The concept of the Middle East

De Baripedia

Based on a course by Yilmaz Özcan.[1][2]

The Middle East, a multifaceted region, stretches from Egypt to Iran, encompassing countries such as Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and others. Geographically, this region acts as a bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, with a strategic position that has shaped its history and politics. It is the cradle of ancient civilisations and three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, profoundly influencing its culture and traditions. Historically, the Middle East has been the centre of powerful empires, such as the Ottoman Empire, which reigned until its fall after the First World War, and the Persian Empire, renowned for its cultural and scientific wealth. The region has been the birthplace of influential figures such as Saladin in the 12th century, the emblematic figure of resistance against the Crusaders, and more recently Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt and the central figure of Arab nationalism in the 20th century.

The Middle East has also been a major area of geopolitical conflict, influenced by European colonisation and the interests of world powers in its natural resources, mainly oil. The Sykes-Picot agreements of 1916, which redefined the region's borders after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, are a striking example of Western influence on the political configuration of the Middle East. This period also marked the beginning of the Palestinian question, which remains a major bone of contention. In economic terms, the discovery and exploitation of oil radically transformed certain Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, into regional economic powers. However, this wealth is not evenly distributed and has been a source of internal and external tensions. The region has witnessed major social movements, such as the Arab Spring in 2011, which triggered a series of popular uprisings demanding democratic reforms. These events have highlighted the challenges faced by many Middle Eastern societies, such as corruption, unemployment and political repression. In theoretical terms, analyses of the Middle East in political science and history often incorporate concepts such as colonialism, nationalism, pan-Arabism and, more recently, studies of terrorism and religious fundamentalism. These concepts help to understand the complex dynamics of the region.

The Middle East today remains a region in flux, navigating between tradition and modernity, and continues to play a central role on the world stage, influencing politics, economics and culture far beyond its borders.

The concept of the Middle East[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The notion of the "Middle East" is closely linked to a European perspective and reflects the way in which Western powers have historically viewed and categorised this region. The term was first popularised in 1902 by Alfred Thayer Mahan, an influential American naval strategist, in the context of an article that discussed strategic issues relating to India and the Indian Ocean.

Mahan used the term to refer to a geographical area of strategic importance to naval and commercial interests, particularly the route to India, a crucial British colony at the time. Mahan's region of the "Middle East" included territories from the Ottoman Empire in the west to the western border of India, encompassing the Persian Gulf and other key areas for maritime and commercial control. This conceptualisation of the Middle East is emblematic of the Eurocentric approach that prevailed in geopolitical analysis at the beginning of the 20th century. It reflects the vision of the colonial powers, who saw the region primarily through the prism of their own strategic and economic interests. This perspective shaped not only the way the Middle East was understood and represented in Western discourse, but also the way the region's borders and political structures were established, particularly after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the First World War.

The term 'Middle East' was used long before Alfred Thayer Mahan, although its popularisation is often attributed to him. Sir Thomas Edward Gordon, a British officer and diplomat, is said to have used the term "Middle East" as early as 1842. However, this early use did not have the same impact or resonance as Mahan's in geopolitical and academic circles. Gordon's use of the term 'Middle East' can be seen as an early indication of how the European powers were beginning to conceptualise and define the region in the context of their imperial and strategic interests. However, it was Mahan's 1902 article that really helped to anchor the term in modern geopolitical parlance. Mahan, by focusing on the importance of the region for the control of sea lanes and access to resources, gave the term a strategic dimension that resonated with the interests and concerns of the Western powers of the day. This difference in the impact and diffusion of the two uses illustrates how certain ideas or concepts gain influence depending on the historical and geopolitical context in which they are employed. While Gordon's use remained relatively obscure, Mahan's came at a time when the strategic challenges of the Middle East were beginning to be increasingly recognised by the Western powers, which contributed to the popularisation and perpetuation of the term.

