The region of the world comprising Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, and the states of the Fertile Crescent (Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq) is known as the Middle East. It is also frequently said to include the Arab states of North Africa, as well as Turkey and Iran. In this larger sense, the region covers about 10 percent of the earth's land surface and supports about 5 percent of the world population.
The name “Middle East” has a recent origin. For many centuries, European geographers used the term “Near East.” During World War II, the British designated their military headquarters in the region as the “Middle East Command.” Thereafter, the term “Middle East” came into general usage, and today this Eurocentric term remains the name of choice for both scientific and popular discourse, not only in the West but also in the region itself.
The Middle East is not a concept rooted in physical geography. Natural boundaries do not mark it off unequivocally from other areas of habitation such as Africa and central Asia. Rather, the Middle East takes meaning from human history, geopolitics, culture, and political economy. Though alternative regional conceptions exist for some of the same territories—among them the Arab world, western Asia, North Africa, the Islamic world, and the Mediterranean basin—“Middle East” has proved in recent times to be the most useful and enduring analytical framework.
The Middle East enjoys great historical and cultural unity—even more so, perhaps, than Europe. Most of its lands were ruled for over four centuries by a single state, the Ottoman Empire; and in the eight previous centuries Arab-Islamic empires often held sway. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the population adheres to Islam, and Arabic is spoken as the vernacular in most countries, while it is honored as the language of religion in most of the remainder. Architecture, the arts, and cuisine have a marked similarity throughout the region.
The Middle East region gave birth to important early civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, where arguably the world's first settled agriculture, cities, writing, and kingdoms emerged. The region also gave birth to some of the world's most influential religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was long the main transit route for trade between Europe and Asia as well as Europe and Africa, yielding rich rewards in cultural enrichment and trading income for many centuries.
A long history of competition and conflict with Europe defines the region. The battles between ancient Greeks and the Persian Empire have been seen to symbolize this struggle at a very early stage. In the Islamic era, powerful Middle Eastern states clashed with European military forces for many centuries and generally held the upper hand. As recently as 1683, an army from the Middle East nearly conquered Vienna. These conflicts, often considered in the West as a clash of Christianity with Islam, pitted neighboring civilizations and empires against one another and often had economic roots. The long competition did much to form the states, institutions, and consciousness of the modern world.
In the past two centuries, and especially the past hundred years, the balance of power shifted radically. European states came to dominate the Middle East economically and militarily and for a time ruled it directly through colonies and protectorates. Since World War II, the United States has supplanted Europe as the dominant power in the region. Though no colonies remain, the peoples of the region are inclined to resent their subordinate status and look back with wonder at an earlier age. In Europe and North America, the region is often portrayed as a dangerous, inhospitable, and backward place, marked by violence, corruption, fanaticism, and indolent voluptuousness. Such ideology, commonly referred to as “Orientalism,” remains central to the contemporary notion of the Middle East in spite of much analysis and criticism.
Many relatively weak nation-states now divide the region. Created by European colonial powers, these states are often bitter rivals and their conflicts fuel regional instability—much as did the intense rivalries of European states. More than two dozen border wars since 1945, including five major conflicts between Arab states and Israel, have involved all but four of the region's twenty-two states; and many border claims remain unsettled. The question of Palestine remains the most explosive and intractable issue in regional geopolitics.
Under these circumstances, political movements seeking greater regional unity have achieved little progress, and neither pan-Arabism nor pan-Islamism has borne fruit. The Arab League and the Islamic Conference Organization seek to establish closer ties between their member states, but they have gained only modest traction. Efforts to promote regional ties through trade pacts have been only marginally more successful as intraregional trade has grown from a very low level to about 20 percent of the region's total trade activity.
The Middle East is the world's most arid region, with desert covering more than half of its land surface. Heavy human use over a very long period and shifting climate have led to the steady spread of deserts and the destruction of human and animal habitats. Aridity has concentrated the rapidly growing population and created serious problems of agricultural development; the Middle East imports by far the highest proportion of food of any world region. Some countries, including Libya and Saudi Arabia, import 80–90 percent of their food, while populous Egypt imports about half of its basic foodstuffs. In a world of growing food scarcity, this creates serious problems and is very dangerous in a climate-changing future.
Since irrigated agriculture is in wide and growing use in the Middle East, competition for scarce ground and river water has created a number of sharp interstate conflicts. Turkey, Syria, and Iraq dispute the use of the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates River systems; Israel and its neighbors quarrel over underground aquifers and claims to the Jordan River system; while Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia differ over the Nile. Future agricultural development upstream from Egypt may be especially destabilizing.
The geopolitical importance of the Middle East in today's world partly results from its location on the major trade routes between Europe and Asia. The Suez Canal is the most important such corridor, linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea and accounting for 7 percent of the world's seaborne trade. Other vital seaways include the Turkish Straits, the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, and the Bab al-Mandeb at the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
Even more important than transportation looms the role of the Middle East as the center of the world's oil production (it is a significant gas producer as well). Ten regional countries are major oil producers, and some, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have amassed great wealth through export earnings. Figures show the region accounting for 32 percent of the world's crude oil production and about 9 percent of the world's refined product. With a large proportion of the world's petroleum reserves—about 65 percent by most estimates—the region will eventually produce the great majority of the world's oil. Oil production in the Middle East, far less costly than elsewhere in the world, has been enormously profitable. Military and economic control of the region is therefore considered a key to global power.
The heavy concentration of oil resources in the Middle East sharpened international rivalry and wars in the past century and has led to political instability and conflict in the Middle East itself. Oil revenues, which have enriched the treasuries of unpopular regimes, are also believed to have strengthened the tendency toward authoritarian governments in a region where democratic political systems have been rare. Most regimes have spent heavily on military forces. The Middle East consequently imports a large quantity of arms, including aircraft and major military equipment—amounting to about 17 percent of the world's major weapons trade. The Arab Spring of 2011 broke through the authoritarian systems in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, while seriously challenging many other regimes. This political opening will have a long-lasting influence on regional politics, both internally and in the constellation of interstate relations.
Located on Europe's periphery, the Middle East is drawn toward the European Union and its economic networks. The influence of Western culture and lifestyles has increased as international television programming, Internet access, and cell phone service have become widely available. But the region has also seen striking autonomous developments in recent years, including the rise of Dubai as a financial and trading center, the renaissance of Beirut as an intellectual and banking hub, the emergence of Turkey as a significant international economic and diplomatic power, and the international impact of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network. The backward monarchy of Saudi Arabia seems increasingly anomalous in this dynamic constellation.
Will the Middle East become absorbed into Western economy and lifestyles, or will it affirm its own regional integration and cultural identity? Political movements, Islamic and secular alike, signal a strong popular resistance to Westernization and a desire to affirm a separate identity. But whether the peoples and states of the Middle East will build common structures to affirm their mutual cooperation and solidarity remains to be seen.
[See also Arab Spring; Arafat, Yasir; Egypt; Iran; Iraq; Islam; Islam and Democracy; Israel; Khomeini, Ruhollah; Lebanon; Maghreb; Mubarak, Hosni; Nasser, Gamal Abdel; Palestine; Qadhafi, Muammar; and Saudi Arabia.]
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Schwedler, Jillian, and Deborah J. Gerner. Understanding the Contemporary Middle East. 3d ed. (Boulder, Colo., 2008).Find this resource: