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An encyclopedic overview of the Mideast tangle, impressive yet biased; Arabia and the Gulf; by J. B. Kelly. New York: Basic Books. $25.

By Geoffrey GodsellGeoffrey Godsell is a senior Monitor correspondent, who writes frequently on the Middle East. / October 8, 1980



With the war between Iraq and Iran putting Gulf (as distinct from the hostages) back on nightly network news, this book could hardly have come out at a more opportune time.

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If anybody wants a detailed history of the disputed rights of Iraq and Iran in the Shatt al Arab, he or she should get their hands on J. B. Kelly's "Arabia, the Gulf and the West." But anybody reading it will get much more than that: an advance briefing and background of history for the crises that could now so easily arise over those islands at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz or over Iraqi coveting of Kuwait. And for good measure, the reader is also led through the family mazes of the royal House of Saud and of the princely rulers of the emirates on the eastern shores of Arabia.

All in all, this is a timely work of reference. But a word of warning: This is (in the words of the bok's subtitle) a "critical" presentation of the record. Mr. Kelly does not hide his contempt for Arabs and Persians -- or perhaps more precisely for their pretensions. Neither does he hide his contempt for the postwar Middle East policies of successive British and US governments. He accuses them of pandering to Arab and Persian pretensions and of preventing the oil companies from standing up to oil-producing governments when the latter were threatening higher prices -- or else.

And within that sharply defined perspective, Mr. Kelly takes particularly barbed aim at the US for (in his view) undermining the Western position in the area by committing itself from World War II onward to the ouster of the British from the once dominant position they had in the Gulf. This stance, according to Mr. Kelly, was due partly to American ideological sympathy with anti-colonialism and partly to the power of US oil interests determined to strengthen their toe- hold in Saudi Arabia and develop it to the entire exclusion of the British.

For anybody who wants to know whatever became of the dispute over the Buraimi Oasis, which pitted the US and Britain against each other -- through their Saudi and Omani proxies -- over oil-drilling rights in the mid-1950s, he or she can discover in these pages. On this particular issue, the maps are a great help.

Overall, however, in Mr. Kelly's view, it is the US and British governments rather than the oil companies which are responsible for what he sees as the supine policies that have made the position of the West in the Gulf so vulnerable today.

His interpretation of recent history will probably get him rave reviews in the Israeli press and in such Us publications as The New Republic, which tend to see events in the Middle East through a pro-Israeli lens. Mr. Kelly even singles out for criticism by name, as they often do, the men perceived as Arabists or pro-Arabists in the US foreign service: the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Akins, in particular, and less sharply, such public figures as the current US ambassador to Egypt, Alfred Atherton.

It is not that Mr. Kelly makes any special plea for Israel or that he often refers to it. Rather is it that he is contemptuous of the Arabs, of their culture, even of their religion.It is the same superior attitude toward Arabs that marks so much Israeli writing on them and leads even level-headed Arabs to complain of Israeli arrogance. Mr. Kelly shares that posture. Or is it a more gracefully literate expression of a kind of racism which marked, say, the respectably conservative middle-class British Daily Telegraph at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956?

One part of this writer wants to give Mr. Kelly a rave review, too -- both for his pithy, stimulating way of writing about an enormously complicated subject and for his encyclepedic knowledge of it. Yet another part of this reviewer is jarred by Mr. Kelly's biased interpretations and glosses. It goes beyond the critical to the contemptuous and will leave openminded readers uneasy.

All in all, and despite Mr. Kelly's impressive case to the contrary, this writer wonders whether in broad sweep the course of recent history in the Gulf would have been significantly different or significantly improved if either Western governments or Western oil companies had behaved as Mr. Kelly would have had them behave. And if Arabs and Iranians appear to many Westerners as they appear in Mr. Kelly's eyes, surely it is only fair to ask how Westerners appear in Arab and Iranian eyes. It is not that Arabs and IRanians are either above criticism or difficult for many Westerners to get on with. It is that they have a case too.