In his biographies of Yasser Arafat, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Saddam Hussein, Said Aburish highlighted his aversion to dirty dealing and dictatorship
The controversial Palestinian journalist and historian Said Aburish, who has died aged 77, did much to illuminate the relationship between the Middle East and the west. His career as published author started with Pay-off (1985), which drew on his personal involvement in order to expose the practices of middle-men and fixers in the Arab world during the boom years following the oil price rises of 1973-74.
He followed this with three highly readable books which skillfully mixed personal anecdote and Arab history: Children of Bethany (1988), about his extended family; The St George Hotel Bar (1989), an insider's account of the Beirut watering hole patronised by spies, diplomats and journalists, including his father, Abu Said, a celebrated foreign correspondent for Time magazine; and Cry Palestine (1991), an angry eyewitness account of the intifada.
He continued with The Forgotten Faithful (1993), a wake-up call about the plight of Christians in the Middle East, and The House of Saud (1994), which attacked the greed and corruption of the Saudi ruling family and predicted its demise. The subtitle of A Brutal Friendship (1997) – The West and the Arab Elite – pointed to an idea that obsessed him: that Britain, France and the US were responsible for much of the instability in the Middle East, having set up a string of unrepresentative rulers whom they continued to support at the expense of freedom and democracy.
His three biographies of Arab statesmen – Arafat (1998), Saddam (2000) and Nasser (2004) – highlighted his aversion to dirty dealing and dictatorship, while never disguising his penchant for old-style Arab nationalism. His semi-autobiographical novel One Day I Will Tell You (1990) expanded on his sense of paranoia, personal sacrifice and the inevitable intelligence service contacts that came from his involvement with Iraq.
Aburish came from a large Palestinian clan, which spilled out from Bethany (al-Eizariya in Arabic, on the West Bank just outside Jerusalem). It ranged from jailed dissidents in Israel and Saudi Arabia to millionaires in the Gulf and the US. Abu Said took his family to Beirut in 1948, and, after initial education in Lebanon, Aburish went to Westtown school, a co-educational boarding establishment in Pennsylvania, whose Quaker values would make a lasting impression on him.
At the University of Chicago he met his first wife, Prudence Cooper, and had a daughter, Charla, before returning to Beirut as a correspondent for Radio Free Europe. He was surprised to find himself working as an occasional unpaid assistant to the local CIA chief. One assignment – to ensure (by bribery) the release of two illicit money-changers – led to his falling in love with the female member of the duo, a beautiful Belgian named Nicole Cuvellier, whom he later married.
Assailed by doubts about his job and cultural identity, Aburish returned to the US, where he worked in advertising, becoming vice-president of Ted Bates agency in New York, from which he resigned on a matter of principle after an incident involving a racial slur on a Jewish colleague. While retaining nothing of Madison Avenue's rapacity, he never quite shook off a preppy style of life and clothing.
In 1970 he moved to London, where, in the wake of the Arab oil price rise, he was encouraged by an old Beirut school friend to set up a company supplying Iraq with infrastructural equipment. However, the brief extended to the fringes of the chemical and nuclear warfare programmes. After his friend became persona non grata, Aburish laid low for a couple of years before taking another bite at the Iraqi cherry.
This time his contacts were at the highest levels of the regime, but he balked over a project to introduce US Harpoon missiles into the Iraq-Iran war. Disgusted by the deception and double-dealing he encountered, he sought advice from his friend David Cornwell – the novelist John le Carré – who put him in touch with his agent, George Greenfield, and so set the series of books in train.
Much in demand as a media pundit, Aburish was a sociable figure. He was based in Fulham, London, and, from 2001, in the south of France, where he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, which led him to return to live with his family in Bethany in 2008. His third marriage, to Kate Beck, ended in divorce. As a result of his relationship with Lady Clare Asquith, her son, Edward Michie, became his surrogate son and executor. He is also survived by Charla, his granddaughter Christina, four brothers and two sisters.
• Said Khalil Aburish, writer, born 1 May 1935; died 29 August 2012