How Should We Define the ‘Middle East’?

As world events of the last decade– the attacks of September 11, 2001, the resultant U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “Arab Spring”, and seemingly atavistic conflicts between Israel and Palestine– have made the region known as the Middle East an ever more important center of political turmoil, journalistic and academic literature have more than kept up their pace of analysis to meet the growing demand of the general public, scholars, and policymakers. In the midst of an endless sea of policy analysis, one point that appears to have remained unsolved in academia and characteristically taken for granted in news media is the question of what precisely one refers to when speaking of the Middle East or, to use the more general term, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Despite the fact of common terminology having uniformly converged upon the term “Middle East”, its designation in academic culture has historically been debated as alternately “Middle East”, “Near East”, or “Southwest Asia.”[i]  Regardless, scholastic squabbles over such terms are ultimately attempts at accounting for taste, as all are accurately descriptive in the means employed by their respective proponents. The region, both by its physical geographic centrality and diversity of cultural influences, certainly lends itself to designations comprised of compound relative descriptors (“Middle”– of what? “East”– of where?). North Africa is another region to have similarly eluded strict definition, though many scholars concur over the interrelation of the two entities, however they are to be constituted. What is important in such discussions, for the purpose of conceptual objectivity, is the task of this paper: to establish a means of more clearly defining the regions to be subsumed by whichever term scholar prefers to use, then to apply that method and derive what implications it might hold for the unified concept of the MENA.

To begin defining the MENA, this analysis will dispense with the more unitary framework generally employed in the field of geography, holding it to be an anti-conceptual aggregation of categorically distinct traits and qualities that are sometimes interrelated, but the divergence of which in the case of the MENA is the root of much of the difficulty that scholars have found in defining it. This mistaken aggregation leads to a misguided search for Platonic essences in geographic regions, the “North-Africanness” in North Africa or the “Middle-Easternness” in the Middle East, and for definitive proverbial signposts declaring, “Here lies Asia, abandon all Europeanness ye who enter here.” The interdisciplinary nature of the field of modern geography, in its drive to define regions by various disparate qualitative factors and to aggregate them into the definition of a “geographic region” leads naturally to the ambiguity that is most articulated in the instance of the Middle East, but subtly present in most others. In that sense, the trouble found by geography in defining the “Middle East” could be thought of as endemic in the study as a whole, but painstakingly articulated in this most intricate of regions whose state boundaries were not formed by the same nationalistic forces as much of Europe, but imposed upon diverse and fluid demographics that moved frequently and without limitation. Thus, when geographers find that the boundaries of physical features do not coincide with those of the man-made, they find their idea of a strict geographic region to be continually weakened. As such, it is particularly valuable in the case of the MENA to separate the analysis into that of physical geography (used here to denote climate, topography, agriculture, etc.), culture, economics, and geopolitics. By partitioning these contexts, one finds that in some instances they reinforce and validate the generalization of a largely unitary geographic region, where in others they undermine it.

It would be mistaken to take this approach as suggesting that, when it comes to defining a Middle East, “there isn’t a there there.” Rather, the idea of a Middle East or a MENA should be accepted as a contextual absolute. That is to say: there is irrefutably a region conceived as the Middle East which is culturally and historically unique from all adjoining lands. This is the cultural Middle East. It may not, however, fully coincide with the borders of those nations whose geopolitical and economic activities are indicative of the preponderance of the states which constitute the region, nor with their physical geography– thus giving rise to the concepts of the geopolitical, economic, and, for simplicity’s sake, geographical Middle East. One may, nonetheless, speak validly of a general “Middle East” and even a “Middle East and North Africa” where a preponderance of those traits coincide, so long as one never loses sight of their points of divergence and the risk of generalization. Fortunately, in defining North Africa, some of those traits coincide well, providing a baseline for analysis against which more ambiguous cases can be contrasted.

The region of North Africa provides a distinctive instance in which the physical geographic boundaries of the Atlantic to the East, Mediterranean to the North, Red Sea to the West, and Sahara to the South have largely historically delimited the spread of a set of cultural, economic, and geopolitical features. One of the longest (by some accounts the longest) continually inhabited regions of the world, North Africa is characterized by the cultural dominance of Arab and Berber ethnicities and, since the mid-seventh century, Islam as the overwhelmingly prevalent religion among its peoples. Economically, its agriculture is dictated by a Mediterranean climate in the north, tapering to the more arid environment of the northern Sahara in the south.[ii] The agricultural production of the region is made more endogenous to its cultural and economic conditions by its geopolitical character and history which, like that of much of the Middle East, has been rather resilient to the forces of globalisation and modernisation, centering its economies more on agriculture and the production and cultivation of natural resources than developed modern nations that have more directly experienced the productive benefits of trade liberalisation and capitalism.

