To an outside observer the Middle East seems to be a very irrational region that is occupied with conflicts of unexplainable driving forces. To people involved in these conflicts, however, the whole world's attitude towards them seems to be either prejudiced or odd to say the least. Thus, it is a rare opportunity to run into anyone who is able to dig out the factors that influence the region and explain them rationally, which is why reading this book would prove to be a very enriching and valuable experience.
It is hard to imagine any person capable of undertaking this endeavor better than Avi Shlaim, an Oxford professor of international relations. The fact that Mr. Shlaim was born in Baghdad, grew up in Israel, and graduated from London is evident of the magnitude of his viewpoint and his ability to grasp the big picture.
In this short book (146 pages) the author introduces the post-Ottoman Middle East, a decaying region that fell prey to the colonial western powers subsequent to World War I. And while one might suspect that this introduction is too far back in history and has little relevance to the Middle East of today, Mr. Shlaim argues to the contrary. You can trace, asserts the author, almost all of the current conflicts in the Middle East to the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916 and the Balfour Declaration in 1917. These historical milestones were designed by the colonial powers to disengage from their colonies in the Middle East, but they were devised without any concern for the political and cultural landscape of the region. In Mr. Shlaim's words, "the postwar order imposed by Britain and the Allies created a belt of turmoil and instability stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The destruction of the Ottoman empire was not followed by a new order but a new disorder."
Analysis of regional history beyond that point is divided among two opinions. The first being the conventional view of external forces playing the decisive part in the political evolution of the contemporary Middle East, while the second believes that the dominant feature was the manipulation of the international powers by regional powers. The author takes a stand between these views, believing that regional powers did enjoy more leverage in dealing with outside powers than is generally recognized while being heavily influenced by the external powers. Mr. Shlaim divide external involvement into four phases: the Ottoman, the European, the superpower, and the American.
Avi examines every phase and not only explains the factors that created the history we know (or would come to know) but also investigates the motives behind every action and every policy. The reader is left with a satisfyingly clear and coherent picture of the Middle East right to the end of the 20th century, and by the conclusion of the book you will be able to comprehend the politics of the Middle East onward.
The only drawback is the fact that the book ends before the events of September 11 and the invasion (or liberation) of Iraq. These two events are earthshaking and are in effect turning points for the Middle East. However, the factors laid out by Avi in this book are the ones the brought about those two events, which is telling of the accuracy of Mr. Shlaim's analysis and insight.
Another great feature of this book is its lack of political-correctness. The author will not shy away from statements such as blaming "Reagan's idleness, intellectual mediocrity, and lax leadership" for the incoherent US policy towards the Middle East during his presidency, or from stating "what a closed, dark place" Syria still was when other regional leaderships (including the Palestinian) demonstrated slight improvement in mindset. These accusations are not simple emotional outcries, for they are the culminations of thorough analysis and rational and impartial observation. The author does cast his blame fairly, in my humble opinion, and is not prejudiced by his religion or his ethnicity, which might discomfort some bigoted readers.
In conclusion, this is a book very suitable for any reader interested in the Middle East, even if slightly given how short it is. The reader is not required to have any background information about the region as the book provides a proper introduction accompanied with several political maps of different eras.
This book is definitely a must-buy and a great read.