Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East

By Cordesman, Anthony H. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East


Cordesman, Anthony H., The Middle East Journal


Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East, by Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Harkavy. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment, 1997. Dist. by Brookings Inst. xv + 352 pages. Append. to p. 409. Notes to p. 459. Index to p. 491. $52.95 cloth; $22.95 paper. Reviewed by Anthony H. Cordesman

Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Harkavy have performed a major service to Middle Eastern and strategic studies with their latest book. Geography is a critical element in many of the problems in the Middle East, but it often receives only passing mention. In far too many cases, both journalists and academics resort to sound-bite summaries of critical strategic issues, or make generalizations that cannot be substantiated with solid facts. Fortunately, Kemp and Harkavy have provided the kind of reference work that is needed to change this situation, and which should be essential reading for policy makers, military planners, scholars, and students alike.

Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East begins with an overview of the geography of the region and an analysis of the impact of geography on the recent history of the "greater Middle East," the scope of which extends beyond narrow definitions of the region to include Africa and Central Asia. The content of the initial chapters may be broadly familiar to most serious analysts, but even experts will benefit from the linkages that Kemp and Harkavy establish between the various elements of the political and economic geography of the greater Middle East. These chapters also treat "geography" in the broadest sense of the word. There are supporting summaries of recent demographic trends, labor issues, economic and energy competition, ethnic and religious issues, and border disputes. The supporting maps are chosen well and illustrate the ways in which geography has affected recent conflicts and the search for energy.

The analysis provides country-by-country summaries and an overview of the subregions in the Middle East. It also discusses geographic influences outside of these regions. For example, the discussion of water issues includes a discussion of the problems Egypt faces in dealing with Ethiopia, Eritrea and the Sudan, and a discussion of the role of Turkey in affecting the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates. More generally, the work covers the interactions between the Middle East and the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Horn of Africa, and South Asia. The only major omission is a detailed discussion of the strategic geography of North Africa, which is only touched upon in passing.

The analysis becomes more challenging when Kemp and Harkavy begin their analysis of what they call the "strategic energy ellipse," or the Persian Gulf and Caspian Basin. There are excellent overviews of the importance of Gulf oil reserves, their links to resources in the Caspian, and changes in world demand for oil. There is a good analysis of the changing geography of demand, and of the fact that it is Asia, not the West, which has become the primary user of Gulf oil. The data on the relative cost of oil and gas production in given Middle Eastern countries, and future US dependence on energy imports from the Middle East, add further depth to the discussion.

The analysis of the geography of gas supply and demand reflects the fact that gas is emerging as a major resource that is making a fundamental change in the energy geography of the Middle East, and needs as much study as oil. Kemp and Harkavy's discussion of Iran's need for gas provides a particularly good example of this change in the region's strategic geography, but the authors make it clear that gas issues in the Caspian and the Gulf are also of major importance.

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