The Story of the Shammar Tribe, the Indigenous Inhabitants of the Region

The Story of the Shammar Tribe, the Indigenous Inhabitants of the Region

Before developing into nation states in the Arab world, tribes played a pivotal role in establishing borders.

The transformation of the Arab tribe of Shammar into an Emirate in the 15th century was unique. It started in Jabal Shammar in the Hail region east of the Arabian Peninsula, the homeland of the Shammar clan that today is spread all over Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Syria and Jordan.

In his book, "The Political History of the Emirate of Hail", Iraqi historian Gabar Yehia tells the story of the tribe that developed into an Emirate, when Al-Ali tribe ruled Jabal Shammar from 1489 to 1834, followed by Al-Rashid tribe from 1834 to 1921.

The beginning was in 1489 when Sheikh Ali bin Attia Al-Gafaar (Grand Ali and founder of Al-Ali tribe) unified disputed Shammar clans, hence the initial traits of the Shammar state started to appear.

At the time, the Hashemites ruled Al-Hijaz Province, east of the Arabian Peninsula, while Najd on the other side of the peninsula was divided into many mini-states. Political families ruled Al-Ahsa governorate, unaffected by the power of Najd's rulers.

Thirteen rulers from Al-Ali took power in Hail, the most prominent of whom was Mohamed bin Eissa Al-Ali (Mohamed Al-Ashmal, prince of northern Najd). He took over large swathes of Najd until his control reached the border with Iraq, but this expansion stopped during his sons' era.

In the 18th century, the Saudi state started to target its neighbors in Najd and allied with the House of Saud under the cloak of wahhabism. When the Egyptian army reached Diriyah, the first capital of the Saudi state in 1818, Hail witnessed chaos that led to the assassination of ruler Mohamed bin Abdel-Mohsen Al-Ali.

Al-Rashid rules emirate of Hail

During that era, leading Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali Al-Rashid opposed Al-Ali's rule of Shammar, and was banished to Iraq as a result. However, Abdullah did not remain helpless; he came back to Najd as a combatant with the second Saudi state's forces, allying with Faisal bin Turki bin Abdullah Al-Saud against Saudi Prince Mashary bin Abdel-Rahman Al-Saud. After the latter was killed, the victorious Faisal toppled Al-Ali and appointed Al-Rashid as rulers of Hail in 1834, hence Abdullah realized his dream.

Abdullah did not set a line of succession, which largely destabilized Hail. Except for Abdullah, all Hail's rulers were killed in mysterious circumstances. Meteb bin Abdullah I was assassinated in 1869 before Bander bin Talal, Meteb bin Abdulaziz and Sultan bin Hamoud were killed in 1873, 1906, and 1908 respectively. Before being assassinated, Bin Hamoud killed Saud in 1908.

Abdullah I adopted a policy that remained applied in Hail until its very last day: maintaining allegiance to the Ottoman Empire on the basis that it is the Islamic caliphate. He refused to cooperate with Britain and France, which caused Al-Rashid's historical disagreements with Al-Sabah in Kuwait, and later with Al-Saud as well.

Bringing down second Saudi state

Despite the good relationship with Ottomans, Hail sought to expand its territory through Ottoman states. The fifth ruler, Mohamed bin Abdullah Al-Rashid advanced north until he reached Hauran and was about to enter Damascus but Ottoman governors prevented him in the 70s of the 19th century.

Quotes

Share TweetThe state of Hail that stood up to Al-Saud, the first Iraqi president after Saddam Hussein and the Al-Jarba in Syria... all hail from the tribe of Shammar

Share TweetThe emirate of Shammar in Hail was ruled by a woman for four years, which was unprecedented in the history of tribes of Najd

The Saudi civil war (1865-1876) broke out after the death of Faisal bin Turki Al Saud, and later on Mohamed occupied the Saudi state for four years (1886-1890). However, Al-Saud restored their rule; Al-Rashid's forces entered Riyadh as Hail took full control of the second Saudi state in 1891. Toppled Prince Abdel-Rahman Al-Saud and his son Abdulaziz Al-Saud (the founder of the third Saudi state) fled to Kuwait. Mohamed treated the princes of Al-Saud with absolute generosity and affection, yet executed Mohamed bin Saud Al-Saud along with his brothers Saad and Abdullah.

Hail-Kuwait war in 1901

The golden age lasted through the era of the sixth ruler Abdulaziz bin Meteb Al-Rashid. When he turned down attempts from Britain to win him over, Kuwait's Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah raised an army from 15 Arab tribes, including Al-Saud, to head to Hail. Both parties faced off on 17 March 1901 in the battle of El-Sareef that saw Abdulaziz Al-Rashid achieve an empathic victory over Al-Sabah and Abdulaziz Al-Saud as well as their allies.

When Shammar's forces rushed to Kuwait and occupied some of its territories on the outskirts, it was obvious that Abdulaziz Al-Rashid is heading to Kuwait the capital. However, Britain interfered and warned Hail, sending a battleship near Kuwait's coasts which caused Al-Rashid to put an end to his campaign.

