In Priya Satia’s book Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East, Satia states without the advanced network fostered by Britain’s intelligence agency and the exploitation of the Bureaus in the Arab world World War I would not have been as successful and swift in defeating Axis powers. Another point Satia makes is that knowledge of a region and its history are what can make or break a mission, war, or other actions. She follows this up by saying, to spies perception is everything and good perception by the locals enabled them to collect more information.
Spies in Arabia starts off with Satia explaining why she is writing the book stating that she is going to explore the “fascination with Arabia as a spy-space”(pg4) After this she goes on to give a history of British Intelligence. After detailed account of British Intelligence Satia delves into British Intelligence in the Middle and the effect it had on agents. One of the big points that Satia is quick to point out is Spies during World War I should be compared to mercenaries, as they were always working for the highest bidder.
When I say highest bidder I mean both countries and people there was not distinct black and white there were only shades of grey. These shades of grey can be seen through out the book. As time went on the Middle East became not just a venue forgather information but also for influence and riches. Spying became a quick source of wealth and presented many paths to corruption. In addition, Satia includes not only the corruption but also the turmoil foreigner living and working in the region had to face with the uprisings and constant political changing.
These eventually culminated in Iraqi British Mandate which only served to worsen matters with the locals stopping any goodwill that they previously had with the spies in the area. Satia’s ending that focused on T. E. Lawrence and his manipulation of Faisal and the disaster that followed is accompanied by the realization that the British peoples quest to understand the Middle East is what led to the “aerial surveillance regime in Iraq”(pg203). Though Spies in Arabia was well throughout the constant jumping and lack of chronological order were a hindrance.
While this approach allows readers to focus on single subjects, in some cases that single subject lingers on and becomes repetitive. I for one found certain parts of the book hard to follow and quickly lost interest. Another annoyance is the constant quoting of others works. While I found them to be helpful in some cases once again for the most part I was led to drifting off or confusion about the purpose of her rambles. While this book is interesting, and for the most part a good read the book itself is like a like so many others accounting the rise and fall of an empire.
On a lighter note Satia’s ability to draw readers who are not interested in Britain or the Middle East in and keep them hanging is astounding. Her ability to make words flow makes this book much more tolerable than many of its counterparts. Only by looking back can one predict the future. Spies in Arabia provides an in depth look at an age when espionage was blooming and becoming worldwide force to be reckoned with. Satia’s book shows Iraq became the way it is, perhaps if American leaders had read it before choosing to invade Iraq then they would have seen what would happen in the future, as history always repeats itself.
By reading Satia’s book officials would have been able to note that persuasion works better than force, and less visible power does more than troop station in ones back yard. Unlike the spies of WWI when much like Pobedonostev’s Reflections of a Russian Statesman Satia’s work served to show readers that people are not inherently good or evil but when faced with power, the power corrupts. While Satia’s book reinforced the need for countries to have intelligence agencies and spies, because without them we are flying blind, I much prefer spies of today that are bound by social norms and are loyal to one country.