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Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain's Covert Empire in the Middle East Paperback – November 30, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-0199734801 ISBN-10: 0199734801

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 472 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199734801
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199734801
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 1 x 6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,425,563 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


"A significant addition to the historiography of the First World War beyond Europe... [and] a timely reminder that these 'sideshows' of the First World War were in fact very important in determining the political structures of the modern Middle East."--Nadia Atia,
History Workshop Journal

"'Arabia' was both a frightening and an alluring concept for Englishmen, and Satia vividly captures the mindset and psychological attraction that drew so many to work in that region.... Satia's extensive knowledge of the personalities involved both in England and Middle East provides the reader with a vivid and fascinating picture of the interactions and connections between the players. One can only hope that she will provide us with future books focusing on the spies whose activities helped shape British imperial policy."--Ranee K. L. Pnjabi, History: Reviews of New Books

"Almost thirty years after the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, Satia's careful deconstruction of the British colonial archive illustrates how cultural procedures could lead to devastatin political outcomes.... A very important book for our understanding of Empire and foreign policy in Middle East, in the past and in the present."--Magnus T. Bernhardsson, Taarii Newsletter: The American Academic Research Institute in Iraq"

"In her wide-ranging, impressively researched and forcefully argued book, Satia demonstrates how cultural preconceptions regarding Arabia shaped the actions and forcefully argued book, Satia demonstrates how cultural preconceptions regarding Arabia shaped the actions of agents and officials of the British Empire from the turn of the century to the beginning of the Second World War. Her analysis provides a compelling explanation of the shift from the 'gentlemanly' and amateurish intelligence efforts of British agents in the region prior to the First World War to the institution of a brutal postwar air control regime in Iraq, and the debates which this engendered in the age of mass democracy in Britain.... An exemplary example of what the 'new Imperial history' can achieve in its blending of wide-ranging archival research and the critical application of theoretical perspectives from post-colonial studies."--Michael Silvestri, Journal of Colonialism and Colonical History

"Drawing on a rich array of archival sources, and interweaving military, diplomatic, social, and literary history, Satia offers a groundbreaking cultural history of the British involvement in Arabia. A brief review cannot do justice to Satia's erudite writing: the power of her book lies in its painstaking attention to detail. Meticulously researched, this work seems to take the cultural history of the British Empire to a new phase of sophistication."--American Historical Review

"Satia analyzes a dizzying array of literary and official sources in order to understand how and why the British invested so much time, energy and imagination into its conquest of the Middle East. The author's ability to move between official 'group think' and the cultural pretensions of a generation of Britons as well as her utilization of private letters, memoirs, novels and official documents marks this as a crucial addition to the history of Britain, the Middle East, and imperialism generally."--Journal of British Studies

"Satia provides an important window into the activities of the British Scholar-Agents and their role in creating and ultimately destroying Britain's informal empire in the Middle East."--Frederic Krome, British Scholar

"Spies in Arabia provides a new account of British intelligence exploits in the Middle East, but its real achievement is to consider these not just from an historical perspective, but to provide deeper analysis of the events themselves. Satia achieves this with aplomb, and it would be nice to think that in the current climate of heeding historical lessons, it will be seen as more than just an historical case study."--Dr. Michael S. Goodman, Middle East Journal

"Priya Satia tells a timely story about British engagement with the Middle East in the period surrounding the crisis of the Great War. Well researched and cogently argued.... A deeply historical and politically relevant book."-Michelle Tusan, H-Net Reviews

"Priya Satia makes a seminal contribution to the history of Britain and the Middle East at different levels: her book is as much a study in cultural assumptions as it is an examination of the political and strategic circumstances of the British presence in the region. At an even higher level, in a manner reminiscent of T. E. Lawrence, it is a story of honor and redemption, and of degradation and damnation, in which chivalry and good intentions collapse into torture and mass murder."--Wm. Roger Louis, University of Texas at Austin

