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The New Middle East - Saurabh Kumar Shahi - The Sunday Indian
An IIPM Initiative
Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The New Middle East


An enigma less understood
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, October 18, 2013 10:59
Tags : Paul Danahar’s | New Middle East | |

Arabs are enigmatic people. Even after years of living and working among them, it is not easy to predict their actions. That makes them a boon for journalists. That also makes them a pain for journalists. Under the circumstances, BBC journalist Paul Danahar’s The New Middle East: the World After the Arab Spring can be termed as a risky proportion. Risky, because he decided to write about an incident which for all practical purposes is still unfolding.

First a word about Danahar. Danahar has earned lots of respect from his peer and readers alike for his reportage from Middle East. He has done some fine reporting working under the ideological constraints common to the journalists from the West. These ideological constraints often make people jump gun. Like Danahar did early this year when in the race for breaking news he attributed a particular massacre in Syria to be the handiwork of the regime. Evidence was shaky and whatever little it was, it suggested rebels’ complicity.

It is no surprise that these ideological constraints are also visible in the book. The very urge of the western journalists to see everything through Western-Israeli security prism can leave weak hearted readers flabbergasted. The m ore mature ones take it into stride. This book needs to be analyzed by admitting this lacuna.     

The book is a great read for those who want to understand the events of Arab Spring without getting into much prediction. The chapters are divided on the basis of countries and each one of them independently analyze the events that affected that particular country while also trying to look for a link that binds them all. It is not merely reportage. Danahar has successfully mixed his reportage with expert opinions from diplomats, political analysts, religious figures, and commoners in order to understand the motivation behind the events.

However, it becomes problematic when Danahar gets into prediction mode. Since the events were still unfolding as this book was being written, it would have been prudent not to stick one’s neck out. But Danahar did stick it out and got slaughtered in the process.

Let’s look at some of the analogies. In the chapter dealing with Syria, Danahar goes at length to prove that the conflict in Syria is sectarian in nature and Assad merely an Alawite figurehead. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Yes, rebels, especially ones supported by the West and other neighbouring countries did try to brant the conflict as sectarian but could not convince the probing journalists as to why the Sunni core of Syrian Arab Army still siding with the regime. Or for example why is al-Qaeda finding it difficult to retain the hold on Sunni cities. He also predicts that Assad, Iran, and even Putin will eventually settle for a separate Alawite homeland and will let go their control on entire Syria. Now that is not appear to be happening from where I see it. Assad’s hold is tight and rebels are losing ground every passing day. Having a separate Alawite homeland does not appear to be even Plan C, leave alone Plan B.

Another deduction that Arab Spring has weakened Shia Islam and propped Sunnis is also far-fetched. In fact, following the withdrawal from Iraq, and consolidation of Hezbollah, Shia Islam looks confident. Its archrival, the Wahhabi version of Islam has started to feel the heat, especially the Saudi Royal family. The events in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia have rattled the regime. Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, after a brief surge to power in Egypt and later in Syria has started to lose ground and fast. The counter-revolution in Egypt and debacle of Qatar and Turkey supported and Brotherhood affiliated Free Syrian Army in Syria has weakened another rival. And if that is not enough, the recent Iran-US bonhomie has isolated Sunni Persian Gulf Kingdoms in a big way. From here onwards, the revival of fortune for them appears tough in not outright impossible.

He also grossly misrepresents events in Libya as a revolution by the lower-middle class. That is probably the most simplistic interpretation of what was largely a tribal based conflict supported in arms and eventual direct intervention by the West. Had the West not intervened, Libyan regime would not have fallen. Branding it a revolution of grocers and shopkeepers is taking propaganda too seriously.

In spite of these problems, The New Middle East is very helpful manual of understanding the nitty-gritty of the events that led to probably one of the most interesting events of this decade. The writing is lucid and elements of drama make it an interesting read. Anecdotes gathered from years and years of reporting in the region add value to an otherwise very serious book. In the last two years, over 200 books on Arab Spring came out in English. Most of them were hastily written bad piece of scholarship. Danahar’s book is a whiff of fresh air in that. If only he resisted the temptation for making predictions.

Author: Paul Danahar

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-1-4088-5303-0

Pages: 480

Price: Rs. 599

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017