Valentine Chirol, an influential journalist and commentator on foreign policy, adds an interesting perspective to the history of the concept of 'Middle East'. Chirol, working for The Times of London (not The New York Times), played a key role in the popularisation and dissemination of the term in the early twentieth century. Valentine Chirol, as a correspondent and later as head of foreign affairs at The Times, wrote many influential articles and books on international politics, and his writings often touched on the region we now call the Middle East. His analyses focused particularly on geopolitical dynamics, including the so-called 'Great Game' - the strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires for control of Central Asia.

Although Chirol did not rigorously define the geographical boundaries of the Middle East, his writings helped to shape the Western understanding of the region as a crucial strategic space, particularly in relation to British and Russian interests in Central Asia. This focus on the 'Great Game' has highlighted the importance of the region not only for its economic potential (particularly its oil resources), but also for its role in the geopolitical balance of power. Indeed, Chirol's contribution to the discussion of the Middle East is part of a wider context of imperial rivalries and redefined spheres of influence that shaped international politics in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His writings thus helped to establish the Middle East as a key concept in Western geopolitical discourse, although the exact definition and boundaries of the region have continued to evolve over time.

The conceptualisation of the "Middle East" as a distinct region[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The conceptualisation of the 'Middle East' as a distinct region is closely linked to a Eurocentric perspective that emerged in the context of colonial and imperial interests in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In this view of the world, regions were classified according to their relative proximity to Europe, giving rise to the terms "Far East", "Near East" and "Middle East".

The Far East encompassed countries such as China, Japan and Korea, which were considered to be the furthest from Europe. This region acquired significant importance during the period of Western imperialism, marked by events such as the Opium War (1839-1842) and the forced opening of Japan to Western trade by Commodore Perry in 1854. As for the "Near East", it initially referred to the territories of the Ottoman Empire adjacent to Europe, such as Turkey, Greece and sometimes Egypt. The Tanzimat reforms in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century and the question of the East, a major diplomatic and cultural issue in relations between the European powers and the Ottoman Empire, illustrate the importance of this region in European foreign policy at the time. The "Middle East", situated between these two regions, was defined more loosely. Alfred Thayer Mahan, in popularising the term in his 1902 article, emphasised the strategic importance of the region for the control of sea routes to Asia and oil resources. This perspective was reinforced by the Anglo-Russian rivalry in the region, known as the "Great Game", where the two powers competed for influence in Central Asia.

The use of these terms reflected and reinforced the Eurocentric worldview, where regions were defined and understood primarily in terms of their relationship to European interests. This perspective has been criticised in postcolonial discourses and modern regional studies for its lack of recognition of the internal dynamics and autonomy of the regions concerned. In political science and history, analysis of these terms highlights the complexities and consequences of colonisation and imperialism, while underlining the need for more nuanced and contextualised approaches to understanding the world's regions.

The First World War played a crucial role in the redefinition of geopolitical terms and the gradual disappearance of the term 'Near East', as well as the popularisation and consolidation of the concept of 'Middle East'. During the First World War, the Ottoman Empire, which made up a large part of what was then called the Near East, allied itself with the Central Powers. This alliance proved disastrous for the Empire, which suffered heavy territorial losses at the end of the war. With the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920, followed by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, losing its territories in Europe and the Middle East.

These events led to the 'Balkanisation' of the region, a term that refers to the fragmentation into several smaller states, often used to describe the situation in the Balkans after the Balkan Wars but also applicable here. This period saw the emergence of new nation-states, such as modern Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the redefinition of borders in the Middle East. At the same time, League of Nations mandates were established in several regions of the former Ottoman Empire. The European powers, mainly France and Great Britain, were given the mandate to govern former Ottoman territories such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. This mandate profoundly influenced the political and social configuration of the region, leaving a legacy that continues to shape the modern Middle East.

With the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the reconfiguration of the region, the term "Near East" lost its relevance, as the distinction between "Near East" and "Middle East" became less clear. From then on, the term "Middle East" began to be used more generally to describe the region stretching from Egypt to Iran, encompassing Arab territories, Turkey and sometimes even Afghanistan and Pakistan. This period was therefore decisive in the geopolitical redefinition of the region, shaping the way it is perceived and categorised in international discourse to this day. These changes not only reflect the power dynamics of the time, but also underline the importance of historical events in shaping geographical and political concepts.

