The best books for understanding the Middle East

Who am I?

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He is a columnist at Foreign Policy magazine and an expert on Arab and Turkish politics as well as U.S. Middle East policy. 


I wrote...

The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

By Steven A. Cook,

Book cover of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square

What is my book about?

The Struggle for Egypt is a sweeping political history of Egypt that takes readers from the crystallization of Egyptian nationalism in the late 19th century up to the January 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The book underscores that Egypt was never as stable as commonly assumed and that the demonstrations that shook Egypt a decade were consistent with a long history during which Egyptians rebelled against their leaders. This accessible text, written from a "close to the ground" perspective, provides invaluable insight into the Middle East's largest and most influential country. It is for history buffs, policy geeks, and Middle East obsessives.

The books I picked & why

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The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty

By Ray Takeyh,

Book cover of The Last Shah: America, Iran, and the Fall of the Pahlavi Dynasty

Why this book?

Over the years, there has been a lot of mythmaking about the United States and Iran––often influenced more by politics and ideology than an objective reading of history.  Ray Takeyh’s beautifully written volume takes on the U.S.-Iran relationship with all of its complexities and offers a cogent corrective to the received wisdom about events that have shaped the Middle East in the last four decades.


America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier

By Robert Vitalis,

Book cover of America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier

Why this book?

Vitalis' meticulously researched volume is about Saudi Arabia and the United States. In lucid prose, he makes the controversial case that American oil prospectors in the 20th century recreated the patterns of domination that dominated the exploitation of resources in the American West in Saudi Arabia. The argument smashes long-held truths and myths about the origins of the U.S.-Saudi relationship.


Origins: A Memoir

By Amin Maalouf,

Book cover of Origins: A Memoir

Why this book?

I read Maalouf's book many years ago and it remains one of the best books I have ever read about identity. It helps that he is a gifted writer and that Maalouf's story is so compelling.


The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda

By Yaroslav Trofimov,

Book cover of The Siege of Mecca: The Forgotten Uprising in Islam's Holiest Shrine and the Birth of Al Qaeda

Why this book?

The siege of Mecca in 1979 was one of the most consequential events in recent Saudi history. This book reads like a thriller, which makes sense because anyone familiar with Trofimov's work at the Wall Street Journal knows that he is a gifted storyteller and insightful analyst. The book provides context to the worldview that gave rise to al Qaeda.


War in the Land of Egypt

By Yusuf al-Qa'id,

Book cover of War in the Land of Egypt

Why this book?

This brief volume was first published 35 years ago but stands up over time. It is an allegory about Egypt during the early years of Anwar al-Sadat's rule, but speaks to the larger issues of corruption, the arrogance of power, and the fraying of societal bonds under authoritarian leaders. 


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in international relations, the Middle East, and Mecca?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about international relations, the Middle East, and Mecca.

International Relations Explore 130 books about international relations
The Middle East Explore 71 books about the Middle East
Mecca Explore 5 books about Mecca

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Epic Encounters, The British Empire in the Middle East, 1945-1951, and Dereliction of Duty if you like this list.