Charles Issawi, An Economic History of the Middle East and North Africa (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

Roger Owen, The Middle East in the World Economy, 1800-1914 (New York: Methuen, 1981).

The very presence of these two book-length economic histories of the Middle East in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is one measure of the research that has been done on this subject over the last two decades. The two books do not overlap in most respects. Charles Issawi covers the whole of the Middle East and North Africa, from Morocco to Iran, from 1800 to 1980. Roger Owen focuses more narrowly on the Fertile Crescent, Egypt and Anatolia between 1800 and 1914. Their methodologies are also different. Issawi emphasizes what was produced, whereas Owen gives equal emphasis to production and the conditions under which it occurred.

Issawi modestly declares his goal to be “to sketch the main patterns and trends of the development of the Middle East during the last two hundred years.” He organizes his chapters by type of economic activity, such as “Development of Transport” (Chapter 3) and “Agricultural Expansion” (Chapter 7). Issawi charts changes in each category of activity over the last 180 years. His overarching theme is of a European “challenge” which is met, particularly after 1914, by a “response” in which Middle Eastern nationals struggled to wrest economic control from minorities and foreigners. Issawi’s strengths include his succinct presentation of data relating to broad economic trends. The reader seeking information on the ups and downs of handicraft and industrial output need only consult the relevant chapter. Wherever possible, he presents data in tables, making the book a useful reference. Finally, the last chapter is an interesting if inconclusive attempt to work out an economic “balance sheet” of imperialism in the Middle East.

The book’s major shortcoming is that it does not treat in any detail changes in relations of production, with the partial exception of a general discussion of land tenure. The wealth of information on changes in production, rates of investment, demographic trends and so forth is not presented in a way that conveys who was producing and under what conditions, and who appropriated the surplus. “Capitalism” and “socialism” enter the discussion towards the end in a way which is more perplexing than enlightening. A final criticism is that Issawi’s method of presenting economic history in long strips, as it were—agriculture over 180 years, transport over 180 years—hinders the reader who wants to comprehend the Middle East’s economic structures at any particular historical point. A chronological reorganization of the material into “challenge” and “response,” using 1914 as a watershed, might have helped Issawi’s themes emerge more clearly.

By and large, Owen cites the same corpus of materials that Issawi did for pre-1914 Egypt, Anatolia and the Fertile Crescent, although he uses more travelers’ accounts and fewer local sources. Owen differs from Issawi chiefly in the questions he asks. The guiding thread running through The Middle East in the World Economy is the appropriation of economic surpluses, emphasizing regional variations and changes over time. Owen’s major thesis is that European penetration created a pattern of economic dependence in the Middle East, setting the stage for the post-World War I nationalist reaction (cf. Issawi’s “challenge” and “response”). Owen stresses throughout the role played by the Ottoman state and local elites (merchants and landowners) in assisting the transformation of the Middle East into a dependent economic region.

Owen constantly raises questions in his narrative, pointing out which of his conclusions are speculative or tentative and need further research. He asks bold questions even if his answers must frequently be cautious. Owen provides sketches of how the Middle East was structured economically at various times by emphasizing not only European-Middle Eastern economic relationships but also intra-regional (including rural-urban) ones.

Because Owen is interested in both forces and relations of production, it is a pity he does not discuss at greater length the modes of production present in the Middle East between 1800 and 1914. In the introduction, he briefly points out the problems posed by the “Asiatic mode of production” concept, but does not discuss others (the “tributary” mode, for example) which might help elucidate the transformations which resulted from the Middle East’s integration into the world economy. In this way, Owen could have placed in a wider context his interesting discussion of whether the Egyptian ‘izba was a feudal or capitalist kind of agricultural estate. A second criticism of the book is that while Owen uses some Arabic sources he has not used others which might be useful theoretically or empirically.

Both of these books are welcome. They reflect the state of the art in Middle Eastern economic history, with all the strengths and weaknesses which this implies. Owen’s is more interesting analytically, and a must for students of the period. The breadth and range of Issawi’s, on the other hand, will make it a standard reference for years to come.

How to cite this article:

James A. Reilly "Two Economic Histories," Middle East Report 123 (May 1984).

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