The following is not an academic paper or formal essay but a simple overview of many important considerations regarding the Middle East. While most of the paper is based on facts, statistics and various sources the author has taken considerable artistic license regarding many assumptions and conclusions. Therefore this paper should not be seen as more than a starting point for further learning on the subject. The author neither claims to be an expert on the region, nor that the general data listed below constitutes a full picture of the region; considerable information has had to be left out for the sake of brevity. He also realizes that many of the assumptions and conclusions reached are often subjective and therefore should mostly be considered as educated opinions rather than unequivocal truths.
The major oil states of the Middle East are Saudi Arabia, which holds nearly 20% of the world’s proven oil reserves while Iraq, Kuwait and Iran also hold approximately 10% each which compromise another 30%. Algeria, Libya, and the United Arab Republic likewise have significant levels. Most other countries in the region have at least some oil, while perhaps only Israel and Yemen have insignificant amounts.
Ultimately the region has 60% of the world’s proven oil reserves. While this should in theory give these nations much power and prosperity, in reality Western military supremacy, authoritarian governments, and the domination of oil revenues by the ruling elites of these nations mean that most are relatively weak, dependent upon U.S. backing, and their populations relatively impoverished.
Pakistan has the largest population, around 180 million. After this Turkey, Iran and Egypt all have major populations, between 70-80 million each. Below this, countries like Sudan (after the loss of South Sudan) Algeria and Afghanistan have more than 30 million countries while countries like Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen have significant populations around 20-30 million.
Most other countries do not have significant numbers of populations, though countries like Israel and Jordan, with less than 8 million each hold disproportionate importance relative to their population levels. Of course smaller terrorist and resistance groups, the Palestinians, the Alawites and the Kurds are other examples of this phenomenon.
The total population of the Middle East depends upon how many countries are included, such as if you only count the proper Middle East versus the greater Middle East (which regrettably is subject to several different interpretations regarding which countries are included). Regarding the former, which spreads from Egypt to Iran and Turkey to Yemen the population is roughly more than 300 million, but if one includes other countries like Pakistan, North Africa, Sudan, Somalia, the Central Asian republics and even countries in the Caucasus the numbers could very well include between 700-800 million. Obviously the ultimate population levels depend on how many nations are included.
It should be noted that most countries in the region have much higher birth rates compared to most western countries, and this combined with political repression, a massive poverty rate, and the continuing scarcity of vital resources such as water, food and eventually oil, suggests that the already considerable levels of turmoil and frustration which inevitably lead to fanatical ideologies and the rise of violence are likely to increase in the decades to come.
Israel and Turkey have the most powerful, best trained, and most advanced militaries. None of the others come close though Egypt, Saudi Arabia Pakistan, and arguably Iran have significant capabilities. Syria is notable, at least for its numbers, while the Jordanian military is small but man for man arguably the best in the Arab world.
Regarding weapons of mass destruction only Pakistan and Israel have nuclear weapons. Iran is probably developing them, while Iraq and Syria were arguably frustrated from making them due to American and Israeli military efforts. Regarding chemical and biological weapons Israel, Pakistan and Syria, among others, have considerable stocks. As far as is known no terrorist or resistance groups possess WMDs.
As for asymmetrical military capabilities Hezbollah is easily the most proficient regarding terrorism and guerrilla warfare (and has a considerable stock of cheap and simple rockets to hit Israel). Al-Qaeda and the Taliban also still pose significant terrorist threats. Hamas’s capabilities at terrorism and guerrilla warfare are not as potent as they used to be but like Hezbollah they have a significant stock of rockets to target the Jewish state. Groups to watch in the future include the Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian militants from their recent respective civil wars.