Struggle with third Saudi state

For geographical reasons Al-Rashid and Al-Saud, both from east of the Arabian Peninsula, locked horns once again, marking the beginning of the third Saudi State. Abdulaziz became the prince of Riyadh and then he started to take control of ministates and Najd's emirates until he became titled the Sultan of Najd, and later the Sultan of Najd and King of Al-Hijaz and Annexed Areas after seizing Al-Hijaz from the Hashemites. These titles were unified under one title -- the Saudi King -- upon the declaration of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Hail was the main obstacle ahead of Abdulaziz to seize Najd. For 20 years, both sides confronted each other militarily, with Hail Prince Abdulaziz Al-Rashid and his son Saud II bin Abdulaziz Al-Rashid killed in 1906 and 1915 respectively. The year 1910 witnessed an unprecedented instance in the history of tribes and Najd's emirates when Princess Fatima Al Zamil ruled Hail until her son, Saud II bin Abdulaziz Al-Rashid, hit puberty in 1914.

End of Shammar state and its effect on Saudi Arabia

Al-Rashid refused to join the Great Arab Revolt which the Hashemites declared on 10 June 1916 under the auspices of Al-Saud and Al-Sabah, among other allies of Britain in the Gulf. Hail, meanwhile, remained under the umbrella of the Ottoman Empire and its German allies. After the end of World War I and the defeat of the Ottomans, Al-Saud resumed their military attacks on Hail.

The Saudi military pressure led ruler Abdullah bin Meteb II Al-Rashid to step down and sought asylum in 1920 in Riyadh, where he was killed in 1946. The 15th ruler Mohamed II bin Talal Al-Rashid could not resist the Saudi's military advancement in Hail on 2 November 1921, and thus Al-Rashid state was brought down.

How the Shammar clan managed to develop into an emirate in the Arabian Peninsula and play a major political role in Iraq and Syria?

Mohamed II bin Talal Al-Rashid was killed in Riyadh in 1954 in mysterious circumstances. In 1996, his son, Prince Talal, established in Paris the Saudi Democratic Opposition Front which calls for the expulsion of Al-Saud from Najd.

Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Sultan of Najd, invoked a tribal tradition by marrying a woman from Al-Rashid, Princess Fahda bint Asi Al-Shuraim, the ex-wife of former Hail Prince Saud II Al-Rashid and the mother of late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Mosaad, one of Abdulaziz's sons, got married to Watfaa bint Mohamed bin Talal Al-Rashid. Their son, Faisal bin Mosaad, assassinated King Faisal in 1975.

Iraqi and Syrian Shammar

British historian John Frederick Williamson highlights in his book, "A Political History of the Shammar Jarba Tribe of Al-Jazīrah: 1800-1958", the weight and the political history of Shammar in Syria and Iraq. A number of Shammar clans relocated from Najd to Iraq and Syria in the last decade of the 18th century amid Wahabi wars that were ignited by the first Saudi state in the Arabian Peninsula and the killing of Sheikh Muslet bin Motlak Al-Jarba.

Al-Jarba family dominated the Shammar migrants and became part of a tribal coalition under the auspices of the Ottomans in order to stand out against Wahabi raids on Southern Iraq, a mission they successfully accomplished from 1798 to 1801 before settling down in areas that are today affiliated to Iraq's Mosul and Hasakah of Syria.

In 1871, Sheikh Abdel-Kerim Al-Jarba led the revolution of Shammar clans in Iraq against Ottomans, which was aborted before he was executed, leaving Shammar clans scattered. Amid this chaos, Abdel-Kerim's mother fled with her baby to Hail.

Fares Al-Jarba was born and rasied with Al-Rashid before going back to Iraq in 1875 with a legendary stature after he restored the prerogative of Shammar. Indeed, he put an end to the chaos and split the clans into two groups: eastern Shammar in Iraq and western Shammar in Syria. Till present time these arrangements are still effective, preserving Shammar in both countries.

Ajil Al-Yawer, whose lineage is traced back to Al-Jarba, is one of the Iraqi revolution leaders in 1920, while Ahmed Ajil Al-Yawer was also a leader of Abd Al-Wahab Al-Shawaf's failed Iraqi revolution in 1959. Ghazi Mashal Ajil Al-Yawer became the first Iraqi president following the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

In Syria, tribal elders played a limited political role that did not go beyond the Syrian parliament. After the eruption of the Syrian war in 2011, Syria's Shammar formed in Hasakah Ahrar Al-Jazeera Brigade that became part of the Free Army's militias in 2013 and 2014. Sheikh Humaydi Daham Al-Jarba of the Syrian Shammar founded Al-Sanadid Forces, a group that has been incorporated into the Syrian Democratic Forces. After heading for a while the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Ahmad Al-Jarba formed the elite Syrian forces that allied with the international coalition fighting the Islamic State militant group.

Today, Shammar clans lead a tribal Arab coalition east of Syria as part of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, commonly known as Rojava. It operates away from the regime control and in corporation with Kurdish and Assyrian movements.

Ehab Omar

Egyptian writer and journalist specializing in historical and political affairs.

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