Chapter 5: Middle East and North Africa


“The significance of the Middle East and North Africa to the rest of the world is substantial.  This region is… the primary site of the origins of western civilization and its influence on world culture, politics and technology has been phenomenal.  As the possessor of the lion’s share of the world’s oil reserves, the region is also strategically critical to the continued function of the global economy.”Marston-Knox-Liverman


Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to answer the following questions or discuss the following topics:

*          How have the Middle East and North Africa benefited from their locations relative to other continents?  How have they suffered from their generally arid climate?

*                How have inhabitants of the region maximized use of available water?

*                What environmental challenges result from increasing human activities?

*          Where was the Fertile Crescent?  What civilizations are associated with it?

*                What are some key aspects of Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

*                What were the implications of plant and animal domestication?

*                How did early cities and trade develop?

*          How did British and French colonialism affect the Middle East and North Africa?

*          What is Islamism?

*          What is the religious and political significance of Jerusalem?

*          Discuss tribalism, pastoralism and transhumance; kinship and family; gender roles.

*          What factors affect migration to, from and within the Middle East and North Africa?

*                How has urbanization progressed in this region?

*          How have independent countries in the Middle East and North Africa dealt with regional conflicts?

*                What tensions exist among Iran, Iraq and Kuwait?

*                Discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

*                Which regional alliances characterize the Middle East and North Africa?

*          What are the key issues of economic development and social inequality in this region?

*          Which countries are known as the Oil States?

*                How have petrodollars transformed society in cities such as Riyadh and Tehran?

*          Which countries comprise the Eastern Mediterranean Crescent?

*                What role does Israel play in the eastern Mediterranean area?

*                How has Egypt evolved from an ancient power along the Nile River to a modern state?

*          Discuss life in the Maghreb and the Western Sahara.



Chapter 5 Outline

Society and Environment in the Middle East and North Africa

The Middle East and North Africa were home to key commercial crossroads and political empires in the ancient world.  In the modern era, they are vital to the global economy as they provide roughly 75% of the world’s oil.  Military conflicts and dwindling water supplies threaten the prosperity of the region but the diverse peoples who live here excel at creative problem solving.


The Middle East and North Africa are predominantly desert landscapes, including the Sahara and Arabian deserts.  Rocky plains, rugged mountains and Mediterranean or Persian Gulf coasts characterize much of the rest of the region.  The two major river systems in this area are the Nile and the Tigris-Euphrates.  The Jordan River provides less potable (drinkable) water, less hydroelectric power and little transportation capability but is also a major regional waterway.  An oasis is an isolated location within an arid landscape where local groundwater is sufficient to support crops (including orchards) and/or livestock.  Oases have also traditionally served as commercial centers.


Gravity-flow (qanat) and drip irrigation systems are unique to the Middle East and North Africa.  Dry farming techniques have also been perfected over the millennia.  Other human adaptations to the environment include architecture and dress.  Houses in this region often have high ceilings and arched roofs to allow warm air to rise away from the ground where people are working.  Rooms often encircle a shady courtyard that provides coolness as well as privacy.  Long flowing garments and head coverings, often of light color, help reflect sunlight and inhibit perspiration to avoid excessive moisture loss.  Aside from limited supplies of water and petroleum, other environmental issues in the Middle and North Africa include increasing desertification, deforestation and extinction of native plants and animals.  Tree-planting programs and other attempts at environmental remediation are underway in a number of countries around the region.


Middle East and North Africa in the World

Ancient civilization in the region centered on the Nile Valley and the Fertile Crescent, a broad area stretching from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea to the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers.  Innovations in Mesopotamia, Sumeria and Egypt were particularly profound, affecting subsequent cultures to the present day.  These ideas were transmitted most effectively by the rise and spread of three major religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


All three religions share certain tenets, such as monotheism and reverence for Jerusalem.  They also share affiliated doctrinal texts – while Jews recognize only their Bible (Old Testament), Christians include the Gospels and subsequent writings (New Testament) and Muslims stress the Qu’ran (recitations from Allah through Archangel Gabriel and Muhammad).  All three religions regard Abraham as a holy patriarch, although neither Jews nor Muslims believe in the divinity of Jesus (who is not mentioned at all in the Old Testament), nor do they believe that God has ever procreated.   Judaism is significantly smaller than the other two beliefs because it does not actively seek new converts while Christianity and Islam proselytize aggressively.  As a result, while fewer than 20 million Jews exist worldwide, over 1 billion people practice Islam while roughly 2 billion people are Christian.


Sauer’s Views of Cultural Development

According to cultural geographer Carl Sauer, plant domestication and crop cultivation could occur only in certain locations.  In Sauer's view, agriculture could develop only where:

*          Natural food supplies were abundant;

*          Terrain was diverse, accommodating several different species and habitats;

*          Soils were rich and easy to work with;

*          Rainfall was sufficient to preclude wide-scale irrigation; and

*          Drainage was adequate without needing to engineer new systems. 


Once a stable food supply was established, Sauer maintained, a civilization could then focus on:

*          Harnessing fire to cook food;

*          Developing grindstones to crush cereal grains into flour for more sophisticated foods such as bread; and

*          Inventing food preparation and storage techniques that allowed societies to eat even when external conditions were adverse. 


The successful emergence of farming and ranching in places like ancient Mesopotamia meant that population densities could rise and cities could develop.  More highly organized social structures and hierarchies could also arise, especially among extended family groups.  Those people not directly involved in plant or animal husbandry were free to specialize in both practical and luxurious crafts, which stimulated barter and trade for nonessential as well as essential items.  Irrigation was crucial to the development of large, stable civilizations in the arid Middle East. Rivers were also key to successful ancient societies.  Urbanization occurred directly along key riverbank sites.  For example, Babylon, situated along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, maintained an empire for almost 4000 years by systematically increasing control over agricultural production, building up its military strength, developing the infrastructure for a major trade network, and actively exercising religious and political control in the region.


Emergence of Modern States

Most of the states that currently comprise the Middle East and North Africa obtained their political systems and borders during the 20th Century as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Originating in Turkey (Asia Minor) in around 1300, the Islamic Ottoman Empire grew at its peak to encompass the Balkans in Europe, most of North Africa and the majority of the Middle East.  By 1850, however, internal mismanagement and rising nationalisms had weakened the Ottoman Empire considerably.  Russia, France and Britain all challenged the authority of Ottoman sultans during the late 1800’s through military engagements, political support of nationalist movements and colonialist practices.  During World War One, the ailing Ottoman Empire sided with Germany.  When Germany lost the war, the Ottoman Empire lost all its holdings, mainly to France and Britain.  By 1922, the last Ottoman sultan was forced to flee and Turkey became an independent republic under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk).


In addition to colonies throughout North Africa, France obtained control of Syria and Lebanon as a result of the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.  Britain, which already controlled Egypt since 1912, won control of Iraq, Trans-Jordan and Palestine.  By 1950, Trans-Jordan became the independent kingdom of Jordan and Palestine became the state of Israel; the border between Israel and Jordan shifted after each major war between them and the question of an independent state of Palestine has remained open ever since.


France and Britain administered their Middle Eastern territories under mandates rather than as outright colonies.  Mandates specified the ultimate right to self-determination by subject peoples.  Further, mandates operated under League of Nations guidelines rather than the domestic laws of the colonial power.  The League of Nations existed from 1920-1939, when it was rendered ineffective by the outbreak of World War Two.  However, it served an as important precursor to the more effective and enduring United Nations, established in 1946.  Mandates guaranteed the eventual independence of Middle Eastern and North African colonies but they did not dictate forms of government, economy or social structure.  The colonial power therefore wielded considerable influence over the shape of the post-colonial state. 


