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The Changing Politics of the Middle East

By Roy Andersen, Robert Seibert '63, Jon Wagner

In 1981, three Knox professors -- Roy Andersen, an economist, Robert Seibert '63, a political scientist, and Jon Wagner, an anthropologist -- created an undergraduate textbook on the Middle East, Politics and Change in the Middle East. This textbook brought together diverse disciplinary perspectives -- cultural, social, economic, and political -- so that students could gain a proper understanding of this complex region. Twenty-five years and seven editions later, Politics and Change in the Middle East is the market-leading undergraduate textbook on this subject, having sold more than 50,000 copies in its lifetime. The eighth edition of this renowned textbook was published in July 2006, less than three years after the seventh edition. Andersen, Seibert, and Wagner discuss the events that led to this latest edition.

Why another edition of Politics and Change in the Middle East, you might fairly ask -- why an eighth -- wouldn't seven be enough? Is there some end to this project, just over the horizon? What on earth motivates you guys to do it again?

There's no doubt that simple inertia has something to do with it. We have been doing this work, both writing and revising, for so long that it's become something of our second nature. It seems natural to keep our eye on events in the Middle East as they unfold; just as it seems natural to incorporate those events into our teaching and research.

And, on an abstract level, the Middle East itself has never failed us. At no time in the 25-year history of our book has the politics of the Middle East been placid or "normal." Changes in the region have had important repercussions regionally and internationally.

Just as an example, consider the price of petroleum. It was not too long ago that the international market price for oil hovered around $20-per-barrel, and the oil-rich states of the region struggled to balance their budgets. Now, as oil surges regularly past $70-per-barrel, with probable higher per-barrel costs in the near future, some oil-rich Middle Eastern states build or contemplate the construction of huge new economic complexes or city-states at a level of ambition or complexity that has never been seen before. Fifteen percent of the world's construction cranes are currently at work in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, creating a complex of buildings, marinas, islands, and recreational areas unlike anything ever built. Saudi Arabia is beginning a similar project on the Red Sea coast. It just defies the imagination.

Another general example of change in the Middle East is the transformation of Islam from an unfamiliar, distant religion into the potent social and political force it is today. Militant jihadists now contend for control of a community of faith with more than one billion adherents. The events of September 11, 2001, were traumatic for the United States. Similar events have proven equally challenging and traumatic for the citizens of Muslim societies in and out of the Middle East. There is a global conversation taking place on the role of religion in society and government. The Middle East is certainly playing a central role in this dialogue.

War, Succession, and Terrorism
There are, of course, more immediate changes in Middle Eastern politics and culture that necessitate a revision and updating of Politics and Change in the Middle East. Many of these events will be familiar to you, even as their ultimate impact on world politics is still unknown.

As the seventh edition of the book went to press in 2003, the United States had just completed the first steps in its occupation of Iraq. No one at that time knew what the consequences of the removal of Saddam Hussein would be, no one had any idea of whether or not U.S. troops would be welcomed as liberators or perceived as occupiers. Now we know that the U.S. victory in Iraq initiated a long-term occupation and a long-term anti-American insurgency. We also know that the U.S. administration has attempted a program of democratic reform, but we do not yet know whether it will prove successful. We do not yet know whether the new government of Iraq will successfully incorporate the ethnic militias into its military and police forces; or whether those ethnic militias will continue to fight for the narrow sectarian interests they initially represented. For all intents and purposes, the government of Iraq is "in play," as they say.

Events in Iran also demand some level of revision. The elections in Iran since the seventh edition reversed a decade of relative moderation, bringing a much more radical leadership to the Iranian presidency. One effect of this election was to bring a greater urgency to Iran's pursuit of nuclear capability, even possibly of their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Iran is "in play" as well. This is a complex issue that will probably run on for years.

Events in Israel and Palestine have also been compelling. Ariel Sharon's dramatic about face on Palestine brought about the unilateral withdrawal of Israel from Gaza and put the prospect of a similar withdrawal from the West Bank in the realm of possibility. Just as this possibility was coming to fruition, Sharon suffered a massive stroke that removed him from Israeli politics. His new party, the Kadima, nevertheless prevailed in the March 2006 elections, and his successor, Ehud Olmert, is poised to continue the Israeli withdrawal.

Olmert's options have, however, been complicated by the January 2006 election of the Hamas slate of candidates in Palestine, pushing the Fatah slate out of control of the government. Dealing with Hamas is problematic and puts the withdrawal from the West Bank in jeopardy. We have had to incorporate these realities and their long-run implications into our analysis. Changes of similar intensity have occurred in nearby Lebanon, where the 30-year occupation of Lebanon by Syria ended abruptly. Subsequent elections brought new, unanticipated actors into the Lebanese system, most notably Hizbullah, which successfully contested for seats in the new legislature. And, incredibly, the elections left a pro-Syrian politician in the office of the president. We have had to incorporate these changes into the new edition, as well.

There have also been important leadership changes in the region. In Saudi Arabia, King Fahad died, bringing the Crown Prince Abdullah to the throne. This transition from one octogenarian to another septuagenarian brought a more liberal leadership to the monarchy but still leaves the ultimate question regarding intergenerational change in limbo. In nearby United Arab Emirates (U.A.E), the founder and president of the U.A.E., Sheik Zayed, died, succeeded by his son as president. And in Dubai, early in 2006, the second in command, Sheikh Maktoum bin Rashid, died unexpectedly while traveling abroad and was succeeded, ultimately, by Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, also in the same family. All of these changes and their implications need to be incorporated into our text.

Terrorism, of course, has not diminished over the period in question. Terrorist attacks in the Middle Eastern heartland have occurred in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, in other Islamic countries, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and, of course, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Related terrorist attacks have taken place in Britain, Spain, and Russia. To some degree, these attacks manifest a struggle for the control of the Islamic community by dissident factions. In other cases, Iraq and Afghanistan certainly, the attacks also involve resistance to perceived external threats, the United States and the United Kingdom in particular. The rationales and consequences of these events need to be referenced in our revisions.

The conduct of foreign policy within and without the region also demands revision. Given the structure of Politics and Change in the Middle East, we are called upon to describe and evaluate the foreign policies of the major global powers for the region. We thus have to review and critique the foreign policies of the U.S., Great Britain, Russia, China, Japan, and the European Union. Often the context of these policies is expressed in other organizational venues, so consideration of the role of the U.N. and NATO are involved. Clearly, however, decisions in Washington have driven the primary themes of international relations in the contemporary Middle East. For example, the U.S. has begun an ambitious effort to support democratic reform in the region. Time will tell whether these efforts find fertile soil or whether moderate autocracies will remain the regional norm. This survey can go on indefinitely, clearly adding to the challenge of frequent revisions of a textbook that is, now, more than 25 years old.

The Future of Politics and Change
While we take pride in the success of Politics and Change in the Middle East, we take greater pride in the rich tradition of Knox alumni contributions to diplomacy in the Middle East, contributions that started well before our journey into this area of scholarship. We also have been blessed by teaching in an environment that promotes student scholarship.

As things currently stand in the Middle East, there is a good chance that the eighth edition of Politics and Change in the Middle East will not be the last. We have been in conversations with our publisher about succeeding editions and shorter time frames between those editions. Nothing is certain in this regard, but there appears to be a viable future for this book. We look forward to it.

Photographic Information:
Photo 1: The cover of the latest edition of Politics and Change in the Middle East.
Photo 2: A bazaar in Cairo, Egypt, 1976.
Photo 3: A demolition crew in downtown Cairo, 1976.
Photo 4: Robert Seirbert '63 in front of Egypt's Spinx, 1976.