these traditional hierarchies. The PDTRA, for instance, could encourage the creation of unions to represent the interests of Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople working in the entrepreneurial sector. The governing councils of such organizations, which would feature both Bidūl and Layāthnā entrepreneurs who are elected by union members, would receive permanent seats at the Consultancy Council from which they could convey union positions on PDTRA policy proposals. In this way, the model of the Petra Hotel Association, which was founded by Participant 56 to provide Wadi Musan hotel owners with representation in the development process, could be applied across tribal lines toward the creation of similar organizations for Bidūl and Layāthnā souvenir sellers, horse and donkey owners, and tour guides in particular.

Beyond Petra, fieldwork in Wadi Rum and the Eastern Desert would reveal if local interpretations of government policies in other Jordanian tourist destinations indicate a similar conflict between established hierarchies and the need for new avenues for representation. The case of Petra is also instructive for tourism development in Saudi Arabia, a society with deep-set tribal ties that recently simplified its visa application process to increase international visitor inflows. The premise that development-focused policymakers favour existing power structures can also be tested in contexts where tribal ties play a less influential societal role, such as in Egyptian tourist destinations like Luxor. Rapid, tourism-induced change requires development authorities to possess the flexibility and initiative to challenge engrained systems of influence and previously-held conceptualizations of community organization. Through such proactivity, institutions like the PDTRA can confront the marginalization of under-represented socioeconomic groups that accompanies tourism-induced societal transformations, inspiring stronger local support for their development agendas in the process.


*Nicolas Reeves is an Arabic Fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) at the American University in Cairo. He graduated from The George Washington University in 2019 with a Bachelor of Arts with Special Honors in international affairs and economics, and with a minor in Arabic. He received the 2019 Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm Leadership, Ethics, and Practice Prize from The George Washington University in recognition of the fieldwork he conducted in Petra, Jordan as a member of the 2018-2019 Elliott School Dean’s Scholars Program.


[1] This study was funded by the Elliott School Dean’s Scholars Program. I would like to thank Dr. Claudine Kuradusenge-McLeod, Dr. Shana Marshall, Dr. Graham Cornwell, and Dr. Tobias Greiff of The George Washington University for supporting and advising me throughout the research process. I also thank Noa Gur-Arie, Lauren Remaley, and two anonymous editors for providing me with invaluable feedback on multiple drafts of this paper.

[2] “Petra,” A Living Tribute to the Legacy of King Hussein I, The Royal Hashemite Court, accessed January 17, 2020,

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Tourism Statistical Newsletter 2018,” Jordan Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, accessed September 15, 2019,

[5] Participant 23 and 29 (Bidūl and Layāthnā tribesperson) in discussion with the author, March 2019.

[6] “Petra Visitors Statistics 2000-2016,” Petra: One of 7 Wonders, Petra Development and Tourism Region Authority, accessed January 11, 2020,

[7] The Chairman of the PDTRA’s Board of Commissioners, Suleiman Farajat, is a Layāthnā tribesman. In addition, Participant 56, a Layāthnā tribesman and advisor to the deputy chairman of the Board of Commissioners, reported that over eighty percent of the workers at the PDTRA are from the Layāthnā. Mikkel Bille (2019) also observed that residents of Wadi Musa dominate government institutions related to protecting and preserving Petra. See “Board of Commissioners,” Petra Development & Tourism Region Authority, accessed January 30, 2020, See also Mikkel Bille, Being Bedouin Around Petra: Life at a World Heritage Site in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Berghahn Books, 2019), 35.

[8] Nicolas Reeves, “Petra bus attack exposes divisions within local Jordanian community,” Al Monitor, September 24, 2019, accessed September 25, 2019,

[9] Andrew Shryock, Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination: Oral History and Textual Authority in Tribal Jordan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 9.

[10] Ibid., 190.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 174.

[13] Ibid., 211.

[14] Eugene Rogan, Frontiers of the State in the Late Ottoman Empire: Transjordan, 1850-1921 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 52-54.

[15] Joseph Massad, Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001), 105.

