Books on the contemporary Arabian peninsula tend to be rather impressionistic. Some are journalistic accounts or travelogues, others superficial narratives which use flowery language to conceal their author’s lack of understanding; others still are the works of orientalists who naïvely believe that their knowledge of medieval Islam is adequate preparation for understanding the Arab world of today. There have been books by various acolytes of the great powers or, alternately, by revolutionary writers; unfortunately, the latter, while well-intentioned, have tended to be both ill-informed and excessively schematic. It is, therefore, all the more unexpected to come across Fred Halliday’s Arabia without Sultans, footnote1 a work that is well-documented, based both on a study of the available secondary material and on first-hand observation, and written by an author who knows the language of the area. This book has the added virtue of being directed against the conservative conformism of the capitalist west and its official positions, and, while written from a revolutionary Marxist standpoint, of taking its distance from the conventional myths of the Left. The recent upheavals in the Arabian peninsula have been such as to confuse not only the Western public but the public of the Arab world as well. For all these reasons it is both unexpected and gratifying to encounter a book of this kind.

Arabia without Sultans has a comprehensive scope, and begins by setting the Arabian revolutionary movement within the context of the combined and uneven development of the capitalist economy and of its effects upon peripheral areas, and of the equally combined and uneven reaction of the different classes in the Arab world as a whole and in the Arabian peninsula in particular. There then follows a brief account of the historical development of peninsular society. These two introductory chapters lead into an analysis of the different parts of the peninsula, with special emphasis on the impact of imperialism and on the revolutionary movement this provoked; there are separate sections on Saudi Arabia, North Yemen, South Yemen, the Sultanate of Oman and the revolt in Dhofar (with a valuable chapter on the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf), Kuwait, Bahrain, and the other smaller states of the Gulf whose very names are a matter of dispute. Halliday’s account of Arabia is followed by a substantial chapter on Iran, a country whose sub-imperialism, as he calls it, forms an essential part of the peninsula’s politics. The book ends with a careful and compelling chapter on imperialist strategy and the development of capitalism in the region, together with a critical account of the role of the communist powers, while a delineation of the admittedly difficult conditions under which there could be a revolutionary victory in the Gulf states reaffirms the link between analysis and practice.

The organization of the material in this book leaves little to be desired: there are copious footnotes, which substantiate statements in the main body of the text and contain a mass of additional material, and there are numerous statistical tables and maps. There are in addition five appendices containing a list of abbreviations (extremely necessary), statistical material on the states covered, the 1958 Exchange of Letters between the British government and the Sultan of Muscat and Oman, the 1971 political programme of pfloag, a 1970 open letter from pfloag to the British people, and a quick guide to further reading, together with the addresses of groups working in solidarity with the revolutionary forces of the Arabian peninsula.

It would be impossible to summarize this book: it is full of information that is either completely unknown or hardly known, especially on the complex history of the various parties, movements and ‘liberation fronts’ in the peninsula. All those interested in the Arabian peninsula, including experts, will benefit from reading it even if they do not share the author’s viewpoint. The best way to approach the work is to consider the author’s basic position, one he does not conceal and which is diametrically opposed to that of conventional conservative writing. The penetration of capitalist relations of production into Arabia may, as Marx claimed for the colonial world in general, prove to have been a positive development in the final analysis; but this penetration was certainly not prompted by philanthropic considerations which would justify supporting the political and economic policies developed by imperialism to sustain it and to push it forward. Moreover, this capitalist penetration created such misery and oppression that the people of the area were only able to benefit from its progressive aspects by struggling against the institutions which this development installed. These struggles and violent reactions against the capitalist penetration of the area may transpire to have been its most positive consequences; even if in some cases, as in Iran, the standard of living of the population has risen, the price of this has been too high. The kind of growth now occurring is producing terrible distortions in the economy which provoke suffering amongst the poorer sections of society; they are carried through at the expense of the neighbouring countries or of the local inhabitants, who undergo super-exploitation as a result.

The preservation of ‘stability’ in these countries is not, therefore, something that should be supported. In these new regional appendices of the capitalist system, certain recently formed classes are in a position to acquire enormous profits, and sectors of the underprivileged classes can pick up some of the scraps. But the maintenance of stability is in essence the maintenance of oppression and exploitation: at best it limits development and at worst it increases under-development, engenders successive conflicts, and forces the people into revolts which are then savagely suppressed by the combined forces of the local governments and the major capitalist powers. Our sympathies cannot but go to those movements which are resisting this subjugation and injustice; our task is to help in the fight against the new Holy Alliance which has arisen in Arabia.

This book is written by a British anti-imperialist and it therefore pays special attention to British actions in Arabia, particularly since these are camouflaged by hypocritical excuses or denials on the part of the British government. Halliday systematically uncovers these policies in an angry exposé which lists the vicious consequences of British policy and the atrocities concealed by it. While these detailed revelations might be unnecessary in a book written some decades after the events described, they perform an extremely important demystificatory function within the present context.

Another central thesis of this book, one which the author returns to again and again and which seems to me to be of major importance, is that the conventional image of the oil states blackmailing the Western powers is one which exaggerates the conflict between these two components. footnote2 While this is true, it has to be emphasized that this conception is not one found only in the West. It is also held by an important section of Arab nationalist opinion and found too on the Arab left, just as it is amongst some of the most commitedly ‘third-worldist’ sections of the European left. Halliday appears to lump all the proponents of this idea together as ‘local régimes and their apologists’; footnote3 but while this view can certainly be argued, it should not be forgotten that these ‘apologists’ are often very different from each other and, as the author himself admits, footnote4 sometimes at least consider themselves to be revolutionaries.