7 Books That Will Change Your Views On the Middle East


How much do you know about the secret U.S. war with Iran?

How about the plight of migrant workers in Dubai? From thrilling counterterrorism adventures to thoughtful reflections on American foreign policy in the Middle East, here are seven books that might change your mind about issues in the Middle East. 

1. Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of Al Qa'ida Since 9/11 (Seth G. Jones)

The U.S. search for Al-Qaeda spans worldwide but it has important roots in the Middle East. Seth B. Jones' detailed, whirlwind epic brings the reader inside Al-Qaeda while providing important geopolitical and historical context. It provides an intimate look into the minds of Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists and organizations, including Egypt’s al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya and Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

Jones explains why Al-Qaeda may remain relevant even after the fall of Bin Laden and shows how its affiliates have flourished by taking advantage of regional instabilities. With the Al-Qaeda affiliates Islamic State in Iraq and Jabhat al-Nusra Front in Syria currently gaining power, look to Hunting in the Shadows to preview their development and impact.

2. Lords of the Land: The War for Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 (Idith Zertal & Akiva Eldar)

Idith Zertal and Akiva Eldar chronicle the history of Israeli settlement in the Occupied Territories in Lords of the Land. The New York Times describes the book as "a detailed narrative of injustice" and "profoundly depressing for anyone still hoping for a fair resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Zertal and Eldar spotlight a divisive and often under-reported issue that remains one of the core obstacles to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Readers should be warned that Lords of the Land does take a political stance, but it is second to none in its detailed history of the settlements. Lords of the Land is an important read for those across the political spectrum. 

3. Russia and the Arabs: Behind the Scenes in the Middle East from the Cold War to the Present (Yevgeny Primakov)

In Russia and the Arabs, Yevgeny Primakov gives a behind-the-scenes perspective into Russia’s role in Middle East politics during the last half-century. Primakov is the ultimate insider, having served as the head of Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, the Russian Foreign Minister and the Russian Prime Minister. Foreign Affairs claims that "No living Russian knows more about Soviet and Russian policy in the Middle East than Primakov." Primakov touches on Russia’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the 1991 Gulf War as well as its relationship with the Assad regime in Syria.

Many Americans may not realize that Russia has taken up the mantle of the former Soviet Union, continuing its significant diplomatic and economic investment in the Middle East, albeit with much less fanfare. Understanding Russia's role in the Middle East is one of the keys to deciphering the global power dynamics at play in the region, making Russia and the Arabs a must-read.

4. Gridlock: Labor, Migration, and Human Trafficking in Dubai (Pardis Mahdavi)

Pomona College Professor Pardis Mahdavi exposes the challenging conditions for migrant workers in Dubai as well as the disconnect between current human trafficking policies and the realities for trafficked peoples. Mahdavi makes a compelling but controversial argument that trafficking policies overemphasize female sex workers and often intensify the plight of migrant workers of all genders.

I was fortunate enough to hear Mahdavi speak about her research in Dubai when she visited Stanford University in 2011. Mahdavi offers a unique perspective informed by extensive research in the region, building on her previous project on sex workers. Gridlock is a worthwhile read for feminists, human rights activists and businesspeople alike with an interest in the region.

5. The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran (David Crist)

David Crist tackles American policies towards Iran in his lauded book, The Twilight War. Despite his profession as a government historian, the New York Times calls Crist a "dispassionate narrator" who "pulls no punches" against the Iranian regime and American policymakers alike. Informed by crucial access to officials and intelligence on both sides, Crist offers sharp insights into the complex and opaque relationship between the United States and Iran.

The Twilight War is extraordinarily timely, coming at a period of increased tension between the U.S. and Iran. A historical understanding of U.S.-Iranian relations is a must for anyone concerned about their relationship today. 

6. Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally (Thomas W. Lippman)

The former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia hails Saudi Arabia on the Edge as "meticulously researched...[it] debunks the myths and stereotypes about Saudi Arabia that pervade Western observations." Thomas W. Lippman delves into the layers of Saudi society as well as its often contradictory relationship with the U.S..

Lippman not only presents insights into Saudi society but also convinces his readers of the importance of these insights for the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia remains a key regional ally for the United States; its stability and future is of great concern to those invested in U.S. foreign policy in the region.

7. Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, & U.S. Interests in the Middle East Since 1945 (Melani McAlister)

In Epic Encounters, Melani McAlister breaks down the history of American views towards the Middle East, from the Puritans to today. Her book shines when she relates cultural anecdotes, some highlights of which include the biblical epic movies of the 1950s, Nation of Islam plays in the 1960s, the "Tutmania" sweeping the U.S. in the 1970s and the action movies based on the Iranian hostage crisis. McAlister weaves together these seemingly disparate stories into thoughtful themes and analysis about the ways in which Americans culturally engage with the Middle East.

While some of these topics may not appear directly connected to current events, McAlister’s book is a crucial read for any seeking to understand the nuances of the U.S. relationship with the Middle East. McAlister identifies the ways in which these cultural understandings continue to influence policy and perceptions of the Middle East today.

What have I missed? Leave suggestions for fellow bookworms and international affairs junkies in the comments!