The First World War played a decisive role in extending and redefining the notion of the Middle East. Before the war, the understanding of the Middle East was often centred around India and the sea routes vital to British trade and influence. However, the consequences of the war led to a significant expansion of this notion, particularly to the west. One of the major transformations was the inclusion of the Arab territories of the former Ottoman Empire in the definition of the Middle East. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of League of Nations mandates, regions such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine became central parts of what is now known as the Middle East. The redrawing of borders and the creation of new states in these mandate territories helped to shape a new geopolitical understanding of the region.

In addition, the official use and recognition of the term "Middle East" by Western powers and international institutions reinforced its adoption and acceptance in political and diplomatic language. This change reflected not only the geopolitical realities of the post-war era, but also the strategic and economic interests, particularly with regard to the region's oil reserves, which began to play a crucial role in world politics. The redefinition of the Middle East after the First World War therefore had profound implications, both for the peoples of the region and for international politics. It marked the beginning of a new era in which the Middle East became a focal point of global strategic interests, a situation that continues to shape international relations and regional dynamics in the contemporary world.

The period following the First World War saw Britain play a leading role in the political and territorial reconfiguration of the Middle East. The British, recognising the growing strategic and economic importance of the region, organised a number of meetings, exchanges and conferences, and established specific committees and departments to manage their interests and territories in the region.

One of the earliest examples of this was the creation of the Middle East Committee in 1917. The purpose of this committee was to coordinate British policy in the region at a time of geopolitical upheaval due to the war. The creation of this committee reflected the growing recognition by the British of the importance of the Middle East in their global strategies. In 1921, Winston Churchill, then Secretary of State for the Colonies, played a key role in the creation of the Middle East Department. This department was responsible for managing British-controlled territories in the Middle East, including League of Nations mandates such as Palestine and Mesopotamia (now Iraq). The creation of this department reflected the need for a centralised and coherent approach to administering and exploiting the resources and strategic positions in these territories.

The same year saw the organisation of the Middle East Conference, a crucial event in determining the political future of the territories won by France and Britain following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. The conference addressed issues such as borders, administration and policies in the newly established mandates. Key figures such as Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) participated in these discussions, which would shape the political landscape of the Middle East for decades to come. These British initiatives in the region had lasting repercussions, not only in terms of geopolitical configuration, but also in terms of relations between East and West. They also laid the foundations for the many political and social challenges facing the region to this day, including issues of artificial borders, national identity and inter-state conflict.

Terminologie géopolitique : Moyen-Orient, Proche-Orient et Grand Moyen-Orient[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The end of the First World War marked a decisive turning point for the Middle East, characterised by the establishment of mandates by the League of Nations over the territories of the former Ottoman Empire. These mandates, entrusted mainly to Great Britain and France, redefined the political landscape of the region, laying the foundations for many contemporary issues.

Great Britain, with its imperial experience in India, played a pre-eminent role in the new configuration of the Middle East. Among the mandates granted, that of Mesopotamia, now Iraq, was particularly significant. Rich in oil, this territory was crucial to British economic and strategic interests. The British administration in Iraq was marked by attempts to merge various ethnic and religious entities under a single state, a complex undertaking that sowed the seeds of future tensions. The British Mandate in Palestine also had profound implications. Incorporating the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which promised the creation of a "national home for the Jewish people", the Mandate laid the foundations for the Arab-Israeli conflict, which continues to shape regional geopolitics. British management of the Mandate was a delicate undertaking, juggling Zionist aspirations with the demands of the indigenous Arab populations. France, for its part, received the mandates over Syria and Lebanon, where it set up administrations that profoundly influenced the cultural and political development of these countries. French policy in these regions often favoured certain communities, such as the Maronite Christians in Lebanon, helping to shape the fragmented political landscape we know today.

