Introduction to the Middle East

*The region known as the Middle East, or as the Middle East and North Africa (or, according to the textbook, North Africa, Southwest Asia, and Central Asia) is not a continent, or even part of a continent—it stretches across North Africa, parts of southern and central Asia, and even includes a small section of Europe. 

*As defined by the textbook, it stretches from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east and to Kazakhstan in the north.  Some geographers also include Pakistan and some other African countries (such as Somalia and Sudan).

*The region, as defined by the textbook, contains 28 states, although some might suggest it has 29 or 30, as the area known as Western Sahara is claimed by Morocco, but has asserted its own right to statehood (and most nations do not recognise Morocco’s claim, although it is fairly well established in fact).  The Palestinian people in what is now Israel also are in the process of creating their own state, and, although its status is still fairly fluid, 94 nations of the world recognise it as a legitimate government.

*The region is a perceptual region, connected by the fact that the majority of the people there practise Islam.  Much of the region also has similar environmental and economic elements (large parts of it are desert or steppe, for example), but the cultural aspect is the most important.

*In fact, the Middle East is the birthplace of many of the world’s major religions:  Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Zoroastrianism all came from the Middle East, and all are still important there.

*There are about 470 million people in the Middle East and North Africa.  Despite the fact that most are Moslem, not are all Arabs—it is important to remember that not all Arabs are Moslems, nor are all Moslems Arabs.

*Arabs are the major ethnic group in the Middle East:  there are about 275 million Arabs. 

*Iranians, Afghanis, and Tajiks are closely-related Indo-European peoples (although there are some other ethnic groups in Afghanistan). 

*The Armenians are also an Indo-European people, and have one of the few Christian nations in the Middle East. 

*The other Christian nation is Georgia, also in the Caucasus mountains, but its people speak a Caucasian language, as do many of the other ethnic groups in the Caucasus mountains (most of which are Moslem).

*There are several Turkic peoples in the Middle East, most notably in Turkey itself, which was conquered by the Ottoman Turks, a particular Turkic group, and they have an unusual cultural mixture of European, Turkic, and Arabic customs, because they are at the point where Europe and the Middle East meet.  Other Turkic nations are found in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan—Kazakhstan, however, is not a majority-Kazakh nation, however:  under the USSR, many Russians moved into the area, as did other non-Kazakhs, so that the Kazakhs are a minority in their own nation-state.

*Another ethnic group that does not have a nation-state at all (perhaps the largest ethnic group in the world to face this dilemma) are the Kurds.  This is a predominantly Moslem, Indo-European group that live in South-western Turkey, Northern Iraq and Iran, parts of Syria, and other parts of the Middle East.  Many of them would like to form their own nation (perhaps Kurdistan), but are continually opposed by the governments of the nations in which they live—although in Iraq today, the Kurdish North increasingly acts on its own, and the Kurds are a major political force in Iraq.

*One other nation-state exists in the Middle East that is neither Moslem or Christian:  Israel, with 6.4 million people, is mostly Jewish, although about 18% of the people are non-Jewish (mostly Christian or Moslem Arabs).  Although historically the homeland of the Jews, most of their people were expelled by the Romans after a series of revolts against Roman rule between 66 AD and 135 AD.  In the period afterwards, the land was settled by Arabs, who, like the Romans (and some Jews) before them, called the area Palestine, after the Philistines who had live there in ancient times.

*This area (also known as the Levant) contains some of the holiest land in the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem religions, particularly the city of Jerusalem, and, as a consequence, it has been fought over by members of all those groups at least since the Crusades.

*In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Jews around the world began moving back to Palestine in large numbers, which was even encouraged by the British for a brief time after WWI (when Britain controlled Palestine, having taken it from the Ottoman Empire).  After WWII, a Jewish state was created in what is now the western part of Israel in 1948.  The neighbouring Arab nations immediately declared war, and were defeated, and Israel took over almost all of the land left to the Palestinian Arabs as a result.  Since then, the Arabs and Israelis have fought three other major wars, all of them Israeli victories that enlarged Israel’s territory.

*Even today, the existence of Israel—and its relations with the Palestinians within its borders and with its neighbours—remains one of the most controversial topics in world politics and diplomacy. 

*The most populous countries in the region are Egypt (69.8 million people), Turkey (66.3 million people), Iran (66.1 million), Algeria (31 million), Morocco (29.5 million people), Uzbekistan (25.1 million), Iraq (23.6 million), and Saudi Arabia (21.1 million).

*The least populous country is Qatar, with 600,000 people.

*The largest country in the region is Kazakhstan (2.7 million square miles, followed by Algeria (2.3 million square miles), Saudi Arabia (2.1 million square miles), Libya (1.7 million square miles), Iran (1.6 million square miles), Egypt (1 million square miles), and Turkey (774 thousand square miles).

*The smallest country is Bahrain, covering 689 square miles.

*The most productive countries are Saudi Arabia (GDP:  $250 billion per year), Iran (GDP:  $162 billion), and Israel ($117 billion).

*The poorest country is probably Tajikstan, with a GDP of about $2 million per year.

*Much of the region has grown wealthy from petroleum, and most of the nations of OPEC are in the Middle East.  However, some countries have missed out on this wealth.

*The Middle East is also one of the faster-growing regions in the world in terms of population, but its economy is not growing as fast, leading to high unemployment and some sense of dissatisfaction among the young, which in some cases makes them easily recruited for terrorism.

This page last updated 16 October, 2005.