As was the case in other world regions, France preferred to administer its Middle Eastern holdings directly and to reorient national loyalties away from local authorities toward Paris.  Britain preferred indirect control through existing power structures and encouraged migration into or out of its territories based on larger imperial needs.  Other impacts of colonial mandates in the Middle East included:

*  Creation of national identities among otherwise disparate indigenous groups in order to form viable independent states;

*  Undue influence of events in Paris and London on local politics and economics;

*  Rise of secular citizenship amid predominantly religious communities;

*  Use of European currencies as local currencies and general lack of funds for local development;

*  Drawing of political boundaries with little or no regard for pre-existing political or social relationships.


Indigenous revolts against European dominance led to successful establishment of independent states after World War Two.  Rejection of Western capitalism by many newly independent states led them to choose socialism and military as well as economic assistance from the Soviet Union.  As a result, the Middle East immediately became pivotal for Cold War politics, with Israel the sole staunch U.S. ally in the region for many years.  At the same time that Middle Eastern rulers had to accommodate Cold War interests and the global demand for oil, they also needed to learn to manage domestic tensions among disparate groups while trying to create basic infrastructure for their new countries.


Peoples of the Middle East and North Africa

Because water is so crucial to survival in this region, most of the population clusters along waterways, areas with reliable rainfall or cities with well-established supplies of water.  Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Syria have the highest population density but for cultural and economic reasons, the entire region is experiencing rapid population growth.  As a result, natural water sources are becoming severely stressed.


Culture and Society

Tribes are defined by the textbook as "a form of moral community, often based on biological relationships."  Tribalism in the Middle East and North Africa creates shared identities and loyalty to those groups.  Colonial Europeans promoted tribalism in Morocco and Sudan in order to inhibit larger nationalisms that might have resulted in the earlier formation of independent states.  Early in Iran's history as a modern state, its government tried to destroy tribal affiliations in order to foster national identity and allegiance to the new country.  Nomadic pastoralists are generally fiercely tribal.  Pastoralism is the practice of subsistence ranching -- it may be sedentary and include limited agriculture or it may involve transhumance, continually following the herds as they seek food, water and shelter.   The Berbers are a classic example of pastoralist tribes in North Africa.


Kinship in the Middle East and North Africa is a fundamental factor in social relationships such as business and politics. Not limited to biological ties, kinship groups may include close friends, neighbors and/or individuals who share common goals or interests.  Kinship is a central force in the region, determining identity and group closeness even where "blood ties" do not necessarily exist.  It is also considered a guarantee of loyalty, which is why entire government agencies may be dominated by members of the same kinship group.  Nepotism, the hiring of family members and close relations for corporate or government positions, is often illegal in the U.S. but it is highly proper and desirable throughout the Middle East.  Kinship also determines who is and who is not appropriate to interact with, especially for women who have different access to private and public spaces than do men.


Stereotypes aside, there is no uniform role for women in the Middle East and North Africa.  Liberal interpretations of Islamic law give women considerable autonomy and control over their own lives while conservative Christian and Jewish customs may constrain female freedoms greatly.   Religious adherence (or lack of it), education, income level, urbanization, kinship and generation are among the many factors that determine the relative parity of women and men within different societies across the region.  Fundamental to many of the belief systems that developed in the Middle East and North Africa is "an ideological assumption that women are subordinate to men".  Those men who accept that assumption as true tend to believe it is determined by biology, while those women who accept it as true tend to believe that it is determined by their societies and that their roles may evolve as their culture changes.  Modesty is an important concept and is seen as protecting women as well as men from undue sexuality.  The need for women to avoid distracting men from prayer or other important business is inherent in traditional Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and frequently results in gender segregation during worship, education, work and family time in all three religions.  Women are often secluded at home or restricted in their activities in a number of traditional cultures worldwide.  While globalization and Westernization offer women more opportunities than most traditional societies, many women are at the forefront of movements to limit the extent of modernization in their communities.  In North Africa, the practice of performing clitoridectomies (removing the clitoris and sewing shut part of the vaginal opening to prohibit culturally inappropriate sexual behavior) is generally performed on adolescent girls by the elder women of their villages with no male involvement whatsoever.  Gender in the Middle East and North Africa is therefore a highly complex issue, fraught with a variety of local nuances that confound generalization.



Since religious practices are not uniform throughout the region, there is considerable variation in culture and tradition among and within countries.  Minority groups include non-Muslim Arabs, who practice indigenous religions such as Zoroastrianism, and believers in religions derived from Islam but considered heretical by mainstream Muslims, such as the Baha’i and Druze faiths. 



Judaism arose approximately 3500 years ago.  Heavily influenced by the Code of Hammurabi, the first legal code established in neighboring ancient Mesopotamia, Judaism is very law-based.  Law is explicitly set down in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Torah) and by subsequent interpretations of the law (Talmud) by highly educated legal scholars (rabbis). Rabbis are not necessarily political or community leaders; in fact, they are not necessary for worship to take place or for ritual events, such as weddings or funerals.  Rabbis merely provide legal guidance and education.  Jews place a very high emphasis on education because each devout individual must be able to read and interpret the law himself.  As a result, many Jewish communities worldwide do not employ rabbis but rather consult with them on an as-needed basis. 


Jewish law evolves to accommodate changes in society.  Aside from the Ten Commandments, none of the Torah can be taken literally since all of it was transcribed by Moses and other human intermediaries.  Oral law, passed down from generation to generation, is also subject to interpretation and/or dismissal.  Jews have woven cultural elements from a variety of host communities into their traditional practices. For example, within the constraints of keeping kosher (legally acceptable), many foods associated with holy days (like Passover) are dictated by tradition and vary considerably with place and time.


The two main branches of Judaism are Orthodox and Reform.  Orthodox Jews split into two main denominations: Modern Orthodox and Haredi.  Modern Orthodox are outward-looking, maintain a strong ethic of social action and seek to integrate devoutly Jewish living with the demands of the external community, which may not be Jewish.  Haredi are inward-looking, focus on sustaining socially conservative interpretations of law and seek to isolate themselves from the corrupting influences of the external community.  Groups such as the Hasidim, who dress as they did when living in Eastern Europe in the 1700's, are Haredi.  Sephardic Jews who lived in predominantly Islamic countries and therefore maintain many Arabic or North African traditions also generally consider themselves Haredi.  Reform Jews split from Orthodox Jews in Central Europe during the mid-1800's.  Many emigrated worldwide during the late 1800's and early 1900's, fleeing anti-semitic persecution by the Nazis and other hostile groups.  Reform Jews believe that intent to live a moral and ethical life based on Jewish law and tradition is more important than rigid adherence to regulation.  Conservative Jews, a subset of Reform Judaism, keep kosher and adhere to other tenets of written law but they do not follow oral law.  Jews who do not practice any form of religious observance but recognize a cultural rather than devotional link to Judaism are secular.



