The Shaykh of Shaykhs
Mithqal al-Fayiz and Tribal Leadership in Modern Jordan
Yoav Alon


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

This short chapter offers an overview of the role tribes and tribal families play in present-day Jordan and the support they lent to the Hashemite monarchy under King Abdullah II at a precarious moment during the Arab Spring in 2011-2012. Shaykh Mithqal's grandson played an important role at this time, which highlights the remarkable continuity in Jordanian politics and society from the time the historical alliance between the book's protagonist and the founder of the state, King Abdullah I, was first forged until today. The introduction also provides a first glimpse of Mithqal's life.

1 Born a Shaykh
chapter abstract

This chapter portrays the rise to prominence of Mithqal's family under the leadership of his grandfather and father during the second half of the nineteenth century. During this period, the Ottoman Empire initiated a series of modernizing reforms known as the Tanzimat, which brought significant changes to the fringe of the Syrian Desert. The chapter shows how the shaykhs from the Fayiz tribe of the Bani Sakhr exploited their cordial relations with the Ottoman government in order to consolidate power and accumulate wealth. The chapter reconstructs Mithqal's childhood and the training that made him a prominent shaykh at the turn of the century. In doing so, the chapter provides the necessary background on tribal and nomadic life in the Syrian Desert as well as on the role of shaykhs.

2 From Maverick to Powerful Shaykh
chapter abstract

This chapter charts Mithqal's transformation from leader of raids to powerful shaykh. It shows how World War I and the ensuing instability allowed Mithqal to expand his authority. The chapter highlights Mithqal's role in the war, siding with the Ottomans against Britain and the forces of the Hashemite-led Arab Revolt during which he made his first, unsuccessful bid for power. During the short reign of Sharif Faysal bin Hussein in Syria, Mithqal challenged the authority of the incumbent shaykh of shaykhs and grew increasingly influential in his confrontation with British officers who tried to establish control over Transjordan in 1920. The chapter shows that on the eve of the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan, Mithqal was the most powerful man in the country and held the key to its future.

3 The Decade of Power and Glory
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This chapter explores Mithqal's crucial role in the creation of the Emirate of Transjordan and its consolidation during the 1920s. It shows how his active support of Sharif Abdullah bin Hussein contributed to the British decision to allow Abdullah to rule from Amman and how the alliance between them helped Abdullah establish roots in this foreign country. In particular, Mithqal, whom Abdullah appointed as shaykh of shaykhs of the Bani Sakhr shortly after assuming power, lent Abdullah significant military support against the threat of the Wahhabiyya movement. This made him the prime recipient of Abdullah's largess and a rich man with huge landholdings. The chapter analyzes Mithqal's prominent status in the Emirate and the effects this had on relations between Abdullah and other tribal leaders as manifested during the 1923 Balqa' revolt. It also shows the beginning of constraints on his tribal autonomy towards the end of the decade.

4 Between Tent, Camp, and House
chapter abstract

This chapter complements the previous one by providing an additional, mainly domestic, perspective on Mithqal at the peak of his career from the mid-1920s until the early 1930s, elaborating on the way he exercised his leadership vis-à-vis his tribespeople. The chapter provides a glimpse into the shaykh's daily routine, the structure and functioning of his camp, the makeup of his harem, and his relations with his many wives and children. It demonstrates how the shaykh projected his authority through lavishing hospitality, judging, employing slaves, and while leading his men in raiding. It reveals something of his worldview and religious beliefs. By comparing detailed descriptions of Mithqal from 1924-25 and others from 1930-31, the changes in his lifestyle are made apparent.

5 Times of Crisis
chapter abstract

This chapter shows how Mithqal dealt with the most severe challenge of his long career: the crisis of the nomads in the first half of the 1930s. Droughts, the effects of the Depression, and losses to Najdi tribes were among the causes for severe famine among Transjordanian nomads. Enfeebled, they began to cooperate with the Desert Patrol established by British officer John Glubb in order to prevent raids and exert control over the tribes. The chapter outlines Mithqal's political and economic predicament and explores his successful strategy to maintain his relevance as a tribal leader and fill his empty coffers, namely by cultivating two rival national movements. Mithqal earned the friendship of the Jewish Agency in Palestine while interesting the Zionists in his land and extracting large sums of money from them. In 1936-37, Mithqal led the support in Transjordan for the Palestinian Arab Revolt.

6 Disgruntled Accommodation
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This chapter shows how by the late 1930s, Mithqal recovered from the crisis of the early 1930s and consolidated his power once more. He also continued his political machinations across the region, including cultivation of the Saudi royal family and challenging the authority of Abdullah and his government. At the same time, Mithqal failed to grasp the increase in government power and its resolve to check his power and autonomy. The chapter shows that during World War II the government finally subjugated him. Henceforth, Mithqal would adapt to the new reality, toeing the government line, and gradually hand over political duties to his son 'Akif while remaining engaged in judging, mediation, and hospitality-giving until shortly before his death. The chapter also explores 'Akif's meteoric rise to political prominence during the early years of King Hussein's reign and his important role in supporting the monarchy.

Epilogue: Jordan after Mithqal
chapter abstract

This epilogue extends beyond Mithqal's biography to the present day in order to illustrate the role tribes and shaykhs still play in Jordan and to assess Mithqal's legacy. The chapter shows that after his death, leadership duties were divided between 'Akif who continued to be the most senior member of the Bani Sakhr in the Jordanian establishment, and another son, Sami, who dealt with more traditional roles such as judging and hospitality-giving and who became shaykh of shaykhs after 'Akif's death. 'Akif's son, Faysal, is now the representative of the Bani Sakhr vis-à-vis King Abdullah II and his government. The epilogue also highlights the enhanced role of tribes following Jordan's civil war in 1970-71 and the emergence of Jordanian nationalism, with a major tribal component. In this atmosphere, Mithqal is hailed as a national leader who continues to serve as a role model for Jordanian nationalists.