On April 8, 1933, the “most powerful man” in Transjordan took a trip to the famous King David Hotel in Jerusalem. He was there to negotiate with the Zionist leadership over the sale of huge tracts of land on the east bank of the Jordan River. Among the attendees of the meeting were Chaim Weizmann, soon to be Israel’s first president, Moshe Sharett, who would become Israel’s second prime minister, and Haim Arlosoroff, the top Zionist diplomat at the time and the one who set the meeting up.
This Jordanian VIP, who worked publicly with the Jewish Agency, was Mithqal Pasha al-Fayiz, the leader of the Beni Sakhr tribal confederacy who, and would, ultimately become the kingmaker of the Hashemite dynasty.
Mithqal’s life is the subject of a new book, “The Shaykh of Shaykhs: Mithqal al-Fayiz and Tribal Leadership in Modern Jordan,” by Israeli researcher Yoav Alon.
Alon, who says he was probably the first Israeli researcher to do fieldwork in the kingdom since the Israeli-Jordanian peace agreement in 1994, interviewed the direct descendants of the great sheikh in order to bring his story to life.
A shrewd diplomat, a daring warrior and wise ruler, Mithqal’s life was full of intrigue — prime material for a Hollywood movie, says Alon. He led raids, acted as a judge for thousands of tribespeople, and had to maneuver through the political swamp of British colonialism, the Zionist project and Arab nationalism while balancing local affairs.
In the end, Mithqal did not sell any land to the Zionists, though he did accept their money. And a few years later during the Arab revolt against the British in Palestine, he became the strongest supporter of Palestinian nationalism, defying Abdullah bin Hussein, whom he had helped put on the throne.
The British, the Zionists and even the Hashemites all sought to exploit Mithqal, who Alon believes commanded the most powerful army in Transjordan at the time. But the sheikh turned out to be a chess grandmaster, working with everybody while bolstering his own coffers and political power.
Aside from being a T.E. Lawrence-esque epic, Alon maintains that the story of Mithqal is essential in understanding the current strength of the Jordanian monarchy.
The Hashemite Kingdom has weathered the recent Arab Spring-turned-winter and the rise of Islamic State better than any of its other Arab neighbors. Many experts on the kingdom, Alon included, have argued that the monarchy’s deep connection with the country’s native tribes — around half of the population — has played a key role in keeping Israel’s eastern neighbor stable.
Alon, who recently met with The Times of Israel in Tel Aviv, just after returning from a visit to Jordan, said his book was being translated into Arabic. But as his publisher could not find a Jordanian willing to translate the biography because it was written by an Israeli, an Egyptian translator was eventually found instead.
Similarly, Mithqal’s descendants eventually granted Alon interviews, despite their initial reluctance to talk to him, and were intrigued by the Israeli’s work.
“Since everyone is a member of a tribe, they will be suspected of being biased, aggrandizing the historical role of their own tribe. Since I have no tribe,” Alon said, alluding to a Lawrence of Arabia quote, “I can do it with some credibility.”
What follows is a condensed and edited version of Alon’s interview with The Times of Israel.
Before we get to Mithqal himself, could you explain what was happening in the Middle East during his rise?
When he was born, the waning Ottoman Empire was in the process of reforming itself and modernizing the empire. This included exerting control on the periphery, namely the fringes of the desert. Mithqal’s grandfather and father worked very closely with the Ottoman governors of Syria. They benefited from that connection with the government and became more powerful sheikhs than their predecessors by institutionalizing their position. They managed to build dynasties. Mithqal’s family led the Beni Sakhr — his tribal confederacy — from at least the middle of the 19th century until today.
Mithqal al-Fayiz’s clan guarded the Hajj route to Mecca until around 1900. They also provided the pilgrims with food supply, water and camels. This was the climate he was born into.
Tell us about Mithqal himself: Where was he born? How did he come to power? What significant events did he have a role in?
We don’t know exactly where he was born. He was born around the 1880s somewhere in the desert in what might be today either Jordan, Syria or Saudi Arabia. He grew up estranged from his family because his father died when he was quite young. He lived with his mother, who came from a different tribe. He only came back to his tribal group around 1900. He excelled in raids and battles and this is how he made a name for himself. This was a very good platform for him to advertise his leadership quality.
The first written evidence about him comes from around 1906, and by then he is already mentioned as a significant sheikh. But he actually made his name during World War I, if not a little bit before. He was the right-hand man of his elder brother, who was then the main sheikh of the Beni Sakhr confederacy.
During World War I, Mithqal was an ally of the Ottomans and not the future rulers of Jordan, the Hashemites. During that time he made his first bid to become the leader of the confederacy. He lost it to his nephew. But the Ottoman government compensated him with the title of pasha, which was a very sought-after title. I think he was the only person in Jordan at that time to enjoy that title.
So what significant events was Mithqal involved in?
During World War I, he helped the Ottomans foil British attacks east of the Jordan River by making sure the Beni Sakhr would not support the British.