Christianity originated during the Roman occupation of Palestine roughly 2000 years ago.  It has evolved into three main sects worldwide -- Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant -- and many denominations within each sect.  While considerable diversity exists among Christian sects and denominations, basic tenets of faith are the same. These include belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ as the son of God; recognition of his birth to a virgin human mother, Mary; and acceptance of Christ as humanity’s savior through his death and resurrection.  Most Christians profess a creed stating that Jesus died for their sins and that they accept Christ as their lord and savior.  Many Christians also believe that faith in Jesus Christ absolves one of past sins and allows one to participate in the rapture, a future time during which only true believers will ascend to heaven.


Most Christian churches in the Middle East are Eastern Orthodox.  They include the Egyptian Coptic, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox (centered in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem).  Maronite and Chaldean Christians (also Eastern Orthodox Christians) live predominantly in Lebanon and Syria.  Christian pilgrims of all denominations often visit holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth.


While relations between Christians and Muslims are generally peaceful, hostilities between the two religious groups reached their apex during the Crusades.  Initiated by zealous European Christians eager to "liberate" Jerusalem as well as gain economic and political control of key cities along major trade routes in Turkey and the Middle East, the 11th-13th century Crusades actively diffused aspects of Islamic and Arabic culture throughout Christian Europe.  Innovations in medicine, astronomy, navigation, commerce and, of course, military technology spread along trade routes and supply lines, and returned home with retired Crusaders.  Christianity and Islam are both universal religions that rely heavily upon converting new worshippers.  Their focus on the lives of key individuals and specific beliefs and practices (including proselytization) make them highly portable, adaptable to a variety of local conditions and vitally dynamic.



Islam (meaning submission to God’s will) originated when the angel Gabriel commanded Muhammad, the last and greatest prophet of Allah (God), to recite a new set of moral and ethical instructions to the world.  Revealed in a series of visions from 610-632 CE, the Qu’ran (Koran) is the holiest work in Islam.  Devout Muslims memorize the Qu’ran by rote and transmit it orally.  However, a caliph (political leader) collected the recitations and codified them into a book by the middle of the 7th century.  Gathering converts and allies during the last decade of his life, Muhammad spread the principles of Islam to Madinah (Medina) in 622 and his home city of Makkah (Mecca) by 632.  His successors continue to make Islam the fastest growing religion in the world today.


The Five Pillars of Islam are the primary obligations that a Muslim (one who is faithful to Islam) must fulfill.  They are: (1) Profess faith daily; (2) Pray five times each face, facing Makkah; (3) Charitable giving of a certain percent of annual income (preferably 2.5%); (4) Daytime fasting (sunrise to sundown) during holy month of Ramadan; and (5) Making pilgrimage (hajj) to Makkah at least once during one’s lifetime. Makkah is important because it is the birthplace of Muhammad and home of Qa’aba, which is a holy cube-shaped relic and site of worship.  Initially unresponsive to Islam, city leaders forced Muhammad to leave but he returned with a military force of devout believers and converted the Qa’aba as well as the city to Islam before his death in 632. Madinah was the first city to convert to Islam and is a desirable city to visit for pilgrims on hajj.


Islamic law is based on the Qu’ran, sunna and hadith.  Sunna means custom and is a fundamental source of Muslim practice that is passed through oral rather than written traditions.  Hadith is the body of traditions that are derived from the words and actions of Muhammad as well as the social customs of his time.  Religious leaders interpret Islamic law as society evolves, keeping as close to the morals and ethics of Muhammad and his society as possible.  Penalties under Islamic law, which include amputations and beheadings, also date back to the time of Muhammad.  Islamism is a widespread cultural counterforce to globalization that emphasizes adherence to Islamic principles in daily life.  Islamists resist modernization and secularization, and strive to keep Islamic law at the center of state activity.


Sunni Muslims comprise the larger sect of Islam, approximately 85% of all Muslims worldwide.  They believe in the legitimacy of the first three caliphs who succeeded Muhammad after his death.  Sunnis are also somewhat doctrinally and culturally distinct from Shi’ite Muslims, who comprise the smaller sect of Islam, approximately 15% of Muslims worldwide.  Shi’ites believe that the first legitimate successor to Muhammad was his son-in-law, Ali.  They derive their name from “Shi’a Ali”, meaning “Party of Ali”.  Shi’ites add one more line to their daily public profession of faith, celebrate additional holy days related to the history of their faith and are concentrated primarily in Iran and Iraq.  They also imbue their religious leaders (imams, ayatollahs, etc.) with more political power than do Sunnis.



During the last 50 years, two of the strongest pull factors attracting immigrants into the Middle East were the creation of Israel as a safe haven for Jews worldwide and the growth of economic opportunities spurred by the oil industry and technological advancement.  Especially in countries surrounding the Persian Gulf, workers had to be imported to fill labor demands in not only the petroleum industry but also in high-tech areas, construction and domestic service.  Guest workers tend to be Muslim and from other countries within the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia.  Two of the main push factors encouraging migration out of the region are lack of economic opportunity among those who do not have access to lucrative employment, and the need to flee constant civil unrest and warfare.  Palestinians are among many refugee groups in the Middle East who have left their ancestral lands because of unfavorable rule or active warfare. 


During the1970’s, for example, many well-educated and well-off Lebanese fled Beirut as a result of a civil war between the politically dominant Christian minority and the less politically powerful Muslim majority.  Since the 1975-76 civil war, Syria has effectively controlled a weak puppet government in Lebanon and has supported Hizbollah, a pro-Palestinian militia operating in southern Lebanon, with funds and arms.  Meanwhile, since the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) was banned from Jordan in 1970 for a failed attempt to overthrow the government, south Lebanon had become the new headquarters for the PLO and other pro-Palestinian groups.  In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon to put a stop to Hizbollah and PLO bombardment of northern Israeli communities.  Enlisting Lebanese Christians into a pro-Israeli South Lebanese Army (SLA), Israel established what it called a security zone in south Lebanon.  The occupation of south Lebanon was considered by many Israelis to have been their version of the Vietnam War and it was a general disaster.  It did not protect northern Israel from artillery attack nor did it protect Palestinian refugees in the area, many of whom were slaughtered by the Israeli-backed SLA in the early days of the occupation.  Morale among Israeli troops stationed in south Lebanon declined precipitously and dragged public sentiment in Israel against military action during the 1980’s and 1990’s.  When Israel unilaterally withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, only Syria voiced any objection (mainly because it could no longer justify its own military presence in Lebanon without an external threat).  The SLA collapsed immediately and roughly 10,000 Maronite Christians fled Lebanon into Israel, where they were granted temporary citizenship.  Hizbollah filled the void left by the retreating SLA and Israelis, and remain the leading force in south Lebanon.  The official government and military in Lebanon have sent few representatives into south Lebanon since.  Hizbollah refrained from harming Christians in the area but resumed artillery attacks against Israel, who responded by bombing Beirut several times in 2001.


Large-scale migration of refugees from Iran occurred in 1979 in response to the religious revolution that deposed U.S.-backed Shah Reza Pahlevi and swept Shi’ite Muslim Ayatollah Khomeini into power.  The U.S. and Britain had been interfering in Iranian domestic politics since the early 1950’s, when Cold War and economic imperatives led them to oust democratically elected leaders in favor of pro-Western monarchs such as the Shah.  Pahlevi was particularly hated by the populace of Iran for his harsh use of the secret police to block public criticism of his rule and for modernizing Iranian society far too fast without the consent of the people.  Khomeini’s successful revolution transformed Iran into a theocracy, a state ruled by religious rather than civil law.  In accordance with conservative interpretations of Islamic law, daily life changed dramatically for men as well as women who were accustomed to a more Western lifestyle.  By 2001, however, both Pahlevi and Khomeini died and Iran’s democratically elected President Khatemi succeeded in liberalizing many of the Islamic restrictions placed on personal freedoms.  While conservative clerics such as ruling Alatollah Khamenei still tightly control most aspects of daily life and economic activity in Iran, women and young people who want greater freedom have increased Khatemi’s base of support and are working to reconcile religious adherence with more civil liberties.


