Middle East

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: General Geography

Political & transportation map of the Middle East today
Political & transportation map of the Middle East today

The Middle East is a historical and political region of Africa-Eurasia with no clear definition. The term "Middle East" was popularized around 1900 by the British, and has been criticized for its loose definition. The Middle East traditionally includes countries or regions in Southwest Asia and parts of North Africa. The corresponding adjective to Middle East is Middle-Eastern and the derived noun is Middle-Easterner.

The history of the Middle East dates back to ancient times, and throughout its history the Middle East has been a major centre of world affairs. The Middle East generally has an arid and hot climate, with several major rivers providing for irrigation to support agriculture in limited areas. Many countries located around the Persian Gulf have large quantities of crude oil. In modern times, the Middle East remains a strategically, economically, politically, culturally, and religiously sensitive region.


The term "Middle East" may have originated in the 1850s in the British India Office, and became more widely known when American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan used the term. During this time the British and Russian Empires were vying for influence in Central Asia, a rivalry which would become known as The Great Game. Mahan realized not only the strategic importance of the region, but also of its centre, the Persian Gulf. He labeled the area surrounding the Persian Gulf as the Middle East, and said that after the Suez Canal, it was the most important passage for Britain to control in order to keep the Russians from advancing towards India. Mahan first used the term in his article "The Persian Gulf and International Relations", published in September 1902 in the National Review, a British journal.

The Middle East, if I may adopt a term which I have not seen, will some day need its Malta, as well as its Gibraltar; it does not follow that either will be in the Persian Gulf. Naval force has the quality of mobility which carries with it the privilege of temporary absences; but it needs to find on every scene of operation established bases of refit, of supply, and in case of disaster, of security. The British Navy should have the facility to concentrate in force if occasion arise, about Aden, India, and the Persian Gulf.

Alfred Thayer Mahan
Alfred Thayer Mahan

Mahan's article was reprinted in The Times and followed in October by a 20 article series entitled "The Middle Eastern Question", written by Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol. During this series, Chirol expanded the definition of the "Middle East" to include "those regions of Asia which extend to the borders of India or command the approaches to India." With the series end in 1903, The Times removed quotation marks from subsequent uses of the term.

Until World War II, it was customary to refer to areas centered around Turkey and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean as the Near East, while the Far East centered on China. The Middle East then meant the area from Mesopotamia to Burma, namely the area between the Near East and the Far East. The sense described in this article evolved during the war, perhaps influenced by the ancient idea of the Mediterranean as the "sea in the middle".

One widely used definition of the "Middle East" is that of the airline industry, maintained by the IATA standards organization. This definition — as of early 2007 — includes Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestinian territories, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syrian Arab Republic, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and Yemen. This definition is used in world-wide airfare and tax calculations for passengers and cargo.

Criticism and usage

Many have criticized the term Middle East for what they see as Eurocentrism, because it was originally used by Europeans (although Alfred Mahan was American) and reflects the geographical position of the region from a European perspective. It is also criticized due to the fact that the term today is often used to only refer to the Arab world, making the situation more confused.

Today the term is used by Europeans and non-Europeans alike, unlike the similar term Mashreq, used exclusively in Arabic-language contexts. The region is only east from the perspective of Europe. To an Indian, it lies to the west; to a Russian, it lies to the south. The description Middle has also led to some confusion over changing definitions. Before the First World War, Near East was used in English to refer to the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire, while Middle East referred to Persia, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, present day Pakistan and Central Asia, Turkistan and the Caucasus. In contrast, Far East refers to the countries of East Asia, e.g. China, Japan, Koreas, Hong Kong (China), Taiwan, etc. Such critics usually advise using an alternative term, such as "West Asia". The official UN designation of the area is "Southwest Asia".

With the disappearance of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1918, Near East largely fell out of common use in English, while Middle East came to be applied to the re-emerging countries of the Islamic world. However, the usage of Near East was retained by a variety of academic disciplines, including archaeology and ancient history, where it describes an area identical to the term Middle East, which is not used by these disciplines (see Ancient Near East). So in shorter words, the term Middle East came about when the UK/French part of the world used the term.

The Eisenhower Doctrine, a 1957 policy of the United States government, was the first to officially use the term Middle East. Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles defined the Middle East as "the area lying between and including Libya on the west and Pakistan on the east and Turkey on the North and the Arabian peninsula to the south, plus the Sudan and Ethiopia." In 1958, the State Department explained that the terms " Near East" and "Middle East" were interchangeable, and defined the region as including only Egypt, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.

The Associated Press Stylebook says that Near East formerly referred to the farther west countries while Middle East referred to the eastern ones, but that now they are synonymous. It instructs:

Use Middle East unless Near East is used by a source in a story. Mideast is also acceptable, but Middle East is preferred.


There are terms similar to "Near East" and "Middle East" in other European languages, but since it is a relative description, the meanings depend on the country and are different from the English terms generally. In German the term " Naher Osten" (Near East) is still in common use (although nowadays the term "Mittlerer Osten" is more and more common) and in Russian Ближний Восток or "Blizhniy Vostok" (Near East), Bulgarian Близкия Изток (Near East) or Polish Bliski Wschód remains as the only appropriate term for the region. However, some languages do have "Middle East" equivalents, such as the French Moyen-Orient and the Italian Medio Oriente.

Perhaps due to the influence of the Western press, the Arabic equivalent of “Middle East,” “‫الشرق الأوسط‬” (“ash-sharq al-’awsaT”), has become standard usage in the mainstream Arabic press, comprehending the same meaning as the term “Middle East” in North American and Western European usage. The Persian equivalent for Middle East is خاورمیانه (Khāvarmiyāneh).


The Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The Middle East (specifically, the Fertile Crescent) was the first centre of agriculture (see history of agriculture), and therefore of civilization. It lies at the juncture of Eurasia and Africa and of the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is the birthplace and spiritual centre of the Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Yezidi, and in Iran, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and the Bahá'í Faith. The Garden of Eden from the Book of Genesis is also thought to have been located between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, making the Middle East the cradle of civilization. Thus throughout its history the Middle East has been a major centre of world affairs; a strategically, economically, politically, culturally, and religiously sensitive area.

The modern Middle East began after World War I, when the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with the defeated Central Powers, was partitioned into a number of separate nations. Other defining events in this transformation included the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the departure of European powers, notably Britain and France. They were supplanted in some part by the rising influence of the United States.

In the 20th century, the region's significant stocks of crude oil gave it new strategic and economic importance. Mass production of oil began around 1945, with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates having large quantities of oil. Estimated oil reserves, especially in Saudi Arabia and Iran, are some of the highest in the world, and the international oil cartel OPEC is dominated by Middle Eastern countries.

During the Cold War, the Middle East was a theatre of ideological struggle between the two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union, as they competed to influence regional allies. Within this contextual framework, the United States sought to divert the Arab world from Soviet influence. Throughout the 20th and into the 21st century, the region has experienced both periods of relative peace and tolerance and periods of conflict and war. Current issues include the Iraq War, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Iranian nuclear program.

Territories and regions

Name of region, with flag Area
Population Population density
(per km²)
Capital GDP (Total) GDP (Per capita) Currency Government Official languages Coat of Arms
Flag of Egypt Egypt 1,001,449 82,982,364 74 Cairo $305.253 billion $4,317 Egyptian pound Semi-presidential republic (democracy) Arabic
Flag of Iran Iran 1,648,195 70,049,262 42 Tehran $610.4 billion $8,900 Iranian rial Islamic Republic Persian
Flag of Iraq Iraq 437,072 24,001,816 54.9 Baghdad $89.8 billion $3,600 Iraqi dinar Parliamentary Democracy (Developing) Arabic, Kurdish
Flag of Kuwait Kuwait 17,820 2,111,561 118.5 Kuwait City $88,7 billion $29,566 Kuwaiti dinar Constitutional Hereditary Arabic
Arabian Peninsula:
Flag of Bahrain Bahrain 665 656,397 987.1 Manama $14.08 billion $20,500 Bahraini Dinar Constitutional monarchy Arabic
Flag of Oman Oman 212,460 2,713,462 12.8 Muscat $40.923 billion Rial Absolute monarchy Arabic
Flag of Qatar Qatar 11,437 793,341 69.4 Doha $37.85 billion Riyal Monarchy Arabic
Flag of Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia 1,960,582 23,513,330 12.0 Riyadh $576.4 billion Riyal Absolute monarchy Arabic
Flag of United Arab Emirates United Arab Emirates 82,880 2,445,989 29.5 Abu Dhabi $162.3 billion UAE dirham Federal Constitutional Monarchy Arabic
Flag of Yemen Yemen 527,970 18,701,257 35.4 Sanaá $19.480 billion Yemeni rial Republic Arabic
The Levant:
Flag of Israel Israel 20,770 7,029,529 290.3 Jerusalem $177.3 billion $26,200 Israeli new sheqel Parliamentary democracy Hebrew, Arabic
Flag of Jordan Jordan 92,300 5,307,470 57.5 Amman $27.96 billion $4,825 Jordanian dinar Constitutional monarchy Arabic
Lebanon 10,400 3,677,780 353.6 Beirut $24.42 billion Lebanese lira Republic Arabic
Flag of Syria Syria 185,180 17,155,814 92.6 Damascus $71.74 billion Syrian pound Presidential republic Arabic
Flag of Kurdistan Iraqi Kurdistan 80,000 5,500,000 40 Arbil Iraqi Dinar Parliamentary democracy Kurdish, Arabic
Flag of Palestinian territories Gaza Strip 360 1,376,289 3,823 Gaza Israeli new sheqel Palestinian National Authority Arabic


The Middle East is home to numerous ethnic groups, including Amhara, Arabs, Armenians, Bahraini, Egyptians, Berbers, Africans, Assyrians, Azeris, Druze, Georgians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds, Persians, Turks, Turkmen and the Somali.


Languages of the Middle East span many different families, including Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, and Altaic.

Arabic in its numerous varieties and Persian are most widely spoken in the region, with Arabic being the most widely spoken language in the Arab countries. Other languages spoken in the region include Armenian, Assyrian (a form of Aramaic), Azeri, Balochi or Baluchi, Berber languages, Circassian, Persian, Georgian, Hebrew in its numerous varieties, Kurdish, Luri, Turkish and other Turkic languages, Greek and Urdu. In Turkey, Kurdish, Dimli (or Zaza), Azeri, Kabardiaz, and Gagauz languages are spoken, in addition to the Turkish language.

English is also spoken, especially among the middle and upper class, in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Kuwait. French is spoken in Algeria, Israel, Lebanon, Morocco, Syria, and Egypt. Hindi and other Indian and South Asian languages are spoken in many Middle Eastern countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Qatar, which have large numbers of South Asian immigrants.


Dubai skyline
Dubai skyline
The Burj al Arab artificial island
The Burj al Arab artificial island


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