Review: Lords of the Desert, James Barr

Rating: 5 out of 5

Mr Barr has the quality of being able to find the most outrageous anecdotal incidences that led to an event coming to pass. It is this which makes reading his histories so enjoyable—not only is one able to thoroughly appreciate how so much of today’s world has come about through petty chance, but the journey is also most intriguing.

The subject is the Middle East and the time is post-World War II and leading into the 1970’s. Iran’s revolution against Mosaddegh is covered in good detail as is the Israeli terror leading up to the creation of their state. Nasser’s Egypt and Syria are similarly in the forefront, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states bring up the rear. The players are the United Kingdom and the United States whose spy divisions meted it out against each other in this desert environment.

The book is intended as a sequel to Mr Barr’s treatise on the Sykes–Picot Agreement, ‘A Line in the Sand’, and its consequences which I read some time ago. The book is as well researched as its prequel, but the tone is slightly better—reading through my thoughts of the previous one, I think I was slightly overwhelmed by it, and possibly undercut by my lacking understanding of domestic politics of the United Kingdom and France in that time.

Though the scope of this book is the Anglo–American rivalry in the Middle East—including occasional temporary alliances in a maze of shifting self-interest—there are jumps to domestic politics. This is natural as the foreign policy of a state will be affected by its domestic ongoings. Yet, those domestic changes are not detailed in too much detail with emphasis on action in the Middle East. It is therefore very useful to have some knowledge of the domestic politics of the US and the UK between Truman and Johnson or Churchill and Wilson. The author’s tangents were generally more detailed for the Americans.

Overall, a very strong recommend from me for a book that really accomplishes its goals to show how the Middle East has become what it has become.

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