War between Iran and Iraq from 1980-1988 also forced considerable migration and loss of life.  Initiated by Iraq in order to increase access to rich oilfields and transportation routes, the Iran-Iraq war seriously hurt both countries.  One of the few beneficiaries was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who rose to power during this time.  Frustrated by lack of progress against Iran, Saddam invaded Kuwait in 1990, triggering U.S. involvement in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.  While the Persian Gulf War officially ended within weeks, in reality it continues today as U.S. and British pilots actively maintain “no-fly zones” in northern Iraq, often engaging in combat skirmishes with Iraqi air and ground forces.  UN economic sanctions against Iraq are also enforced, although most human rights organizations argue that Iraq’s civilians have been harmed by them so badly that the sanctions should be dropped.  While France actively ignores the sanctions, most other UN members adhere to them because Iraq has not yet complied with international demands to destroy its “weapons of mass destruction” or even to allow weapons inspectors to view what stockpiles remain.  Iraq’s arsenal is of particular interest because it is the only country in decades to have engaged in chemical warfare.  During 1980’s, Iraq gas-bombed a segment of its own population, the Kurds.  In 1990, it also bombed Israel even though Israel was not involved in the Persian Gulf War.  (Israel refrained from retaliation but passed out gas masks to all its citizens, including children, and kept its military on high alert throughout the conflict.  During the 2001 Afghanistan War, Israelis traded in their old gas masks for newer ones, just in case Iraq or another country chose to bomb them again.)


The Kurds are a culturally distinct Sunni Muslim minority in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran.  Although the area they occupy is sometimes called Kurdistan, the Kurds have never had their own country.  Most of the roughly 10 million Kurds in the Middle East speak Kurdish, an Iranian language, in addition to the language of their host country.  Several attempts over their history to become independent failed.  Most recently, Kurdish independence movements in Turkey and Iraq have led to greater persecution of the Kurds.  The U.S.-patrolled no-fly zones in Iraq are maintained, in part, to protect the Kurds from further chemical weapon bombardment by the Iraqi government.


Political unrest in North Africa has led thousands from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to migrate to Europe.  Workers from Egypt and Turkey, however, migrated more for economic opportunity than for any other reason.  The Turkish population of guest workers in Germany is especially well known for its large size and its harassment by neo-Nazi and other anti-immigrant groups.


Within the Middle East and North Africa, rural-to-urban migration has been considerable over the last 50 years.  While Sudan is still predominantly rural, Israel is more than 90% urban.  Traditionally, cities in this region have been centers of religious significance and authority, as well as crucial to trade and political administration.  Similar to trends in Latin America and throughout Asia, some cities are growing disproportionately large in their countries because they are viewed as the most likely locations for workers to find jobs, for families to reunite, and so on.  Cairo and Istanbul, for example, are both among the world’s largest cities.  Oil cities whose growth has been directly fueled by the petroleum industry are often the only urban centers in a largely rural area, such as Jubail and Jiddah (Jedda), both in Saudi Arabia.


Rapid urbanization in the Middle East and North Africa, like elsewhere in the world, is generally accompanied by insufficient housing, excessive pollution, traffic congestion, inadequate social and infrastructure services to support the burgeoning population and a thriving informal economy to provide employment and income to those outside the formal economy.  Unique to this region, however, are modern cities such as Doha, Oman, in wealthy oil-producing states with low populations.  Countries such as Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have very high income levels per capita and therefore have cleaner, more efficient cities than poorer, more densely populated countries like Iran and Iraq.


Regional Change and Interdependence

New Political Geographies and Regional Conflicts

Many (but not all) of the present conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa originated in response to boundaries and borders established by colonial rule, and because of the strategic value of the region and its resources.  Strikingly, for all the conflicts in and among countries in this region, several unifying forces exist to pull states together into cooperative arrangements.  Historically, the common heritages of Arabic culture and Islamic belief have helped to provide commonality to diverse peoples.  The need to control their own oil supplies led in 1960 to the formation of OPEC, currently one of the most powerful supranational organizations in the world.  Desire to maintain adequate supplies of clean water may provide impetus to peace settlements throughout the region, as access to crucial sources of water becomes more constrained during the 21st century.


Stereotypes of Arabs or Muslims as fanatical terrorists are inappropriate and generally false.  Every region in the world suffers its share of religious extremists, political militants and violent terrorists, regardless of belief system or nationality.  The United States, with its long history of Ku Klux Klan activity and current panoply of anti-government militia movements, is no exception.  Structural sources of regional discontent in the Middle East and North Africa, therefore, cannot be attributed solely to flaws in the personal characteristics of the people who live there.  Rather, one must look to their history, economics and geography.


Iran, Iraq and Kuwait

Neighbors Iran and Iraq have been at odds with each other for thousands of years despite the fact that their present political boundaries date only from the 1930’s.  Iran was formerly known as Persia while Iraq traces its lineage back to ancient Mesopotamia.  Each has a history of conquering or influencing the other.  However, many Iranians speak Farsi as their primary language, not Arabic, and are ethnically quite distinct from the predominantly Arabic Iraqis.  While both countries are predominantly Shi’ite Muslim, they diverge sharply in attitudes and approaches to religion and government.  Theocratic Iran allows relatively democratic election of a president and legislators, many of whom currently seek to reform government to allow for greater civil liberties. Iraq, which allows more social freedom for women and a more Western lifestyle overall, is ruled by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim dictator who does not sanction any political opposition.  Both Iran and Iraq claim small islands near their shared border in the Persian Gulf.  They also consider the Shatt-al-Arab, a waterway that connects the Tigris-Euphrates River system to the Persian Gulf and forms the southernmost part of the Iran-Iraq border, as theirs; control over the river was one of the factors that triggered the 1980-1988 war between them. The political status of the Shatt al-Arab is still indeterminate but both Iran and Iraq keep the waterway open to international trade, especially for oil tankers. In 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait on the grounds that they were once one country.  In order to protect oil interests in the region, the U.S. and other western countries removed Iraqi forces from Kuwait during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and still maintain fighter flights to curtail Iraqi military activity.  International economic sanctions continue to effectively isolate Iraq from world trade while Iran has rejoined the world community to a greater extent as it has softened its Islamist stance over the past few years.  Together, Iran, Iraq and Kuwait control a sizable fraction of the world’s known oil reserves.


Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians

The Arab-Israeli conflict and the issue of self-rule for Palestinians derive from factors far older than British colonial rule.  The biblical story of Abraham and his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, dates back nearly 4000 years and functions as a mythological explanation of traditional enmity between Arabs (descendents of Ishmael, cast out from the house of Abraham) and Jews (descendents of Isaac).  The ethnic identity of Palestinians is complicated because of religious and cultural diversity among Palestinians who have never governed their own territory. 


