A sturdy look at the events that shaped the modern Middle East—mostly for the worse.
Best known for his popular-historical work on South Asia (India: A History, 2000, etc.), Keay admits to not having much specialized knowledge of the Middle East: “I speak neither Arabic nor Hebrew. I am neither Jewish nor Muslim. I first came to the subject cold and unconfident.” As a longtime student of British adventurism in Asia, however, Keay does bring much knowledge of empire-building to the game—a requisite in examining the modern history of the Middle East, many of whose nations were made and sometimes undone in the imperial struggle between Great Britain, France, and to a lesser extent Germany and, later in the 20th century, the US. Consider the case of Jordan: “a child of political expediency,” Keay writes, “it had neither an economic nor a geographical rationale,” but its creation by British political engineers at least kept its new king from contesting the better prizes of Jerusalem, Damascus, and, of course, Baghdad. The British and French administrators who vied over the remains of the Ottoman Empire and farther-flung parts were not necessarily bad men, by Keay’s account, but they served masters whose great wish was to thwart one another, not deliver a lasting political order to the region, and maybe make a few pounds in the bargain; thus a legacy of minor dictators and ineffectual pashas content themselves to serve foreign masters. When the US entered the game following WWII, Keay writes, it did so with a crew of “global fixers, corporate and financial executives, and the assorted operatives, agents, and spies who constituted the intelligence community,” and whose machinations led to such developments as the creation of a Soviet-friendly Egyptian regime and coups in Iran and Iraq, to say nothing of ever-increasing hostility toward the favorite US client state: Israel.
Would things have been different had the region been left alone? Perhaps, Keay suggests. As it is, the seeds of the current Middle Eastern mess are many—and many of them transplanted from far away.