The historic propensity of cultural dispersion, trade routes, and political power to be bounded in the south by the Sahara remained historically significant for ancient Semitic cultures, the spread of Islam and Muslim culture, the more insular trade patterns between North Africa and its southern neighbors, and Ottoman hegemony. The coincidence of these separate features and patterns of behavior distinguishing the North from sub-Saharan Africa establishes a unified image of North Africa as a region of a distinctive identity continually reinforced by the ways of life practiced and circumstances faced by its inhabitants. To that extent, the aggregate geographic concept of a “region of North Africa” is quite descriptive.

The Middle East, by contrast, poses a more diverse case for analysis, one less accommodating in its coincidence (or lack thereof) of physical geography, culture, economics, and geopolitics. From the culturally distinct histories and modern incarnations of Turkey, Iran, Israel, and the Mashreq to the contrasting economies of oil-rich Saudi Arabia and its scantily-endowed, trade-dependent neighbor Yemen, the disparate physical geographies of arid Syria and Mediterranean Cyprus, and the explosive geopolitical contrast of Western-aligned Israel with its Muslim neighbors, the lack of physically-reinforced cultural, economic, and political qualities of the region often generalized as the “Middle East” presents scholars with a tangled web of features that resist the geographer’s inclination to seek causal linkages between separate qualitative categories. This diversity of features gives rise to the need for the sort of contextual distinction described in this paper. Physical descriptors such as “the Dry World” leave casual students surprised to discover the lush, fertile portions of Iran, Mediterranean Lebanon, and even Syria.[iii] Cultural labels such as “Arab World” mandate exceptions for Turkey, Israel, and Iran. “World of Islam” is more broadly applicable, necessitating an exception for Israel but otherwise effectively characterizing the Middle East as a whole. Any reference based on an economic quality, such as “oil-producing countries” will surprise those who look more deeply into the region’s economies to find that fossil fuel exporting describes a rather limited region at the core of what is thought of as the Middle East, neglecting its rather oil-poor regions at the periphery. In general, Middle Eastern countries derive many of their finished products and what would be considered lower-order goods from foreign imports. Elias Tuma writes, “Regional underdevelopment is also reflected in the direction of trade, a large percentage of which is conducted with industrial and developed countries since no country in the region has the quantitative and qualitative capacity to satisfy regional demand for manufactured products.”[iv] To improve their countries’ conditions, Middle Eastern states have often attempted to engage in some form of economic planning to improve their condition, subsidizing private industry, creating public enterprises, expanding public education, and courting foreign investment, though significant or lasting development has remained elusive.

The conception of the Middle East as a geopolitical region provides perhaps the most unifying, all-encompassing context that one could apply to the region. Provided that context, the events of the last fifteen years can easily justify the subsuming of nations from Turkey to Pakistan in a “geopolitical Middle East”– including even the elusive Afghanistan which, despite glaring (and increasing) cultural and political parallels with Middle Eastern states, has consistently been relegated by geographers to the category of Central Asian states. This is in keeping with the views of some modernist scholars, Middle Eastern or otherwise, who “would equate [the Middle East] with the Afro-Asian World even if it includes some non-Muslims but they share the same ideals of independence and development with the whole.”[v] Time and repeated political contests, however, reveal that even Muslims are not unified on how to define the ideals of ‘independence’ and ‘development’, or what they mean for Muslim culture, making this conception that much more problematic. To that effect, the one complication inherent to the designation of a “geopolitical Middle East” is its potential inconstancy over time. As history has witnessed greater and lesser interconnectedness of Middle Eastern politics, to define the region based on that context opens a door to future changes in the meaning of the term “Middle East” as peoples migrate, alliances coalesce and dissolve, and regimes rise and fall. The political Middle East of today may not be that of tomorrow.

Once the two regions are individuated and contextually defined, the challenge shifts to determining how clearly unified one can consider the Middle East and North Africa into a single MENA. Referring to the states of North Africa which they consider part of the MENA, Drysdale and Blake note, “They are historically and culturally inseparable from the Middle East. They share a common language with the Arab-speaking states, a common religion in Islam, and political aspirations within the Arab community that also broadly coincide. Both North Africa and the Middle East are key oil-producing regions… The Mediterranean Sea is also an important common factor.”[vi] In keeping with the method addressed in this writing, their similarity or difference naturally depends upon the context one is referring to, though a brief contextual comparison shows the unified concept of the MENA to be quite valid.

