Sinai’s Bedouins struggle to preserve their timeless way of life

Through an ISIS insurgency, government tension and tourism demands, Sinai’s Bedouins struggle to preserve their timeless way of life.

The top of Mt. Sinai at sunrise, overlooking a nearby mountain range (photo credit: JOHN COLIN MARSTON / SAINT CATHERINE)
The top of Mt. Sinai at sunrise, overlooking a nearby mountain range
Twice a year, in October and during the month of Ramadan, Sheikh Ahmed leaves his home and heads into the windswept desert near Jabal Musa or Mt. Sinai with nothing more than a tent, camel, and a few supplies to nourish his sojourns.
As the head of the Jabaleya tribe, one of twelve Bedouin tribes in the southern half of the Sinai Peninsula, and an advisor to one of the oldest monasteries in all of Christendom, the Sheikh is a busy man - convening tribal leader meetings, interceding in land and water issues, preparing interfaith dialogues on the feast days of saints and during Passover. But it’s important for him and for his larger community to leave their schools, gardens, and fields to roam the wadis of this God-scorched land, as a reminder of their past and a token of what to keep for generations.
“The land for the Bedouin is like a mother. We always like to be free like birds in the desert,” the Sheikh says.
“Some 160 years ago, the Bedouins moved caravans together from Jordan to Morocco. All this region was ours for open movement, but now you see the Israeli border, the Egyptian border, and the Jordanian border. Sometimes there’s no rain, there’s nothing for food, and we want the peace to travel from place to place, to find water and grass for our animals, but they stop us.”
When Sheikh Ahmed was born in 1971, he grew up in a desert tent alone with his mother, his father away with two other wives. Eight years later in 1979, his tribe began to construct permanent dwellings out of stone in what today has become the town of Saint Catherine. Sheikh Ahmed converses freely while simultaneously checking social media on his smartphone.
Traditional in his long tunic attire and deep attachment to the nomadic ways of his childhood and ancestors, he is also progressive in outlook and mentality – five years ago after becoming leader of his tribe he banned child marriage and took a hard stance against female genital mutilation. He stands at the crossroads of Bedouin life in south Sinai.
“The generational differences are huge between being born in a Bedouin village where you’re cut off from a lot of amenities and you’re making your living by farming and raising animals and being born in a town that’s very modern and plugged in to international tourism,” said Joshua Goodman, a professor at St. Lawrence University who researches tribal-state relations in the Middle East.
“The Bedouins play a key role in what has come to be known as culture tourism, the idea that tourists want to experience the traditional lifestyle of the culture they’re visiting. The problem is that it’s an uneven relationship between the state which runs tourism and the Bedouins who are a bit of a peripheral population.”
Sheikh Ahmed of the Jabaleya tribe at the Desert Fox Camp near Mt. Sinai (photo: JOHN COLIN MARSTON / SAINT CATHERINE)Sheikh Ahmed of the Jabaleya tribe at the Desert Fox Camp near Mt. Sinai (photo: JOHN COLIN MARSTON / SAINT CATHERINE)
Tourism is one of Egypt’s most important industries, the beating heart of south Sinai’s economy, and the largest revenue generator for the Bedouin community. The number of tourists to the country plummeted after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and was then reduced to practically nothing following a series of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016, claimed by an Islamic State insurgency in the northern half of Sinai.
The peninsula is divided into two different provinces, with the Egyptian government since 2017 implementing a military blockade and state of emergency on northern Sinai, and a series of roadblocks and military checkpoints on the roads to the resorts and beaches of the coastal towns Dahab and Sharm el-Sheikh.
Mohamed Osama Ahmed owns the Al Manar restaurant on the beachfront of Dahab, about halfway between the Israeli border crossing at Taba and Sharm el-Sheik on the Gulf of Aqaba. Originally from Alexandria, he’s what’s called a “mainland” Egyptian and owns the only kosher restaurant in the province, illustrating the significance of Israeli tourism for Sinai.
“When I first came to the coast in the early 1990s, the tourists were mainly Israelis. In the beginning, I was in Nuweiba but after the Second Intifada, they stopped coming. I moved to Dahab, and began working in a different series of restaurants. In the last ten years, over half of the tourists have been Egyptians with the rest other nationalities. But now I think the Europeans and the Israelis are starting to come back again.”
