85 This Region is Many Worlds

This Region is Many Worlds

The Middle East and North Africa is a vast and important region that does not lend itself to a convenient “label”. I like to tell my students that if I were asked to write chapter in a text on this region, I would have a difficult time finding an appropriate chapter title. This region is really five” worlds”. Below, I will briefly describe the five ways I see this part of our planet.

The 5 “Worlds” that are the Middle East and North Africa”:

I. “The Dry World”: This region is the most arid landscape on the Earth. Stretching across the Sahara Desert of North Africa, the Arabian and Salt Deserts of West Asia, and on into the Central Asian Gobi Desert, this vast region suffers from a lack of precipitation. As a result, the people who do live here cluster in the areas where there is sufficient rainfall to support vegetation and life: coastal areas, oases, and along the few rivers. The activities of the peoples of this region have always been affected by the aridity, although the traditional ways of people like the Bedouin have largely disappeared.

II. “The World of Islam”: The people of this region are largely unified by their belief in Islam. Other religions thrive in this region, of course, but the overwhelming majority of the people are Muslims. The political, economic, and social characteristics we observe in this part of the world are deeply impacted by Islam. The rise, in a number of countries, of fundamentalist Islamic governments, further complicates our understanding of the region.

III. “The Arab World”: Over half the people of this region are Arabs, an ethnic group difficult to accurately describe. Arabs, at the least, could be descibed as a people who speak Arabic, are followers of Islam, and share a history, culture, and view of the world. Arabs have suffered from the stereotypes created by people outside the Middle East and from the factionalism within the region.

IV. “The Oil World”: This region contains over half the proven petroleum reserves of the planet. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq have become forces for the world to reckon with because of their vast oil supples. The existence of oil has given this region an importance and a position of power greater than would be expected given the other characteristics of the region. The western industrial countries learned about this power in the early 1970s when the O.P.E.C. cartel practically ground the western economies to a halt. The continuation of prosperity in the western world will be a function of stability in the oil world. The oil producing countries of this region must find ways to harness the great wealth derived from the sale of oil into sustainable development for the people of this region.

V. “The World of Conflict”: Geographers describe a region that is always politically and socially unstable as a “shatter zone”. That term is more than appropriate to describe the Middle East and North Africa. Think about the barrage of news reports you have heard over the years that describe terrorism, civil war, and violence in this region. Think about Beirut, the West Bank, Iran and Iraq, Libya, Algeria, the Arab-Israeli Wars, Kuwait- the list seems endless. The effects of uneven development, the legacy of European imperialism, the intoxicating power of oil, the factionalism within the religions, and the centuries of misunderstandings have made this the shatter zone it is today.

Original document by Peter Turner licensed CC BY


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