Put in perspective the Israelis, the Americans and the western backed armies in the region have indisputable advantages in conventional wars and thus their enemies have resorted to guerrilla warfare and/or terrorism since the end of the “Israeli wars” and other notable conventional conflicts like the “Gulf War,” in an attempt to counteract this. This has led to mixed results. Certainty the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly to the U.S, yet ultimately have failed to defeat American interests in both these countries. Likewise, Hezbollah and Hamas have held out against Israeli assaults, but Israel shows no signs of giving up its conquests in the West Bank or even making significant political or diplomatic concessions. Finally, the countless insurgent and rebel groups in the various Arab countries have all either failed, or only succeeded with American or outside aid, regarding their respective conflicts. While many insurgencies have previously enjoyed successes against former colonial occupiers their victories against modern enemies has been extremely limited.
Meanwhile the quest to procure WMDs is mostly for the sake of deterring foreign aggression in the case of the region’s governments, or for the potential of launching devastating attacks in the case of terrorist groups. The ultimate prize would be nuclear weapons, especially since no country which has held them has ever been successfully overthrown, as well as the fact that nothing would signify a terrorist victory more than a mushroom cloud over Tel-Aviv or New York.
Types of government:
Perhaps only Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and Iraq are legitimate democracies, although if you include countries that merely elect people this would include the Palestinian governed areas, Lebanon and the new Egypt, Libya and Afghanistan. These latter nations should be watched attentively. Additionally it should be noted that Iran had a relatively democratic government in the early ’50s that was subsequently overthrown by an American and British sponsored coup.
Much of the rest of the countries are either Monarchies (some more enlightened than others) such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, or dictatorships like Syria, Sudan, Algeria and the late administration in Yemen.
Iran is the only current fundamentalist regime although the Taliban were arguably much more fanatical when they ruled Afghanistan. Hezbollah is a fundamentalist proxy of Iran and although it is not in charge in Lebanon it still has significant power in its governance.
It goes without saying that the terrorist/resistance groups in the region seek to overthrow their respective governments or at least want more inclusion in power.
The majority of inhabitants in the region are Muslim, of which the two main denominations are Sunni and Shiite. Most countries have a Sunni majority, although Iran, Iraq and Bahrain have Shiite majorities. Israel obviously has a Jewish majority and not surprisingly there are few Jewish people in other countries in the region. There are also significant Christian populations in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. The Alawites in Syria hold most power despite being a small minority. There are countless other religious sects or denominations as well.
Perhaps the most threatening religious groups would be the more extreme believers of Wahhabism in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran’s fundamentalist regime (and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon), Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other extremist groups (including the more fanatical Jewish groups in Israel and the West Bank).
It is also worth mentioning that the majority of Muslims are not Arab, and do not predominantly inhabit the Middle East. Indonesia is primarily Muslim, Nigeria and Black Africa have many Muslims, as do Russia and China, and there are of course plenty of Muslim communities in other regions, especially in Western Europe and North America.
Perhaps the biggest myth about the Middle East is that the population is almost exclusively Arab. Pakistan with its considerable population comprises mostly of Punjabis and Pashtuns. Among the most populous nations Turkey is mostly Turkish, and Iran has a Persian majority. In Israel there is a significant mix of races due to the vast immigration after the holocaust. In Somalia and Sudan the population is mostly black. Finally the Kurds have significant numbers in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey comprising roughly 30 million and their efforts to gain autonomy, or even semi-autonomy, has resulted in extreme bloodshed.
Needless to say there are many other considerable groups.
Ideologies since “World War 2”
During the last 70 years the Middle East has witnessed a vast menagerie of competing ideologies, secular or non-secular, in many attempts to achieve good governance, prosperity or establish a widely accepted philosophy for living. Try picturing all the ideologies thought up and fought for, or against, in Europe and the Western world over several centuries, but in the case of the Middle East it occurred in mere decades since the “Second World War.” These ideologies, whether Islamic or secular, regional or nation based, have, with a few exceptions, ultimately failed to bring lasting happiness, prosperity, or stability to the region.
