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Jihad in the Arabian Sea Review

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The Horn of Africa and Yemen counts as one of the most unstable regions in the world, and this was true 10 years ago and today - even worse now in fact, since Yemen’s Civil War has swung into horrific bloodshed, in a long running sore which looks unlikely to be resolved any time soon, and leaves millions of people in a constant state of war, hunger, disease, and privation. This has helped to make it fertile ground for terrorism, civil war, and piracy, which is all the more serious since it lies at the center of the some of the world’s most important lanes of communication: astride the vast riches of the Middle East which are explored to the world and traverse the Red Sea on the way to Europe, particularly the massive oil exports. It is unsurprising therefor that it would attract attention in the form of Charle Pecastaing's book Jihad in the Arabian Sea. This covers the countries of the region, tracking the growth of Islamist and Jihadist elements throughout in reasonable detail, but seemingly lacking the necessary analysis of foreign colonialism or influence, and its beginning is an analysis which is rather too vague and general.

Perhaps it is the beginning of the book which sets a bad tone for the rest of it, with the Hoover Institute intro seeming to focus purely on the problem of Islamic radicalism. But what of the negative legacy left by Euro-American action in the region, with a legacy of divided states in Somalia, Eritrea, Djibouti, or Ethiopia, which did not pay attention to ethnic divisions and which has led to instability ever since? Certainly, not everything can be laid at the footsteps of the Europeans and Americans: Ethiopia had one of the longest running sores through its occupation of Eritrea, which if the British agreed to, was done so at the desire of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. But the states of the region are other than Ethiopia almost all former colonial constructs, and so Islamic radicals alone cannot be blamed for the results. There is also the constant US drone strikes in Yemen, or actions such as the US 1998 bombing of pharmaceutical factories in Sudan, which led to massive deaths throughout the horn of Africa. The work seems to ignore that there could have been real complaints about and problems with the relationship between the Horn of Africa and the West.

The introduction to the book, with its initial chapters covering the overview of the states of the region - Somalia and Yemen particularly - are decent, but rather basic, somewhat akin to a Wikipedia article by country. The book simply lacks length and the sophistication to cover detailed discussions of the countries: it gives a decent look, and in particularly helps to clarify the subject through a good framework of “rent,” which states in the region attempted to leverage for their own gain or survival: Somalia, with its strategic location, Yemen with its precious oil supplies, even if inadequate, and its governments’ efforts to bring in aid money by vaunting its struggle against terrorism. The countries chose to rely on these resources, and as soon as the international situation rendered it defunct, such as Somalia after the end of the Cold War, the situation rapidly deteriorated and states collapsed.

These are the flaws of the book. While some of the chapters lack sufficient length, it still gives a good general grasp of the region as a whole. It shows the complex dynamics of the failure of the modernizing and development process in Yemen and Somalia, and how different factions of Arab Socialism and conservatism clashed. The complex dynamics of Somalia and how Ethiopia and the United States interfered are crucial for understanding how regional actors took advantage of the United State’s relative lack of knowledge to advance their agenda, as Ethiopia was able to convince the US to support its side. And it discusses the pirate problem, how it works, and why it is has been so difficult to solve at length. As it continues on past the initial chapters, it steadily builds in detail and organization, and ultimately becomes a very useful general history book, which ties together the shared story of the unfortunate countries of the two sides of the Red Sea, so ill treated by history and fortune.

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