Physically, the more than ninety percent of the lands constituting the Maghreb are characterized as having a “warm desert climate,” with exceptions along the Mediterranean in Morocco and Western Sahara deemed “warm Mediterranean climate”, “cool semi-arid climate”, or “cold desert climate.” Comparably, the Arabian Peninsula is considered to consist entirely of a “warm desert climate”, tapering up to variations between the other three throughout all of the lands that could arguably be considered the Middle East. Therefore, though North Africa is more universally composed of a warm desert climate, neither it nor the Middle East (however defined) possesses a climate that is not to be found in some quantity within the bounds of the other.[vii]

Culturally, the two share a vastly predominant Arab/Muslim culture. Arabic remains the dominant language from Western Sahara to Oman (excepting Turkey), beyond which Persian and other Indo-European languages dominate Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The “World of Islam” encapsulates all of the nations and regions discussed here, with the central exception of Israel. Economically, the constituent countries of the Middle East and North Africa have historically been and remain today quite varied, depending largely upon the natural resource endowments of each and their varied responses to globalization, the proper response to which remains a debated issue in domestic politics throughout many parts of the two regions. Against the Salafist resistance to modern ways come more liberal voices of private, profit-seeking parties and organizations, as well as a middle-ground constituted by those such as Muslim-Brotherhood-affiliated Cairo University scholar Hassan Hanafi, who calls for “an interdependent world in the name of the multipolar world expressing the surmounting power of the periphery”– that is, a sort of multiculturalist vision of globalization in which the character of the Muslim World can be retained and even emboldened in the presence of economic advances and integration with the world market.

Were there any doubt as to the geopolitical coherence of the Middle East and North Africa, they were thoroughly challenged by the events of 2011. The “Arab Spring” revolts beginning in January of that year demonstrated the propensity of radical political action in one state (Tunisia, in this case) to have a contagion effect spanning seventeen Muslim states (plus Western Sahara), ranging from minor demonstrations in Mauritania and Oman to bloody civil wars in Libya and Syria where, as of this writing (December 2012), the conflict continues to escalate. The political interconnectedness of the MENA was indisputably demonstrated by this wave of popular action in which one population after another witnessed the actions of their Arab neighbors and identified strongly enough, if not with the letter of their dispute (as each population rebelled against its own respective government, rather than a common enemy), then certainly with its spirit. One observation is pertinent here: the “Arab Spring” was precisely that– distinctly Arab in nature. Allowing for the possibility of confounding factors in each nation’s domestic politics at the time, the reactions did not spread to non-Arab states such as Turkey and Iran which, little more than a year prior, had been the scene of significant public demonstrations against the standing regime. Its failure to spread to these countries is not definitively significant, but should be considered by scholars in determining how Iran and Turkey sit within the contextual framework of a geopolitical MENA.

Despite the seeming elusiveness of defining the MENA, it would appear that events of the last several years are conspiring to aid scholars in their efforts at defining the boundaries and character of the region. Notably, the partition of South Sudan and its recent founding as the world’s youngest state may provide a new and more qualitatively distinct boundary for North Africa, with Sudan retaining its MENA status and the largely Christian, culturally separate South Sudan being more easily grouped with its sub-Saharan neighbors, with its northern border serving as a more geographically valid southern limit of the MENA. More significant than this, however, changes within the MENA are allowing for uncontrolled experiments in the durability of the concept by providing demonstrations of how its leaders and people react to the shared challenges of an increased diversity of cultural influences brought about by the permeations of modern media (a varied range from ready embrace to indignant traditionalism), economic globalization (a mix of profit motivation and conservative skepticism), dictatorship (popular uprising), and newfound opportunities to shape national politics in a way that dispenses with the mitigating effects of existing institutions’ resistance to change and gives some semblance of current popular opinion and dominant ideology at work in those countries (results pending). How consistent the states of the MENA prove in coming years to be in facing these challenges should tell geographers something about how well their conception of it as a unified region relates to reality

[i] A fuller discussion of the history of terms applied to the region can be found in Adelson, Roger. “British and U.S. Use and Misuse of The Term ‘Middle East’” in Is There A Middle East?: The Evolution of a Geopolitical Concept, edited by Michael E. Bonine, Abbas Amanat, and Michael Ezekiel Gasper. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 36-55

[ii] Peel, M. C., Finlayson, B. L., and McMahon, T. A.: Updated world map of the Köppen-Geiger climate classification, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 11, 1633-1644, doi:10.5194/hess-11-1633-2007, 2007. Accessed 5/12/2012.

[iii] An excellent summary of the physical geography of the Middle East as a whole can be found in chapters 2-5 of Anderson, Evan W. The Middle East: Geography & Geopolitics. London: Routledge.

[iv] Tuma, Elias H. “The Economies of the Middle East” in Understanding the Contemporary Middle East, edited by Deborah J. Gerner and Jillian Schwedler. London: Lynne Riener Publishers, pp. 211-247.

[v] Hanafi, Hassan. “The Middle East, In Whose World? (Primary Reflections)” Papers from The Fourth Nordic Conference on Middle Eastern Studies. August 1998.

[vi] Blake, Gerald H. Drysdale, Alasdair. The Middle East and North Africa: A Political Geography. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. p. 11

[vii] Peel, Finlayson, and McMahon


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