Pan-Arabism, the attempt to merge all Arab countries into one state failed due to petty infighting, corruption, and the lack of trust among various Arab leaders. The Arab monarchies with their rubber stamping parliaments are also nearing extinction due to their refusal to offer of any real democratic reform and sharing next to none of their oil wealth with their people. Secular and socialist countries such as Ba’athist Syria and Iraq (when under Saddam Hussein) have killed more people than even the religious fanatics and mismanaged their economies so poorly that even Iraq’s oil wealth, and Syria’s domination of Lebanon, were not enough to fix their economic woes. The Islamic Republic in Iran was admittedly popular at first, but the 8 year long “Iran-Iraq War,” economic stagnation, lack of any real democratic reform, and the growing numbers of young, unemployed and desperate youth is slowly catching up with it. Finally there are the remnants of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which has more popularity than most westerners would admit, but has not been able to arouse the same impressive resistance against the occupying Americans as the Afghanis have done so brilliantly in the past against the British, the Russians, and even Alexander the Great.
Somehow Liberal democracy has gained little currency in the region. Maybe this is the result of the nearly impossible attempts to separate church, or in this case Mosque, and State, the fact that most of the inhabitants in the region are relatively uneducated, the various efforts made by self interested elites to keep economic and political power, or maybe even the consideration that the masses in the region could arguably be skeptical of an ideology that the Western world promotes so much, yet has done so little to actually implement in the Middle East. Put simply perhaps the inhabitants see the hypocrisy of Western nations giving lip service to democracy while often supporting brutal despots and tyrants in the region.
However, as previously mentioned, it would be wrong to say that the region does not have any democracy as Israel, Turkey, Iraq and Pakistan all have more or less legitimate democratic governments, while it is hoped that Afghanistan, Egypt and Libya will soon develop them. Lebanon, and even the Palestinian territories also have many elements of democracy (at least elections), and some of the Gulf countries have various elections at lower levels of governance. And less people in the West succumb to ethnocentrism it should be remembered how long it took countries like Britain, America, and even Canada between establishing democratic governments and ending slavery, giving women the vote and giving equal status to minorities. This process lasted decades to centuries and was not accomplished in a matter of years.
It is hoped that with the rise of media and information technology, leading to more education and widespread communications, that the masses in the region will ultimately be able to control their fates (however considering many of the region’s despots have effectively used such technology in efforts to crush such dissent this may seem overoptimistic). Either way there is little doubt that various forces, including fanatics, militants, or elites who have no wish to share power or wealth, will do everything in their power to frustrate such progress.
While the Middle East obviously has a long history perhaps it is easier to focus on the last century. Although far for perfect it is easy to divide the history of the region into several periods. While there is little room here for more than a small, and admittedly unsophisticated, historical narrative the main points can be easily articulated.
At the beginning of the “First World War” most countries of the region were either colonies, or protectorates, of the British, French, Russian, Turkish, and Italian Empires. The inhabitants of these nations had little say in their governance and generally hated their imperial overseers who plundered much of their resources and drew up frontiers and governments more for the convenience of themselves than to correspond to the existing cultural or social makeup of the various peoples. During the war the British, with some French help, defeated the Turks, conquering all of their foreign possessions, and became the foremost power in the region (arguably holding this position until the Suez conflict in 1956).
However, instead of granting independence to many of the inhabitants in the region as had been implied by several agreements with many Arab leaders the British and French annexed their conquests and held the region under their thumbs during the interwar years. During these years the British put down several rebellions, notable in Iraq and in Palestine in which there was considerable violence between the Arab majority at the increasing levels of Jews that were emigrating there (obviously a portent of things to come).
“World War 2” also witnessed calamitous events. The fighting in North Africa and Syria, the putting down of a rebellion in Iraq, the Anglo-Russian invasion of Iran, and the holocaust (which led to massive Jewish emigration to, and eventually the establishment of, Israel) all promised to alter the complexion of the region.