These mandates, although initially designed to prepare the territories for autonomy and independence, often functioned more like colonial administrations. The borders drawn by the mandating powers did not always take account of ethnic, religious and cultural realities, leading to the creation of states with complex and sometimes conflicting national identities. The repercussions of these mandates are still being felt today. The artificial borders and nation-states created during this period have often been the breeding ground for internal conflicts and inter-state tensions. These historical events not only reshaped the Middle East, but also influenced theories in political science and history, highlighting the long-term consequences of colonisation and imperialism, as well as the challenges of nation-building in multi-ethnic and multi-faith contexts.

The Second World War played a crucial role in the consolidation of the use of the term 'Middle East' and the obsolescence of the term 'Near East'. This period of global conflict saw fighting in many areas, including the Balkans and North Africa, which were gradually subsumed under the broader definition of the Middle East.

During the Second World War, the Middle East theatre of operations was not limited to the countries traditionally associated with the region, such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq. It also encompassed areas of conflict in North Africa, notably the North African campaign which saw major clashes between the Axis forces, mainly Italian and German, and the Allies, comprising British, French and later American troops. Figures such as British General Bernard Montgomery and German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel became famous for their roles in these battles. The increased use of the term "Middle East" to refer to these various theatres of operation reflected a broader and more flexible understanding of the region. This geographical extension was also influenced by the strategic and logistical needs of the belligerent powers, for whom control of sea routes and resources, particularly oil, was crucial.

As a result, the term "Near East", which had traditionally referred to the parts of the Ottoman Empire closest to Europe, gradually fell into disuse. Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the redefinition of borders and political entities in the region, the distinction between "Near East" and "Middle East" became increasingly irrelevant. Thus, the Second World War was not only a catalyst for geopolitical and territorial change, but also influenced the terminology and conceptualisation of the world's regions. The gradual disappearance of the expression 'Near East' and the predominance of the term 'Middle East' in political and academic discourse are emblematic of these changes.

The growing involvement of the United States in the Middle East during and after the Second World War strengthened and solidified the concept of 'Middle East' in international discourse. A significant milestone in this growing interest was the establishment of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., which played a crucial role in promoting the study and understanding of the region in the United States. Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute was established against a background of growing strategic and economic interest in the Middle East on the part of the United States. This period saw America emerge as a global superpower, seeking to extend its influence in strategically important regions, not least because of the presence of vast oil reserves. The Middle East, with its energy resources and key geopolitical position, became a central focus of American foreign policy.

The Middle East Institute's role has been to provide analysis, information and advice on the region, helping to shape US foreign policy as well as academic and public understanding of the Middle East. By bringing together experts, diplomats, academics and practitioners, the Institute has contributed to a better appreciation of the political, cultural, economic and social complexities of the region. Increased US involvement in the Middle East after the Second World War was also marked by key events such as the Truman Doctrine in 1947, which aimed to contain Soviet expansion and involved increased support for countries in the region, and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, a development that profoundly affected regional dynamics. The emergence of the Middle East Institute and the growing involvement of the United States in the region not only reinforced the concept of the Middle East in geopolitical discourse, but also signalled an era of significant change in international politics, where the Middle East became a focal point of American interest and intervention.

The Cold War period saw the emergence of the concept of the 'Greater Middle East', a geographical extension of the traditional term 'Middle East'. This redefinition was influenced by the geopolitical strategies and interests of the superpowers of the time, the United States and the Soviet Union, in the context of their global rivalry. The "Greater Middle East" encompasses a much wider region than the one traditionally referred to as the "Middle East". It stretches from the Western Sahara in North Africa to India in South Asia, including sub-Saharan African countries such as Ethiopia. This extension reflects a broader understanding of strategic issues and zones of influence that go beyond the traditional borders of the Middle East. During the Cold War, this wider region was a key battleground in the struggle for influence between the USA and the USSR. The superpowers engaged in a series of proxy conflicts and supported various regimes and movements according to their strategic and ideological interests. Countries such as Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan and others have played significant roles in this dynamic.

