Vali Nasr's Meccanomics looks uncannily like the initial paperback edition of Freak- onomics, the bestselling, upside-down look at economics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. It's not just the similar title emblazoned across the top: both also have an array of cool, sunglassed people staring out from the front cover's blue backgrounds. Nasr's, though, are clearly Middle Eastern.
Iranian-born and Washington-based, Nasr is a talented academic who has been called upon both to advise President Obama, and to explain the Middle East on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. But, for all the initial flair of Meccanomics, I fear that it has fallen prey to an overambitious marketing executive.
The scene-setting first 60 pages are indeed head-turning stuff in the vein of Freak- onomics. Nasr pours over the Middle East's balance sheets – from the boom of the Islamic bonds market to the combined GDPs of Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey ($3.3tn), which equals that of India but with only a third of the population – and shares his hope that economic vigour will be the region's salvation. However, the muscular fiscal analysis doesn't last long. Instead, the book gets caught up in a familiar vortex of arguments about what is hindering development – be it state, religion or free speech.
Where one hopes for a searing analysis of Iran's growth of trade with India, despite Ahmadinejad's retrogressive government, one is treated instead to 1,500 years of Iranian history. Rather than charting the rise of the middle classes, Nasr gives numerous excuses as to why they don't exist. In fact, much of the book seems an elegy for Kemalism, the secular system that has allowed Turkey to thrive but – because of the rise of Islam or despotism – has failed to work in other Middle Eastern states. Notably, Nasr does not devote a chapter to the deeply religious Malaysia, where business flourishes, surely one of the best examples of a successful marriage between Islam and capitalism. Meccanomics is ultimately a work that pushes for change rather than finding it.
Evidence of real progress comes in another book published this month, an unassuming volume from Neil MacFarquhar. A New York Times journalist born in Libya, where his father was an a chemical engineer, MacFarquhar brings an intelligent, and sometimes irreverent, eye to the Middle East, a region he covered for his newspaper full-time from 2001-2008. The jaunty title of his memoir of the period is a reference to Hizbollah's annual email to him.
A chapter that could have served well in Meccanomics is MacFarquhar's on Al Jazeera. The Qatar-based news channel, which he suggests is analogous to Fox News in shock factor, has become a staple across the Middle East in the past decade. Where the local press may not criticise governments, or report deaths and disasters, Al Jazeera does. It has done more for free speech than many complainers. Periodically, its journalists are ejected from Iraq, Jordan, the Gulf States and Algeria for crossing the invisible lines between what can and can't be said, but it thrives and survives because of demand from the people, who want their eyes opened. MacFarquhar notes wisely that had American politicians asked to go on Al Jazeera, rather than condemning the channel, they would have found a captive and engaged Arab audience to which they could put their case.
MacFarquhar peers behind the veil by including anecdotes about, for example, the fatwa hotlines which members of the public can call for a religious verdict (30 per cent of the calls to the Cairo-based Islamic Hotline are about sex); a ski resort in Iran, where Friday prayers boom out over the Tannoys prompting fear of avalanches, while women skiers, beyond the reach of the Revolutionary Guard, tear off their headgear to expose their hair; and a Kuwaiti sex therapist dressed in red leather and a headscarf. These anecdotes serve to leaven the more troubling aspects of some of the countries he covers, from the highly religious curriculum of Saudi Arabian schools, to dungeon imprisonments in Morocco and the Muslim Brotherhood's grip on Egypt.
Both Nasr and MacFarquhar are criss-crossing the same territory in the Middle East, where authoritarian governments have a stranglehold on people's lives. They both write about how Saudi's oil exports and strict Wahabi culture go hand-in-hand as part of the same boom, and about how Islam is cool. It is one of the perversities of the region – to Western eyes – that the well-educated middle classes turn to Islam so readily. MacFarquhar highlights, almost in despair, the success of parties such as Hamas, Hizbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood at dealing with deprivation, and their brilliantly co-ordinated responses to local disasters where official governments have been rather flat-footed. It may be unpalatable, but these strongly religious parties have an appeal for a reason, particularly where secular authoritarian governments leave their societies in the stasis of corruption.
MacFarquhar does not attempt to reach as deep and far into politics and economics as Nasr, but, by glancing off his subjects, gives an effective and unusual analysis of the push-and-pull of modernity and history in the region.