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

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Introduction

In the Fall of 2012, King Abdullah II of Jordan faced his most difficult challenge since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Over the course of the previous two years, the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya had been toppled, and Syria had sunk into a bloody civil war. By contrast, the small Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had, so far, successfully coped with the limited unrest that had spread around the country. Now, however, the Jordanian monarch appeared to be more vulnerable than ever.

Demonstrators across the country, frustrated with continuing economic difficulties and the slow pace of the political and economic reforms, stepped up their protests. The slogan “Down with the Regime!” was heard more and more, and, for the first time, King Abdullah was mentioned by name. Several veteran political leaders, including one former prime minister, criticized the regime sharply and explicitly. In Amman, the main opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, announced what promised to be the largest rally to date, scheduled for October 5, 2012.

Under increasing pressure, King Abdullah had to react quickly. One day before the rally, he dissolved parliament ahead of new elections. The demonstration turned out some tens of thousands of participants (estimates ranged from 10,000 to 50,000 demonstrators) but was a far cry from the expectations of a massive protest of the likes of those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.1

Still King Abdullah continued to assert his leadership. A few days after the demonstration, he sacked his government and appointed a new prime minister to head an interim cabinet. Then, in a vigorous, direct, and candid speech in front of thousands of loyal supporters invited to his palace, he for the first time acknowledged the people calling for his overthrow, claiming that they were only a small group. The king stressed that, for him, the seat of power was not a personal privilege but a sacred duty and responsibility, one that he had inherited as a proud member of the Hashemite family and as a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad. He urged those seeking reform to do so within the framework of a new parliament and emphasized the importance of wide participation in the elections. The speech, together with the change of government and call for new elections, had a calming effect, at least temporarily.2

Soon, however, the pendulum swung back in favor of the regime’s rivals. Faced with near-bankruptcy and mounting pressure from the International Monetary Fund to lift subsidies, the interim government raised the prices of gas and petrol on November 13 by 30–50 percent, which immediately sent tens of thousands of angry citizens across the country back into the streets. For three days, demonstrators clashed with police, blocked major roads, set fire to government offices and police stations, and vandalized and looted public property, banks, and private businesses. For the first time, photographs of King Abdullah were burned in large numbers, and daring, insolent calls for his removal, and with him, the entire regime, were heard widely. According to several reports, the volume of public resentment and the ensuing anarchy took the regime by surprise and paralyzed it completely for several days. The episode, soon known as the “November insurrection,” was the worst crisis in Jordan since 1989, when widespread “bread” riots had prompted Abdullah’s father, the late King Hussein, to launch a political and economic liberalization process.3

One of the first members of the political establishment to take the initiative in response to the challenge was the former prime minister Faysal al-Fayiz. Al-Fayiz was also the leader of the Bani Sakhr tribal confederacy, the third-largest tribal group in Jordan, numbering over 150,000.4 A couple of days after the riots ended, he rallied his men behind the king and regime and denounced the demonstrators’ violence. In a well-crafted show of power and loyalty, Faysal addressed hundreds of men in the large and elegant assembly hall of the Bani Sakhr. Faysal’s uncle Sami, the ceremonial shaykh of shaykhs, or paramount shaykh, of the Bani Sakhr, sat beside the podium, clad in a long robe and traditional headgear; his presence on the stage alongside his nephew added gravitas to the event. The first row in the hall was reserved for shaykhs, clearly recognizable as tribal dignitaries by their distinctive dress. Faysal himself wore a suit and tie.

Faysal al-Fayiz’s response to the rioters and to the king’s critics was stern and unequivocal. He threatened that the Bani Sakhr would “cut off the hand” of those seeking to undermine the homeland and its leadership, stressing that any harm to his majesty was a red line that should not be crossed. Enthusiastic applause repeatedly interrupted Faysal’s speech. The tribesmen voiced their anger at the rioters and chanted slogans in support of the king. In rallying his fellow tribesmen in this manner, reinforcing their support for the Hashemite monarchy, Faysal maintained a long-standing policy of absolute loyalty to the king, pledging on behalf of the Bani Sakhr to defend him. And Faysal and the Bani Sakhr have continued to do so in the years since.5

