Morocco has been praised by the World Bank for having "one of the most successful programs of human development and political liberalization in the Middle East and North Africa"—which is a little like being named valedictorian of summer school. Still, if any of the states in the Arab world have a shot at making a controlled transition from autocracy to democracy, Rabat is probably toward the top of the list. All the ingredients would seem to be in place: a young, popular, pro-Western ruler, committed to modernizing and liberalizing the country; relative domestic stability and national cohesion; and, not least, geographic proximity to Western Europe, along with strong cultural ties there.

Why, then, have the country's problems—from stunted economic growth to the threat of Islamist terrorism—proven so intractable? Morocco, as Howe describes it, is stuck in the same bind as the old regimes of nineteenth century Europe. On the one hand, any move on the monarchy's part to withdraw from governance threatens to create a vacuum, which undesirable actors such as the Islamists would rush to fill; on the other hand, liberal reforms—from the cleanup of thuggish security services to improvements in the legal status of women—are made possible only when they are rammed through the system by the unassailable, and fundamentally illiberal, authority of the king.

Like its subject, Howe's book, unfortunately, suffers from confusion about its identity, veering in tone from memoir to travelogue to journalism. The writing would have benefited from the hand of a stronger editor: Howe's descriptions of the Moroccan people and landscape, in particular, read like those sections of a Lonely Planet guidebook that travelers usually skip. There is also evidence of hasty writing. Characters are introduced and then reintroduced; stories are told again and again.

Much better are the firsthand accounts of Morocco in the early 1950s where Howe worked as a freelance reporter. Striking up friendships with many of the soon-to-be seminal figures of post-independence Morocco—she took horse-riding lessons from the future King Hassan II—Howe offers a nuanced and subtle portrait of the myriad forces jockeying for power as European colonialism collapsed.

Howe is likewise unsparing in her assessment of the Moroccan government that emerged from that struggle, which she criticizes as being run by "nepotism, cronyism, and privilege." Unfortunately, the sprawling scope of the book—which attempts to cram in everything from Berber cultural revival to the conflict over Western Sahara—makes it difficult to linger over any particular topic too long.

Also, like many journalists, Howe is better at describing problems than proposing solutions, and many of her policy prescriptions seem tacked-on, not to mention woefully naïve. She proposes, for instance, that the Moroccan monarchy cede power to a democratically elected government that would then "achieve long-term solutions to the grinding problems of unemployment, illiteracy … and abysmal health care" and "tackle official corruption from top to bottom." Right!

Despite its many flaws, Howe's examination of Morocco and its challenges is nonetheless welcome—if only as a reminder of just how difficult the "transformation" of the Middle East is likely to be, even in the most encouraging places.