“The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China” by Robert D Kaplan

The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China, Robert D Kaplan (Random House, August 2023) The Loom of Time: Between Empire and Anarchy, from the Mediterranean to China, Robert D Kaplan (Random House, August 2023)

As current events in Palestine, Iraq, and the Red Sea attest, the Middle East is a region with much unrest, instability and conflict. However, the region is undergoing a new era of turmoil and transition, headlined by Saudi Arabia and the oil-rich Gulf States. As a journalist and author with decades of experience in covering geopolitics around the world, Robert D Kaplan sheds some light on this transition in a sweeping and insightful overview of the Muslim world from Egypt to Iran to Central Asia, which he terms the Greater Middle East. 

In assessing Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his desire to oversee a neo-Ottoman resurgence (which also puts an end to Kemalist secularism), and in explaining why Syria’s Hafez al-Assad, father of the current leader, was actually the Middle East’s most practical dictator, Kaplan highlights the significance of powerful authority figures such as emperors and dictators who could impose itself and transcend fractious local rivalries in the region.

Having been under the control of the Ottoman empire for several centuries, then the French and British during the 19th and 20th centuries and strongman rulers for much of the past several decades, the Middle East is full of societies that have experienced great upheavals and changes that render it vulnerable to adapting to modern statehood. In fact, Kaplan asserts that the region stretching from “Algeria to Iraq” has still not found a solution to the end of the Ottoman empire.

As the successor state of the Ottoman Empire which once ruled over the Levant and much of the Arabian peninsula, as well as Egypt, Turkey has had to grapple with its purpose in the modern era, with Erdogan attempting to forge a regional influence that harks back to its imperial past, especially as it is clear that the European Union will not facilitate Turkey’s entry.


Throughout The Loom of Time, itself based on a collection of trips he made over the past several decades, Kaplan presents compelling insights while often mentioning famous experts from the past like Edward Said, Arnold Toynbee, Elie Kadourie, TE Lawrence, and even going back centuries to Edward Gibbon. The book is full of history, geopolitics, and contemporary events, yet is not bogged down by overly technical jargon or obscure facts.

Kaplan’s assessment of Saudi Arabia and its ambitious plan under Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (often known as MBS) to modernize economically and scientifically while maintaining the kingdom’s conservative culture and curbing political and social reforms that appeal most to Western liberals, a program which takes Singapore as a role model, illustrates the key challenge for the region. Moving eastwards, Kaplan provides compelling overviews of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The latter, while beset by instability and armed struggle especially on its border with Afghanistan, is an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a vast transcontinental series of infrastructural networks which may allow China to dominate Africa-Eurasia or the “World-Island”, a prospect which worries Kaplan. Coined by the famed early-20th century British geographer Halford Mackinder, control of the “World-Island” would enable a power to dominate the world.


This brings us to the modern alternative to empire, which is enlightened authoritarianism such as what Kaplan sees in Saudi Arabia and China.

Kaplan gives a mea culpa in having supported the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, where his antipathy towards Saddam Hussein and belief that overthrowing Hussein would usher in a more enlightened era turned out to be gravely mistaken. Kaplan was so shaken by what transpired that he fell into depression in 2006 that lasted for several years. Iraq is not so much a country as a patchwork of ethnicities, sects and tribes in which Hussein, as brutal as he was, maintained some sense of order which the US could not replicate. After over two decades and at least several hundred thousands of Iraqi lives and frequent conflict, the US invasion and occupation has clearly been a massive disaster.

The American presence and ideas also have not worked in Afghanistan, which saw the Taliban return to power in 2021 after routing the government which had been supported by the US.

Kaplan is blunt about the US’s catastrophic misjudgment in Iraq and the region in general, in ignoring local history, cultural and societal reality due to a hubristic approach that liberal democracy imported from the US would solve everything.

The same problem also exists in countries across the region like Syria, where institutions essential for upholding modern nations are weak while the social structure is a delicate and combustible combination of ethnic and religious groups that historically always fought each other and required a strong external authority to rule and maintain order. In the past, these authorities were empires such as the Ottomans, whose rule extended from Turkey to the Levant and Egypt.


Yet in the end, the author expresses his wish that the US reassert control in Central Asia, mainly to maintain order and to prevent China from dominating the region. It is understandable that Kaplan, as an American, would want America to continue to be a global superpower, but one wonders if governments and people in the region feel the same way. Kaplan’s hope for the US to maintain its dominance is nevertheless also at odds with his finding that enlightened authoritarianism rather than liberal democracy is necessary for the region.

Ultimately, Kaplan believes that the solution is a “middle path” method of governance featuring consultative regimes, as opposed to arbitrary dictatorships, that canvass public opinion and consult with tribes, factions, and interest groups. Whether Kaplan will (or should) see his wish realized, the Loom of Time is a valuable book that sheds more light on a vast and turbulent region and provides some provocative points to ponder.

Hilton Yip is a writer based in Taiwan and former book editor of Taiwan’s The China Post.