Despite forced dispersal of Jews from Palestine several times over the past 3500 years, well-established communities of Jews remained in Palestine regardless of political rule, especially in Jerusalem, and until 1948 considered themselves Palestinian but now call themselves sabra (slang for native-born) Israeli.  The majority of Palestinians today are Sunni Muslim Arabs, who range in observance from devout to secular.  A large minority of Palestinians are Christian Arabs, many of whom still live in traditionally Christian cities such as Nazareth and Bethlehem.  Among modern Palestinians are Israeli Arabs, non-Jewish Palestinians who have accepted Israeli citizenship and serve in Israel’s military and government.  Most other Palestinians were displaced by Arab-Israeli wars since 1948.  Many struggle to survive in squalid refugee camps while others have thrived as assimilated citizens in their host countries.  Palestinians presently living in the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank are under the aegis of the Palestinian Authority (PA), an administrative body distinct from the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).  The PLO remains the sole internationally recognized legitimate representative of the Palestinian people and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat is also head of the PA.   However, some Palestinians reject PLO leadership and prefer to engage in militant opposition to Israel as members of Hizbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups. 


Large-scale Jewish migration into Palestine began in 1882, 35 years before British colonial rule.  Fleeing government-sanctioned persecution, Russian Jews began moving to Palestine in accordance with the traditional Passover statement, “Next year in Jerusalem!”  In 1897, Theodor Herzl founded the Zionist movement in Switzerland, proclaiming the need to establish a homeland for Jews facing increasing anti-semitism throughout Europe.  Through fundraising and educational outreach efforts, Zionists encouraged the migration of thousands of European Jews to Palestine by 1910.  In 1917, a few months after Britain assumed colonial control of the area, foreign secretary Arthur James Balfour issued a famous declaration that publicly supported the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine while guaranteeing the political rights of non-Jewish Palestinians. 


While the Balfour Declaration was hailed as a victory for Palestinian Jews, Palestinian Arabs waited in vain for a similar declaration on their behalf.  British military personnel and authors such as T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) argued for Palestinian Arab independence but the British government did not comply.  Further, Palestinian Arabs felt betrayed by Britain because it did not secure their agreement or approval for a Jewish state on what they felt was their land.  Jews argued that they had bought their land fairly from Arabs willing to sell and that they were paying increasingly high prices as Jewish desperation in Europe grew stronger.  Palestinian Arabs maintained that the British had wrested control from the Ottoman Empire only with their help and that they were due an independent state of their own, like Iraq and Transjordan (modern-day Jordan).  A street brawl in 1920 triggered Palestinian Arab anti-Zionist riots, the first major Arab-Jewish violence of the 20th century.


In response to the growing conflict, the League of Nations (precursor to the United Nations) approved a British mandate for Palestine that provided for Jewish and Arab national interests.  In 1921, Transjordan was established as an Arab protectorate and the 1922 mandate helped define borders between the British colony of Palestine, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.  Further, Britain issued a white paper (statement of government policy) in 1922 that stressed economic limits to Jewish immigration and restriction of Jews to certain areas – the Jewish homeland was to be located within Palestine but not extend through the entire territory.  As a result, Jewish immigration into Palestine was kept low throughout the 1920’s.


Following more Arab-Jewish violence in 1929 at the most sacred holy site in Judaism, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the British issued another white paper in 1930 that urged limits on Jewish immigration.  While some Arabs continued to sell land to Jews, many others began to fear the political and economic consequences of a larger Jewish community in Palestine.  Their fears rose as the Jewish population increased dramatically by the mid-1930’s when Jews fled Nazi Germany.  In 1936, the mufti of Jerusalem (equivalent to the mayor of the city) organized general strikes and boycotts in protest of continued Jewish immigration.  Meanwhile, Britain floated the idea of partitioning Palestine into separate segregated Jewish and Arab zones; while the Jews approved the plan, the Arabs rejected it outright and denounced the British proposal to forcibly relocate minority populations into majority areas.


On the eve of World War Two, other British proposals were ignored as both Jews and Arabs demanded the immediate creation of independent states in Palestine.  When Nazi Germany attacked Britain, Arabs and Jews alike were drafted into the British military to help defend the territory and British oil holdings throughout the region against Nazi advances.  While most Palestinian Arabs and Jews willingly fought alongside the British, nationalist extremists on both sides took advantage of the increased access to weapons and money to steal arms and funds for their own causes.  Meanwhile, some Arabs viewed the Nazis as more amenable to their desire for an independent state -- the mufti of Jerusalem met directly with Hitler to discuss the future of Palestine.  At the same time, Jewish nationalists formed terrorist organizations such as the Irgun and the Stern Gang to attack both Nazi and British targets.  Palestinian Jews were especially outraged that the British maintained strict Jewish immigration quotas while European Jews were being forcibly relocated to labor and death camps whose full horror was not revealed until 1945.  That same year, seven Arab countries and a representative of Arab Palestine formed the League of Arab States, better known as the Arab League, to better argue on behalf of Arab interests in the aftermath of World War Two.  In 1945, the Arab League pressed once again for the creation of an independent Arab state of Palestine but the sympathy of the world lay with European Jews who had survived the Nazi Holocaust.  Collective post-war guilt coupled with new Cold War sensibilities to support Jewish statehood in Palestine. 


While Transjordan became an independent kingdom in 1946 (renamed Jordan in 1950), well-armed Palestinian Jewish terrorists smuggled non-quota Jews into Palestine, assassinated British officials and blew up civilian buildings such as hotels.  Faced with increasingly militant calls for statehood by both Palestinian Arabs and Jews, Britain tried to discuss autonomy plans with both sides but the talks failed utterly.  In 1947, Britain declared the 1922 mandate unworkable and turned the problem of Palestine over to the newly-formed United Nations (UN).  The UN quickly partitioned Palestine into a Jewish state to be called Israel and a non-contiguous grouping of three areas to become the Arab state of Palestine.  The planned partition would take effect in 1948, upon Israeli independence and the withdrawal of all British troops from Israel and Palestine.


Within hours of UN approval of Israeli independence in 1948, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt invaded Israel – this was the First Arab-Israeli War.  Over the next 18 months, Israel won territory that was to have been part of Arab Palestine while Jordan won control of the West Bank of the Jordan River, including the eastern half of Jerusalem.  Jordan’s control of east Jerusalem was significant because it included the Old City, where the holiest sites in Judaism and Islam are located.  Meanwhile, more than 1 million Palestinian Arabs became refugees in the invading countries; those who chose to accept Israeli citizenship became Israeli Arabs.  Jordan especially did not appreciate the sudden influx of refugees and very clearly stated that its interests were distinct from those of the Palestinian Arabs.


In the late1940’s, Israel quickly became isolated as the only pro-Western country in the Middle East during the early years of the Cold War.  Funded by U.S. aid and worldwide Jewish philanthropy, Israel encouraged the immigration of Jews from other countries in the Middle East and North Africa where they faced persecution in retaliation for Arab losses.  Tens of thousands of non-European Jews migrated to Israel throughout the 1950’s.  Meanwhile, hostility to U.S-ally Israel increased during the 1950’s and 1960’s as many Arab countries became socialist and/or enjoyed Soviet political and economic support. 


In 1956, the socialist government of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal and refused passage to allies of Israel.  Having built the Suez Canal in 1869 to facilitate transport of oil and other crucial supplies to Europe, Britain objected strongly.  France also felt that its colonial interests in North Africa were threatened by Egypt’s action.  Israel invaded Egypt and secured the eastern side of the Suez Canal while Britain and France took control of the western side.  Yielding to international pressure, the three allies ceased hostilities and Egypt allowed a UN emergency force to occupy the Canal Zone.  International shipping resumed passage through the Suez Canal shortly thereafter and invading troops were withdrawn.


