While making these broader policy arguments, MacFarquhar never loses sight of the fact that he is, in the end, a newspaper reporter. He repeatedly dwells on the ad hoc methods one is forced to employ when reporting in such a frustrating, heavily censored environment. (As MacFarquhar notes in his typically deadpan prose, “being arrested put a rather significant damper on reporting a story.”) When a photographer he was working with was arrested—a not uncommon occurrence—the best response was usually “a question of timing.” Before rushing forward to intervene, which would only land them both in jail, MacFarquhar would “call some senior official first, hoping the photographer would not be whisked away instantly. Then at least someone would know we were in custody and could hopefully gain our release.”

Working within a system that imposes rather arbitrary limits on speech, and where official explanations and opinions can shift with the desert sands, it’s often hard for the author to know exactly which bits of information can be published. Nor can he forget that his visa status hangs on the whims of security organizations and bureaucrats looking out for their own interests (and for bribes). He is detained briefly in several countries, beaten by a mob in Saudi Arabia, and nearly kidnapped. His photographers and drivers are hauled in for questioning and expelled. Yet MacFarquhar keeps asking questions, even if the answers aren’t always what we might want to hear.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.