The Bedouin were the Arabic-speaking nomads of the Middle East, engaged mainly in the herding of camels, sheep, and goats. As a people, their original home was in the Arabian Peninsula; however, tribes had inhabited the Fertile Crescent area since at least the sixth century. During the crusades, the Bedouin, although Muslim, did not always take an active part against the Franks, and sometimes even made alliances with them. Both Frankish and Muslim settled peoples also feared the Bedouin because of their reputation as raiders.
Bedouin social organization was tribal, and the three most important broad tribal groups in the area of Outremer were the Banû Kalb, Banû Tayy, and Banû Kilāb. During the eleventh century, these three groups had made an agreement to divide the uncultivated areas of Syria and Palestine (Arab. al-Sham) between them; the Banû Kilab took the region from Aleppo to Ana, the Banû Tayy occupied the area from Ramla to Egypt, and the Banû Kalb held the vicinity of Damascus. Although this agreement was short-lived, the tribes continued to occupy those basic regions throughout the crusader period. However, such tribes remained fluid, as smaller tribal groups achieved greater or lesser degrees of independence or shifted their genealogical alliances in response to changing circumstances.
The Franks and Muslims each had their own modus vivendi with the Bedouin. In Outremer, the Bedouin were known by the Franks as “Arabs,” in contrast to the “Saracens,” the settled Arabic-speaking Muslim population. For legal purposes they were classed by the Franks as property. The Bedouin paid horses and livestock in exchange for grazing rights, and because their lifestyle required them to move over a wide territory, these rights were usually held by the king rather than the local lord. There were, however, some cases of Bedouin under the jurisdiction of the military orders.
The Muslims for their part sought to use important tribal leaders as intermediaries with the Bedouin by recognizing them with a title such as amir al-‘Arab (commander of the Bedouin). Urban rulers gave these men iqtā‘ (grants of revenues) that enhanced their wealth, and hence their ability to influence other tribes. The loyalty of these leaders, however, was not always dependable. For example, shortly after the battle of ‘Ayn Jālūt, the Mamlûk sultan Qutuz named one ‘īsā ibn Muhannā (of the al-Fadl family from the Rabī‘a branch of the Banû Tayy), as amir al-‘Arab and gave him an iqtā‘ near Hama. Later, however, ‘īsā supported a rebel against Qalâwûn and even considered an alliance with the Mongols against the Mamlûk sultanate during the reigns of both Baybars I andQalāwūn. Before the second battle of Homs (1281), Qalāwūn had divided ‘īsā’s iqtāi among several chiefs, but Qalāwūn judged ‘īsā’s support as important against the Mongols, and so returned him to his former status.
The Bedouin also played a role in a number of military engagements during the crusades, in which tribes served whichever side best served their interests. The Tha‘ālaba branch of the Banû Tayy became notorious for their cooperation with the Franks, while during the time of Baybars the Banû Zubayd made agreements with the Franks to provide them with intelligence concerning Muslim positions. The Ayyûbid sultan al-Kāmil is also known to have allied with Bedouin tribes during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221).