Making Sense of Middle East Geopolitics

By Ghosheh, Baher, A. | Focus, Winter 1992 | Go to article overview

Making Sense of Middle East Geopolitics


Ghosheh, Baher, A., Focus


To most Americans, the Middle East evokes mixed feelings and notions. The region is often associated with mysticism and conflict. Many fail to understand its complexity and diversity, its people, religions, resources and politics. This article aims at shedding some light on this opaque and misunderstood region, and comes to grips with deeply-rooted misperceptions.

As a starting point, a clear definition of the region is in order. The term "Middle East" reflets a British and European view of the world. Most Americans have accepted this European ethnocentric definition without question. From an American perspective, the "Far East" is actually the Far West. Consequently, an objective, geographic definition of "Middle East" would include Southwest Asia and North Africa. it is equally important to realize that the countries comprising this region can vary; but there is general agreement on the following countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, United Yemen. Some geographers include Greece, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries in a looser definition of the Middle East.

SOCIALLY AND ENVIRONMENTALLY DIVERSE

Equally important is the fact that while most Americans perceive all Middle Easterners to be the same, the region is actually a melting pot of ethnic, religious, racial and linguistic groups. The diversity of the region extends to physical geography--climatic regions, as well as huham geography--population, development, standards of living and lifestyles. The distinctions among different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups is a paramount importance. Historical rivalries between some groups go back thousands of years. The region's population may be divided into two major groups, Arabs and non-Arabs. Arabs make up the dominant group in twelve of the fifteen countries and account for more than half of the total population. Non-Arabs are found primarily in two of the three most populous countries, Iran and Turkey, but include other important groups such as the Kurdish population of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria; the Israeli Jewish population, and other minority groups throughout the region.

Unfortunately, many outsiders do not understand these critical ethnolinguistic and religious distinctions. More importantly, a significant number of Americans continue to associate the region and its people with inaccurate stereotypes. David Lamb, in his book The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage points out that the West sees the Arab "as a millionaire, a terrorist, a camel herder, or a refugee, but not as a human being." Sadly, this erroneous perception is further complicated by the failure to distinguish among the region's political, ethnic and religious groups.

THE MIDDLE EAST'S IMPORTANCE AS A WORLD REGION

Of the many factors that contribute to the region's vital role in the world's history, economy, and geopolitics, the following are the most germane to understanding today's Middle East:

* The Middle East enjoys a geostrategic location. The region is a crossroads to three continents: Asia, Europe and Africa. The fact that the Middle East is a tri-continental junction has been a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, this geostrategic loction promoted trade and exchange and thus benefitted the region; on the other hand, it means that different powers from within and outside the region have competed for its control. Consequently, the Middle East has been a center of conflict, and a battlefield, for centuries.

* The Middle East has been an historical trading region. Anciently, people of the Middle East were the intermediaries in trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe. Many economists attribute the decline of the Middle East in the Middle Ages to the loss of this economic role. With the discovery of new trading routes during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the region lost its principal role in the global economy. …

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