Indeed, the war weakened Britain and France so much that it ultimately led to de-colonization of the region, the establishment of Israel, and eventually the relinquishment of Britain and France as the main power brokers in the region (to be replaced by America and the Soviet Union). Thereupon these two countries tried dividing the region into proxies to serve their own purposes. Considering there was already a mini Cold War in the region between those countries with conservative monarchies and those with more revolutionary ideologies it made sense they would be absorbed into the greater “Cold War” between the U.S. and the Russians.
Major events during this period include the establishment of Israel, the multiple “Arab-Israeli wars,” the “Algerian War,” the “Iranian Revolution,” the “Iran-Iraq war” countless other revolutions, insurgencies and coups, the “Soviet Afghan War” “the First Intifada” and the “Gulf War.” These violent events, along with the various failed ideologies that dominated the region for the last half a century ultimately resulted in growing frustration in the Arab world, Islamic fundamentalism, considerable anti-American, anti-western and anti-Israeli sentiment in the region, and paved the way towards “9/11” and the considerable clashes between western and Islamic forces in the 21st century.
With America’s triumph in the “Cold War” and the “Gulf War” it appeared at the time that the U.S. was in a position to solve the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” as well as dominate most of the region’s issues and thus play the role Britain did during the interwar years. However, their efforts at the former failed by the end of the millennium and their influence regarding the latter was limited. The failure to fix the Palestinian problem, the vain efforts to put Saddam Hussein in his place after the “Gulf War,” and the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia after the “battle of Mogadishu” encouraged many of America’s enemies that she could be defeated and forced to withdraw its forces from the region. These, along with the factors mentioned above, drew a direct line from the end of the “Second World War” to “9/11.”
Which leads to the calamitous 12 years since the devastating attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. There has certainly been plenty of history between Sept 11, 2001 and 2013. Not since the “Iran-Iraq war” has so much blood been spilt in the region in so short a time. Major events during this time frame include “9/11,” “the war in Afghanistan,” the “Iraq War,” the “Second Intifada,” “the Second Lebanon War,” the “Gaza conflict,” the “Arab Spring,” the “Libyan intervention,” the “Syrian Civil War,” etc. These events have influenced the Arab world and the Americans differently.
On the one hand it could be argued that the considerable turmoil of the last 12 years has considerably damaged American power and prestige in the region. Certainly the “Iraq War,” the backing of Israel’s many military ventures, rogue actions such as Drone attacks, and the considerable financial, human, and diplomatic costs of these endeavors have taken its toll on American political will, her reputation, and her geopolitical position. On the other hand most of the regimes in the region continue to stagnate and have not improved their positions vis a vis the Americans, the Israelis and the West. Thus relatively nothing has really changed regarding the balance of power and considering that nations and people’s in the region have turned to America, and not Iran or fanatical organizations like Al-Qaeda, in lieu of the “Arab Spring” there is no indication that America’s influence in the region has significantly less clout than usual.
It is more likely America’s enemies will burn out before she does, but whether they are replaced by more moderate, democratic, or at least more stable elements, or whether they are replaced by more fanatical or hostile forces remains to be seen. Certainly the history of revolutions, coups and ideologies in the region during the past 70 years which failed to produce freedom and prosperity could at least suggest that one should be cautious at hoping for the best.
Unfortunately there is nothing clear cut in the Middle East about various alliances, sympathies or alignments. While there are simple examples such as Israel and Turkey being formal allies of the United States, or that Syria and Iran are also close allies, it is generally more complicated than that. Generally one could suggest that the main contest in the region is between nations that support the status quo, supported by the Americans (and Israel tacitly) and other nations, or groups, that want to change the status quo (often in drastically different ways), led by Iran and her principal ally Syria.
In the simplest, though not entirely accurate, terms one could say the former group includes Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, the Gulf States, Pakistan, Lebanon, and militant groups like Fatah (or friendly militants in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan) etc, while the latter would include Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, several branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, various terrorist or militant groups, etc. Then there are the extreme hardcore groups that are enemies of both which obviously includes Al-Qaeda.