Actually there is a story that a certain sheikh of the Beni Sakhr offered to help General Allenby defeat the Ottoman forces in Transjordan. Believing he had the tribal confederacy’s help, Allenby ordered a strike on Transjordan in April 1918. The result was devastating. The Beni Sakhr did not show up and the Ottomans easily defeated the British troops who had to withdraw to west of the Jordan River suffering heavy casualties. It’s not clear if it was a ploy by Ottomans and the Beni Sakhr or a British intelligence failure.
By the end of the war, it turned out Mithqal, who had been receiving money and weapons from the Ottomans, had bet on the wrong horse. But, always the skilled diplomat, he quickly mended relations with the Hashemites.
After the war, during the summer of 1920, the British tried to extend their rule from Palestine to east of the Jordan River. Mithqal was the one who offered the strongest resistance to the British and prevented the great colonial power from establishing local autonomous governments.
British reports from the time acknowledge Mithqal was much stronger than they were. In a 1920 report, for instance, a British officer called Mithqal “an awful blighter, and I should like to wipe him off the map of Transjordan.”
Mithqal even jailed one of the British officers in his stables for a day. This story is still remembered today in Jordan as a tale of resistance against British colonialism.
Mithqal’s power over the British did not only prevent their direct rule over his land. It would soon make him into a kingmaker. He was one of the first supporters of Abdullah bin al-Hussein [who became King Abdullah I of Jordan in 1946] and actually invited him to come to Transjordan from Mecca.
Abdullah went to Amman in March 1921 at the invitation of Mithqal and the sheikh forced the British to deal with the new situation. The British at that time were convening in Cairo to decide what to do with their territories in the Middle East. The Palestine government came with a proposal to evict Abdullah militarily. Churchill, who was secretary of colonies at the time, decided he’d prefer to compromise with Abdullah.
The British decision was to a large extent a result of both Mithqal’s opposition to the colonial empire and his adamant support of Abdullah.
The sheikh partly wanted Abdullah because the prince knew how to do tribal politics, but also because Abdullah was weak. Abdullah didn’t have much means or an army around him, so Mithqal and his people could enjoy much autonomy.
Around how many men did Mithqal control at this time?
That’s the whole thing about tribal leadership. Sheikhs cannot give orders, but must rule by consensus and lead by example.
If he needed to get a ground force, how many soldiers could he get at this point?
Theoretically, several thousand. Practically, it’s a bit tricky. Most sheikhs, Mithqal included, could muster only few hundred men at a time.
Where exactly was Mithqal’s power located?
In the Amman area. It was at that time a little village between 3,000 and 5,000 people, half of them Circassians and the other half merchants. He was also strong in Amman because he was married to the mayor’s daughter. Later Amman became the capital, which only increased his power within the country.
So after fighting the British in the Great War and then helping Abdullah get to power, what came next?
He helped Abdullah consolidate his power. He becomes the closest person to Abdullah in Transjordan. You need to bear in mind that Abdullah was a foreigner. He came from Mecca. So he needed to strike roots in the country and Mithqal was his closest ally. But more than that, Abdullah didn’t have a real army. So in many ways, Mithqal’s tribes became the de facto army of the country, especially because their encampments were around Amman and their main enemy at the time was actually the Saudis.
In return for his help to Abdullah, Mithqal was granted many privileges. Abdullah gave him a car and a chauffeur, exempted him and his tribesmen from paying taxes, and gave him land, which was even more important. Mithqal was made the largest land owner in the country. By the end of his life, he had around 120,000 dunams (some 30,000 acres). During the 1920s, Mithqal was at the height of his power, second only to Abdullah, or perhaps even stronger than Abdullah in many ways.
Mithqal was actually once a guest at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. He was there to meet Chaim Weizmann, president of the Zionist Organization and soon to be first president of Israel. What was their meeting about, and what role did Mithqal play for the Zionists?
During the 1930s, Mithqal was in a great predicament. Transjordan suffered a real economic crisis, several years of drought and the consequences of the global economic crisis. Also the government — under British patronage — became more and more intrusive into tribal life.
So Mithqal had a huge tract of land, but most of it was left fallow. He fell into debt. Therefore, he was looking for a buyer for his land. This predicament coincided with a renewed interest of the Jewish Agency in Transjordanian territory.
The Jewish Agency never really accepted the White Paper of 1922, when the British government excluded Palestine east of the Jordan River from the promise of a national home for the Jews. The Jewish Agency sought to take advantage of the economic crisis of Transjordan to settle it. And here the interests of Mithqal and the Zionist movement met each other.
Mithqal was one of the first landowners in the country that got in touch with the Jewish Agency.
He made contact with the Zionists first?
Yes. One of the Jewish Agency’s engineers was making a survey of the land in Transjordan. Mithqal heard about him and approached him. Maybe Mithqal didn’t know it was the Zionists at the time but that someone was interested in his land. Soon enough what started as a secret connection came out into the open. This also coincided with Abdullah’s connection with the Zionists, who in 1933, gave two members of the Jewish Agency an option to lease land he owned in the Jordan Valley. That was supposed to be under wraps but it was leaked to the Palestinian newspapers and caused a big stir.