The unrest of November 2012 gradually abated. The regime made mass arrests (with a majority of those detained released quickly), but also made a number of conciliatory gestures to demonstrate its responsiveness to the “street’s calls.” Soon Jordanians were preoccupied with the electoral campaign. The newly elected parliamentarians, empowered by their constituencies’ expectations for change, posed a greater challenge to the regime than their predecessors. They were careful to inspect the performance of ministers and scrutinize draft laws, and frequently threatened the government with votes of no confidence. But until well into 2015, the government proved successful in maintaining both the support of a majority in the house and the confidence of the palace. Prime Minister Abdullah Nsur has already exceeded three years in the office, an exceptionally long period in comparison to all but one of the previous prime ministers appointed by Abdullah since he assumed the throne in 1999. All in all, the regime has managed to quell the protest movement, at least for the time being. Occasional demonstrations continued to be staged in both the capital and the provinces for a while, but they have all but died out since.

The role played by Faysal al-Fayiz and the other tribal leaders in the kingdom in mobilizing the tribes was and remains crucial for the stability of the Hashemite monarchy. The tribal leaders enjoy much influence and respect among their tribespeople and for the most part are united in support of the monarchy. Their success in restraining their men and isolating opposition elements among them goes a long way to explaining the relatively mild manner in which Jordan experienced the wave of regional upheaval and change in the years after the so-called Arab Spring erupted in 2011. In fact, the support Faysal and the Bani Sakhr lent to the Hashemite regime stems back all the way to the early days of the creation of Jordan in 1921, and has characterized its political system ever since then. In those founding years, powerful tribes, and in particular their shaykhly families, tied their political and material fortunes to that of the Hashemites. In return for the support of the king, these tribal families enjoyed special status and received, and continue to receive, many privileges. The long-standing alliances between these tribal elites and their tribespeople, on the one hand, and the royal family, on the other, to a large extent explain the remarkable resilience of Hashemite rule in Jordan and the country’s relative stability.

Faysal al-Fayiz represents the third generation of Bani Sakhr leaders to play an important role in the development of the Jordanian state and to be close allies of three generations of Hashemite kings. He inherited the status of senior representative of the Bani Sakhr tribes in the Jordanian political class from his father, ‘Akif al-Fayiz, a senior politician from the 1950s until his death in 1998 and a close ally of King Hussein. ‘Akif, in turn, had led the Bani Sakhr tribes since the death of his father, Mithqal al-Fayiz. Mithqal had served as the paramount shaykh of the confederacy—the shaykh of shaykhs (shaykh al-mashayikh) in the literal translation from the Arabic—from 1921 until his death in 1967. Over the course of his life, Mithqal was a close ally of Emir (later King) Abdullah bin Hussein, played a critical role in the events that led to the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan, and was one of the most prominent and influential individuals in the country. Shaykh Mithqal al-Fayiz’s long, eventful and fascinating life is the subject of this book.6

WRITING THE BIOGRAPHY OF MITHQAL AL-FAYIZ

Arab tribal shaykhs have played a central role in the Middle East for centuries. Until well into the last quarter of the twentieth century, the majority of the population in the region lived in rural areas, adhered to tribal identity and organization, and recognized the leadership of such men. The position of shaykh was a highly prized office that carried influence and power. Even the mass migration to the cities that has changed the rural-urban balance over the past few decades and the advent of modern life could not erode tribalism, which remains a key marker of identity in many Arab societies, rural and urban alike. Moreover, recent developments—notably in Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula—have shown that, far from having disappeared, tribal shaykhs remain an important and influential political elite. In Iraq and Syria, shaykhs who were side-lined for several decades have regained their power in recent years. In many countries, such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and even Egypt, shaykhs are now sought-after power brokers and often hold the key to stability.7

The life of Shaykh Mithqal al-Fayiz presents a remarkable opportunity to portray a clear and vivid picture of a tribal shaykh in modern times. For sixty years, Shaykh Mithqal (pronounced Mithgal) played a central role in imperial, regional, national and tribal politics. His long life—he was almost ninety when he died—spanned a crucial and fascinating period of Middle Eastern history: the rapid modernization of the Ottoman Empire from the middle of the nineteenth century onward, World War I and the collapse of the empire, the emergence of a new state system under colonial rule, the decolonization process in the aftermath of World War II, the establishment of the state of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict that ensued, as well as the rise of pan-Arabism under Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser’s leadership. Mithqal al-Fayiz’s life and work as a shaykh thus allow us to trace both a remarkable individual life story and the evolution of a central social, political and cultural office in an era of major social and political change.