As noted above these latter groups often have many differing goals, some of which compete with each other. For example, Iran arguably simply wants to emerge as the dominant power in the region, no doubt at the expense of America. Syria and Hezbollah share this goal, while Hamas and Fatah both want to lead the Palestinian cause as well as liberate the Palestinians from the Israeli yoke. Various groups want to overthrow their governments and install more or less Islamic regimes, while others like Al-Qaeda want to unite all the nations in the region under an Islamic Caliphate like in bygone days. There is also significant religious and ethnic infighting, such as the Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq, the hard pressed Alawites and its few allies vs. the majority of groups in Syria, and the Kurdish groups fighting for more autonomy in their respective nations. There are countless more examples.
If this were not complicated enough, there are significant elements among the supposed “status quo” nations that lean more towards the revolutionary side. For example, while Egypt is usually seen as a U.S. ally it is conceivable that under the new Muslim Brotherhood regime it could eventually join the other camp (hence why the Americans have yet to cut off the billions of dollars of aid they give to that country). Also there are significant forces in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to name a few, that have fanatical sympathies, often supporting the Americans with one hand, and arming terrorists with the other. Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan are also odd case studies. Lebanon’s government and military is generally pro-west while Hezbollah, which holds considerable power in the country, completely opposes such an alignment. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya all have competing militias and groups that are fighting each other for various aims, but ultimately are either pro, or anti-U.S.
Which leads to the point that nations and groups in the region often change sides, sometimes due to coups, sometimes due to foreign intervention, sometimes due to ideological shifts, or simply out of changing interests. Egypt for instance went from being an implacable enemy of the West, to being its best ally (and may switch yet again), while Iran was arguably America’s best ally until the “Iranian Revolution” and is now its worst enemy. Iraq has also gone back and forth several times, and even terrorist groups like Fatah and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan have changed sides.
Finally the situation of Israel is extremely complex. While America, and until recently, Turkey have been steadfast allies, Jordan, and the Gulf countries have often been tacit allies, and even Iran was an Israeli ally before the “Iranian Revolution.” Of course this is usually in secret as all factions in the Middle East, safe of course America, openly side with the Palestinians even though all of them generally do nothing to significantly aid them.
The quintessential point being that while there are generally some alliances and alignments, they are rarely longterm and that there is significant infighting in many nations themselves. If all of this has confused the reader that was precisely the author’s intention, as he himself has yet, and probably will never, be able to understand the various relationships between nations in the region. The alignments are not simple as in both world wars such as the Triple Entente and the Central Powers, or Axis and Allies.
As noted above the Middle East covers, especially if the greater Middle East is included, a large geographical area. In the latter case it stretches from the Atlantic to Pakistan, and Kazakhstan to Sudan. While traditional literature would suggest most of the region is dessert terrain this is an over-simplistic, and inaccurate, conclusion.
Much of the region, including its major rivers such as the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the Indus have significant agriculture and vegetation. Likewise while there is plenty of dessert terrain in North Africa and the Gulf countries there is no lack of mountain terrain in places such as Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Northern Iraq, the Caucasus, etc.
As for population centers there are plenty of large urban centers such as Cairo, Alexandria, Istanbul, Tehran, Baghdad, Islamabad, Karachi, Damascus, Aleppo, Tel-Aviv, etc. The idea that there is a prevalence of rural communities and nomads is erroneous.
Regarding geopolitics the region’s geography is notable for its many maritime choke points where considerable levels of world trade, and especially its oil exports, pass through. Considering the region contains most of the world’s proven oil reserves, and considering it is also a major hub of international commerce, the control, or denial, of such checkpoints has always been an important consideration for most major world powers.
These choke points include the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits, the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden, and the Hormuz strait. It is no coincidence that the British Empire at its height and America since the “Cold War” have done so much to control these vital lines of communication to guarantee their access to world trade and oil supplies.
