The role of economics in the Middle East's many troubles is often exaggerated by outsiders. No peoples in the world are as ideologically driven as Middle Easterners; they were not born to shop. That said, it is worth considering what the region has been able to accomplish with its ample resources.
From the first 1992 edition, A Political Economy of the Middle East has been the most influential book on the issue. Not long after the second edition (1996), Waterbury became president of the American University in Beirut. Richards, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is therefore the sole author of the extensive revisions in this edition. He has ably incorporated data that bring the story up to the present. As before, the analysis is largely done by topic, such as demographic change, regional economic integration, urban life, and food and water. The chapters on types of economic policy—state-led growth, market-led growth, military control, and Islamism—are also structured primarily around grand themes although they inevitably have substantial sections about the experiences of particular states.
Like earlier editions, the 2008 revision sees the region as a glass half full, which is a much more positive evaluation than that of many Middle Easterners themselves. Richards is quite correct in writing, "What is astonishing is that despite the investment of colossal resources and energies in the destruction of enemies, the region is more prosperous, its citizens better educated, and its nations more firmly rooted than forty years ago." That is quite a "despite": During those forty years, the Middle East's many conflicts and internal battles have not only absorbed hundreds of billions of dollars but also resulted in millions of deaths. Over those four decades, the region has enjoyed oil windfalls totaling at least three trillion dollars, and yet its economic performance has been about average for developing countries: worse than East Asia, better than Africa, and about the same as Latin America. That is an impressive waste of an opportunity.
Analyzing why the region has performed as it has, Richards argues that the market-oriented policies about which he and Waterbury were enthusiastic in 1996 have turned in mediocre performance. That is unfair. In the face of oil prices well below what prevailed before and after, the more market-oriented policies of the 1990s did about as well as the socialist industrialization of the 1960s or the newly resurgent state-driven policies of recent years. The flip side of Richards' harsh words about market-oriented policies is his kid-glove treatment of Islamist economics. He writes that the Islamist record in Sudan and Iran has been mixed, which is highly charitable.
In short, the volume presents a wealth of information, solid analysis of strictly economic developments, and not much insight about political economy.