At that time, Mithqal was leading a group of other tribal leaders and landowners who tried to exploit the Jewish option. Many tribal sheikhs in the country were in touch with the Zionist movement. But Mithqal was the most persistent one and emerged as the leader of the group. He was the Jordanian closest connection to the Jewish Agency, which is why he came to the King David Hotel in 1933.
Who invited him to the King David?
The Jewish Agency did. He had a close connection with Haim Arlosoroff. And after Arlosoroff was assassinated, with his successor Moshe Sharett.
For the Zionist leader, the goal of the King David meeting was to prove to the British that there was public support in Transjordan for the idea of Jewish settlement of their country.
The Zionists publicized their meeting with Mithqal?
It was out in the open. Mithqal was coming and going in the offices of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and Zionist officials came to visit him in Jordan.
The only practical thing that came out of these meetings was a mortgage on his land registered by the Jewish Agency. Until today, this is the basis for rumors about land Mithqal sold to the Jews. He never sold any land to the Jews.
Why didn’t he sell the land in the end?
Because the British refused to allow the Zionists entry into Transjordan. And since that didn’t work, though Mithqal kept pressure on the specific Zionists who promoted the project, they quickly lost interest because they realized they wouldn’t be able to persuade the British.
When the Arab Revolt in Palestine of 1936 began, Mithqal was on the lookout for new allies. He quickly became the most enthusiastic supporter of the Palestinian national cause in Transjordan.
During that time, there was no real Arab nationalism in Transjordan. A sheikh would try to benefit from any situation in order to increase his options and means. So he could deal with the Zionists and he could deal with the Palestinians.
What could he gain from the Palestinians?
He had two benefits: First, he went too far by operating with the Zionists so openly. After the King David meeting, he organized a conference in his house in Amman, which was a failure. Not many people showed up and he was put to shame by the Jordanian government. So in a way he lost his credentials. Therefore, his support of the Palestinian movement allowed him to improve his position within the Arab world.
Second, there were also some financial gains from the Palestinian national movement. Lastly, by showing defiance of the British authorities and Abdullah who was against supporting the Palestinians militarily, Mithqal proved to his tribespeople that he was not yes man and hadn’t lost his independence.
Did any of Mithqal’s men actually fight the Zionists?
No. He gave statements to the newspapers. He came to visit to show support and he also hosted Palestinian fugitives in his camp and house. However, he did rally many members of his tribes to fight side by side with the Jordanian army in the 1948 war in Palestine.
Did Mithqal have any other stories with the Zionists?
The last instance was in 1943, when again the Jewish Agency became interested in Jordanian land. This time not for Jewish immigration or settlement, but they entertained the idea of transferring Palestinians to the area. They did not disclose this idea to the sheikh. Again nothing came out of it but Mithqal was nicely paid for his troubles. Throughout his engagements with the Jewish Agency he was taking advantage of the Zionists and their capital. He had an exaggerated view of the financial means of the Zionists, like many others in the region.
In the end, he may have received several thousand pounds from the Zionists for his troubles, which was quite a lot of money during that time.
Your book makes an argument about the link between the power of Mithqal’s tribe and the might of the Jordanian monarchy. What is the present-day relationship between the Beni Sakhr and the current Hashemite regime?
The Beni Sakhr are seen today as one of the pillars of support for the Hashemite regime. Mithqal was a close ally of prince and later King Abdullah. His son ‘Akef was very close to King Hussein. In 1957, Hussein had to weather a coup attempt in the army. Mithqal’s son got word of it from one of the Beni Sakhr officers in the army. He informed the king, and together they went to the army camp and faced the conspirators. At the same time, Mithqal’s son rallied 2,000 armed Bedouin who went to Amman to protect the king. In return, Mithqal’s son was made the first-ever Bedouin minister in the government.
Mithqal’s grandson, Faisal al-Fayiz, is very close to King Abdullah II, the current king of Jordan. He served in all the senior government positions in Jordan given to non-Hashemites: head of the royal court, prime minister and speaker of the house. Currently he is president of the senate.
In the fall of 2012 — the height of the Arab Spring — King Abdullah II of Jordan faced his greatest challenge. Frustrated with continuing economic difficulty and the slow pace of political and economic reforms, Jordanians took to the streets. The slogan “Down with the regime!” — which was yelled in Cairo’s Tahrir square, was heard in the streets of Amman.
During the height of the protests, in November 2012, Faisal al-Fayiz declared on live television that the Beni Sakhr would “cut off the hand” of those who sought to undermine the king. The protests soon disappeared and this threat played a big role in their fading.
Did this really quash the momentum of the Arab Spring in Jordan?
No, not only. But the Arab Spring in Jordan was led by tribesmen from the periphery. So it was for the king to show that most of the tribes really supported him. Therefore the support of the Beni Sakhr was very important.
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