Major regional issues:
Being the powder key that it is the Middle East has no lack of significant issues. The most well known is obviously the “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict. However other major issues include the “Syrian Civil War,” the war in Afghanistan, the “Iranian Nuclear program” and the region’s considerable social, political and economic strife, to name a few among many.
The “Israeli-Palestinian” conflict arguably only effects the Palestinians but the masses in the region, and especially their corrupt leaders, use it as an excuse to justify any violence, or at least any displeasure, against Israel, the U.S. and the West. This is obviously hypocritical given the fact Egypt and Jordan have previously annexed Palestinian lands, how poorly most of the countries in the region have treated Palestinian refugees and the fact that the Arabs have killed more Palestinians than the Israelis. Additionally one could easily point out how many countries in the region treat such minorities as the Kurds and Shiites arguably just as bad as the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Certainly a case could be made that there is a double standard regarding how world opinion disproportionately focuses on Israel’s crimes versus those of her neighbors.
However, solving it would remove a sore point, but considering all the bruises in the region it would not solve the rest of the major issues. Certainly it would not stop the Iranians from wanting nukes or dominating the Middle East, end the fighting among the countless groups with their various interests, or improve the political or economic status of the inhabitants in the region. The conflict itself seems unsolvable as Israeli security concerns, or down right attempts at annexation stall progress at one end, and unreasonable Palestinian demands and outright hated of Israel from other countries stall it at the other. While it would be arrogant for the author to suggest he had a formula to solve the conflict, perhaps a concerted effort by the Americans to pressure the Israelis to compromise on one side, and another effort by the Arabs to pressure the Palestinians on the other would likely yield fruit. However given the power of the Jewish lobby in America, as well as the fact it is not in the interest of the ruling elite in the Middle East to do so suggests that this formula has little chance of ever being adopted, let alone succeeding.
The “Syrian Civil War” is important as Syria’s position in the region has immense geopolitical importance. Being Iran’s chief ally, its support of Hezbollah and Hamas, its border with Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, and its considerable stocks of weapons of mass destruction (which will fall into the hands of whoever wins) are some of the many important considerations. In the best case scenario a relatively pro-western faction could emerge victorious, end the Iranian alliance, isolate Hezbollah and restrain Hamas, make peace with Israel, and be a force for stability in the recognition. In the worst case a regime even more hostile to the status quo could emerge, intensify the current turmoil and even give WMDs to terrorist groups. Given the many competing insurgent groups with their differing aspirations and goals it is hard to predict the end result. While it is debatable if direct American military intervention in the conflict would be wise certainly a case could be made for America and her allies to support and prop up the more moderate insurgent groups to prevent the more extremist groups coming to power in Damascus at the end of the conflict.
The resolution of the “Afghan War” is also of great importance. Considering that America’s abandonment of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in the late 1980s led to the rise of Al-Qaeda and terrorism it is obvious that preventing the Taliban or other entities that hate the West from gaining power there would probably be a good thing. Yet despite all the cynicism regarding the current administration in Kabul there are good reasons to be somewhat hopeful. The Iraqi experiment has so far survived despite the American withdrawal, and in previous situations where other governments were initially propped up by foreign influences (such as South Vietnam, Batista’s Cuba, and even the government the Russians installed in Afghanistan) they ultimately collapsed more to do with the foreign governments pulling the plug on all aid (monetary, military and diplomatic) than weaknesses on the indigenous governments part. In other words if the American government continues to give the government in Kabul significant aid after all U.S. troops withdraw it will probably survive.
