This article examines Fred Halliday's research and writing on the politics of the Middle East. It classifies Halliday as a ‘high modernist’, who organized his work around a constant commitment to a universal rationality, historical progress and an opposition to relativism and a particularist reading of the Middle East. The article identifies the two dominant units of analysis that shaped Halliday's work on the region throughout his life. These were the transformative capacity of capitalism and the role of a comparatively autonomous state. The article then examines how the content of each unit was transformed as Halliday moved from an overt Marxism to a more diffuse liberalism. It then goes on to argue that Halliday's ideological affinities and his deployment of these units marginalized the role and importance of ideology, specifically both nationalism and Islamism. Finally, it traces the influence of this approach and the deployment of these units in Halliday's work on Iran, Iraq and the Arab–Israeli conflict.