BOOK REVIEW / Bombs, handshakes and new realism: 'Inside the Arab World' - Michael Field: John Murray, 25 pounds

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Between bombs in Kensington and handshakes on the White House lawn, the politics of the Middle East do not lack for dramatic effect. The threat of violent upheaval and the rhetoric of doom are so plentiful that newspapers and publishers seldom offer much else. Readers could be forgiven if they knew little about the emerging Arab middle class, the social transformation and the cautious moves towards democracy.

These developments may not make good copy, but Michael Field has incorporated them into a very good book. It is particularly valuable because it takes account of the 'new realism' since the Gulf War and the deal between Israel and the Palestinians in September 1993. Two radical ideals perished through those events. The first was that an Arab regime could succeed by appealing to pan- Arab nationalism and popular discontent. The second was the certainty that Israeli governments would maintain their implacable rejection of Palestinian identity, thus stoking the armed struggle. These tenets of Middle Eastern politics, once learned in Koranic or Talmudic detail by every young journalist arriving in the area, have gone. The author offers an a timely assessment of the new forces that swirl in their wake.

He begins with a brisk excursion through his territory, the vast swathe of lands inhabited by 200 million people who call themselves Arabs. He makes it clear that Iran, though not an Arab country, will also be discussed in detail. The stage is set for a brief explanation of the divisions of the Arab world after the Ottoman eclipse of 1918. He chronicles the 'catastrophe' of Palestine in 1948 and offers a rare description of the Arab governments that ruled in the shocked tranquility of its aftermath. They were often indolent and corrupt, he argues, but seldom as brutal or dangerous as their nationalist successors.

Power was rarely inherited through peaceful transition. Most Arabs submitted to rule by the secret police, the censor and the strong leader, under the logic that a state of war with Israel justified a permanent suspension of normal liberties. The author aptly calls these countries the 'security states'. Preoccupied with internal order and self-preservation, their ruling cliques conducted unsuccessful wars against an ever stronger Zionist enemy. Field calls his chapter on the period from 1970 to 1993 simply 'Despair' and despairing it was. It saw the vast inflow of money through the quadrupling of oil prices but also the destruction of Lebanon.

Field makes the telling point that this marked the end of the pre-First World War culture of the Levant. A tolerant, cosmopolitan and mercantile life had once flourished in Smyrna, Constantinople, Salonica, Aleppo and Alexandria. The destruction of Beirut between 1975 and 1990 finally snuffed out the light. The failure of the Lebanese experiment and the discredited role of the one-party 'socialist' states left a vacuum in Arab politics. Religion has filled it. Islamic fundamentalism is now constitutes the single most influential factor in the region. Field devotes a first-rate chapter to the crisis in Algeria. Here the ruling liberation movement quickly decayed into corruption and mismanagement, while central planning stifled the economy and oil revenues were squandered on absurd industrial ventures. The Algerian regime, an example of the 'security state,' is at war with Islamic guerrillas. Thinkers, technocrats and administrators are caught in the middle.

The book is full of carefully researched and clever studies. Correctly identifying Damascus as the cultural and political centre of the region (to Nasser it was 'the beating heart of Arabism'), Field offers the bold suggestion that Syria alone of the 'security states' may show the capacity to liberalise its economy and government. President Assad must overcome the psychological barriers to peace with Israel for that to happen. By contrast, Iraq is likely to remain a sundered tyranny.

This is a pragmatic conservative's view of the Middle East. It places hope in common sense, economic reform and good government. As a result, its verdict on the Arab monarchies is benign. These kingdoms, emirates and sheikhdoms avoided the worst excesses of the 'security states' through the generous dispensation of oil revenues. But their ability to withstand lower oil prices, religious pressure and popular discontent is debatable. Field has great faith in the wisdom of the House of Saud, for example, believing that its resilience and legitimacy will prove lasting. His optimism is not universally shared. The author himself points out that prolific Western arms sales to the Gulf undermine the stability of the very countries they purport to defend.

Moderate, thoughtful and far- sighted, Inside the Arab World reminds us of the continuing importance to Europeans of the whole Middle East. For 70 years, it says, the Arab world was a failure. Now its intelligentsia demands legitimate government, its middle classes seek economic freedom and its poor want their just share of its resources. The contest between these aspirations and the forces of religious obscurantism is of decisive interest to us all.

(Photograph omitted)