The Iranian nuclear program is arguably the biggest concern of Israel, the U.S, the West, and the nations in the region that favor the current status quo. While many Israeli and Americans like to emphasize the potentially apocalyptic consequences of Iran getting the bomb it would arguably not be so detrimental to the bigger picture so long as the Iranians did not plan on nuking Israel or giving nuclear weapons to terrorist proxies (no doubt significant caveats). While there exists enough evidence to suggest that Iran is more or less a rational state that would not risk annihilation by doing so, no one can guarantee that Iran would not do so either. However, it is perhaps reassuring that since 1945 no country has used nuclear weapons, including Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Either way Israel and the U.S. both have nuclear weapons and an overwhelming advantage in conventional military power and it is therefore hard to see Iran getting much advantage out of possessing nuclear weapons. It could arguably trigger a nuclear weapons race, or give Iran more clout in the region, but more likely the increasingly unpopular Iranian regime will eventually burn out like the Soviet Union did before her.
The social, political, and economic strife obviously fuels all of the above, as well as all other major issues in the region. These were also factors for the significant strife, wars, revolutions and other unpleasant events which occurred in the West during the last few centuries as well. Massive unemployment, overpopulation, the unequal distribution of wealth and resources, lack of freedom and severe discriminate are just some of the many issues affecting the societies in the Middle East. While the author has no idea of how or where to start in order to fix such problems it is plain that rectifying them would go along way to alleviating most of the region’s problems.
General summary of main points
-Despite holding more than 60% of the World’s proven oil reserves many of the region’s regimes are unstable and weak, their populations frustrated an impoverished, and are often at the mercy of foreign influences
-the Middle Eastern nations have a considerable population base which in most cases will grow exponentially vs. most western nations
-however the lack political freedom, the considerable economic difficulties in the region, and the scarcity of resources such as food, water and even oil suggests that with increased population growth many of the current problems in the region will probably get worse, rather than better, over the foreseeable future
-Israel, Turkey, Pakistan and western backed nations have an unsurpassable conventional military advantage over rogue states such as Iran and Syria
-however Iran and Syria have resorted to using proxies to fight their enemies, while non-state actors like Hezbollah, Hamas and various insurgent/terrorist groups have used asymmetrical methods such as guerrilla warfare and terrorism to compensate for their weakness in conventional warfare capabilities
-only Israel and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, though Iran is thought to be developing them
-the development of WMDs is sought by regimes to deter foreign aggression (such as invasion by the United States) and by terrorists to launch potentially devastating attacks against their enemies
-most of the countries are ruled either by monarchies or authoritarian regimes
-Iran is technically the only fundamentalist regime in the region
-there are few legitimate democratic governments though many other countries have, or are developing, some democratic policies or procedures
-resistance/terrorist groups are either trying to overthrow their respective governments or at least want more autonomy, or say, regarding their governance
-the vast majority of inhabitants are Muslim, of which the two main denominations are Sunni and Shiite
-most Muslims do not inhabit the Middle East
-most countries have a Sunni majority but Iraq, Iran and Bahrain have a Shiite majority
-Israel obviously has a Jewish majority, and there are significant Christian communities in Syria, Lebanon and Egypt
-despite having an Arab majority there is a significant non-Arab population in the region
-Turkey is predominantly Turkish, Iran is mostly Persian, and Israel has a very mixed racial background (mostly due to emigration before, and after, the holocaust)
-the population of Somalia and Sudan is mostly black
-Pakistan is mostly Punjabis and Pashtun
-the Middle East has gone through countless ideologies since the end of the “Second World War”
-these include Pan-Arabism, the retaining of Monarchies, various forms of Socialism, and various interpretations of Islamic fundamentalism
-none of these ideologies have brought freedom, stability, or prosperity to the inhabitants of the region
-liberal democracy has not “yet” been implemented in any serious way (safe of course Israel)
-most of the Middle East was occupied by foreign powers before the beginning of the “First World War”
-during the war Britain and France defeated the Turks and established themselves as the dominant powers in the region
-“World War 2” led to the establishment of Israel, decolonization, and Britain and France ultimately being replaced by America and the Soviet Union as the dominant powers in the region
-various coups, revolutions, insurgencies and conflicts during the “Cold War” led to rife instability, economic stagnant, general frustration, and rising anti-Israeli, anti-American, and anti-western sentiment in the region
