Lords of the Desert

Britain's Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East

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About The Book

Guardian Book of the Day
New Statesman Book of the Year
History Today Book of the Year

Times Literary Supplement Book of the Year
BBC History Magazine Book of the Year


'Bustles impressively with detail and anecdote' Sunday Times
‘Consistently fascinating’ The Spectator
'Beautifully written and deeply researched' The Observer
'Barr draws on a rich and varied trove of sources to knit a sequence of dramatic episodes into an elegant whole. Great events march through these pages' Wall Street Journal

Upon victory in 1945, Britain still dominated the Middle East. She directly ruled Palestine and Aden, was the kingmaker in Iran, the power behind the thrones of Egypt, Iraq and Jordan, and protected the sultan of Oman and the Gulf sheikhs. But her motives for wanting to dominate this crossroads between Europe, Asia and Africa were changing. Where ‘imperial security’ – control of the route to India – had once been paramount, now oil was an increasingly important factor. So, too, was prestige. Ironically, the very end of empire made control of the Middle East precious in itself: on it hung Britain’s claim to be a great power.

Unable to withstand Arab and Jewish nationalism, within a generation the British were gone. But that is not the full story. What ultimately sped Britain on her way was the uncompromising attitude of the United States, which was determined to displace the British in the Middle East.

The British did not give in gracefully to this onslaught. Using newly declassified records and long-forgotten memoirs, including the diaries of a key British spy, James Barr tears up the conventional interpretation of this era in the Middle East, vividly portraying the tensions between London and Washington, and shedding an uncompromising light on the murkier activities of a generation of American and British diehards in the region, from the battle of El Alamein in 1942 to Britain’s abandonment of Aden in 1967. Reminding us that the Middle East has always served as the arena for great power conflict, this is the tale of an internecine struggle in which Britain would discover that her most formidable rival was the ally she had assumed would be her closest friend.


Reviews for A Line In The Sand:-
'Masterful' The Spectator
'With superb research and telling quotations, Barr has skewered the whole shabby story' The Times
'Lively and entertaining. He has scoured the diplomatic archives of the two powers and has come up with a rich haul that brings his narrative to life' Financial Times

About The Author

James Barr has worked in politics, at the Daily Telegraph, in the City, at the British Embassy in Paris, and is currently a visiting fellow at King's College, London. He read modern history at Oxford has travelled widely in the Middle East. His previous book, A Line in the Sand, is also available from Simon & Schuster. He lives with his wife and two children in south London. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK (August 2018)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781471139796

Raves and Reviews

'A brilliant, detached and eye-opening narrative that matches his A Line In The Sand for pace. It is a gripping tale of diplomatic legerdemain, political hypocrisy and, once the intelligence boys got going, derring-do. There are even comic moments when the world of Carry on Spying intruded into high politics.'

– Lawrence James, The Times

'An essential book for understanding the modern Middle East - and a thrilling read to boot.'

– Alex von Tunzelmann, author of Blood and Sand

'In this compelling new book, James Barr recalls a now forgotten story of British-American competition for power in the Middle East during and after their victory in the Second World War. This is essential, gripping history with major relevance for those who wish to understand that tortured region today.'

– Nicholas Burns, Professor, Harvard University and former Under Secretary of State

'A masterful account of Anglo-American rivalries that shaped the modern Middle East after WWII - brilliant storytelling with a rich cast of characters, Lords of the Desert is irresistible reading.'

– Eugene Rogan, author of The Fall of the Ottomans

'With its oil and its waterways, the Middle East was and remains a first step for any rising world power, and also the final trap for empires on the decline. In this lively page-turner, Barr unearths the obscure history of our disastrous engagement with the Middle East today - and of our own imperial decline.'

– Elizabeth F. Thompson, Mohamed S. Farsi Chair of Islamic Peace, American University

'Many of the events in this book will be familiar, but instead of presenting them from the more usual perspectives of the Cold War confrontation between the US and Russia, or Imperial withdrawal, James Barr considers them instead from the angle of US-British rivalry. This is refreshing, but it is perhaps also closer to the angle from which many contemporaries would have considered the Suez Canal crisis of 1956 or the coup that removed Mohammad Mosaddeq in 1953, for example. This book is therefore not just an excellent, lively account of salient events in this period in the history of the Middle East; it also opens up some new ways to think about them.'

– Michael Axworthy, author of A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind

'High adventure and covert action meet in this account of a momentous power shift that decisively shaped today’s world. Lords of the Desert reshapes our understanding of the modern Middle East - and also helps explain how the United States became a global power.'

– Stephen Kinzer, author of All the Shah's Men and Overthrow

'James Barr lifts the curtain on British plotting and intrigue in the Middle East. A wonderful raconteur, Barr brings to life the characters whose schemes and miscalculations brought an end to Britain as a great power. Meticulously researched, Lords of the Desert provides ample evidence as to why people in Middle Eastern countries remain so suspicious of Western intentions. A superb book.'

– Emma Sky, author of The Unravelling

'The middle decades of the twentieth century were ground zero for US involvement in the modern Middle East. In this deeply researched and marvellously readable account, James Barr explains how Americans’ entry into the region was achieved at the expense of the main previous western power there, Great Britain. By illuminating this crucial moment of imperial transition, Barr provides vital background for understanding the turbulent Middle East-US relationship that has evolved since.'

– Hugh Wilford, author of America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East

'Brilliant new book by the historian James Barr about the post-war struggle between Britain and America to dominate the Middle East... If you enjoy reading about international politics and espionage, you will love this book.'

– Matthew Elliott, City AM

'Riveting tale of Great Power competition, skulduggery and backstabbing...Barr tells a serious story...Lords of the Desert bustles impressively with detail and anecdote.'

– Justin Marozzi, Sunday Times

'James Barr’s beautifully written and deeply researched book covers 25 years of competition between Britain and the US for hegemony in the Middle East ... Barr also deftly integrates the role of secret intelligence in foreign policy, drawing on the diary of a little-known journalist-cum-MI6 agent to add indiscreet and illuminating detail.'

– Ian Black, Observer

'Barr has mined memoirs and archives to add fresh detail to his remarkable and dispiriting story.' 

– Economist

'One of the many pleasures offered by Lords of the Desert, which narrates the rivalry between Britain and the United States in the Middle East from the end of the second world war through to 1967, is the quotations that are liberally strewn across its pages. They ... testify to the research that has gone into this dense but consistently fascinating account... There is much else of value in this book: accounts of the secret machinations of spooks; pen-portraits of a series of fascinating characters both famous and obscure.'

– Jason Burke, Spectator

'Excellent … When Mr Barr comes to describe the 1953 coup against Mosaddegh his book reads like a page-turning spy thriller.'

– Bartle Bull, Wall Street Journal

'A beautifully written and bracing corrective to the idea that the US and UK were friendly partners in the Middle East.'

– John Bew, New Statesman

'Thoroughly researched and splendidly readable.'

– Lucy Beckett, TLS

'If you enjoy reading about international politics and espionage, you will love this book.'

– Matthew Elliott, City AM

'Mr Barr’s canvas is large, and he daubs it with colour and human interest.'

– The Economist

'A rattling good read of a familiar story presented from an altogether different and fascinating, perspective.'

– Ali Ansari, History Today

'A brilliantly written account that serves as a useful reminder that alliances and history can be deceptive'

– Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads

‘James Barr... has written another riveting history, masterfully arrayed and engagingly written. Like a good conversation, it is full of great anecdotes that even those who know this story might have missed.’

– Financial Times

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