The notion of a "Greater Middle East" has also been associated with more recent political initiatives, notably the post-9/11 American vision for a democratic and economic transformation of the region. This vision, promoted under the George W. Bush administration, envisaged a reshaping of politics and social structures in a vast area encompassing not only the traditional Middle East but also parts of North Africa and South Asia. The use of the term "Greater Middle East" therefore reflects changes in the perception and political engagement of world powers in the region. It also highlights how geopolitical concepts can evolve and adapt in line with global political and strategic realities.

The popularisation and expansion of the concept of the 'Middle East' has given rise to debate and reflection, with figures such as Winston Churchill expressing reservations about the sometimes vague and expansive use of the term. Churchill, as a central figure in the redefinition of borders and policies in the Middle East after the First World War, was particularly aware of the complexities and regional specificities that risked being obscured by an overly generic use of the term "Middle East". At the UN, the use of the term "Western Asia" to designate part of what many consider to be the Middle East is an example of these attempts at more precise and geographically oriented categorisation. It aims to define the region more geographically than politically or culturally, offering an alternative to the more loaded and ambiguous terminology of "Middle East".

At the same time, traditional and historical names for different sub-regions and geographical areas have not disappeared and continue to be used. Terms such as "Maghreb" (North-West Africa), "Mashreq" (Arab Near East), "Anatolia" (Asian part of Turkey), "Mesopotamia" (historically used for Iraq until 1921), and "Fertile Crescent" (region encompassing the Levant and parts of Mesopotamia) have a specific historical and cultural richness. These terms reflect not only a particular geography, but also distinct histories, cultures and identities. The persistence of these names underlines the diversity and complexity of the Middle East as a region. It highlights the difficulty of capturing the multitude of its characteristics under a single label. It also reflects a crucial aspect of geopolitical and cultural study: the need to recognise and respect local and historical specificities while addressing regional and international issues.

The three strategic areas of the Muslim world[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Les trois espaces stratégiques du monde musulman.

This map represents a strategic vision of the Muslim world, divided into three distinct regions that highlight the political, economic and cultural diversity and complexities within Islam. The first region, the traditional heartland of the Middle East, stretches from Egypt to the Gulf states and on to Iran and Yemen. This area is steeped in history, having been the cradle of civilisation and the scene of major conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli wars, the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the Gulf wars. These territories are at the heart of the world's geopolitical concerns, notably because of their vast hydrocarbon reserves, which have attracted the attention of world powers for decades. The second region, the Maghreb, which includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, presents a mosaic of identities influenced by the Berber, Arab and European heritages. Events such as the Algerian war for independence and the Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in 2010, bear witness to the ongoing quest for autonomy and democracy. The Maghreb's proximity to Europe also makes it a crucial region for migration and security issues. The third region, Central Asia and the Caucasus, is often overlooked in discussions of the Middle East but is essential to understanding trans-regional relations. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, states such as Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan gained in strategic importance due to their natural resources and their position in the 'new geopolitical games' involving Russia, China and the United States. The war in Afghanistan, which saw the intervention of foreign powers from the Soviet period to the post-9/11 era, illustrates the complexity and instability that can emanate from this region.

Each of these regions, although sharing the Muslim faith, has its own historical trajectory and contemporary challenges. From the Ottoman Empire to the modern Arab revolutions, via the Cold War and contemporary conflicts, the histories of these regions are intertwined with the great movements of world history. The borders and identities of these regions have been shaped by a combination of internal factors and foreign interventions, reflecting power dynamics and issues that go far beyond their immediate geographies. For political science and history, such a map is a reminder of the importance of the regional approach, while recognising the interconnections that define contemporary international relations.

Governance in the regions shown on the map is marked by substantial complexity, resulting from ethnic, cultural and political diversity. Xinjiang, for example, is an autonomous region in north-west China, inhabited mainly by the Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic group. The region has become a focal point of international human rights debate because of Chinese policies, which are seen as attempts to forcibly assimilate and repress distinct cultural and religious identities. Xinjiang illustrates how governance in geopolitically sensitive regions can involve complex state strategies that interact with issues of national security, economic development and minority rights. China justifies its actions in Xinjiang by the need to combat extremism and separatism, while international critics see it as a violation of minority rights and religious freedom.

