“The Shaykh of Shaykhs” by Yoav Alon

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Jordan is a remarkable example of continuity against the odds. Various explanations have been put forward to explain the country’ s remarkable longevity. The British created the Hashemite Emirate east of the River Jordan in the early 1920s for strategic reasons. The Hashemites originated in the Hejaz, and enjoy considerable prestige because they are Sharifs, or descendants of the Prophet. The Hashemite monarchy’ s endurance is a consequence of benevolent leadership provided by successive kings and an army that has not overthrown governments. Nonetheless, King Abdullah I, the founder of Jordan, relied heavily on maintaining close relations with the tribal sheikhs of the Emirate, for it was they who held the real internal power in this British imperial backwater.

Yoav Alon’ s book is ostensibly a biography of Mithqal al-Fayiz, the sheikh of sheikhs of the Bani Saqr tribe, one of the largest tribes in Jordan, though it is much more than that, providing a succinct discussion of tribal politics and society. Alon analyses the relationship between Mithqal, the monarchy and the Zionist movement in mandate Palestine. These issues are crucial in any attempt to comprehend Jordanian politics; Jordan is a tribal society, and Alon explores the role of this sheikh, who acted as a judge, solved conflicts and lavished hospitality.

Mithqal’s power came to the fore during the early years of the state, when the monarchy needed the support of the sheikhs, who were richer and more influential than the Hashemites. During the 1930s the Jewish Agency in Palestine made concerted efforts to colonise Jordan. The Zionist movement was motivated by a combination of ideological and political motives, and several articles and books have been written about this aspect of the Zionist project.

However, in contrast with these studies, which focus on relations between Amir Abdullah and the Zionists, Alon focuses on Mithqal’s relationship with the Jewish Agency. Sheikhs such as Mithqal were motivated by financial considerations, and the Jewish Agency sought to buy the influence of notable families. The relationship between Mithqal and the Zionists was controversial; Palestinian nationalists accused him of treason, while Zionist attempts to colonise Jordan were ruled out by the British on political grounds. This episode highlights the insuperable difficulties the Zionist movement faced in establishing its influence beyond the frontiers of Palestine.

The power and authority of Mithqal underwent a profound transformation during the 1930s. Government interference in tribal affairs grew considerably because it was determined to stop tribal raids across Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia. The government took unprecedented steps to prevent the tribes from raiding, including establishing in 1930 the Arab Legion’s Desert Patrol, which recruited solely amongst the tribes. They also established the payment of subsidies to tribal sheikhs, and the application of tribal law rather than civil law in tribal areas. These policies were largely successful, as hitherto lawless tribes were peacefully incorporated into the newly established Hashemite state. However, the autonomy of tribal leaders such as Mithqal was diminished.
Mithqal nonetheless remained an important intermediary between tribe and government, as the state modernised and the role of the sheikh changed. After World War Two, government involvement with the tribes increased as a result of a land reform policy which eroded Mithqal’s power, although Mithqal’s successors still enjoy considerable political and social influence. After Black September, King Hussein cultivated the support of the tribes as a counterbalance to Palestinian influence in Jordanian society. Alon points out how still today Jordanian nationalism is painted in tribal colours, and King Abdullah II relies heavily on the support of tribes, who remain the backbone of the Jordanian Arab Army. Jordan’ s stability is threatened by the civil war in Syria and the influx of vast numbers of refugees; the monarchy’ s management of the tribes remains one of the tried and tested mechanisms for maintaining internal security in the Hashemite Kingdom, alongside a relatively benign approach to the maintenance of domestic stability.

Alon’s study, based on a very wide range of sources in several languages including Arabic, is written in an engaging style, free of jargon, and is an important resource for understanding tribal society within the context of the history of Jordan, as well as early Zionist attempts to establish settlements on the east bank of the river Jordan.

Tancred Bradshaw is an independent scholar and consultant. He is the author of Britain and Jordan: Imperial Strategy, King Abdullah I and the Zionist Movement, (I.B. Tauris, 2012) and The Glubb Reports: Glubb Pasha and Britain’s empire project in the Middle East, 1920-1956 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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