Book Review for Contested Lands: A History of the Middle East since the First World War, T.G. Fraser

By Juliet O’Brien

In under 250 pages, T.G. Fraser manages to offer a concise yet thorough account of history in the Middle East from the First World War to the present. In Contested Lands, Fraser focusses particularly on the interventions and interactions of European powers with the region, yet he avoids describing every major event through a Eurocentric prism. Contested Lands conveys the emergent tensions brought about by new political, military, economic, and social realities in the context of an increasingly globalised world. The strengths of Fraser’s work lie in its organisation, its succinct references to nearly every key political figure, and its particularly attentive coverage of dynamics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from its inception to the present. There are points, however, where overly specific battle descriptions make Contested Lands read more like a military history than a general historical survey, and where insufficient detail makes portions of the book read like a laundry list of important players.

Fraser employs an intuitive division of the book into eleven chapters. They range from “The Middle East on the Eve of War,” which looks at the pre-World War I geopolitical context, to “The Middle East in Turmoil,” which takes a whirlwind look at the post-Oslo period and finishes by discussing the most recent escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2021. He ensures equal treatment of each period and, notably, tries to survey the entire region within each chapter. Despite effective use of subtitles, there are points within each chapter when the jump to a different country or event can feel abrupt. This tactic, however, also serves to highlight just how many contexts were disrupted and damaged by European imperialism in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution.

Fraser offers an impressive treatment of nearly every major player in both imperial and local affairs. However, these figures skew towards the high-ranking military and political officials, leaving little room for other individuals that would be important in “a history of the Middle East since the First World War.” Some individuals break through this tendency and achieve mention in the book, including Egyptian feminist advocate Huda Shaarawi. Yet in a book that seeks to cover over 100 years of often-turbulent history in just over double that number of pages, Fraser emphasises concrete battles, negotiations, and political changes.

Perhaps the place where Contested Lands shines the most is in its extensive descriptions of the changing dynamics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. T.G. Fraser’s historical expertise paints a more comprehensive and clear picture of this issue—one that was, indeed, so central to Arab nationalism, European imperial involvement, and American engagement in the region—than would be expected in a relatively brief historical survey. Fraser portrays differing points of view on this issue extremely effectively, allowing readers to develop their own nuanced understandings.

Fraser should also be commended for his descriptions of military manoeuvres and strategy from multiple perspectives. He does this particularly well in his chapter, “The Second World War and the Middle East,” when detailing major battles in the North African theatre, as well as in “From War to War,” when discussing the 1967 Six Day War. However, for the purposes of writing a general overview of the region over such a long period, readers may question the value of including the names of specific commanders or tactical manoeuvres. This space may have been more effectively used throughout the book to pay more attention to non-elite sources, for example.

Contested Lands is a thorough and, indeed, riveting account of the major historical developments in the Middle East following World War I. Using incisive language, T.G. Fraser looks at both the local and the global levels to develop a clear picture of a region that so much scholarship has tended to essentialise. This book would offer a brief yet straightforward introduction to Middle Eastern history and politics for unfamiliar individuals, but it would also be useful to students and researchers wishing to contextualise nation-specific or region-specific events within the wider global system. The Oxford Middle East Review would like to thank T.G. Fraser for his work, and Haus Publishing for coordinating with us and giving us the opportunity to review Contested Lands.

About the author of Contested Lands: T.G. Fraser is emeritus professor at Ulster University and the author of Chaim Weitzmann: The Zionist Dream (2009) and, with Andrew Mango and Robert McNamara, The Makers of the Modern Middle East (2015).*
*excerpt from back flap of Contested Lands