-despite victory in the “Cold War” America did not effectively exploit her dominant position in the region in the subsequent decade and thanks to several U.S. failures in the area her enemies felt encouraged enough to confront and attack her
-this resulted in the escalating terrorist attacks during the 1990s to “9/11” and triggered considerable clashes between American and western forces vs. Islamic ones during the next decade
-however pent up frustration among the region’s masses has also led to the “Arab Spring” and it is debatable if the more extremist and anti-western regimes and groups (including Iran and Syria as well as Al-Qaeda) can survive indefinitely
-the Middle East can generally be divided according to two camps, one that favors the continuation of the status quo, and the other that wants to challenge it
-Israel, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, potentially the new Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan and the Gulf countries, and various pro-western militant groups such as Fatah are mostly aligned with the former
-Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and anti-western militant groups mostly align with the latter
-however such a division is imperfect as many elements on both sides sympathize more with the other side (as elements of the Saudi, Pakistani regime sympathize more with the latter group whereas dissidents in Syria and Iran sympathize more with the former)
-allegiances in the region often change side (as Egypt and Iran changed sides in 1979, Iraqi insurgents changed sides after the American surge of troops in Iraq in 2007, as well as the countless different changes due to revolutions, coups, ideological shifts, etc.)
-America and Israel have confusing relationships in the region as most states are openly against them but often align their interests with them in secrecy
-geographically the Middle East is extensive, arguably spreading from the Atlantic to Pakistan and from Sudan to the Caucasus
-besides the considerable desserts of North Africa and the Gulf States there are the considerable rivers such as the Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Indus
-the popular perception of the region comprising mostly of rural areas and nomads is false as most of the inhabitants live in massive urban areas around such cities as Cairo, Alexandria, Istanbul, Tehran, Baghdad, Islamabad, Karachi, Damascus, Aleppo, Tel-Aviv, etc.
-the Middle East contains significant maritime checkpoints such as the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Aden and the Strait of Hormuz
-much of world trade and a disproportionate amount of oil exports pass through these checkpoints and thus most major world powers compete to control them
-major issues in the region include the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the “Syrian Civil War,” the current war in Afghanistan, the “Iranian Nuclear Program,” and the considerable social, political and economic strife in the region.
-solving the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” would remove a sensitive issue with fuels much animosity in the region but would not solve the other major issues affecting the area
-the “Syrian Civil War” is important due to the serious influence Syria holds regarding Israel Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Hamas
-the victory of a pro-western faction in Syria would serve the American, Israeli and the more pro status quo nations’ interests in the region while the victory of an anti-western faction would arguably be more beneficial to those countries and groups that wish to challenge the status quo in the region
-the end result in Afghanistan is important as the victory of the current government would probably result in more stability, both for the region and the world, while the victory of more radical elements would probably increase turmoil, violence and terrorism just as the emergence of the Taliban after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 did so
-the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons is arguably the single greatest concern of the Americans, the Israelis and the more pro status quo nations and groups
-in the worst case scenario the Iranians could nuke Israel or give nuclear weapons to terrorist groups
-more likely the Iranians may gain some additional political and diplomatic in the short term, but the fact Israel and America both have both nukes as well as a considerable advantage in conventional warfare capabilities, and the growing levels of dissent in Iran suggests that Iran will not profit in the long term
-the social, political and economic strife in the region provides much fuel to the violence, turmoil and many issues in the region
-until they are solved or at least alleviated there is little chance of fixing the long term issues in the region
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Darwish, Nonie. The Devil We Don’t Know. Hoboken: John Wiley and Sons, 2012.
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Herzog, Chaim. The Arab-Israeli Wars. London: Greenhill Books, 2005.
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CIA’s World Fact Book Online: https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/
Wikipedia Article on the “Middle East”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_East [May, 2013]