In a calm and essayish sort of way, unbeholden to footnotes or fellow scholars, unbound by strict organization, Humphreys takes up some of the most difficult and persistent issues of the modern Middle East—the demographic and economic base, authoritarianism, pan-Arabism, "crazy states," military dictatorship, the role of Islam in politics—and analyzes them with intelligence and insight. Musing on three decades plus of studying the Middle East, Humphreys dares to assert the truths that so many of his fellow academics neglect, though he does so in the gentlest and most optimistic manner.

He takes up many themes; here is one, the dominant role of military dictatorship. Autocracy, Humphreys establishes, is the region's deepest and perhaps oldest dilemma. Already the warlords who quite rapidly took over from the Prophet Muhammad's successors lacked a sense of lawfulness. In the era A.D. 850-1250, for example, the "crucial political problem" facing those warlords was legitimacy—"some convincing reason (beyond brute force) why his subjects should obey him and his rivals should respect his right to exist." Sound familiar? It should, for the Middle East, the world's least democratic region, still grapples with the same demons (and they have names like Qadhdhafi, Asad, and Saddam).

Middle Eastern populations, whether centuries ago or today, respond to this unhappy reality by withdrawing their allegiance from the authorities and turning instead for solace to religion and family life. This leads to a peculiar but widespread situation in which "Arab societies seem to regard their governments as an alien entity; they endure them, and they wait for them to go away." Trouble is, that stability becomes an end in itself and has a fearsome price. The preoccupation with staying in power means other goals—economic development, civil society, cultural florescence—are sacrificed.

Take economics, where warlordism turns out to be the single greatest obstacle to advancement: "Only governments that enjoy the confidence of their citizens," Humphreys rightly observes, "can really take the steps needed" to enable growth. With their weak civil society, limited rule of law, and lack of basic freedoms, the Arabic-speaking countries are falling ever-further behind in the brutally efficient global marketplace: "not one Middle Eastern state (with the partial exception of Turkey and of course Israel) has followed the only economic growth strategy that has worked since World War II—namely the export-oriented production of high-value-added manufactures." As a result, "there is not one Middle Eastern manufactured item that can be sold competitively on world markets."