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  • Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East
  • Michael S. Goodman (bio)
Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, by Priya Satia. Oxford, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. xiii + 337 pages. Notes to p. 408. Sel. bibl. to p. 441. Index to p. 458. $55.

Espionage work is all about perception. The starting premise of this book is that “how states see is a matter intricately bound up with cultural history.” Spies in Arabia is no mere narrative account; it attempts to understand the history of the region, and in particular, Britain’s intelligence exploits, against a backdrop of cultural understanding. As Satia states at the outset, her focus is on the development of “cultural imagination” and how it shaped intelligence exploits. Consequently, those expecting a detailed account of intelligence exploits, and how they shaped and influenced policy, will be disappointed.

Spies in the first years prior to World War I were very unlike their modern counterparts. For starters they were often rogues, motivated by money and working for a number of different countries. Satia tells us that the Middle East was no exception, yet in the region, given its different system of governance, it was possible for agents to procure a much wider array of information. Unlike in Europe, where much of the clandestine activity was coordinated by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), espionage in the Middle East was a military matter, run through the War Office. Unsurprisingly there were mixed fortunes, and Satia provides rich detail on a number of intelligence operations.

What motivated these Edwardian gentlemen to undertake perilous missions thousands of miles away from home? For many, we are told, it was the thrill of the adventure, a sort of bourgeois game. These almost fanciful and imaginary whims were confirmed by the nature of the region and of its people; in other words, the inabilities of many Britons to really understand their environment allowed them to conceptualize it in their own manner.

As the years wore on, the role (and definition) of British intelligence in the region adapted. Originally Arabia was a territory for gathering information and for seeking knowledge, but as the importance of the region grew, so too did the opportunities that were presented. Thus, we are told, acquiring information gave way to acquiring influence and exerting control. This development, which Satia states is an example of knowledge becoming power, is strongly reminiscent of Michael Herman, the doyen of British intelligence studies, who has argued that intelligence, through its pursuit of knowledge, begets power.

Though dealing with a fairly concise subject, the contents of the book are not dealt with in an explicitly chronological fashion; instead it blends chronology with a thematic approach. This has the benefit of chopping up the material nicely, and it means that various themes can be dissected, the most useful of which is the discussion over the evolving cultural appreciation of the Middle East. At the same time though, it does render treatment of the historical narrative to a confusing and slightly haphazard manner. In doing so the book seems, at times, overly indulgent. We are given endless detail about fictional accounts and conspiracy theories, and although these are interesting, they seem a touch superfluous to the rest of the story.

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, [End Page 156] 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.

Michael S. Goodman

Dr. Michael S. Goodman, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, United Kingdom



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