The Middle East is a geographical and cultural region located primarily in western Asia, but also parts of northern Africa and southeastern Europe. The region consists of approximately 20 countries, with no universally agreed upon definition of which countries make up the Middle East. However, there are certain common criteria that are often used to classify a country as part of the Middle East, both geographically and culturally.
Quick Geographical Overview
The most commonly accepted geographical definition of the Middle East includes the following countries:
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
This region covers an area of approximately 2.5 million square miles, bridging the continents of Africa, Asia and Europe. The Middle East is considered a subregion of Asia by the United Nations.
There are several geographical factors that are commonly used to determine if a country is part of the Middle East region:
Location in Asia
The Middle East is located primarily within the continent of Asia. Any country that is situated within or shares land borders with Western Asia is often considered part of the Middle East. This includes countries such as Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, etc.
Proximity to the Mediterranean Sea
The Mediterranean Sea forms the western and northern borders of the Middle East region. Countries that have coastlines along the Mediterranean are generally viewed as being part of the Middle East. This includes countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, etc.
Inclusion in the ‘Greater Middle East’
Some definitions of the Middle East also incorporate countries in northern Africa like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya into an expanded region referred to as the ‘Greater Middle East’. This emphasizes historical, political and cultural connections between the countries.
Partitioning from the British and Ottoman Empires
Many present-day Middle Eastern countries were formerly part of the British and Ottoman empires. Their shared history within these territories is a factor in their regional classification today. For instance, countries like Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Israel were under British control, while Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Yemen were part of the Ottoman empire.
Proximity to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf
The Red Sea and Persian Gulf (also known as the Arabian Gulf) provide natural boundaries between some parts of the Middle East and neighboring regions. Countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, UAE and others that are situated along or in close proximity to these bodies of water are considered part of the Middle East.
Most of the Middle East falls under the hot desert climate zone, characterized by very high temperatures and low annual rainfall. This shared climate is another factor linking countries in the region. However, some elevated areas and coastal regions have a Mediterranean climate.
In addition to geographical associations, there are also certain cultural characteristics that help define the Middle East as a region:
Prevalent Ethnic Groups
While great ethnic diversity exists throughout the Middle East, some of the most widely represented groups include Arabs, Turks, Persians, Jews, Kurds, Berbers, Armenians, and Circassians. The shared ethnicity among certain population groups connects countries in the region.
The main languages spoken across the Middle East derive from common roots. These include Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish. The linguistic ties help bind the region together. For instance, Arabic is widely spoken in the Arab states of the Middle East.
The dominant religions in the Middle East are Islam (both Sunni and Shia) and Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant). Judaism also has a long tradition in the region. This shared religious heritage is a cultural link between Middle Eastern countries.
Countries in the Middle East share a cuisine that is Mediterranean and Arab in nature. Staple foods like olive oil, flatbreads, rice, yogurt, phyllo pastry, etc. are common to the region. The cuisine also shares spices like cinnamon, allspice, peppermint, cloves, za’atar, etc.
While varying greatly, traditional attire in the Middle East has some similarities rooted in the region’s culture and climate. Loose, flowing robes to cover the body are predominant. Some common garments include the thawb/dishdasha, abaya, hijab, and keffiyeh.
The Middle Eastern literary tradition dates back several thousand years to early civilizations like Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. Important shared influences across the region’s literature include the Quran, Bible, and the thousand and one nights folk tales.
Common architectural styles found across the Middle East include Islamic architecture featuring arches, geometric patterns and minimal decoration as seen in mosques. Also prevalent are Middle Eastern vernacular styles like the courtyard house organized around a central space.
While each country has its own distinct musical heritage, some shared characteristics of Middle Eastern music include complex rhythmic patterns, instrumentation like the oud and darbuka drum, maqam scales, and ornamentation in melodies.
There are some political associations that further align countries within the framework of the Middle East:
Arab League Membership
The Arab League is a political organization of Arabic-speaking countries. Its members include Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, etc. This shared political affiliation brings the countries together within the Middle East region.
Organization of Islamic Cooperation
The OIC consisting of 57 member states represents the Muslim world. Most countries in the Middle East are part of the OIC, strengthening bonds based on their Islamic faith.
History of Ottoman Rule
As mentioned earlier, the shared imperial past within the Ottoman Empire creates long-standing historical ties between many Middle Eastern countries like Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, and more.
Alignment in International Relations
Middle Eastern countries often align with each other in matters of international affairs, conflict, trade, alliances, aid, etc. This political kinship reinforces the region.
Certain economic factors also contribute to the cohesion of the Middle East:
Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)
OPEC membership is shared by major oil producers Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar. Their status as leading global oil suppliers is an economic commonality.
High Income from Natural Resources
The Middle East holds almost half the world’s oil reserves and over a third of natural gas reserves. This major economic driver links regional players.
Extensive trade exists between Middle Eastern countries, especially oil exports as well as imports of manufactured products, food items, consumer goods, etc. Countries are interdependent.
Joint infrastructure like pipelines to transport oil and gas span multiple Middle Eastern countries, connecting their economies. Similarly, a network of highways links the region.
The flow of migrant workers between Middle Eastern countries, especially energy-rich Gulf states and labor-abundant countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Syria also creates economic interdependence.
The Middle East is an important tourist destination, attracting visitors with its history, culture, and natural scenery. Regional cooperation to develop tourism strengthens economic ties.
Certain geopolitical factors also help shape the Middle East as a defined region:
Shared Security Concerns
Issues like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, terrorism, border disputes, civil wars, etc. preoccupy the Middle East. Countries cooperate to tackle these challenges.
Intervention by World Powers
The strategic location and resources of the Middle East have long attracted interest from world powers like the United States, Russia, Britain, and France. Their involvement also binds the region.
The presence of regional bodies like the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council facilitates cooperation on political and security issues between member Middle Eastern states.
Mediation by Middle Eastern states in each other’s conflicts like the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen or Egyptian-led reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas promotes unity.
Transnational Water Resources
Shared water resources like the Tigris-Euphrates river system create interdependence between Middle Eastern countries downstream like Iraq and upstream like Turkey. Equitable use promotes cooperation.
In summary, while varied and complex, the Middle East has certain binding features that lend it definition as a distinct region. Geographically, culturally, politically, economically, and in terms of geopolitics, the countries of the Middle East are closely intertwined through history, ethnicity, religion, language, cuisine, traditions, affiliations, interests and more. These multidimensional links characterize and unite the region amidst all its diversity. The Middle East forms a geographical and cultural crossroads zone that brings together Africa, Asia and Europe through shared lands, seas, resources, communities, institutions and destinies.