The former political adviser dines with sheikhs and stays with ambassadors to grasp how a generation let down the Middle East

When the Arab spring spread across the Middle East eight years ago, many observers were filled with optimism. Years of sclerotic dictatorship were over, repressive regimes would fall, a wave of progressive politics would sweep across the region. But this was always unlikely, as the more astute commentators made clear at the time. Many of the authoritarian states remained strong, buttressed by patronage networks, vested interests and regional or international support. Opposition movements were undermined by ideological disagreements, ethnic or other divides and determined, brutal repression. Brave teenagers with inspiring slogans proved no match for the teargas and tanks of regimes, nor for the calculations of distant powers.

One key factor often missed was that many of the people in states as diverse as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran did not admire the values, systems and lifestyles of the west as much as some hoped. To be anti-regime did not necessarily mean to be pro-western. The relationship of many liberals in the Middle East with democracy, individualism, western ideas and institutions was complicated and conflicted, freighted with historical grievance as much as aspiration.

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