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Middle East, geographic and cultural region located in southwestern Asia and northeastern Africa. The geopolitical term Middle East, first coined in 1902 by United States naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan, originally referred to the Asian region south of the Black Sea between the Mediterranean Sea to the west and India to the east. In modern scholarship, and for the purposes of this article, the term refers collectively to the Asian countries of Bahrain, Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Israel (and the Israeli-occupied West Bank), Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen, and the African country of Egypt. A broader, more cultural definition might include the Muslim countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
The area is mostly arid with hot, dry summers and cool winters. It contains about 65 percent of the world’s oil reserves, primarily in the states bordering the Persian Gulf. Oil is the region's main export. Some Middle Eastern countries are extremely rich because of their oil reserves. Others with high populations and no significant oil resources (notably Egypt and Yemen) are considerably poorer.
The first civilizations of the Middle East, which grew in the valleys of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers, are among the oldest in the world. Alphabets, law codes, and cities all began in the Middle East, as did the world’s three great monotheistic religions, Judaism (13th century bc), Christianity (1st century to 4th century ad) and Islam (7th century ad). Of the three, Islam continues to mark the region most profoundly. More than 90 percent of the people of the Middle East are Muslims.
The Middle East is an area of frequent conflict, largely for reasons embedded in its recent past. For example, the conflict between Arabs and Israelis over the land in Palestine (present-day Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories) is more a product of 20th-century developments rather than any age-old hostility between Muslims and Jews. Likewise, although there have been tensions between Persians and Arabs in the past, the Iran-Iraq War between 1980 and 1988 was more a result of political tensions and border disputes in the second half of the 20th century. Islamic militancy, which has produced deadly results in Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Lebanon, is a consequence of late 20th-century problems such as widespread unemployment, political and socioeconomic turmoil, and an overarching sense of despair rather than a result of any violent or extremist characteristics inherent to Islam.
Sluglett, Peter, B.A., M.A., Ph.D.
Associate Professor of History and Director, Middle East Center, University of Utah. Coauthor of "The Times Guide to the Middle East".