Lords of The Desert book review

By Tom Kenny

Policies of deliberate secrecy, Anglo-American coalitions in the Gulf in 1991, in Iraq again after 2003, and – at time of writing – active joint military operations have helped obscure a fact that was once common knowledge: from 1942 until Britain’s exit from the Gulf in 1971, Britain and the United States were invariably competitors in the Middle East, and often outright rivals.

“Lords of the Desert” by James Barr is a meticulously researched account of the complex history of the Middle East during this period. From the twilight of the Ottoman Empire to the rise of the modern nation-states in the region, Barr weaves a narrative that not only unveils the political intricacies but also explores the economic agendas that shaped the destiny of the Middle East. Barr’s narrative offers both insights and challenges for those who view history through the prism of social justice and egalitarian ideals.

Colonialism had an enduring impact on the Middle East. Barr scrutinizes the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration – which pledged support for a Jewish national home in Palestine so long as it did not impinge on the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities there – revealing how imperial powers carved up the region, creating artificial borders that sowed the seeds of future conflicts. Exploitation is inherent in colonial endeavors, and Barr’s exploration of the economic drivers behind imperialist machinations exposes in some detail how Western powers sought to control and extract wealth – especially oil –  from the Middle East. As President Roosevelt told the British Ambassador to Washington in 1944: Iran’s oil belonged to Britain; Britain and the United States shared Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil; Saudi oil was America’s. In every case, concealment of profits meant that oil producing countries were short-changed of their share.

While the book predominantly focuses on political leaders and the geopolitical chessboard, Barr doesn’t shy away from discussing the economic disparities and social inequalities that fueled discontent among the Arab masses. From rural Bedouin communities to the burgeoning urban centers, “Lords of the Desert” exposes the socio-economic fault lines that contributed to the rise of nationalist movements.

Barr creates deft pen pictures of the leading protagonists, including charismatic leaders such as Nasser in Egypt and Mossadegh in Iran, who sought to challenge imperialist influences and assert the economic independence of their nations. These figures become symbols of resistance against foreign domination and champions of socialist ideals, even if their visions did not always align perfectly with Marxist principles. Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal and Mossadegh’s push for the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry exemplify attempts to break free from economic exploitation, though they faced significant opposition from Western powers.

A critical examination must also confront the limitations and contradictions within these nationalist movements. While leaders like Nasser and Mossadegh championed anti-imperialist causes, their regimes often fell short of achieving true socialist transformation. The book underlines the challenges of navigating the geopolitical landscape, where these leaders had to make pragmatic choices that sometimes contradicted their initial socialist rhetoric.

Barr’s account of the Arab-Israeli conflict offers another dimension for analysis. The dispossession of the Palestinian people and the creation of the State of Israel encapsulate nationalism, imperialism, and class struggle. The struggles of the Palestinian refugees and the broader implications of the Arab-Israeli conflict underscore the importance of addressing not only national but also socio-economic injustices.

Barr’s prose often sparkles. Deputy Director of the CIA Allen Dulles was “twinkly, charming and tactile – [  ] nicknamed ‘the shark’ by his long-suffering wife”. US director of economic operations James Landis was “the son of a carping missionary, [  ] the dean of Harvard Law School, a zealous, heavy-drinking, rather tortured workaholic whose low self-esteem drove him ceaselessly to prove himself.” Neither is the text without humour. When, at the armistice in 1918, Churchill’s private secretary declared that he was so grateful for the American contribution to the victory that he wanted to kiss Uncle Sam ‘on both cheeks’, Churchill had retorted, ‘But not on all four.’ Nevertheless, this is not a book to be dipped into or read at speed, and concentration is needed in order to keep track of the many unfolding plots.

“Lords of the Desert” offers a nuanced exploration of the Middle East’s history, presenting a complex tapestry of political, economic, and social dynamics. The book serves as a valuable resource for understanding the struggles against imperialism, the quest for economic justice, and the challenges faced by leaders attempting to navigate the turbulent waters of post-colonial nation-building. While the narrative highlights instances of resistance and efforts to achieve self-determination, it also underscores the complexities and contradictions inherent in these movements. Socialists engaging with this work will find both affirmation of their principles and opportunities for critical reflection on the path to a more just and equitable future in the Middle East.

 Lords of the Desert: Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East by James Barr is published by Simon & Schuster.

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