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  Book review

Arabia without Sultans

by Fred Halliday

Reprint by Saqi Books, 2002. Pp. 540. Illus. Maps. Figures. Index. Pb. £17.95. ISBN 0-86356-381-3.

Does the cover say it all? The original paperback of Professor Halliday’s Arabia without Sultans — as I remember it — featured a caricature of an Arabian shaikh (cruelly resembling the late King Faisal) being poached in a vat of oil. The cover of this reprinted version has a colour photograph of a middle-aged Gulf Arab, at the door of his brightly painted cement house, with the portly figure and thoughtful air of a stakeholder in the market economy.

Poets tend to be shy of their juvenilia, but Professor Halliday has reprinted his first work, written when he was 28, in all its pristine fervour and with a surprisingly brief introduction. Much has changed in the 28 years since Arabia without Sultans first appeared, but with the exception of the Shah (not of course an Arab, but included and receiving almost indulgent treatment by the young Halliday’s standards), the King, the Sultan and the Shaikhs still lord it over non- Yemeni Arabia. Only the young Halliday’s favourite state, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, has passed away, lacerated by tribal strife and orphaned by the collapse of the Soviet Union, while the various revolutionary popular fronts have fallen silent. The threat to traditional rule in Arabia now comes from the Islamists rather than the Leninists.

In fairness, the author in his introduction admits to being surprised by the ‘surprises’ of history, but he selects themes from the original text which are still relevant: the impact of oil on Arabian societies and the need for transparency in discovering where oil revenues have gone; the importance of the Saudi-Yemeni relationship; the impact of internal politics on national policy; and finally the need for a secular non-Islamic approach to society and politics. These are certainly important and enduring themes, but history might have been less surprising if the young historian himself had been less blinkered.

The original text has some virtues — a very wide range of sources, from the pamphlets and periodicals of the revolutionary groups to British regimental journals, and the footnotes offer a mezzeh of fascinating facts, distortions and opinions. (The hot chilli must be his praise for Albania’s ‘short but intense history’ of socialism as a model for Yemeni socialists). Accounts of the young Halliday’s visits to South Yemen and Dhofar in 1970 and 1973 are interesting as is the oral history he collected from some of the principal actors in Aden. In 1974 the amount of material in English gathered in his pages was certainly impressive.

But the relentlessly partisan approach of the author, the Marxist spectacles through which he views Arabia and his rigid categorisation of the various protagonists (feudal/ bourgeois/ proletarian; progressive/reactionary) present a cartoon world, already far from reality in 1974 and one which has drifted further into fantasy as the years have passed. The acid cynicism with which he describes the traditional rulers and their imperialist masters is in stark contrast to his suspension of disbelief when he visits Aden and Dhofar. Did he not notice — on his second visit to Dhofar — that the revolution was already in retreat? He can be forgiven for not forecasting the collapse of the Soviet Union, but did he not discern the tribal fissures which underlay and finally destroyed the Communist regime in Aden?

Of course it is a book of its time as the author acknowledges in his introduction, but its value today is more as an exhibit in a museum of political attitudes than a work of measured analysis. Yet it may stand as a salutary counterweight to the memoirs of senior British officials and to Foreign Office papers in the Public Records Office, access to which must now have reached 1972.

The story which I should like to read is an account of the long march which transformed the young militant into the mellow and perceptive academic who lectured to the British- Yemeni and Anglo-Omani Societies in October 1999, before proceeding to Oman to speak to the Sultan’s diplomats.