The last major Israeli victory against its neighboring states occurred in 1967 during the Six Day War.  Intelligence reports indicated that Arab troops were massing along Israel’s borders.  Preferring to strike first, Israel invaded Egypt and demolished that country’s air force while the planes were still on the ground.  Jordan and Syria invaded Israel in response but instead lost key territory.  Israel occupied Golan Heights (from Syria), West Bank (from Jordan), Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula (from Egypt).   Significantly, Israel gained control of East Jerusalem and the holy sites, and immediately reunited the city, began construction of modern housing and business parks in and around Jerusalem, and increased the size and population density of the city by several factors.


Perhaps the most far-reaching consequences resulted from the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  On the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, forces from Egypt, Syria and Iraq invaded Israel.  Jordan, Libya and other Arab states provided military and financial support.  While the U.S. and Soviet Union tried to broker a peace settlement, they engaged in a tense Cold War confrontation themselves and America briefly stepped up its own preparedness to fight a nuclear war.  Within weeks, Israel drove back the invading troops and recaptured the Suez Canal but U.S. pressure forced Israel to give up territorial gains made in Egypt and Syria during the war.  The Soviet Union, which supported Arab grievances and equipped their militaries, was instrumental in implementing a successful cease-fire. 


Aggravated by the failure of traditional military means to defeat Israel and its allies, the Arab states tried a new tactic – an oil embargo.  While the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) included countries from South America, Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, it was dominated by oil states from the Middle East and North Africa.  In late 1973, OPEC announced that it would no longer sell oil to any Western country that supported Israel.  The five-year-long OPEC oil embargo drastically raised petroleum prices worldwide and triggered a global economic recession.  Western countries began national energy conservation programs and started to invest in alternate power sources, such as nuclear energy.  Private companies – most notably, car manufacturers – moved to more energy efficient products and means of production, reducing their reliance on oil.  Further, the U.S. opened up new petroleum reserves in Alaska and Texas, and virtually eliminated reliance on Middle Eastern supplies of oil.  As a result of these measures as well as the 1980 Iran-Iraq war, the price of oil fell sharply in the early 1980’s.  With only a brief exception during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf crisis, global oil prices remained low throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Recognizing that they had hurt themselves more than Israel, OPEC members lifted the embargo in 1978.


Traditionally a leader among Arab states, Egypt emerged from the Yom Kippur War with a renewed willingness to resume relations with the United States.  Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat had already, in 1972, reduced Egypt’s dependence on the USSR by ousting Soviet military personnel and taking control of Soviet military equipment stationed in Egypt.  In exchange for agreeing to a ceasefire ending the 1973 war, Sadat obtained U.S. assistance in clearing the Suez Canal of mines and sunken ships from the 1967 war.  Egypt was also made eligible for U.S. aid regarding peaceful uses of nuclear technology.  Still, Sadat stunned the world in 1977 when he visited Jerusalem and announced plans to sign a peace treaty with Israeli President Menachem Begin.  In 1978, an historic summit was held in the U.S. between Egypt and Israel to work out a bilateral peace plan.  The resulting Camp David Accords obligated Israel to totally withdraw from the oil-bearing Sinai Peninsula and to return all of Egypt’s occupied territory except the water-rich Gaza Strip by the mid-1980’s.  In 1979, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel.  Egypt was immediately suspended from the Arab League and subject to an economic boycott from its former allies.  However, U.S. aid increased and Israel began trade relations with Egypt.  Tourists visiting the Holy Land were also encouraged to tour Egypt as well, providing additional foreign revenue.  The cost for Egypt’s renewed prosperity was steep – Sadat was assassinated for his pro-peace stance in 1981.


By the early 1980’s, missiles and gunfire were routinely exchanged across Israel’s border with Lebanon.  At that time, south Lebanon was a stronghold for violent pro-Palestinian groups such as the PLO and Hizbollah.  In 1982, Israel invaded south Lebanon in order to destroy guerrilla military bases maintained there.  Israel also established a so-called security zone to act as a buffer between itself and Syrian-controlled and –occupied Lebanon.  The 1982 Lebanon War was, as discussed earlier, a failure from the Israeli point of view.  From the Palestinian perspective, it was a crucial trigger for Intifada I, a sustained uprising beginning in 1987, and it ultimately revealed fundamental weaknesses in the hitherto invincible Israeli Defense Forces.  During the 18-year occupation of south Lebanon, policed by an Israeli-backed Lebanese Christian militia, Israel’s military morale corroded.  Domestic public support for Israeli military activities also declined precipitously during the 1980’s as Palestinian protests against Israel continued at a low but constant level.  News reports of Israeli mistreatment of political prisoners further wore at Israel’s increasingly war-weary population, some of whom began to question their policy toward Palestinians.  Israel’s Peace Now political movement gained in strength as Israeli willingness to keep fighting weakened.


In support of the Intifada, Jordan stated in 1988 that it would cede control of occupied West Bank to the PLO and it withdrew Jordanian citizenship from Palestinian Arabs living there.  Later that year, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat declared that Palestine would become an independent state and he formed a de facto government-in-waiting.  Arafat’s declaration was striking because for the first time, he constrained the territorial limits of Palestine to the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, rather than extending them throughout the existing state of Israel.  At the same time, the PLO recognized Israel’s sovereignty.  These were major Palestinian concessions.


Frustrated by their inability to create a Palestinian Arab state through legitimate means, several guerrilla groups and political factions within the Arab League formed the PLO in 1964.  Arafat became PLO Chairman in 1969.  Initially, the PLO was dedicated to the simultaneous destruction of Israel and the creation of the independent state of Palestine.  During the 1960’s and 1970’s, terrorist actions taken by PLO member groups such as the pro-Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) included assassinations, bombings, airplane hijackings and hostage takings.  In 1974, the UN officially recognized the PLO as a government-in-exile and granted the PLO non-voting member status.  In1976, the PLO was granted full membership in the Arab League.  International terrorism by members of the PLO continued throughout the 1980’s but at a lower level of intensity than before.  Also disputes between the PLO and other Arab organizations developed, weakening Arafat’s stance within the Arab world.  By taking the initiative with regard to Israel and by forming his own government for Palestine, Arafat strengthened his position both domestically and internationally.  Despite serious mistakes such as publicly supporting Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Arafat has managed to transform his reputation from terrorist to statesman.


Secret negotiations facilitated by Norway led to an historic exchange of letters in 1993.  For the first time, the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist and Israel recognized the PLO as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people (roughly two million worldwide).  These achievements led directly to the 1994 Oslo Accords, which earned Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize.  As a result of the Oslo Accords, Israel and the PLO agreed to form the Palestine National Authority (PNA), better known as the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA is a temporary body, distinct from the PLO but under PLO jurisdiction, that administers Palestinian-controlled areas in the occupied territories until the formal establishment of the state of Palestine.  It effectively acts as the government of Palestine and has executive and legislative authority within the lands transferred from Israel to the PA.  Israel helped arm and train the PA police force in exchange for cooperation with stopping terrorist activity that undermines the peace process.  The PA holds most direct control in Area A, sectors where it is primarily responsible for internal security and public order.  Most of the Gaza Strip and segments of the West Bank are in Area A.  Area B sectors of the West Bank and Gaza Strip remain under Israeli security but the PA has authority for public administration.  Israel holds exclusive control in Area C, sectors like the eastern suburbs of Jerusalem where Israel feels most threatened.  While Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli right-wing extremist for cooperating with the PLO, Arafat was elected President of the PA in 1996.