Beyond Xinjiang, the map also shows that the dynamics of governance in the 'Greater Middle East' are influenced by a variety of factors, including sectarian tensions, inter-state conflicts, foreign intervention and popular protest movements. The region is a complex chessboard of local, regional and international powers, where nation-states, non-governmental organisations, rebel groups and foreign powers clash and cooperate in a variety of configurations. This complexity is particularly apparent in countries such as Syria and Iraq, where foreign intervention, sectarian conflict and terrorism have led to humanitarian crises and national reconstruction challenges. In North Africa, countries such as Libya show how the absence of stable governance can lead to political fragmentation and civil wars. At the same time, states such as Iran and Turkey are playing influential regional roles, both as economic and military powers and as cultural and political players. In this way, the map serves as a reminder that governance strategies in the Greater Middle East cannot be understood without taking into account the richness and complexity of regional identities, strategic alliances, economic stakes and political aspirations. These elements shape domestic politics and international relations in dynamic and often unpredictable ways.

Key geographical features of the Middle East[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Moyen-Orient - principales caractéristiques géographiques.

This map highlights the main geographical features of the Middle East and surrounding regions, an area that has historically been a crossroads of civilisations and continues to be a centre of strategic geopolitical interest.

The Maghreb: a crossroads of civilisations and terrains[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The Maghreb region, located in north-west Africa, is a unique area at the intersection of several worlds. It is defined by remarkable geographical features, including the Atlas mountain ranges that stretch across several of its countries, notably Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. These mountains are not only a striking feature of the natural landscape, but have also shaped lifestyles and trade routes in the region. The Sahara, bordering the Maghreb to the south, is the world's largest hot desert and acts as both a barrier and a bridge between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean shores of the Maghreb. This arid vastness has been crossed for millennia by trade caravans carrying goods such as salt, gold and cloth, linking the Maghreb to sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Historically, the Maghreb has been an area of intense cultural and commercial exchange. Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines and later Arabs and Europeans left their mark on the region, resulting in a rich cultural and architectural heritage. The Arab influence is particularly notable from the seventh century onwards with the introduction of Islam, which had a profound influence on the region's culture, language and identity.

Over the centuries, the Maghreb has seen centres of knowledge and culture flourish, such as the city of Fez in Morocco and the Qarawiyyin, one of the oldest universities in the world still in operation. The region has also been the scene of major battles and conflicts, including resistance campaigns against French and Spanish colonisation, ultimately leading to the independence of the Maghreb nations in the mid-twentieth century. Today, the Maghreb continues to play a strategic role due to its geographical position at the gateway to Europe, its natural resources, particularly hydrocarbons in Algeria and Libya, and its contemporary challenges such as migratory movements and regional security issues. Understanding the geography of the Maghreb is therefore essential to grasping the current dynamics shaping the region and its interaction with the rest of the world.

The Sahara: A desert connecting worlds[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

To the east of the Maghreb lies the Sahara, a vast desert that runs through many African countries. This vast expanse of arid land represents one of the most imposing natural barriers on Earth, profoundly affecting settlement patterns, trade routes and cultural exchanges. The Sahara is more than a desert; it is an ecological frontier, a space that has historically separated the verdant north of Africa from its wetter sub-Saharan regions. The "Libyan Desert" refers to the part of the Sahara that lies in Libya and Egypt. This region is particularly well known for its extreme landscapes and geological formations, such as the Akakus mountain massifs in Libya or the scattered oases that have served as vital stopping points for caravans throughout the ages. These oases, such as Siwa in Egypt, were centres of trade and cultural contact, linking North Africa to the Nile Valley and beyond.

Trans-Saharan dynamics, influenced by the Libyan Desert and the Sahara as a whole, have been crucial throughout history. Trans-Saharan trade routes facilitated the trade of precious goods, including gold, salt and slaves, between sub-Saharan Africa and Mediterranean markets. These exchanges also enabled the spread of Islam and other cultural traditions, weaving a complex web of influences that continue to shape the identity of Saharan and Sahelian societies.

