Looking at the recent news, a really interesting book to read to get a leg up on others is "The Arabs" by David Lamb. This is a much less intense book and shorter in duration. Part of that might be from the stability of the Middle East during Lamb's time there compared to Africa's tumultuous late 70s. Lamb does a nice job of giving an overview of the strong men who rule, the way Islam has permeated all forms of life in the Arab world, the odd space cities out of sand oil provinces, and the people who with sudden wealth have done a lot to try to pick the best of modern technology while retaining their way of life. Lamb also gives a pretty even handed account of the Israel/Arab/Palestinean relationship, which is so dysfunctional in all regards.
This is the revised edition, so it was written 20 years ago and then updated. I would love to see Lamb write another book say 5 years from now. To know there is a 2nd fledgling democracy in Iraq now, to see the Middle East countries on fire, and to see Khadafi giving the middle finger to the US, UK, and France must be on the tip of Lamb's tongue and on his mind. Seriously, the other Arab dictators and Saddam dead in hell, must be jealous of Khadafi's stand. As his book points out, there is tension beneath the surface in many of these countries that increases in food prices could start riots. This is a quick and good read.
What is a shame, is that you will read this book and realize that if we did not depend on oil so much (especially imported oil), we would not be subject to the volatility of oil, and therefore not base our foreign policy decisions on supporting dipsticks because it keeps oil prices down. Imagine the US not intervening in what would be a sleepy portion of the 3rd world so often because someone is an oil producer. Imagine the US being able to stand besides the oldest democracy in the Middle East, Israel instead of having to be somewhat impartial and 'understand' the other side that calls for Israel's destruction. Imagine either an America/West that could either respect the goings on inside the oil producers' borders and socieities or not have an economic blackmail piece to push the dictatorships towards democracy and better human rights. An American economy not tied so tightly to oil would make this a reality. I can hope for change.