James Denselow

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues.


James writes regularly for The Guardian and has written articles for Middle East International, The Huffington Post The New Statesman, Syria Today, The World Today, The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post. He has been cited in many international publications including The Boston Globe, Voice of America, The Sunday Telegraph, Reuters and AFP

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James writes book, television and film reviews for International Affairs, Middle East International, The Arab and The Guardian

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See James's published work

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In The Media

James in the media - Watch James discussing Middle East issues on a variety of media platforms including the BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today
From Mountain People to Partner? PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Monday, 17 June 2013 10:45

(Foreign Policy Centre) Speaking at a recent Chatham House event former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright was asked her predictions for the Middle East. Ignoring the continued flux of both the Arab Spring the bloody civil war in Syria Albright responded that the modern relationship between Turkey and the Kurds is evidence of how “things you think will never change – change”.

Against the backdrop of the current round of bloodletting that is wracking the region, the Kurdish success story continues to establish itself. In Turkey before the headlines became dominated by the street protests one of the biggest story’s of the year was the deal made in the decades old conflict between Ankara and the PKK. The negotiated agreement that saw hundreds of PKK fighters moving into the borderland of Iraqi Kurdistan followed a sustained improvement in relations between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Iraqi Kurdistan. The landlocked KRG have steadily looked to connect their two greatest assets, energy supplies and stability, through to Turkey. Albright would never have predicted that Turkey, previously so opposed to Kurdish autonomy, would develop such close economic relations with the nearest thing to a state-like entity that the World’s largest stateless people have ever had.  As Iraq endures its most violent period in five years, with over 1,000 people killed in May according to the UN, those media that visit the north of the country run out of superlatives to describe the contrast. The standard headlines involves variant around the word ‘boom’ or ‘booming’.

Last Updated on Monday, 17 June 2013 10:52
Memories of Spring PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Friday, 14 June 2013 09:23
The Arab uprisings are voiced by the Arab people in this rare ensemble of short stories.


Writing Revolution: The Voices from Tunis to Damascus
Matthew Cassel and Layla Al-Zubaidi, eds.
I. B. Tauris
May 2013


In assembling Writing Revolution, journalist Matthew Cassel and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s Layla Al-Zubaidi embarked on the ambitious task of compressing the huge transformations that have swept the Arab world into short stories from eight authentic voices from the region. (Most have been translated from Arabic into English, and the book won a PEN prize for writing in translation.) Zubaidi explains that the book was designed as an antidote to the over-analysis by so-called experts outside the region about what led to the events that spread like wildfire across the region towards the end of 2011. “A barrier of fear had been burst. The aim of the book was to chronicle personal histories from people who had been fully involved in these historic events. We wanted to put across an alternative, ‘insider’ perspective,” she told The Majalla.writrev

It would be fascinating to see a word cloud of the book’s eight stories: it would likely show that, despite the unique circumstance and history of each modern Middle Eastern and North African state, many feelings are shared by people across the region. Words like “hope,” “dignity,” “anger” and “frustration” give us a snapshot of the uprisings, each word fuelling the next. These ideas are described by several authors in a way that makes them seem like the last drop that caused the cup to overflow.

The stifling vacuum of authoritarian politics, combined with the rawness of their own youth makes, it understandably difficult for some authors to express in words the cacophony of emotion that they felt during these revolutionary moments. Sometimes, you get the feeling that they are filtering their unique perspectives through a medley of Obama-esque rhetoric, dramatic film scripts, and nostalgic Arabic ballads. Several of the authors saw themselves as the vanguard of the revolution, and are clearly disappointed with their lack of agency in the often-dysfunctional political spaces that emerged afterward. Malek Sghiri, a student, activist and blogger from Tunisia, exemplifies this disappointment when he notes that “the youths and district activists who were [the Tunisian uprising’s] original activists are almost entirely absent from public life, when they should be the strongest political force in the land.”

In the Air with Hillary Clinton PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 30 May 2013 11:09

The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power

(Kim Ghattas, Times Books; 2013)

In this absorbing and highly readable work Kim Ghattas, the BBC’s State Department Correspondent, has attempted the ambitious task of combining personal memoir, an on the road record of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s term and an appraisal of the modern reality of US power. Speaking at a Chatham House event this January John Bolton was asked what he thought incoming Secretary of State John Kerry would bring to the job, his reply; nothing apart from racking up more air miles. During her four years Clinton, codename “Evergreen”, would travel a million miles criss-crossing the globe in a threadbare Special Air Mission (SAM) plane that could only fly 10 hours at a time. Ghattas would be there for 300,000 of those air miles, a professional witness to US power as it lived through the Arab Spring, the Wikileaks scandal and the hundreds of other moments of history.