"This is a most original, exciting, and exhilarating book, which gives an entirely new interpretation of some of the overseas activities of the British state in the first third of the twentieth century."--Peter Sluglett, author of Britain in Iraq: Contriving King and Country

"Spies in Arabia is a fine-grained and closely researched history that interweaves diplomatic, military, and cultural themes to highlight the centrality of Britain's brief 'moment in the Middle East' for the imperial state in decline. This tale offers an indispensable lesson for the American adventure in the Middle East to those who are prepared to learn it."--Joel Beinin, author of Workers and Peasants in the Modern Middle East

"This is no ordinary diplomatic or miltiary history. ...Spies in Arabia occupies a position in the literature straddling different approaches, and will be a valuable resource to scholars in a variety of field. ...It delivers a fresh look at a pivotal period in the history of an important region of the world; it sheds light on the imperial tribulations of pursuing a democratic foreign policy in a violent region; and, it provides insight into how our understanding of the region and its inhabitants can lead us into self-desctructive blunders." --International Social Science Review

About the Author

Priya Satia is Assistant Professor of History at Stanford University.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Richard Arant on November 6, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Spies in Arabia is an educational read, even for those with poor educations like myself who didn't know the meaning of this book's most often-used word, "epistemology." After finishing the book the first time, in defeat and still unable to divine the meaning of this obviously key word from context, I stooped to the dictionary.

Favorite passage: "... the British freely admitted, without recourse to euphemism, that they were intriguing without scruple and were doing do because the place they operated in provided them with a ready excuse for dishonorable and certainly ungentlemanly behavior."

"Faith in intuition continued to derive from the perceived inscrutability of the region, the impossibility of unearthing "real" evidence ..." -- sounds like our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today and in Iran tomorrow. Our British genes condemn us to repeating the same mistakes, I suppose. Unavoidable. We worship our star oracle in counter-insurgency, moving the failed general to head the CIA, no matter that he has never been successful in anything other than marrying the commandant's daughter and prolonging failed war, and we always come out the loser in the end, defeated in our efforts at covert empire by religious fanatics and by ungrateful native savages whom we had always assumed to have preferred our form of "democracy" to their own traditions and customs of cutting one another's throats. Conspiracy theories are preferable to facts. Unwittingly, our psychology overwhelms our efforts to collect and use intelligence. Gut instinct rules. Human nature. Humanity condemned to a vicious cycle.

I was first shocked at seeing the author or editor dare so often to place [inserts] and [sics] in quotes of the sacred prose of T.E. Lawrence.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Retired Reader on June 20, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a puzzling book in many respects beginning with its title: it is not about "Arabia" in the sense of Saudi Arabia or about the Arabic speaking world as such, but focuses on Iraq and to a lesser extent what was then Palestine and Trans-Jordan. Nor is it about "spies" as much as it is about the psychology of the men (and one woman Gertrude Bell) who for the most part were `orientalists' that is individuals claiming some knowledge and expertise on the cultures and peoples from the Near East to Central Asia. These folks were not spies in the sense of engaging in espionage, but all worked to provide information on the then Ottoman (Turkish) Empire and its peoples. Some like T.E. Lawrence (`Lawrence of Arabia') engaged in what today would be called special operations fomenting a revolt of the Bedouin Arabs against Turkish rule of what is now Saudi Arabia. According to Satia this group strongly influenced post WWI UK policy towards the Near East especially towards the formation of what this book considers a "covert empire" based on modern day Iraq using a League of Nations mandate over Mesopotamia as a cover to make Iraq a permanent, if unacknowledged, member of the British Empire. The book argues that the British Government and especially its Colonial and India Bureaucracies supported the establishment of this shadowy empire.
All of which leads to what is clearly a key sub-theme of the book, the UK use of `Air Control' to administer its mandate over Iraq. In the author's opinion this led to a brutal repression of the Iraqi peoples with RAF bombers being directed to destroy villages full of innocent civilians in the name of imperial order. The RAF Intelligence Service and Colonial Office political officers are given the credit for making Air Control an effective policy.
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