Professor Fred Halliday: Celebrated scholar of Middle Eastern politics

Friday 14 May 2010 00:00

Fred Halliday was an academic who specialised in international politics; his area of particular expertise was the Middle East, and he was always among the first to be called on by the media for analysis when something happened there.

He published numerous books and papers: his first, Arabia without Sultans (1974), looked at Arabian regimes, and the opposition movements ranged against them, and drew on his encyclopedic knowledge of Southern Arabia gained through field research in the region, especially Oman.

"The Arab Middle East is the one with the longest history of contact with the west; yet it is probably the one least understood," Halliday said. He believed that the roots of the misunderstanding lay in the "romantic mythology" that shrouded the deserts of the peninsula, and ''where old myths have broken down, new ones have absorbed them or taken their place.''

Halliday was not intransigent in his views. Along with other leftists in the London University-based Gulf Solidarity Campaign, he supported Dhofari secessionists who objected to military backing from the late Shah of Iran and the RAF (from its base in Salalah) to Sultan Qaboos, who replaced his backward-thinking tyrant father, Sultan Saeed. But two decades later Halliday realised that Qaboos, who modernised Oman, brought it prosperity and continued to move it steadily towards democracy, was on the right side of history.

Born in Dublin to Arthur Halliday, a businessman, and his wife Rita, Fred was educated at the Marist school, Dundalk and Ampleforth College before reading philosophy at Queen's College, Oxford (1964-1967). In 1969 he moved to London's School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), where he developed his passion for Arabia, and in the same year joined the editorial board of The New Left Review on which he remained until 1983. His PhD took 17 years to finish and concerned the foreign relations of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen; in 1985 he published Aspects of South Yemen's Foreign Policy 1967-82.

Halliday gained a staff post at LSE in 1983, and was Professor of International Relations from 1985-2008, a job whose security, researchers and facilities enabled him to produce a wealth of books and essays. He was both prolific and fast: within two months of September 2001, he published Two Hours that Changed the World, analysing the factors and forces behind the attack, and its effect on foreign policy.

Halliday, a brilliant political analyst, was comfortable changing his ideas when evidence contradicted his beliefs and he accepted that imperialism and capitalism could be progressive. He supported the Soviet invasion of Afghan-istan as well as the UK/US-led military campaign in the Persian Gulf (1990/1991), and western interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003. But he was critical of ''the arrogance and incompetence of the US and British administrations' policies" that resulted in tragic consequences.

Halliday annoyed some early in the decade by criticising ''boutique movements'', and post-leftist accommodations with conventionally liberal and reactionary positions and their scattered issues that cohered into what he termed "semi-ideologies".

A committed linguist, Halliday believed in the centrality of language to understanding contemporary globalisation and spoke or read languages including Latin, Greek, Catalan, Persian, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Portuguese and Arabic.

His ability to swiftly strike up friendships gave him a widening net of acquaintances that extended from Morocco to the Khyber Pass. Whenever I visited that region, someone would ask me "how is the professor?"

Several times between 1968 and 1998 I ran into Halliday in a wide variety of places: among tribal chiefs in Yemen, Hizbollah activists in Lebanon, Arab officials in the Gulf, with a Bazaari in Esfahan and haggling in a souk in Damascus. He roamed Ethiopia with Maxine Molyneux, and together they authored The Ethiopian Revolution (1981) and their romance culminated in their 1979 wedding. In his 1996 study Islam and the Myth of Confrontation he refuted the ideas of a "clash of civilisations" and the "otherness" of Muslims and their politics.

Halliday retired from LSE in 2008 to Spain as international research professor at Barcelona Institute for International Studies. He loved Barcelona, where he was part of a lively social and intellectual network, but finally he lost a year-long battle against cancer.

Adel Darwish

Frederick Halliday, scholar of international relations: born Dublin 22 February 1946; on staff, London School of Economics and Political Science, department of International Relations, 1983-85, professor 1985-2008; ICREA research professor, Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals, 2008-10; married 1979 Maxine Molyneux (one son); died Barcelona 26 April 2010.

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