It’s likely that you are no stranger to hearing about the Middle East. The term gets tossed around around in the news and on social media frequently. It also often pops up when talking about religion or when studying history. What is the Middle East though? Sure, it is one thing to have heard the term, but another to understand where and what it is.
Chances are, it may entail a little more than you realized.
Understanding a Region
The Middle East is the common term used to describe the region of countries located in southwest Asia and North Africa. A region is defined as “an area, especially part of a country or the world, having definable characteristics, but not always fixed boundaries.” Some regions are defined by physical geography, while others take into account human geography, like a shared language, religion, or history. The Middle East can be defined by both.
The countries that comprise the Middle East are all located together, generally considered to be the area that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf, bounded by the Black and Caspian Seas in the north and the Sahara Desert and Indian Ocean in the south. The Middle East generally has a hot, arid climate, with several major rivers providing irrigation to support agriculture.
The countries in the Middle East have a long history. The region is the birthplace of the three main Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It has also long been an area of trade and cultural transmission. While there is a diversity of languages, ethnicities, religions, and daily life customs in the Middle East, many of these underlying characteristics cross borders and weave themselves in through every country that is part of the region.
It is also important to note that the term Middle East is relatively new, and very Eurocentric. Middle of what? East of what? This directional name, is of course, completely relative to one’s location. Still, given all that, the term has gained widespread use both in the region, and worldwide.
What Countries are in the Middle East?
Regions, more times than not, are not easily defined, and the Middle East is no exception. There is no definitive list of Middle Eastern countries. That said, these are the countries most would consider to make up the Middle East:
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
Like we mentioned though, there is no real right answer to this, so you will hear different countries included depending on who you ask. Other countries that are sometimes included are: Turkey, Cyprus, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and Sudan.
Which Countries are Out?
One common mistake people often make is to associate the Middle East with the Arab world. While most of the Middle Eastern countries are Arabic speaking, not all of them are, and in all cases there is a great deal of cultural diversity, in both language, and traditional country practices and activities. Likewise, the Middle East does not simply equate to Islam.
Pakistan, the Central Asian states (i.e. ‘The Stans’), and countries between the Black and Caspian Seas, such as Georgia and Armenia, do not typically make the list of Middle Eastern countries. These countries do have long-standing interrelationships with their Middle Eastern neighbors, but geographically don’t really fit within the Middle East.
One other important consideration is that up until World War II, what we now think of as the Middle East was more commonly referred to as the Near East. The Far East was the area centered around China. The Middle East, at that time, was everything in between (from about Iraq to Myanmar). In the late 1930s, the British established the Middle East Command, which was based in Cairo, Egypt. Soon after, the term “Middle East” gained broader usage in Europe and the United States, and came to encompass the region we typically think of as being the Middle East.
What About the Continent?
The last confusing component of understanding the Middle East is knowing which continent it belongs to. Because some of the Middle Eastern countries are in Africa, and some are in Asia, it becomes difficult to subject the whole region to be defined as specifically belonging to one continent. As such, most people define the Middle East as a trans-continental region, meaning it has countries that exist in more than one continent.