Mithqal was born into the leading family of the Bani Sakhr. His grandfather and father led their people during the last decades of the nineteenth century and succeeded in striking an alliance with the Ottoman state, thus ensuring the prosperity and extensive autonomy of their tribes. Mithqal himself began his public career as a gifted leader of raids. He quickly rose to prominence and during World War I was the main ally of the Ottoman Empire in the Transjordanian theater of war. Astutely adapting to the new political realities after the war, he became a supporter of the Hashemites, playing a significant role in the creation and development of modern Jordan. His fierce opposition to early attempts to extend British rule east of the Jordan River paved the way for Abdullah bin Hussein to establish the Emirate of Transjordan. The alliance between the Bani Sakhr under Mithqal and Emir Abdullah contributed significantly to the process of state-formation in Jordan and made Mithqal, now the shaykh of shaykhs of the Bani Sakhr, one of the richest and most influential men in the county.

At the same time, faced with the attempts of the British-controlled government to centralize power, as well as severe economic crisis that weakened nomads such as the Bani Sakhr, Mithqal keenly sought to preserve his privileged position and the autonomy of his tribes. Looking for new allies and sources of income, Mithqal successfully cultivated contacts with the national, business and tribal elites in Transjordan, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Particularly fascinating—as well as controversial—were his open contacts with leaders of the Zionist movement and his offer to sell part of his land for the purpose of Jewish settlement east of the Jordan River.

But the success of Mithqal’s endeavor to remain powerful and influential against the backdrop of the momentous changes around him also necessitated the evolution of his role into something new. From a military and political leader of an independent, autonomous community, he became part and parcel of the regime, acting as a go-between the central government and his followers. This shift was facilitated by state policies that sought to preserve the special role of tribal leaders in Jordanian society and exploit it for the good of the regime. As a result, Mithqal managed to institutionalize his position, serving as the leader of the Bani Sakhr until his death in 1967.

Mithqal’s success owed much to his remarkable political skills, shrewdness, and energy. He was quick to understand changing circumstances and to recognize new opportunities. One can identify several constants in his strategy throughout the course of his long career—he was always walking a tightrope, taking calculated risks, while testing the limits of his actions and of his ability to exert pressure on the government or to profit financially. He sought a balance between cooperation and defiance, always in the hope of preserving his autonomy, and maintained relations with several, often rival, patrons, playing one off against the other in order to increase his own leverage and space for maneuvering. This strategy enabled Mithqal to maintain his leadership and privileged position, both during the colonial era and afterwards, perhaps better than any other shaykh of his stature. He also left a lasting legacy as manifested in the continuing privileged status of his family in Jordan. In this respect, Mithqal fully met the burden of expectations placed on him in his naming: Mithqal in Arabic means weight or gravitas—and he was indeed a heavyweight!

Notes

1. Assaf David, Jordan Update: October 2012 (Tel Aviv: Economic Cooperation Foundation, 2012). On the eve of the rally, October 3, 2012, an editorial in the government-owned English-language Amman daily Jordan Times titled “Decisive Day” spoke of “volatile times.”

2. The text of King Abdullah’s speech can be found at http://kingabdullah.jo/index.php/en_US/speeches/view/id/507/videoDisplay/0.html, and it can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e17kBQTs1Zk (both accessed October 28, 2015).

3. Assaf David, Jordan Update: November 2012 (Tel Aviv: Economic Cooperation Foundation, 2012).

4. Miflih al-Nimr al-Fayiz, ‘Asha’ir Bani Sakhr: Ta’rikh wa-mawaqif hata sanat 1950 (Amman: Matabi‘ al-Quwwat al-Musallaha, 1995), 166; “Tribesmen Split over Political-Reforms amid ‘Transformation’ of Tribe’s Social Role,” Jordan Times (Amman), March 2, 2011.

