On the year of the migration of the Sba’ah back to Saudi Arabia

By Edouard Aldahdah

Posted on December 30th, 2009 in Arabia, Saudi, Syria

When I first opened Volume One of the Syrian Studbook some eighteen years ago, the first thing that struck me was the very limited number of horses that traced to the Sba’ah Bedouin tribe. After all, this powerful and wealthy tribe which is part of the larget ‘Anazah confederation spent its summer quarters in the area directly east of the city of Hama in central Syria. As a result it was very familiar to Western travelers and government agents who took from Aleppo, Damascus or Beirut, in search for Bedouin Arabian horses. Another result of this geographical location was that many of the early desert-bred imports to the West and Egypt, which form the antecedents of many of today’s Arabian horses, hailed from the Sba’ah tribe. Major Roger Upton, for instance, spent some time with Sba’ah leader Shaykh Sulayman Ibn Mirshid in 1874, and bought horses like Kesia, Yataghan and Haidee from his tribesmen. Similarly, Lady Anne and Wilfrid Blunt visited with Beteyen Ibn Mirshid a few years later and some of their best known early desert imports were bred by the Sba’ah: Queen of Sheba, Meshura, Azrek, Pharaoh, Dajania, Hagar, etc. Some of the horses imported by Homer Davenport to the USA in 1906 also came from the Sba’ah tribe: *Houran, *Gomussa, *Hadba, and above all,*Haleb.

In my trips across Syria, I rarely came across a Sba’ah Bedouin, if at all. I knew from hearsay that some elders were settled in and around the cities of Hims and Hama, but what about the thousand others? So I kept wondering for years: Where have all the Sba’ah Bedouins – and their horses – gone? “To Saudi Arabia”, was I later told. But when? “Oh, years ago”. People did not seem too eager to broach the subject.

I finally found the answer in this quote in an article by Jonathan Rae (“Les politiques foncieres dans la steppe d’Alep: l’interface entre les tribus et l’Etat” in Les marges arides du Croissant Fertile, FMO43, Maison de l’Orient, Lyon, 2006):

“[En 1958], le parti Baath renforca son pouvoir, et la Syrie s’associa a l’Egypte au sein de la Republique Arabe Unie. Les tribus enregistrees autrefois comme Nomades, furent dissoutes dans le reste de la societe; la politique de pluralisme juridique fut abolie et la conscription, au sein des forces armees, devint une realite. La tribu des Sba’a, redoutant les nouveaux pouvoirs de l’Etat, commenca a migrer en masse vers l’Arabie Saoudite, d’abord en 1958, puis en 1963, enfin par petits groupes durant la decennie qui suivit.”

In English now, translation mine:

“[In 1958], the Baath party strengthened its grip, and Syria associated itself with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic. The tribes, hitherto registered as nomadic, were dissolved in the rest of [Syrian] society; the policy of legal pluralism was abolished, and mandatory military service in the armed forces became a reality. The Sba’ah tribe, fearing the new powers of the State, started migrating en masse to Saudi Arabia, first in 1958, then in 1963, and finally, in small groups, in the decade that followed.”

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