Mohamed Osama Ahmed sitting at his restaurant in Dahab (photo:JOHN COLIN MARSTON / SAINT CATHERINE)Mohamed Osama Ahmed sitting at his restaurant in Dahab (photo:JOHN COLIN MARSTON / SAINT CATHERINE)
As the Sinai recovers from the most recent spate of violence and the central government in Cairo begins investing billions of dollars in new infrastructure projects in the region, including a concrete wall around the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, important decisions about the future of the Sinai and the autonomy of the Bedouin communities who live here will play out against expanding tourist development, government involvement, and growing migration from other parts of Egypt. 
Guy Shiloh has been coming to the Sinai since 1976 when the peninsula was still under Israeli control, after being captured from Egypt in the 1967 Six Day War. First as the son of a reservist in the Israel Defense Forces, and now as a hiking guide and administrator of the 20,000-strong Sinai Lovers Facebook group, he recalled what drew him to the area in the first place and what it once was like.
“People come for the simplicity of Sinai. The magnitude of the scenery, the mountains and the sea right next to each other, and the Bedouin culture. Up to a few years ago there was no electricity in many parts of the Sinai, but there are places that have been developing mostly because of scuba diving tourism, like Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab.”
For Adriena and Marin Stelzig, it was also about a certain connection to the landscape and relationship with the Bedouins that have been pulling them from Austria back to Sinai since 1979. “We were here for a one week desert camel tour with Bedouins and I sort of felt that I don’t want to go home now. There were hardly any tourists, then. You could see Bedouins, and they would hang bags of food on the trees and it would stay there for over a year until they’d come back and need it again. Now you don’t see it anymore.”
Marin lamented how the famous coral reefs along the coast of Aqaba have been bleached, and that the pace of development has threatened what originally brought them to Sinai in the first place. “There are a lot of people who cannot understand this type of holiday. Those are the five star resort guys, whereas we are far away from that in our way to make holiday. You’d never bring me to one of those cages.”
Marin’s cages are the five star resorts of Sharm el Sheikh, a glitzy tourist wonderland with an international airport, huge luxury spas, enormous mainland Egyptian investment, little history, and no Bedouin presence. The bombing of a Russian commercial flight from Sharm El Sheikh in 2015 led to a steep decline in tourism, but development has been picking up again.
Sheikh Ahmed argues that at this crossing point, a more sustainable form of tourism must be developed, one that incorporates the needs of the Bedouins into plans the Egyptian government and multinational corporations have for the development of tourism along the coast. “Most of the tourists stay in the big hotels. But tourists staying in the hotels on the coast don’t see the Bedouins who are living in the desert. When you walk around Sharm el-Sheikh, you will never see any Bedouin there or inside hotels. The hotels there buy water and then make pools and some Bedouins don’t have water to drink.”
He points to the Sinal Trail as a solution for the balancing of development and sustainability. Based on centuries-old abandoned pilgrimage routes which wound towards St. Catherine’s Monastery and Mt. Sinai, they were transformed in 2015 into Egypt’s first long distance hiking trail, offering a 550-kilometer (340-mile), 42-day hiking trail crossing the territory of eight different Bedouin tribes.
Every year hundreds of people hike the trail, bringing new revenue into desert Bedouin communities, exposing tourists to their unique culture, and creating a new spirit of dialogue among different tribes. “Anyone who has been there on the trail, they see different traditions of the Bedouin tribes, they see the real Bedouin life,” Sheikh Ahmed says.
Compared to other countries in the region such as Israel or Syria, the Bedouin community in south Sinai has been given a wider latitude of freedom to form their own communities, practice their own standards of law, and maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle. The Sinai has always been a liminal zone, a gap between established, centralized regimes throughout millennia. Between Egypt and the Promised Land for the Israelites; Alexandria and Jerusalem for pilgrims who wandered towards the holy places; Israel’s security buffer before the Camp David Accords; and its emptiness offering new jobs and homes for overcrowded mainland Egyptians today.
But the Bedouins have always called Sinai their home in the midst of these different regimes which come and go.
“Sinai is not just desert,” says the Sheikh. “It’s a holy place for everyone in the world.”