[16] Aseel Al-Ramahi, “Wasta in Jordan: A Distinct Feature of (And Benefit for) Middle Eastern Society,” Arab Law Quarterly 22, no. 1 (2008): 37.

[17] Government of Transjordan, Structures Department – Employment, Form F21 No. 4/25/13/31 (Amman: Government of Transjordan, 1927), print, accessed August 8, 2018.

[18] Ibid., 281.

[19] Ibid.

[20] John Shoup, “Hima: A Traditional Bedouin Land-use System in Contemporary Syria and Jordan,” PhD diss., (Washington University in St. Louis, 1990), 112.

[21] Ibid., 112.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Participant 51 (Layāthnā tribesperson) in discussion with the author, March 2019.

[24] Participant 42 (Layāthnā tribesperson) in discussion with the author, March 2019.

[25] Ilan Pappé, “Jordan between Hashemite and Palestinian Identity,” in Jordan in the Middle East: The Making of a Pivotal State, 1948-1988, ed. Joseph Nevo and Ilan Pappé (Essex: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., 1994), 70.

[26] Massad, Colonial Effects, 239-240.

[27] Ibid., 213-214, 246.

[28] Salam Al-Mahadin, “An Economy of Legitimating Discourses: the invention of the Bedouin and Petra as national signifiers in Jordan,” Critical Arts: A South- North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies 21, no. 1 (2007): 98-99.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Bayda is a village located eight kilometres north of Petra. Shoup, “Hima,” xii.

[31] Twenty years after the conclusion of Shoup’s 1983-1988 fieldwork, Bille’s fieldwork in the Petra region, which occurred primarily between 2005 and 2011, revealed that most ʿAmmārīn tribespeople had also abandoned nomadism. Bille reported that by the end of his time in Petra, fewer than five ʿAmmārīn households were considered full-time tent dwellers. See Ibid., 223. See also Bille, Being Bedouin Around Petra, 18.

[32] Shoup, “Hima,” 223.

[33] Shoup, “The impact of tourism,” 282.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Nasim Barham and Horst Kopp, “Tourismusentwicklung im Rentenstaat Am Beispiel von Petra, dem Brennpunkt des Jordanischen Tourismus,” Erdkunde 55, no. 3 (2001): 237.

[36] Participants 32, 48, 52, and 53 (Layāthnā tribespeople) in discussion with the author, March 2019.

[37] André Bank and Oliver Schlumberger, “Jordan: Between Regime Survival and Economic Reform,” in Arab Elites: Negotiating the Politics of Change, ed. Volker Perthes (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004), 50.

[38] Sean Yom, “Tribal Politics in Contemporary Jordan,” The Middle East Journal 68, no. 2 (2014): 242.

[39] Participants 5, 10, 12, 15, 20, 22, 23, 29, 41, 42, 43, 45, and 51 (Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople) in discussion with the author, March 2019. “Investment Incentives,” Petra Development & Tourism Region Authority, accessed November 5, 2019,

[40] Shoup, “Hima,” 223.

[41] Participants 4 and 30 (Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople) in discussion with the author, March 2019.

[42] The George Washington University IRB approved this research under application number NCR191132.

[43] Participants 20, 40, 41, and 42 (Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople) in discussion with the author, March 2019.


[44] “About the Authority,” Petra Development & Tourism Region Authority, accessed February 2, 2020,

[45] Participants 7, 21, 29, 44, 48, 49, 50, 52 (Bidūl and Layāthnā tribespeople) in discussion with the author, March 2019.

[46] Shryock, “Nationalism and the Genealogical Imagination,” 35.

[47] Participants 4, 12, 13, 20, 21, 23, 24, 27, 28, 29, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 48, 52, and 53 (Bidūl and Layāthnā Tribespeople) in discussion with the author, March 2019.

[48] “Back Road Project,” Petra Development & Tourism Region Authority, accessed September 15, 2019,

[49] Reeves, “Petra bus attack.”

[50] “Master Plane [sic],” Petra Development & Tourism Region Authority, accessed January 21, 2020,