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Reviewed by:
  • The Gulf States: A Modern History
  • Kristi N. Barnwell (bio)
The Gulf States: A Modern History, by David Commins. London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2012. 331 pages. £40.

Commins offers up a much needed comprehensive overview of the states surrounding the Persian Gulf. Despite rising interest in the region for its strategic, economic, and cultural significance, there is a surprising dearth of studies that integrate the states of [End Page 143] this sub-region within the wider historical context of the Middle East. Those wishing to study the Gulf States instead must cobble together disparate works on Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman in early, medieval, and modern periods to obtain a broader understanding of very intricately connected states. To this end, The Gulf States answers many needs, but ultimately suffers from an unclear sense of its goal audience.

Commins approaches the Persian Gulf states chronologically, with a brief overview of the early medieval, but focusing on the early modern and modern periods from 1500 CE through the present. Located on the “edge of empires” throughout history, the Persian Gulf is better approached from the “durable rhythms of economy and society that persisted” no matter which power, Arab, Persian, or European, dominated the region (p. 2). Thus, the chapters’ eras are defined by the rise and fall of empires, while sub-sections within the chapters examine local circumstances in Persia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf States. Within the chapters, Commins’ writing is clear and accessible, making it easy for specialists and non-specialists alike to follow the intricacies of shifting political and cultural changes in the region.

The work’s real strengths lie in the author’s explanations of Saudi Arabia’s history in the region — Commins’ personal area of expertise. He provides detailed accounts of the growth of the house of Saud into a full-fledged kingdom, its rivalries with smaller local powers, and its rise to a position of international oil power competing with Iran for regional domination. Commins does this without losing sight of the wider intersection of Saudi growth with that of other states in the Persian Gulf that balanced national self-interest with region-wide goals of Arab cooperation.

Experts in Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula studies will find Commins’ integrative approach in this work valuable — particularly as a teaching tool. They will be frustrated, though, by some of the ways in which The Gulf States glosses over cultural and social developments and does not fully develop themes the author introduces. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Commins’ treatment of piracy in the 19th century. Britain’s East India Company defined Arab naval and merchant ships from the Trucial Coast as pirates in order to justify British attacks on Arab ships that competed for trade in the Indian Ocean and Arab Sea. This is a body of research that has implications for the understanding of European-Arab power relations, trade, and international law. But Commins dedicates two paragraphs to the topic under a separate heading in chapter four (pp. 74–75). Perhaps this section should have been contextualized more effectively, or perhaps it might have been integrated more effectively in other parts of the chapter; as a stand-alone, however, it does not provide sufficient context to prove truly useful for non-specialists delving into this subject. The author similarly skims over Britain’s withdrawal from East of Suez, which forced the Arab states to establish independence within a new framework, and raised questions about how those emirates could unite, federate, or establish independence in 1971.

These problems would only be irritants for experts in the field, but as this volume seems targeted at non-specialist readers looking to fill in gaps, the readers may find themselves at a loss. It would be beneficial to readers if Commins would consider adding additional context in subsequent editions of this important work. The best way to solve these problems within the given structure of The Gulf States would be to treat the work as a quasi-textbook, with selected readings at the end of chapters and an expanded bibliography to conclude...


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pp. 143-145
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