- Desert Dreams: The Quest for Arab Integration from the Arab Revolt to the Gulf Cooperation Council
In Desert Dreams, Justin Dargin undertakes the truly Herculean task, in three parts and no less than 21 chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue, of discussing topics as diverse as pre-Islamic tribal structure; myths about the origin of “the Arabs”; nationalism; modernization; (pan-)Arabism; “authoritarianism and development” (chapter 15); military integration in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries, and “Nasser and the Cold War Era” (chapter 12). The predominant pattern by which empirical facts are organized in Parts I (“The Birth of the Arab Revolt”) and II (“Post-War Integration Attempts”) is a historical approach of chronologically ordered narratives which tell the reader about developments from pre-Islamic times up to the present. Part III (“The Gulf and Structural Arab Integration”), [End Page 754] then, focuses on the Gulf sub-region and, in chapters 18 to 21 in particular, discusses the GCC’s case of subregional integration with a view toward energy, the military, transport (a case study of the pan-GCC railway; chapter 20) and a broader concluding chapter 21 on overall economic integration and economic development.
Dargin opens his preface by hinting at the difficulty readers will have in locating this book within existing literature: it “does not easily fit into the usual academic categories. It is not merely a historical review, nor does it focus merely on current events” (p. xiii). And one is tempted to add: Nor does it pursue any clear-cut research question or can be situated smoothly within any academic discipline. The author thus aptly calls his book a “broad exposition on philosophical and historical trends” (p. xiii). In line with this overarching trait, and except from a very brief discussion on the meanings of “integration” in the introduction, Dargin also refrains from using any stringently applied theoretical or analytical concepts; this renders the book largely free of jargon and guarantees easy access for non-specialized readers to a wealth of empirical details across hundreds of years of history, including a range of primary sources in Arabic. This book’s greatest strengths undoubtedly lie in its accessibility as well as its empirical richness.
The book’s key thrust is to convey the message that the various ideology-based efforts at Arab political integration (chiefly pan-Arabism) have failed. It is the less ideologized and capitalist processes of economic integration under modern capitalist structures as exemplified by the GCC which, according to Dargin, provides the “more perfect” (p. 215) model of integration (astonishingly, the author devotes only one small chapter of a mere six pages to “Nasser and the Cold War Era” [pp. 159–66]).
Often, however, such strengths also have their flipside. Without any conceptual background, much of the assembled empirical details seem rather eclectically collated. Lack of expertise in methods, concepts, and knowledge of various disciplines (economics, sociology, political science, history, etc.) becomes apparent in, at times, parochial usage of terms and concepts such as modernity, authoritarianism (pp. 183ff.), totalitarianism (p. 29), nationalism (largely a misnomer as header of Part I), and other instances. The competing concepts of export-led development vs. import-substitution industrialization do not seem to have been fully taken into account or reflected when, in chapter 15, Dargin writes about authoritarianism and development. This in itself is parochial, given the currently ongoing very broad and prominent discussions on authoritarianism and development in political science, political economy, and political sociology but which are not even referred to. Such chapters reveal that the author lacks a profound academic background in economics or social sciences such as sociology or political science as well as cultural studies such as anthropology, which culminates in sweeping generalizations or truisms (e.g., “The Arabs are a poetic people,” p. 17; “erstwhile Arab nationalists did not have the equivalent of the Federalist Papers,” p. 287).
Thus, the book does not contain any scientific advances, which might not be what it aims to do in the first place...