The Shiites of Saudi Arabia. The electoral appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hezbollah’s charitable activities. The political effects of oil in the Gulf. The failure of Iraq’s constitutional consolidation. It’s that time of year again: my annual review of the best books of the past year on the politics of the Middle East.
Every year, I try to highlight some of the great, deeply researched and analytically sophisticated books written by political scientists about the region. Books on the list have to be published in the calendar year 2014 and they have to fit in broad terms into the category of “political science of the Middle East.” I reviewed about 50 books over the course of the year that could plausibly fit that definition, and then narrowed that down to about a dozen finalists earlier this month. Some of these books appeared on my summer beach reading list, others were published only later this year. Many were very good, a few atrocious, some disappointing.
How do I choose? First, the list focuses on political science books. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t lots of other great books in different fields, but the Monkey Cage is a political science blog and the initiative I direct is called the “Project on Middle East Political Science.” A few years back my list went broader to include other disciplines, but this year I have kept the focus on the political science field. I didn’t include some really enjoyable popular historical works, some highly original anthropological works, or even one of my favorite reads of the year – Hisham Aidi’s “Rebel Music.” I prefer books about the region itself, written based on primary research in the field in the local languages, rather than books about U.S. foreign policy toward the region. I tend to be most interested in the Arab world, and didn’t include any books primarily focused on Iran, Israel, Turkey or the Afghanistan-Pakistan area.
Past honorees include Stéphane Lacroix’s “Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia” and Wendy Pearlman’s “Violence, Non-Violence and the Palestinian National Movement” in 2011. The 2012 list featured Nathan Brown’s “When Victory is Not an Option,” Laurence Louer’s “Shiism and Politics in the Middle East,” Joseph Sassoon’s “Saddam Hussein’s Ba’th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime,” and Bassam Haddad’s “Business Networks in Syria.” Last year, the winners were Adria Lawrence’s “Imperial Rule and the Politics of Nationalism: Anti-Colonial Protest in the French Empire,” Raphaël Lefèvre’s “Ashes of Hama: The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria,” Madawi al-Rasheed’s “A Most Masculine State: Gender, Politics, and Religion in Saudi Arabia,” Frederic Wehrey’s “Sectarian Politics in the Gulf,” and Carrie Rosefsky Wickham’s “The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement.”
Without further ado, in alphabetical order, the official Abu Aardvark Awards for the Best Books in Political Science, 2014!
Zaid al-Ali, “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy” (Yale University Press). This furious, analytically acute book traces how and why Iraq failed to consolidate into a democratic state following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Ali’s primary academic and professional focus is on the constitution, and he lays bare the compromises and procedural failings that helped to distort that document. His analysis goes further than the legal texts, however, as he unpacks the logic of the corrupt, sectarian state that emerged from the long years of occupation and civil war. His searingly critical perspective on these failings should be required reading for those trying to make sense of the rise of the Islamic State, the limitations of state-building in post-Saddam Iraq and the deeper failings of the U.S. occupation. Read Ali on the Monkey Cage: “Maliki has only himself to blame for Iraq’s crisis” and “Who is to blame for Iraq’s problems” (with Sinan Antoon).
Melani Cammett, “Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon” (Cornell University Press). Why do Islamists – or any other political movement – offer social services? Cammett is at the forefront of a growing academic literature exploring these questions through innovative methodologies and empirical research. Her book develops a sophisticated analysis of the political strategies of Hezbollah and other Lebanese political movements, demonstrating when, why and to what effect these movements provide services to their own constituents and to others. Read Cammett on the Monkey Cage: “How Hezbollah helps (and what it gets out of it)” and watch her POMEPS Conversation.
Michael Herb, “The Wages of Oil: Parliaments and Economic Development in Kuwait and the UAE” (Cornell University Press). The political effects of oil have long been central to the analysis of the Persian Gulf and the broader Middle East, with the rents that accrue from oil thought to retard the development of democracy and to enable the construction of large, fierce security establishments to preserve autocratic power. Herb significantly advances our understanding of the precise mechanisms by which oil rents reshape political institutions and behavior. While Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates are the primary empirical focus, he ranges far wider across the Gulf and to oil rent-based states across the world. Read Herb’s contribution to POMEPS Studies #3 The Arab Monarchy Debate, “Monarchy Matters” and watch his POMEPS Conversation.
Tarek Masoud, “Counting Islam: Religion, Class and Elections in Egypt” (Cambridge University Press). The degree of popular support for the Muslim Brotherhood has been one of the most central questions about Egyptian politics over the past few years. Masoud offers one of the most methodologically rigorous and sophisticated analytical treatments of the question yet. He combines research on the ground with creative statistical analysis to address a range of important puzzles about the Brotherhood and Egyptian politics more broadly. Read Masoud on the Monkey Cage: “Why the modest harvest of the Arab spring?” (with Jason Brownlee and Andrew Reynolds); on POMEPS: “Why do Islamists provide services?” and watch his POMEPS Conversation.
Toby Matthiesen, “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism” (Cambridge University Press). This sweeping history of the Shiites of Saudi Arabia immediately becomes a definitive account of their politics and social organization. Drawing on wide-ranging interviews inside and outside of Saudi Arabia, along with a wealth of novel documentary sources and political publications, Matthiesen presents a compelling account of the evolving relations between the Shiite community and the Saudi state, and of the Shiite networks that cross the Gulf and the region. Read Matthiesen on the Monkey Cage: “Sectarianism comes back to bite Saudi Arabia” and “Elite fragmentation and securitization in Bahrain;” and watch his POMEPS Conversation.
Even though it doesn’t qualify for the actual competition on grounds of a conflict of interest, I’m still going to plug the work of more than a dozen of my colleagues in “The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East” (Columbia University Press). I believe that this collection, focused on the outbreak and spread of the uprisings rather than on their still-unknown outcomes, will stand as an enduring contribution to the political science of the region.
And finally, the novel of the year for political scientists has to be “The Golden Hour” by former State Department official Todd Moss. Moss’s hero is an academic political scientist brought in to the State Department on the basis of his path breaking quantitative modeling of the dynamics of military coups. Then he has to deal with a coup in Mali, and all sorts of political science hijinks ensue. Without giving any plot twists away (at least until the movie version comes out), let me just say that there’s an essay waiting to be written about the interaction between quantitative political science and area studies in “The Golden Hour!”
One last word – traditionally I have combined these awards with my thoughts on the year in hip hop. But I’m going to do things differently this year, since I’m planning to write a stand-alone piece on a highly political year in hip hop. More on that soon!