In addition, the desert has been and remains a theatre for security issues and conflicts. The region has seen cross-border tensions and the activities of militant groups, exacerbated by the vastness of the terrain and the challenges of governance. In the contemporary context, the Libyan desert has become a transit point for migrants seeking to reach Europe, placing the region at the heart of discussions on migration policies and international security. Understanding the geography of the Sahara and the Libyan desert is therefore essential for grasping the political, economic and social issues that characterise these regions and their impact on wider African and Mediterranean dynamics.

Anatolia: a land of empire and topographical diversity[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Anatolia, or Asia Minor, which makes up most of modern Turkey, is a region of exceptional historical and cultural wealth. Its geographical position, straddling two continents, has made Anatolia a crossroads of civilisations since ancient times. Ancient empires such as the Hittites, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and, later, the Ottomans left their mark on the peninsula, making it a mosaic of cultures and historical legacies. Geologically, Anatolia lies at the meeting point of several tectonic plates, which explains its significant seismic activity. This activity has helped to shape the region's diverse topography, with mountain ranges such as the Taurus and Pontic mountains, and inland plateaux containing salt lakes and fertile basins. The latter were the scene of the rise of agriculture and the development of the first city-states. Anatolia's mountains and plateaux also play an important role in determining the region's climate, with coastal areas enjoying a Mediterranean climate and inland areas experiencing more continental conditions. These climatic variations, combined with the richness of the soils, have enabled the development of varied agriculture and supported dense populations throughout history.

The Byzantine and Ottoman empires, with their capitals in what is now Istanbul, took advantage of Anatolia's strategic position, controlling crucial trade routes between East and West and exerting a major cultural and political influence on neighbouring regions. Anatolia is dotted with the remains of these flourishing periods, including palaces, mosques, churches and citadels, which continue to attract scholars and tourists from all over the world. Today, Anatolia continues to play a central geopolitical role, not only for Turkey but also for the Middle East and Europe. Its geographical location, cultural wealth and natural resources make it a pivotal region in discussions of security, economics and diplomacy in the wider Middle East.

The Fertile Crescent: the cradle of agriculture and civilisation[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The Fertile Crescent is a historically rich strip of land stretching from the Levant to Iraq. This area is central to the history of mankind, recognised as the place where agriculture first developed due to its exceptionally rich soils and access to water provided by major rivers such as the Tigris and Euphrates. Conditions conducive to agriculture enabled sedentary societies to establish themselves and were the foundation of the first urban civilisations.

Syria and Iraq, in particular, are lands where ancient Mesopotamian civilisations such as the Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians emerged and prospered, creating complex cities, writing systems and legal codes that shaped the early stages of human development. Mesopotamia is often referred to as the "cradle of civilisation" for this reason. In the Levant, which includes Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine, the Phoenicians were renowned for their maritime navigation and trade, establishing colonies and trading networks across the Mediterranean. The cities of the Levant, thanks to their strategic location, have been centres of exchange and cultural interaction between various empires and cultures throughout history.

Today, the Fertile Crescent remains of vital importance to the region, despite the challenges posed by modernisation, conflict and the management of water resources. Syria and Iraq, for example, are facing difficulties linked to the over-exploitation and pollution of their water resources. Tensions over water resources are exacerbated by regional conflicts and demographic pressure, making regional cooperation on water management all the more crucial. The region continues to be a hotbed of agricultural activity, supporting local economies and providing livelihoods for millions of people. However, agriculture in the Fertile Crescent is subject to the vagaries of climate change, requiring adaptation and innovative strategies to preserve soil fertility and the sustainability of farming practices. The current challenges facing the Fertile Crescent reflect the interaction between its rich past and the complex realities of the present.

The Arabian Peninsula: the nerve centre of religion and resources[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The Arabian Peninsula is a particularly significant geographical region, both culturally and economically. It is the cradle of Islam, with holy cities such as Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia attracting millions of Muslim faithful from all over the world for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam. The spiritual dimension of these places gives the peninsula an undeniable importance in the collective identity and consciousness of the Muslim world.

