Book Review: The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring. Paul Danahar


Danahar, Paul.  The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring.  New York City: Bloomsbury Press, 2013.  468 pages.


Book review by John M. Thomas, Jr., MA. Thomas graduated with distinction in social science from The Citadel (Military College of South Carolina) in 2012 and currently works as a journalist for The Summerville Journal-Scene and as an independent scholar in the Charleston, South Carolina area in the United States.

Paul Danahar’s The New Middle East: The World After the Arab Spring is an exceptional account of the experiences, research, and journalistic writings of a prominent BBC Middle Eastern bureau chief written shortly after his tenure as head of the news agency office at the time of the ‘Arab Spring.’  Danahar’s very well written book is filled with detail that brings one into the mindset of the Middle Eastern milieu in an informed and highly elucidating manner.  From 2010 until 2013, Danahar led the effort at the BBC to cover the tumultuous and historic events that transpired in many states across North Africa, the Levant, and those on the shores of the Persian Gulf, otherwise known as the ‘Arab Spring’.  These events, part of the still-unconcluded chaos ignited by the sole self-immolation in Tunisia of Mohamed Bouazizi, are explained within a fitting historical and cultural context that weaves the story of the progression of recent Middle Eastern history into a fascinating work.

  Danahar leaves few stones unturned in achieving this synoptic book, especially for those new to Middle Eastern studies or politics, or for those in need of an update focused on the developing facets of the political struggles of the region.  Scholars will find the book useful as supporting material to monographs written on the subject of the Arab Spring, as Danahar places a great deal of emphasis on actual interpersonal occurrences and clear and concise treatment of the Middle Eastern environment.

A large portion of the text is devoted to ‘the Arab Spring’ in Egypt, the state which has developed into, what some have called,  the ‘center-of-gravity’ in this unfolding story, both in terms of the size of affected population as well as the overall degree of tumult in the country.  Hosni Mubarak’s fall and the eventual succession of the Islamist-leaning Muslim Brotherhood is described by Danahar to be fraught with the difficulties associated with the diametrically opposing factions, one Islamist and the other more secular, whose interactions lead to the “long war” in Egypt.  The book also details the treatment of the various Palestinian populations, challenges caused by Israel, the surrounding states, and the various Palestinian leaderships, all of which effect Israel.  The book also explores past and recent developments in Iraq, Syria, and Libya that are equally as excruciating as the Egyptian and Levantine problems.

 Danahar rounds out his spectrum of journalistic analysis with a brief historical chapter entitled “The Collapse of the Old Middle East,” which highlights continuing issues that contribute to the current state of affairs in the region.  Long-lived governments under leaders such as the former Libyan President  Muammar Gaddafi and the Shah of Iran are explained in perspective, and the government and politics of Tunisia is explained in terms of how the history of the country led it to the point of producing the genesis of the ‘Arab Spring.’ A rather distressing overview is given of, what Danahar argues, is the grossly inadequate American foreign policy which has been implemented in the region.  Danahar posits this generally mishandled and ill-informed approach by America as dating back to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, a few short years after the end of the First World War, in 1924 when the secularist Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became the first President of what is now modern-day Turkey.  Much of the Middle East was left to flounder with arbitrarily drawn borders that did not create viable nation-states and have been largely dysfunctional politically, economically, and in terms of cultural and religious interactions among people living in these countries.

The overall elucidating effect of the book is achieved by Danahar’s meticulous journalistic research and participation in the events which shook the Middle East, including his interactions with some of the principal Middle Eastern figures both past and present, which adds a significant personal touch to the work.  Danahar met with the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad at his presidential palace in Damascus and relates details of the personality of the Alawite dictator as being more appropriate to “the mild mannered ophthalmologist he had trained to be,” which stands in complete opposition to his bloodthirsty repression of the Syrian people starting long before the Arab Spring began which continues on in the Syrian civil war which we see today.

Danahar also had the chance to meet with former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi in “a seaside restaurant in downtown Tripoli” in 2011 while Libya was in the throes of revolution.  The regime had at that time lost the east of the country, all the while the eccentric Libyan dictator living in a tent near Tripoli and claiming distaste for money.  There are many passages in the book where the idiosyncrasies of the various leaders and dictators in the Middle East are discussed, either from first-hand, verbally-related, or documentary information.  The texture of the work is created in part by these high-level encounters, a testament to Danahar’s journalistic gravitas in the region and in the world of professional media in general.

  The ideological bent of The New Middle East, focused on Danahar’s own moderately liberal perspective, is an appropriate lens through which to view the events of the ‘Arab Spring,’ The author sees the Middle East as a relic from Ottoman days that has much of the decay of that empire having never been surmounted since the Sykes-Picot partition of the region.  Danahar sees the Middle East for what it could be from a hopeful Western perspective, all the while seeing the realities of the situation on the ground there as harsh and bitter.  Danahar’s perspective does not, however, represent the only perspective on the ongoing revolutions in the Middle East, and many conservative scholars would take exception to some of the conclusions and analysis of various types of information presented.

The scrutiny placed by Danahar on issues within the Levant is gritty, brutally honest, and representative of the preponderance of sheer and unmitigated frustration with the enormous depth of the seemingly irreconcilable problems inherent to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The cultures and political contributions of both groups relevant to the current situation within the hotly-contested regions of Israel and the Palestinian territories are explained in clear and extensive detail.

The full spectrum of religious and political participation in modern Israel is also surveyed carefully and with much precision. Particular attention is given to the ultra-rightist groups in Israel, such as the Haredi and other Orthodox Jewish factions whose uncompromising and stringently anachronistic views effectively prevent Israel from having the flexibility to negotiate settlements and agreements due to the ‘hard right turn’ that such a segment in society brings about in Israel.  The more secular Israeli Jews also have their societal demands and own interpretation of what the state of Israel should be, complicating an already intractable morass even further into irreconcilability.

The reader is left with the rather dreary impression of the futility which all sides involved experience with respect to the unfolding political and social condition of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  The spectrum of accommodation, argues Danahar, cannot be extended  long enough to accommodate all interest groups in the general political equation which composes the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  Hard feelings and difficult history since the unilateral declaration of the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 have accumulated over the years, creating an inertia which cannot be mitigated thoroughly by any form of diplomacy that has been attempted during the duration of the conflict.  Such is the story told by Danahar, a discouraging but probably accurate indication of the more difficult days to come in the Levant, next door to the Syrian civil war, which rages along with the ISIS-spawned conflict in Iraq to this day.

The hard-hitting style and content of Danahar’s book, The New Middle East, makes it a key work for those interested in the ‘Arab Spring’ and the book should be used in future analysis of the situation on the ground as a primary resource.  The basis of the work, rooted in Danahar’s outstanding brand of journalism, should be coupled with scholarly material to provide a strong, palpable presentation of the true consistency of the current state of affairs in the Middle East, as witnessed by those on the ground who are having to live through the implications of the various revolutions and their eventual outcomes.

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