Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Is the South Caucasus Region a Part of the Middle East?"

Academic journal article Journal of Third World Studies

Is the South Caucasus Region a Part of the Middle East?"

Article excerpt


In 1967, Alec Nove and J.A. Newth published a noteworthy assessment of the economic and social development in the South Caucasus (known at the time as Transcaucasia) and Central Asia entitled The Soviet Middle East: A Model for Development?, which was reprinted in 2012. The authors contend that "the areas with which this study is concerned lie at the very margin of what is often loosely defined as the Middle East." (1) Indeed, that geographic term is both arbitrary and elastic and--although used in the region today (e.g. al-Sharq al-Awsat or Orta Dogu) alongside more descriptive subregions such as al-Maghreb (Arab West), al-Mashreq (Arab East) and al Khaleej (Gulf area) (2)--was invented by Westerners. One might ask regarding the "Middle East": In the west, does the region include North Africa outside of Egypt and, if so, which countries in particular--Mauritania, Sudan, the Horn of Africa, etc.? Or in the east, is Afghanistan or even Pakistan part of that region? Or, in the north, given Nove and Newth's usage of the term or more importantly the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, should the "Middle East" include the South Caucasus or even Central Asia? There seems to be no dispute on core areas such as Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the Arabian peninsula, while Egypt is most often accepted as being part of that region. (Interestingly, Cyprus, which is now a member of the European Union and closer to Syria and Turkey than the Greek island of Rhodes, is sometimes included.) However, Turkey and Israel are more problematic.

Following the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, Middle Eastemists and Eastern Europeanists/Soviet specialists engaged in what seemed to be a turf war over the study of the Caucasus and Central Asia. While these regions have Slavic inhabitants as a result of the historic expansion of Russia, their histories until the respective Russian conquests were connected with the Middle East especially Armenians inhabit areas outside that region and within the Middle East as defined during the 20,h century. While ethnic Azeris are overwhelmingly Muslim and predominantly Shi'a and a small minority of ethnic Georgians are their Sunni co-religionists, both the great majority of Armenians and Georgians are members of either the Armenian Apostolic Church or the Georgian Orthodox Church, respectively, among the earliest eastern Christian sects. Notwithstanding the fact that the population of the Middle East is today overwhelmingly Muslim, that religious connection should not be the determining factor in defining the Middle East as all three monotheistic faiths originated in that region even by its narrowest definition.

It is my contention given past history and present-day political, economic and cultural ties that despite the fact all three countries--Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan--wish to be connected with the West and Europe in particular, just like Turkey, they are also inextricably a part of the Middle East. No attempt, however, will be made to address that argument regarding the region of Central Asia, which is not as well defined as the South Caucasus. (3) It is necessary to discuss first the origins and evolution of the terms "Middle East" and "Near East" and afterwards the historical, political, economic and cultural connections of the countries of the South Caucasus and their people with the Middle East.


In 2004, Brian Whitaker, Middle East Editor for the British newspaper The Guardian stated:

   I have been writing about it ... for almost four years and I'm
   fairly sure that I have been there, but I have to confess that
   I don't know for certain where the Middle East is. The only
   consolation--for me, if not for those on the receiving end of
   US Middle East policy--is that the state department, the
   Pentagon and the military are as confused as I am (4)

While the terms "Near East" and "Middle East" have never been clearly defined since their respective inceptions and often used interchangeably, in the post-Cold War world, and especially after 9/11, a new term "Greater Middle East" has come into usage adding confusion. …

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