Israel’s withdrawal from occupied territories slowed to a crawl during the administration of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu from 1995-1999.  Netanyahu’s government also authorized additional construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, especially in the suburbs of Jerusalem.  Palestinians decried this as a tactic to strengthen Israel’s claim to Jerusalem and protested that it undermined the Oslo Accords.  Israel maintained that it needed to accommodate a burgeoning population, especially immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and that the new settlements did not violate any agreements.  Still, Israel’s decision to open a tunnel beneath the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif in Jerusalem, where some of Judaism’s and Islam’s holiest sites are located, combined with other questionable Israeli activities to aggravate those who did not trust that Israel was a reliable partner in the peace process.  Israeli public opinion concurred and Netanyahu was voted out of office in favor of Ehud Barak, who served as Israel’s Prime Minister from 1999-2001.


Barak moved aggressively to restart the peace process, although his administration did not close the tunnel nor did it end new construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.  In 2000, Barak and Arafat met in Camp David to discuss a new framework for Israeli-Palestinian relations.  The Camp David meeting was significant because for the first time, Israel was willing to make major concessions to the Palestinians.  With the exception of key areas near and within Jerusalem, Israel indicated willingness to evict Jewish settlers from the West Bank and to transfer most occupied territory to the full control of the PA.  The Palestinians, however, identified several crucial issues that prohibited their agreement.  The status of Jerusalem as capital city of Palestine in addition to or instead of capital city of Israel topped the list.  Other key points included the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their ancestral lands, an end to expansion of Jewish settlements near Jerusalem, distribution of water and other natural resource rights, and other intractable subjects. 


The failure of the 2000 Camp David negotiations immediately heightened tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.  It also led to domestic political struggles, especially in Israel where hard-line conservatives criticized both Arafat and Barak.  Knowing that Barak had no legal authority to stop him, Israeli parliament member and conservative political leader Ariel Sharon declared his intent to visit the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif during the holiest month of the Jewish year.  Sharon’s heavily armed visit provoked massive Palestinian protests that transformed into Intifada II.  Also known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada for the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which houses Islam’s holy Dome of the Rock, this conflict is still on-going.  In 2001, Barak was overwhelmingly voted out of office and Sharon became Israel’s Prime Minister. 


While a fact-finding commission headed by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell reported that neither side had a deliberate intent to war, both Palestinians and Israelis accused the other of intentionally manipulating events to destroy the peace process.  The 2001 Mitchell Report noted that moderate views on both sides were dismissed and that neither Palestinians nor Israelis seriously accepted each other’s perspective as valid.  Each felt betrayed by the other.  Both viewed their fight as one of national survival.  Ironically, Intifada II occurred at a time when cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis was closer than ever.  Interdependence between Palestinian and Israeli economies was tight.  Israeli consumers preferred the high-quality, low-cost fruits and vegetables grown in PA-controlled areas to inferior imports.  Israeli business- and home-owners also favored Palestinian construction companies because workers were cheaper and more experienced than domestic, often immigrant, laborers.  Most Palestinians relied heavily on direct or indirect employment by Israelis for their livelihoods.  They also chose Israeli appliances or electronic goods whenever possible because of higher quality control and durability.  During Intifada II, Israel closed the borders of the Gaza Strip and West Bank in order to economically penalize the Palestinians for their uprising.  They also bulldozed homes and fruit groves as punishment for continued violence.  In doing so, Israel crippled the Palestinian economy but also seriously injured its own.  Israel’s booming economy went bust in 2001.


Regional Alliances

The Arab League is a voluntary association of 16 countries in Middle East and North Africa.  The PLO is also a full member.  Officially the League of Arab States, it was formed in 1945 to promote common interests, strengthen ties and coordinate policies among member nations.  Programs range from literacy campaigns to economic agreements regulating labor and social issues.  Born with the Cold War, the Arab League deals with geopolitical issues as well, including the long-lasting ramifications of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the ever-present Arab-Israeli conflict.


The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was founded in 1960 to set production ceilings, regulate the amount of oil produced by member nations and to keep price per barrel of petroleum at a relatively steady and profitable level.  Seven of OPEC’s twelve member nations are in the Middle East and North Africa.  As discussed earlier, OPEC’s 1973-1978 oil embargo backfired and kept oil prices depressed throughout most of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Petroleum prices began to rise again in 2000.  Saudi Arabia is the most powerful member of OPEC and has served as a moderating influence in recent years.


The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is a consortium of politically conservative monarchies that was founded in 1981 to coordinate policies regarding income management, trade and security issues among the Persian Gulf’s wealthiest countries.  Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are members.  Collectively, they make large sums of financing available for economic development and military protection throughout the region.


Israel, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia signed "Euro-Med" trade agreements with the European Union (EU).  Turkey has applied to join EU as full member but political opposition from Greece and economic concerns have delayed EU consideration of Turkey's application.  


Economic Development and Social Inequality

Even within the same country, Middle Eastern and North African populations range from extreme wealth to extreme poverty.  As water supplies continue to dwindle, agriculture becomes progressively less sustainable.  Many technological improvements such as drip irrigation have not been used widely throughout the region because in most areas it is not politically acceptable to adopt Israeli innovations.  Also for domestic political reasons, certain populations such as the Kurds and the Palestinians have been deliberately excluded from national economic growth.  Nationalist economic development tended to favor urban residents and government employees at the expense of rural farmers.  Poor economic management resulting from state socialist policies during the Cold War and misguided approaches such as import substitution weakened the ability of many countries in the Middle East and North Africa to thrive at the end of the 20th century.   The most successful economies in the region -- Israel and Turkey -- have diversified sources of income and a well-developed high-tech sector.  Most countries in the region, however, are wholly dependent on oil revenue.  They are therefore vulnerable to changes in the demand for and price of petroleum.  In countries where oil revenues are consistently high and government policies are strongly centralized, however, it is especially troubling that issues of squalor and economic disenfranchisement among the rural and urban poor continue to exist. 


Neo-liberal policies, such as debt stabilization and structural adjustment programs, have raised the cost of food and other necessities as well as cut government spending, especially on social programs.  By privatizing markets and dismantling subsidies, neo-liberal policies have made it more difficult for the rural poor to survive.  As the poor move to the cities in larger numbers than the municipal infrastructures can handle, they face urban poverty – inadequate housing, unclean water, little or no electricity, and poor public services such as health care or education.  They are also unlikely to be able to take advantage of new economic opportunities in the formal economy and they are often marginalized into informal economic sector activity.  However, this is not solely due to neo-liberal economic policies urged by Western banks and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).  Ordinary people who survive regional violence, such as civil war or forced annexation or occupation of territory, often face difficulty rebuilding after economic decline. 


Core Regions and Key Cities

Key economic producers in the Middle East and North Africa are the Oil States and countries that form the Eastern Mediterranean Crescent.   


Oil States

Major oil producers in the region include Algeria, Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Yemen.  Algeria is presently undergoing domestic political turmoil as Islamists and government forces vie for political control.  Libya remains a socialist state under a lifelong dictator and still practices import substitution at the expense of a fossil water supply (older than 10,000 years) that at the present rate of consumption will run dry within 25 years.  Yemen is still developing its oil reserves and does not yet have full production capability. 


