Fred Halliday, who has died of cancer aged 64, was an Irish academic whose main interest was the Middle East and its place in international politics. His first major book, Arabia Without Sultans, was published in 1974. The culmination of adventurous field research in the region, including Oman, it was a study of Arabian regimes, their support from the west and Iran, and the revolutionary forces fighting against them. “The Arab Middle East is the one with the longest history of contact with the west; yet it is probably the one least understood,” Fred believed. “Part of the misunderstanding is due to the romantic mythology that has long appeared to shroud the deserts of the peninsula. Where old myths have broken down, new ones have absorbed them or taken their place.”
A larger-than-life character, Fred made an enormous impact in both academia and the media. He always spoke with a sure and lucid voice, backed by extensive knowledge, and knew many languages, of which he was justly proud: Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, French, German and Russian. He had more than 20 books to his name and was professor of international relations at the London School of Economics (LSE) for more than 20 years.
Fred was born in Dublin to Arthur Halliday, a businessman, and his wife Rita (nee Finigan). He was educated at the Marist school in Dundalk before going to Ampleforth college in Yorkshire. He graduated from Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1967 with a degree in philosophy, politics and economics, then went to the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) in London.
From 1969 to 1983, he was a member of the editorial board of the New Left Review. The NLR represented the avant garde of the intellectual left, with strong European and cosmopolitan orientations, adopting and developing new strands of European Marxism and engaging with a wide range of issues and personalities in the developing nations. I got to know Fred in the mid-70s, when he joined an informal London discussion group on the Middle East, which included myself, Roger Owen and Talal Asad, directed to critiques of the existing inclinations in that field and working out an alternative, mainly Marxist approach. Fred became a regular contributor to the Middle East study group, which continues to this day.
Fred established wide connections with, among others, Arab and Iranian intellectuals and activists, and travelled widely in the region. From these encounters and researches came his book Iran: Dictatorship and Development, in 1978, which aroused great interest as it anticipated Iran’s revolution the following year, though he did not foresee the Islamic bent of the revolution, which was not the result of a long established Islamic movement, but the outcome of particular events, including the rise of Khomeini.
Further travel and research took Fred, with Maxine Molyneux, to Ethiopia and Yemen in 1977 and 1978, resulting in a jointly authored book, The Ethiopian Revolution (1981), tracing the conditions and causes of the 1974 revolution. He married Maxine in 1979. Fred’s interest in Soviet policy and the cold war, and his critical stance on US intervention in Afghanistan, were recurrent themes in his writing, evident in Cold War, Third World: Essays On Soviet-American Relations in the 1980s, published in 1989.
It was not until 1983 that Fred formally entered academia with an appointment to a lectureship at LSE. He obtained his PhD from LSE in 1985, with a thesis on the Democratic Republic of Yemen. At LSE, Fred continued to write prolifically, now concentrating on international relations, with fresh and critical treatment of theories in that field. His interest in the Middle East acquired a more immediate and topical aspect with the rise of Islamic politics, Afghanistan and 9/11, about which he wrote Two Hours That Shook the World (2001). His interest in Muslim communities in Britain and Europe had begun with his earlier study of the Yemeni community in Sheffield, Arabs in Exile: Yemeni Migrants in Urban Britain (1992). His contribution to the debates on Muslims in the west came in some of the essays in his highly influential Islam and the Myth of Confrontation (1996), with his characteristically incisive arguments against the prevalent ideas of a “clash of civilisations” and the “otherness” of Muslims and their politics.
Fred never shied away from controversy: he was forthright in his advocacy of justice, human rights and socialist democratic values, and against cultural relativism and apologetics for tyrannies in developing nations in the name of anti-imperialism. This was part of his more general belief that imperialism and capitalism were often progressive forces in many parts of the world, notwithstanding their well-known oppressive and exploitative elements. In this vein, Fred considered the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan favourable, on balance, and indeed the period of communist control as a progressive episode in the violence and oppression that preceded and followed it. Equally, Fred favoured western interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq – Saddam Hussein and his regime being by far the greater evil – but criticised what he considered the arrogance and incompetence of the US and British administrations of these policies and their tragic consequences.
Fred was elected to the British Academy in 2002. In 2008 he left the LSE to take up a position as research professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies. Fred loved Barcelona, where he was part of a lively social and intellectual network. He was a great teacher and mentor, and numerous students and young colleagues acknowledge their debt to his supervision, mentoring and inspiration. His lectures, both academic and public, were always a great draw and never failed to inspire, stimulate and challenge. His book Caamano in London: The Exile of a Latin American Revolutionary, about the former Dominican president’s spell in London in the 1960s, will be published later this year.
Fred is survived by his brothers Jon and David and by Maxine and their son, Alex.
• Frederick Halliday, scholar of international relations, born 22 February 1946; died 26 April 2010