Gone but Not Forgotten
The Life of Roger Owen

by Cinzia Bianco

BY CINZIA BIANCO - Edward Roger John Owen, a British historian and prominent scholar of Middle Eastern Studies, died on 22 December 2018 at 83 years of age. His death is widely mourned across academia for the loss of a major figure who made an important contribution to the field. In a decades-long career, he authored reference texts on the economic, social and political history of the modern Middle East, from 1800 to the present, as well as on the theories of imperialism. Professor Owen is also widely credited for having given a remarkable input in leading the field of Middle Eastern Studies out of the Orientalist cul-de-sac towards a more comparative approach grounded in social science.


Professor Owen was born on 27 May 1935 in London (United Kingdom) and he pursued his studies in British academic institutions. Already in 1956 he became a reader of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Magdalen College, University of Oxford. In 1960, Professor Owen began his Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) in Economic History at St Antony’s College, at the University of Oxford. One of the scholars supervising his doctoral research — on cotton production and the development of the economy in nineteenth-century Egypt — was Albert Hourani, a renowned Middle East historian and author of Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1789–1939 (1962) one of the classic works on the nahda (the Arab revival of the 19th century). Professor Owen’s doctoral thesis was also to be published in a book in 1969, titled Cotton and the Egyptian Economy, 1820–1914, and  became one of the classic works on the Egyptian economy. 


Driven by his talent, Professor Owen served as Director of St. Antony's College Middle East Centre, from 1971-1974, 1980-1982, 1986-1988, and 1991-1993. In his final years at Oxford, Professor Owen published what is considered his major work, State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East. Published in 1992, the book has had several revised editions over the years and remains a must-read for students around the world. Professor Owen subsequently moved to the United States where, in 1993, he became the A. J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History at Harvard University and also directed the University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES). As a Professor he is widely remembered for his supportive attitude towards junior researchers and scholars and he became known as much for his generosity as a teacher as for the rigour he brought to his scholarship. Once in the United States, he joined the Middle East Studies Association of North America, also known as MESA, and became an active member of the society. In acknowledgement of his career, in 2010, he received the prestigious Award for Outstanding Contributions to Middle Eastern Studies 2010 from the World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies (WOCMES) in Barcelona.


His final, hefty publication was a book titled A Life in Middle East Studies, published in 2016. The book is an account of his lifetime spent in academia with a diachronic assessment of the  development, and possible future, of area studies as it related to the Middle East. In the early chapters of this text, Professor Owen goes back more than half a century to a very different time in the life of the modern Middle East. In particular, Owen tells about his first encounters with the Middle East region, which took place during his service in the British Army in 1955-1956. Then, he was based to Britain’s base in Cyprus and there he became intrigued by the wider region. It was also due to this experience, he notes in his book, that Professor Owen subsequently decided to dedicate some time to experience the region first-hand. In the 1960’s, he lived between Cairo and Beirut, kick-starting a time of research and reflections that contributed to shape the field of Middle Eastern Studies.

04 January 2018