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Designed as a part of the textbook series, The Contemporary Middle East, Henry and Springborg have produced a blunt indictment of Middle Eastern leaders. They open with a portrait of the Mediterranean sixty years ago, e.g., "Egypt appeared in the mid-1940s to be as economically developed as war-torn Greece and equally ready to catch up with the rest of Europe." What has happened since has been a disaster, and the cause, in their eyes, has been a lack of democracy. Heavy-handed political interference in the economy for the benefit of autocratic rulers has been the bane of the region.

They analyze in detail how political despotism held back economic growth in the various types of Middle East states, which they divide into "bunker states," such as Algeria and Syria, "bully praetorian states," such as Egypt and Tunisia, and the somewhat more successful "globalizing monarchies," such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia. Henry and Springborg also provide a depressingly accurate account of statism in what they call the "fragmented democracies," such as Israel, Turkey, and Lebanon. For instance, they argue that the Israeli high-tech sector has been hobbled by a state that is consumed primarily with resolving Israel's identity conflicts (including the Right's dream of a Greater Israel) rather than with promoting economic growth.

Henry and Springborg are clearly uncomfortable with how much the facts support the "Washington consensus," namely, that liberalization, privatization, and globalization encourage economic growth. They periodically grasp for far-fetched excuses for the miserable Middle East economic record, especially the claim that it is all the fault of imperialism. Never mind that those Middle East states never colonized—such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran—have done no better than the rest, nor that prosperity has come to ex-colonies in Asia—South Korea (long under brutal Japanese rule), Taiwan (ditto), and Malaysia. But this is a minor fault in what is generally a first-rate indictment of Middle East politics.