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This is definitely an important book. It is thoroughly researched and, on the whole, it is well-written (my only caveat is that the author's journalistic style sometimes seems disjointed and the narrative flow gets disrupted).
The strength of the book lies in the stories of individuals and groups. The author manages to bring their beliefs, motivations and actions to life in a fascinating way. The weakness of the book also lies in these stories. In many places, I felt I was drowning in the sheer weight of the facts, names and relationships. Too often, the chapters are overloaded with details.
As a result, the book appears to be light on analysis and it is difficult to follow the overall narrative. The initial emphasis on 1979 is very interesting. The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the central focus of the book and is covered well. But the author strays into many other conflicts and issues and it is not always clear why she has chosen some and not others. Yemen, Syria, Lebanon (except Hezbollah), Gaza, Afghanistan and Jordan are covered relatively lightly. Pakistan and Egypt receive a lot of attention.
Sometimes, I get the sense that the complexities are being treated too simplistically. For example, much of the treatment of Pakistan focuses on President Zia Ul-Haq himself and the other political and religious driving forces are not covered much (I'm not sure that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is even mentioned). The history of the PLO and other Palestinian groupings, especially Hamas, doesn't fit neatly into the Iran-KSA divide, and so on.
In summary, a great idea. I don't regret reading the book but I did find it hardgoing.
In all honesty, the book is not quite what I was expecting, but it turned out to be better! I was anticipating an IR analysis of proxy conflicts, somewhat similar to Christopher Phillips 'The Battle for Syria', but with details about Iran backing Hizbollah in Lebanon and Syria and the Houthis in Yemen, with the Saudi's backing alternative militants and regimes across the regime to counter Iranian influence. While these conflicts are mentioned, this is not what the focus of the book. It is not a traditional IR analysis in that sense. However, do not let that put you off this book.
If anything this book has made me realise that a traditional IR analysis alone is insufficient to account for the progression of this rivalry and the current dynamics in the Middle East. This book delves into the ideologies within the various strands of political Islam and how from 1979, the Iranian Revolution and Saudi insecurity over their custodianship of Mecca led to increasingly conservative policies and a proliferation of Salifist ideology and sectarianism. At times some of the links between events in Pakistan or Egypt seemed a bit tenuous for the type of analysis I have been accustomed to in literature on this region, but they serve as examples of how Tehran and Riyad's respective drives towards religious piety transformed the narrative of political debate in the Middle East, culminating in the present conflict zones in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
If you are looking for a detailed deconstruction of foreign meddling in Yemen or Syria, this is not your book (though they are both referenced). However, I would still recommend this book for anyone wanting to learn about the region and about political Islam. The book in written in an eloquent and captivating style, with local stories and local perspectives. I could not put it down!
I found this book very absorbing but hard to read at times. It is very carefully edited with virtually no misprints, but it would benefit from more maps (e..g with population sizes, distribution Shia/Sunni split, oil output etc.), and a timeline of key events. There are no pictures which is a pity, it would add a lot - not just the people, who are many, but pictures of some of the locations and buildings mentioned. It is helpful that the author has a list of key people at the front, but it is not comprehensive - there are so many characters in the story ! - so I had to use the index (which is excellent). I also had to refer constantly to Wikipedia to find the population split of countries - the key detail that the countries in which what one might call a "double proxy war" (between US - Russia and Saudi-Iran) have significantly split Sunni-Shia populations was not clear from reading the text i.e. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan.
In terms of the content, it is excellent, but I didn't find the conclusion compelling. I think the author felt she had to "end well" despite little evidence through the book to suggest a happy ending. I felt a lot less hopeful after reading the book than when I started, that there would ever be an improvement to the situation in the Middle East. Finally, there wasn't much attention paid to the economic issues, which given that the author is an ex-FT journalist, is a bit disappointing, as this is a key aspect in thinking about the possible resolution of the problems and conflicts. Or, indeed, non-resolution.
This is a very well-written and easily readable evaluation of how the people of the Middle East have brought their current predicament upon themselves. Impeccably researched, it is one of the very few books that does not criticise colonialists, Zionists, the USA etc but explains that the root of the problems is the way in which gullible masses were hijacked by fundamentalist fanatics.
A brilliant account of the past 40 years in the middle east, great for someone like me that sees news reports and not much else. I said depressing as it does show how easily things can deteriorate, but actually there are a lot of positives in the book, I just hope the people still struggling get there in the end....
I obtained this book from my local library and after 20 pages considered is so good that I bought a copy. It is a fantastic book that has provided me with an insite to the present situation in the Middle East. Its a reflection on nationalism and religion in today's world that shows our faults writ large. In summary I found the author's comment: Travelling around the retgion to conduct my reporting for this book I osscillated between despair and hope."
I just literally out it down. Amazing reading, I read it in one sitting over the weekend. The author manages complex topics of an ever-complex regional network of Middle East región in a captivating fashion and mesmerizing style. I particularly loved the way societies were portrayed through the image of individuals, from scholars to anchorwomen, describing their personal struggle with those of the societies they represent.
Perhaps the most clear and concise book ever on Middle Eastern politics ever written. It's fascinating and Illuminating, tying up a lot of loose geopolitical ends within the events taking place in the 20th century. Looking at certain events within their chronological context, I found the theory that Khomeini perhaps turned his attention to Rushdie and other cultural phenomena subsequently deemed haram to divert attention from the Saudi victory in Afghanistan especially interesting... A fantastic book!
A poignant, heartfelt and enlightening account of how the struggle for supremacy between Saudi and Iran has bred monsters and brought mysery to the Middle East. Some of the facts in this well-researched book I knew, most (such as the roots of Wahhabism in Saudi, its lik with the al-Saud family, and its role in the creation of extremism in the Sunni world) I didn’t.