Saudi Arabia has access to roughly 25% of the world's oil supply.  Iraq accounts for another 10% of known oil reserves, Kuwait 9%, UAE 7% and Iran 6%.  Together, they control more than half of the globe's petroleum resources.  They are also at the mercy of gas price fluctuations and limited fuel supplies


In response to the 1970's OPEC oil embargo, global consumers switched to more fuel-efficient vehicles and began to practice greater energy conservation.  The oil embargo also triggered a worldwide economic recession that shut factories and reduced demand for fossil fuels.  As a result, oil prices fell sharply by the early 1980's and oil-producing states suffered economic downturns.  During the 1990's, low petroleum prices helped power the global post-Cold War economic boom and oil consumption rose to record levels.  With high levels of income generated once again, many oil states began to diversity their economies to include textile production, food processing plants or port facilities.  Yemen landed a lucrative contract with the U.S. Navy for use of its port at Aden, only to have its reputation tarnished by a terrorist bombing aboard the USS Cole that killed several American sailors in 2000. 


By participating more fully in the global economy, Oil States are exposing their populations to foreign workers and military personnel at a greater rate than ever before.  While some residents welcome the new wealth and new ideas, others are retreating into more conservative interpretations of Islamic law and tradition in order to delay or avoid modernization.  Saudi Arabia protects its population from foreign influences by isolating American oil workers employed by Aramco on their compounds.  Likewise, female military personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally since the Persian Gulf War, are restricted to their bases because Saudi women are not allowed the same freedoms they are, such as permission to drive or to avoid full veiling when in mixed gender company. 


Oil States invested heavily in military weapons and technologies throughout the 1980's and 1990's.  Although it has never been officially confirmed, Israel is widely believed to be a nuclear power with tactical nuclear weaponry available for use.  Concerns that Iraq may have been developing a similar capability were relieved when Israel destroyed Iraqi nuclear power plants in the early 1980's.  Since then, however, Iraq may very well have purchased or developed nuclear weaponry; Iraq consistently refuses to allow UN weapons inspectors into areas where Western intelligence suspects nuclear arms are stored.  Saudi Arabia and other Oil States invested heavily in modernizing their militaries during the 1990's by purchasing large quantities of US-made equipment and financing weapons training.  While Israeli morale and troop strength have been sapped by decades of informal skirmishes with Palestinian civilians and guerrilla groups, no other Middle Eastern country except Iraq has directly engaged in military activity since the Persian Gulf War.  Oil State armed forces are therefore relatively untried but also fresh and well-armed.


The Oil States produce petroleum that is vital for the healthy maintenance of the current global economy.  They also spend petrodollars, revenues generated for governments and private corporations by oil sales.  Petrodollars are globally significant for transnational banks and businesses.  Many families whose wealth derives from petrodollars have invested heavily in real estate worldwide and presently own lucrative holdings in New York, London and Tokyo.



Associated with the Sa’ud family since the early 1800’s, Riyadh is both the symbolic and practical capital of Saudi Arabia.  It is also is a prime example of a city than has grown rapidly and become considerably more cosmopolitan because of the oil economy.  Commerce, industry and higher education in Saudi Arabia all center on Riyadh.  The city is a sprawling modern urban area that mixes traditional Arab market areas and neighborhoods with Western style architecture and downtown ambience.  As in other oil cities (such as Abu Dabai, UAE, and Kuwait City, Kuwait), foreigners hold most of the private sector as well as government jobs.


Eastern Mediterranean Crescent

Outside of the major oil producers, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon and Turkey are among the most economically successful countries in the Middle East and North Africa.  All four countries have large urban populations and are well integrated into the global economy.  Each also maintains a relatively large middle class, a rare social group in the region that wields considerable economic clout and provides political stability. 


Egypt has a long history of agricultural and industrial development but is struggling with meeting resource demands from the fastest growing population in the region.  Israel is the high-tech leader in the region, with a high GNP, strong industrial base and profitable agricultural exports such as Jaffa oranges. 


Lebanon rebuilt recently after a destructive civil war but still faces weak infrastructure and massive debt problems in addition to occupation by more than 25,000 Syrian troops.  The unilateral withdrawal of Israeli troops and outmigration of Maronite Christians in 2000 left a power vacuum in south Lebanon filled by Syrian-backed pro-Palestinian Hizbollah guerrilla forces.  Palestinian refugees in south Lebanon remain an unsettled part of the population as well.  Remittances from Lebanese émigrés have helped finance reconstruction but many Lebanese Christians feel insecure in their own land as Lebanese Muslims gain more political and economic power, and they are reluctant to invest too heavily in Lebanon.


Turkey has a well-diversified economy with mineral wealth and a strong agricultural base.  Devastating earthquakes over the past few years, however, and mounting international debts have undermined Turkey’s economic growth.  Proposed damming of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to generate hydroelectric power may provide considerable revenue to Turkey.  Israel is particularly interested in buying both electricity and water from Turkey.  Syria and Iraq, downstream from Turkey, protest the dam projects vigorously – they claim that if the dams are built, they will no longer receive their fair share of the water.  They also object to selling crucial power and water supplies to Israel.   Turkey, which is a member of NATO and an applicant to join the EU, wants to prove that it is a modern European-style state.  It is also seeking additional direct foreign investment.  These goals may strongly influence Turkey’s decisions regarding national development.



The largest city in North Africa, Cairo encompasses both sides of the Nile River and has been a center of Egypt’s economic and political strength for more than 6000 years.  Cairo has been Egypt’s capital for over 1000 years.  Culture, administration, commerce and industry thrive in Cairo, which is densely packed with people and growing ever-more crowded.  Unable to find traditional housing, more than one million residents of the urban area live in the tombs and sarcophagi of Cairo’s cemetery, the City of the Dead. 


Distinctive Regions and Landscapes

Maghreb and Western Sahara

The Maghreb is the northwestern coastline of North Africa, including Morocco (and its annexed territory of Western Sahara), Algeria and Tunisia.  Bounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Atlas Mountains to the south, the Maghreb supports agriculture as well as tourism.  Visitors come to see Casablanca and the Barbary Coast, named for the indigenous Berbers.  Carthage, one of the most important cities founded by the ancient Phoenicians, was crucial to the Roman Empire and continues being regionally important today as the city of Tunis.


A sparsely populated desert wasteland, Western Sahara was a Spanish colony from 1884-1976.  The nearby Canary Islands remain a Spanish possession.   When Spain withdrew in 1976, Morocco and Mauritania split the territories, which contain little but some phosphate deposits and off-shore fishing rights.  Since then, Mauritania rescinded its claim and Morocco extended its administrative control throughout the entire region.  Saharawis, indigenous to Western Sahara, resisted both Spain's colonial control and Morocco's current de facto annexation of their land.  They continue fighting for independence with support from Algeria through the Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hara and Rio de Oro, better known as Polisario.  Since 1976, Polisario has maintained the existence of the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).  While many African states recognize the Saharawi Republic, Morocco does not.  Polisario-led guerrilla warfare has caused thousands (of a population of roughly 200,000) Saharawis to flee to Algeria, despite Moroccan attempts to stop them by building a defensive wall.  The UN maintains a cease-fire in effect since 1991 but a popular referendum on the subject of Saharawi independence from Morocco has yet to be held.   A referendum to resolve the dispute is scheduled to take place by 2003.