5. For video of the gathering on November 17, 2012, see www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLCukiEN_Z8 (accessed October 28, 2015). On Faysal al-Fayiz’s support of the king, see Yoav Alon, “From Abdullah (I) to Abdullah (II): The Monarchy, the Tribes and the Shaykhly Families in Jordan, 1920–2012,” in Tribes and States in a Changing Middle East, ed. Uzi Rabi (London: Hurst, forthcoming). For more recent examples, see “Al-Fayiz: Al-‘Arsh al-Hashimi wal-wahda al-wataniyya khatt ahmar,” March 4, 2014, http://hoqook.wordpress.com/2014/03/05, and “Tasa’ulat la budda min muwajahatiha,” January 14, 2014, Al-Ra’y (Amman), www.alrai.com/article/626672.html (both accessed October 28, 2015).

6. Several pioneering works inspired the writing of this book, and it is worth noting my intellectual debt to them. This study constitutes what sociologists term a “social biography,” namely, the particular case study of an individual whose detailed analysis enables us to learn about the general phenomenon. Mithqal al-Fayiz was a historical protagonist in his own right, but his life represents the wider phenomenon of tribal leadership in modern times. Clifford Geertz’s The Social History of an Indonesian Town (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965) was perhaps the first social biography to appear. See his definition on pages 153–53. The method was implemented and further developed by Dale Eickelman in his Knowledge and Power in Morocco: The Education of a Twentieth-Century Notable (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985). Two important previous attempts to analyze the office of the tribal shaykh and highlight the ways in which such men reached power, struggled to maintain it, and exercised their leadership were based on the Yemeni experience: Paul Dresch, “The Position of Shaykhs among the Northern Tribes of Yemen,” Man 19, no. 1 (March 1984): 31–49, and Andrew Shryock, “The Rise of Nasir Al-Nims: A Tribal Commentary on Being and Becoming a Shaykh,” Journal of Anthropological Research 46 (1990): 153–76.

7. The Iraqi case is particularly illuminating: see Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978); Phebe Marr, The Modern History of Iraq (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1985); Yitzhak Nakash, The Shi‘is of Iraq (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994); Amatzia Baram, “Neo-Tribalism in Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s Tribal Policies, 1991–96,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29, no. 1 (1997): 1–31; Charles Tripp, The History of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Toby Dodge, Inventing Iraq: The Failure of Nation-Building and a History Denied (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003); Falah Jabar, “Sheikhs and Ideologues: Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Tribes under Patrimonial Totalitarianism in Iraq, 1968–1998,” in Tribes and Power: Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Middle East, ed. Falah Jabar and Hosham Dawod, 69–109 (London: Saqi, 2003); Peter Sluglett, Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country, 1914–1932 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007); Michael Eisenstadt, “Iraq: Tribal Engagement Lessons Learned,” Military Review, September–October 2007, 16–31; Noga Efrati, Women in Iraq: Past Meets Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012). On Syria, see Haian Dukhan,” Tribes and Tribalism in the Syrian Revolution,” Open Democracy, December 19, 2012, www.opendemocracy.net/haian-dukhan/tribes-and-tribalism-in-syrian-revolution; “Syrian Tribes Unite in İstanbul as Border Conflicts Test Cease-fire,” Today’s Zaman, April 16, 2012, www.todayszaman.com/news-277672-syrian-tribes-unite-in-istanbul-as-border-conflicts-test-cease-fire.html; Rana Abouzeid, “Who Will the Tribes Back in Syria’s Civil War?” Time, October 10, 2012, http://world.time.com/2012/10/10/who-will-the-tribes-back-in-syrias-civil-war; “Islamic State Executed 700 People from Syrian Tribe: Monitoring Group,” Reuters, August 16, 2014, www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/16/us-syria-crisis-execution-idUSKBN0GG0H120140816, and Lauren Williams, “Tribes of Syria and Iraq Drawn into Uprising—Feature,” Daily Star (Beirut), November 15, 2012, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2012/Nov-15/195112-tribes-of-syria-and-iraq-drawn-into-uprising.ashx (all accessed November 12, 2015); On Libya, see Mohammed El-Katiri, State-Building Challenges in a Post-Revolution Libya (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2012). On Yemen and the Gulf, see Paul Dresch, Tribes, Government, and History in Yemen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989); Farea al-Muslimi, “Tribes Still Rule in Yemen,” Al-Monitor, October 10, 2013, www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/10/yemen-tribes-revolution-politics-saleh.html (accessed November 12, 2015); Nazih N. Ayubi, Over-stating the Arab State: Politics and Society in the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 1995), 132–33, 231, 242–43.