In geological terms, the Arabian Peninsula is famous for its vast oil and gas reserves, making it one of the richest energy regions on the planet. The discovery of oil in the 20th century transformed the economies of the countries of the peninsula, in particular Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain, propelling them onto the world stage as key players in the energy economy. The abundance of these resources has led to major investment in infrastructure and generated huge revenues, enabling these states to play an influential role in international politics and finance.

Yemen and Oman, while rich in history and culture, have economies that are not as dependent on hydrocarbons. Yemen, in particular, faces significant development challenges and a difficult humanitarian situation exacerbated by protracted conflict. The Arabian Peninsula is also a region of great strategic importance due to its geographical position, controlling key maritime routes such as the Strait of Hormuz and the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. These crossings are essential for the global transport of oil, and their security is a major concern for energy-consuming countries around the world.

The Arabian Peninsula is an area that combines deep religious significance, an abundance of natural resources and a crucial strategic position, making it a pivotal point in the global economy and international politics. The countries of the peninsula navigate between preserving their cultural and religious heritage and adapting to contemporary economic and political dynamics, in a balance that continues to influence the region and beyond.

Ethiopia and its historical links with the Middle East[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Ethiopia, located in the Horn of Africa, has deep ties with the Middle East that transcend geographical borders. These links are rooted in a shared history of trade, religion and cultural exchange. Historically, Ethiopia was known as the Kingdom of Abyssinia, an empire that maintained relations with the Arab kingdoms and the Middle East since antiquity.

Ethiopia is home to one of the world's oldest Christian traditions, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which, according to tradition, was established in the fourth century AD. This religious tradition shares certain roots with Middle Eastern religious traditions, notably Eastern Christianity and Judaism. Ethiopian history is also closely linked to Islam, with one of the first hijras (exodus) of persecuted Muslims from Mecca to Abyssinia, seeking the protection of the Ethiopian Christian king of the time, an event respected in Islamic tradition.

Ethiopia's position as a crossroads between Africa and the Middle East is reinforced by its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula, separated only by the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Trade has long traversed these waters, carrying spices, gold and other precious commodities, facilitating a rich intermingling of cultures and peoples. In geopolitical terms, Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa have become increasingly relevant to the security and politics of the Middle East, not least because of regional conflicts and maritime security issues. In addition, Ethiopia is a key player in the management of the Nile's water resources, a major concern for downstream countries such as Egypt and Sudan. In the current context, Ethiopia faces its own internal challenges, including ethnic and political tensions, but its role in the region continues to be influenced by its historical and contemporary links with the Middle East. These connections underline the interconnected nature of the region and how the histories of various nations are intertwined across time and space.

The map of the Middle East and its surrounding regions depicts an area of the world where geography has played a key role in shaping human history. The vast, arid deserts, such as the Sahara and the Arabian Desert, have served as natural barriers but also as corridors for communication and cultural exchange, influencing caravan routes and exchanges between civilisations. The fertile valleys of the Fertile Crescent, irrigated by the legendary Tigris and Euphrates river systems, saw the birth of agriculture and the first great cities in human history. These rich lands not only fostered the development of the first urban civilisations, but were also the scene of many historic conflicts due to their great agricultural and strategic value. Mountains, such as the Atlas Mountains in North Africa and the Taurus Mountains in Anatolia, have served as refuges and natural fortresses throughout history, offering protection and isolating peoples and cultures, allowing the development of unique languages and traditions. At the same time, they have acted as obstacles to advancing armies, shaping military strategies and the boundaries of empires. As for the historic urban centres that dot this region, from Baghdad to Damascus, from Jerusalem to Istanbul, they are living witnesses to bygone eras. These cities, often established because of their strategic geographical location or their proximity to water and fertile land, have been centres of power, trade and culture, greatly influencing the evolution of the region.

Today, these same geographical features continue to influence contemporary issues. Water resources have become crucial points of contention in international relations, fertile land is at the heart of environmental concerns, and historic trade routes are taken up in debates on globalisation and security. The geography of the Middle East and adjacent regions, with its diversity and complexity, remains a determining factor in political, economic and social dynamics.

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