Geraldine Beddell goes into territory where not many writers have dared to venture since Salman Rushdie's little "hiccup" in 1989. She tackles her main theme almost entirely from the viewpoint of the English mother whose teenage son comes out as gay at his brother's wedding in the Gulf and is later found to be the boyfriend of a senior member of the Ruling Dynasty. And the year is 2002 with America poised to invade Iraq.
The fictional island of Hawar is a very thinly disguised Bahrain (down to place names and a reviled former British head of security). Beddell makes more of an effort to hide the inspiration for the vain and nervous English movie actor who sweeps our heroine off her feet (Hugh Grant came rapidly to mind).
The Gulf Between Us is a pleasing and highly readable mix of family drama and romantic comedy, with a serious subtext about relations between liberal Westerners and conservative Muslims in one of Arabia's "archaic hereditary dictatorships" (spot on, Geraldine!). She includes some gossip about another named Arabian head of state which is bold of her and possibly tactless.
As one who has lived in the Gulf and dallied with the locals (and written about it), I would say that Beddell does eloquent justice to the collision of values when East meets West. She handles a large cast of characters (perhaps a bit too large) with great dexterity and brings her story to a delightfully improbable end. Expats - even gay expats - live happily ever after, but no Arab is allowed to be glad to be gay. Will they ever be? Fat chance.
[The reviewer is the author of SHAIKH-DOWN, another novel that deals with sexual relations between Arabs and Westerners]