For our centennial issue, our reviewers each selected a set of books essential to understanding the past century and another set essential for imagining the century ahead.
The last century was not kind to the Middle East. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I secured European control of the region, disrupting local political and economic arrangements and inserting a variety of alien interests and agendas. Chief among these were the Zionist settlements that would lead to the creation of Israel and the global military-industrial demand for oil that gave rise to local power brokers in the guise of royal dynasties in Iran, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant. The succession of the United States to global primacy and the formal independence of the largely European-designed states in the region after World War II obscured but did not end the region’s extraordinarily circumscribed integration into world affairs. For much of the latter half of the twentieth century, regional development was sacrificed to Washington’s desire for secure access to oil, the security of Israel, and the containment of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War produced a surge of U.S. interest in “democracy promotion,” driven by the conviction that liberal values contributed to the triumph over the Soviet Union. The 9/11 attacks in 2001 refocused U.S. attention to what became known as the “global war on terror,” an apparently unending battle against jihadist violence and Islamist political ambitions. The upheavals of the Arab uprisings in the second decade of the twenty-first century took everyone by surprise but ultimately changed little in U.S. policy, which continued to prize the Gulf’s oil, Israel’s security, and regional stability, even if those imperatives buttressed political autocracy and contributed to economic stagnation.
Not surprisingly, no single book captures this history. Mitchell, however, delivers a valuable analysis of just why the United States felt the need to micromanage the region’s politics: the powerful pull of oil has left Western democracy contingent on an undemocratic Middle East. Gordon provides a clear and candid recounting of decades of repeated U.S. failure to remake the Middle East. Khalidi traces the consequences of these contradictory policies through several generations of a notable Palestinian family—his own—in his frank and furious book.
Yet it falls to fiction to truly capture life in the Middle East over the last 100 years. Munif’s evocative novel, for example, first published in Lebanon in 1984, recounts the devastating encounter of Bedouin inhabitants of a small desert town with Americans who discover oil there in the 1930s. Ibrahim’s poignant depiction of the travails of an Egyptian woman under the regimes of three successive presidents—Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak—provides a miniaturist’s portrait of life in the second half of the century.
The upheavals of the Arab uprisings came as a surprise to both the governments against which citizens rebelled and their U.S. and European patrons, but the results may have been more predictable. Some countries, such as Libya, Syria, and Yemen, collapsed into what appears to be interminable civil conflict. Others, including Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel-Palestine, teeter on the edge of barely contained violence. Elsewhere, autocracy secures civil peace, as in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, the Gulf states and, lately, Tunisia. These dynamics have exacerbated trends that began earlier and contributed to the uprisings in the first place: once the most egalitarian region in the world, the Middle East is now the most inequitable. Both across the region and within individual countries, inequality rose dramatically in the first decades of the twenty-first century, a trend that has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How long this disheartening trend will last is, of course, impossible to tell. But for now, it seems robust. Hanieh explores the sources and trajectory of the growing inequality in his provocative examination of how the governments of oil-producing Middle Eastern countries participate in the financialization of the global economy. Concerned more about private wealth than public prosperity, these regimes use oil revenues to underwrite investments across the region, and indeed around the world, shaping politics well beyond their own countries.
As the rich get richer, the poor not only get poorer but also seem to be losing what rights they enjoyed in the heady days of independence movements and mass politics. The erosion of human rights across the region is ably explored in a volume of essays edited by Meijer and Butenschon. Civil, political, and economic rights have been supplanted with privileges distributed by class, sect, and kinship, which are designed to sustain autocratic regimes. Even in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings and their calls for “bread, dignity, freedom, and social justice,” governments seem to have little appetite for extending, or even enforcing, the rights of citizenship.
Given the vulnerability of the economy and the environment of the Middle East to climate change, it’s surprising how few books have focused on the region’s manifold ecological and economic challenges. Once again, however, fiction provides a glimpse of what may lie ahead. Utopia, by the prolific Egyptian writer Tawfik, was published in Arabic in 2008 and, in a first for the novelist, translated into English in 2011. Set in the then distant future of 2023, the book starts after the United States has developed a new fuel source, making oil obsolete. The young protagonists live in Utopia, a gated colony protected by U.S. marines on the northern coast of Egypt to which the wealthy retreated after the government’s collapse. Those outside Utopia, called the Others, live mired in disease, hunger, and violence. Looking for a thrill, several of Utopia’s youth escape the gated compound to hunt Others, knowing that they can always call a parent to send a Marine helicopter to rescue them from the savages living in a Cairo without water or electricity, where drug addicts feed on stray dogs in the empty metro tunnels. Almost unimaginably bleak, the book was an instant bestseller and went through multiple printings. One can only hope it is not also prescient.