“The Secretary” shows the human story, through Clinton and Ghattas’ own perspectives, of the reality and exercise of power. It also shows the sacrifices that power entails, Clinton is forever on the move and the book’s photographs visibly demonstrate how the exhaustion aged her. Only 9-months into the job and she’d flown 140,000 miles. Ghattas describes the exhaustion of living in “the bubble” with colourful anecdotes punctuating the endless air travel. The State Department press corp. draws straws for the best seats at the back of the plane, Clinton loves Pakistani mangoes and the King of Saudi Arabia wears trainers under his robe.  However as Ghattas is still in post in Washington you still feel that there is a lot more being held back for when she departs the BBC.

Hezbollah and Hamas – A Comparative Study PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Monday, 15 April 2013 10:31

Joshua Gleis and Benedetta Berti (John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2012)

(Reviewed for International Affairs) Gleis and Berti are two security experts who have written a niche study which serves as introductory fare for US and Israeli policy makers wanting to confirm what they perhaps already think about Hezbollah and Hamas. With phrases such as “mega terrorism” and “terrorist nest” used within a light weight text that relies almost entirely on secondary sources, many of which are media rather than academic in nature, the partial nature of its qualities contradicts the apparent four years of research that was spent in its making.

The work’s aim is to “provide an in-depth view of two of the most popular and featured radical Islamist groups that the world has ever known” (p.4) but there is little in the way of comparison. Indeed the book is essentially divided into quite separate investigations into both organisations with the last ten pages providing a cursory examination of how they actually compare. It is an openly Israeli-centric analysis with little in the way of theoretical underpinning and is rather a chronological examination of the two group’s history, ideology, structure, strategies and tactics.

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon is noted as the “ultimate accelerator for Hezbollah’s formation” (p.38) and the organisation is described as “more than just anti-Zionist; it also exhibits a rabid streak of anti-Semitisim” (p.56). The authors note both the organisation’s ‘pragmatism’ and its welfarism and deep connections to elements of Lebanese society, but the subject is only touched on in expense of a focus on the threats that Hezbollah can pose to Israel. However much of this analysis is seemingly based of rough speculation due to the admitted ‘shadowy’ and secretive structure of the organisation. The “difficulty” in knowing combined with sweeping generalisations undermine the premise of what could have been a fascinating genuine comparison of two important non-state actors.

The book proclaims certain black and white realities such as “Hezbollah combatants do not wear uniforms in combat” (p.76) which a few YouTube videos quickly disprove. It’s most interesting analysis, deserved of more comprehensive research, concerned the tri-border area of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay which Gleis and Berti introduce as the “operational and logistical centre for international terrorist groups” (p.71). However the conclusion reached – that Hezbollah has become a “leading insurgency organisation” (p.190) does not easily square with its far more complicated relationship with the Lebanese state and its more recently attempts to consolidate and defend the status quo by supporting the Assad regime in Syria.

A Test of Democracy PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Wednesday, 10 April 2013 08:35

The Majalla - Ten years after the invasion of the country, Iraq faces another round of elections against a backdrop of increased sectarian tensions and political intrigue.

On a recent visit to Iraq, I found little appetite or excitement for the upcoming local elections scheduled for April 20. One taxi driver said, “They’ve only recently finished working out how to share power from the last election, and now there is another vote.” Iraq’s fledgling democracy continues to be characterized by fragility as it faces its first elections since 2010. Political violence is increasing as we head towards the vote: on April 6, a suicide bomb and grenade attack killed at least twenty-two people and injured about fifty at a Sunni political rally in the eastern Iraqi city of Baquba.

To date, the country’s complex structures of political power have been a formula for gridlock in the name of national unity. A broad mix of ethnic, sectarian and tribal parties maneuver for an acceptable balance of power while Prime Minister Maliki continues to harvest authority directly to his office. These political institutions remain unable to peacefully channel dissent, with bloody violence a regular feature of what increasingly resembles an Iraqi Game of ThronesRussia Today has reported that the total number of politicians killed in the run-up to April’s elections now stands at eleven. In March, the spiraling death toll saw the government postpone the elections in the Sunni-majority governorates of Anbar and Nineveh for what it called security reasons. The cabinet, rejecting subsequent legal opposition to the move, confirmed that it was based on the requests of Anbar’s council, official entities, political blocs and parties, and the provinces’ dignitaries.

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