Middle East Essay

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The term Middle East has no objective basis. It is an idea of late-19th-century imperial geography used to define a group  of countries  that  stretch  around  the Mediterranean. Depending  on  which  countries  are included,  the Middle East is said to encompass  the region of modern-day Turkey; the eastern Mediterranean (Levant) on some accounts extending to Iran and Afghanistan; down into the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula; and along the southern  shores of the Mediterranean. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank treat the Middle East and north Africa as a single region. The Middle East incorporates the area once seen as the cradle of civilization, the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia  and the Nile Valley. In terms of medieval religious geography, this area was seen by Christians,  Jews, and  Muslims  as the  center  of the world. But by the late 19th century, European industrialization and expansion made it seem an intermediate “middle Eastern” area separating Europe from the East. The continued use of this term reflects the ongoing importance  of geopolitical considerations  and the way that  they are sunk into  popular  consciousness. The Middle East is often thought  to be synonymous with the Arab world, but the definition of an Arab is itself contested.  The region is often associated with Islam, but there are substantial  Islamic minorities  in some states, and most of the world’s Muslims do not live in the Middle East.

Politically, much of the area of the Middle East was once part of the Ottoman Empire. The modern-day states emerged from imperial conflicts, and especially Anglo-French  influence as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. The secret Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 formalized  Anglo-French  spheres  of influence,  and  in 1917 the British made the Balfour Declaration, viewing with favor a national  home of the Jewish people in Palestine. In this division, too, the Kurds must not be forgotten as they emerged the losers as the world’s largest stateless people.

After World War II, Anglo-French influence gradually gave way to U.S. influence. This reflected a continuation of older strategic concerns over the area, the Cold War, and, most importantly,  the role of the area as an oil-producing  region. These concerns led to U.S. support for local forces—states, princes, families, and the military—that might help it achieve its aims. But it also accounts for continuing hostility to Western intervention and pressure. History plays an important role in the area and helps to explain the continuing  tensions. Some sensitivity to the complexity of the region and even the term Middle East itself is therefore necessary. Often the term carries a negative connotation, as when David Ben-Gurion said that “the state of Israel is a part of the Middle East only in geography.”

Standard  accounts  of business in the Middle East point to positive factors encouraging trade and investment. These include the geographical ease of access, cultural uniformities (the Arab language, Islam), pressures to emulate Western consumption practices including  the  worst  aspects  of environmental degradation,  public sector  demand,  and so on. Against these must be set more negative issues.

In the 1960s much of the debate about the Middle East tended  to exaggerate its potential.  Today there is a pessimistic concern  with “failure.” This has been heightened  by Western  concerns  related  to the war on terror.  One major trend  of Western  opinion  sees the region in terms of a “clash of civilizations.” Writers like Bernard Lewis ask “What went wrong?” and talk of the way in which the region is characterized by “the politics of rage” against Western  modernity and a misplaced sense of victimhood  and grievance. Others  insist  that  such  arguments  stand  in a long tradition  of what is called Orientalism. This exaggerates the threat from a region where demoralization  is widespread. The alleged negative traits are explained by culture and then reduced to religion and its most fundamentalist forms.

Much discussion of the alleged deficiencies of Middle Eastern, Arab, Islamic culture is ill informed. Culture is no less significant in the Middle East than elsewhere, but it is also no more important. If culture is such a decisive and unifying force, it is difficult to see, for example, why economic  performance  varies so much. Too often culture in the region is seen as an independent variable whose content  can be deduced from ancient religious texts. It is more often a dependent variable formed from the modern  world. It varies in the Middle East, as elsewhere, by country area, minority,  social class, and so on. Regional averages and generalizations can be quite misleading.

It is important to be aware of the scale and breadth of diversity in the Middle East as well as the linking elements. The stereotypical Middle East and the stereotypical Arab of Western popular culture, and even some business culture books, are misleading bases for relationships. The diversity and even clash of interests help account for the weak political unity of the region. Turkey is a member of NATO and a long-time aspirant for membership in the European Union. Pan Arabism as an ideology quickly faltered. The League of Arab States was founded in 1945 and has grown to include 21 members,  but  it  has  weak influence  and  unity. An attempt  to merge Egypt and Syria into a United Arab Republic lasted only between  1958 and  1961. The Organization  of Petroleum  Exporting Countries (OPEC) was founded  in 1960 to bring  together  oil producers,  but  it incorporates  non–Middle Eastern states and has not been able to sustain agreements. In 1965 an Arab Common Market was created, but it is of minimal significance compared to the European Union. Even where seemingly common political ideas exist, such as Ba’athism—an ideology that combines nationalism  and state socialism—interstate  conflicts and tensions still occur.

Geographical And Economic Diversity

Diversity is apparent  in the geography of the region. Its climate tends to be arid to semiarid, which makes agriculture difficult in many areas and helps account for low population densities. Contrary to many Western images, the topography  is extremely varied. The region has a population in excess of that of the United States but a total output  level of perhaps  only one tenth  the U.S. total. Many Middle Eastern states are small in population  terms.  The largest, with populations  of around  70 million, are Turkey,  Iran,  and Egypt. Levels of development vary from the very-low-income Yemen to the high-income  states of Kuwait, the  United  Arab Emirates  (UAE), and  Qatar.  Most states are middle ranking in terms of development.

Since oil was first commercially produced  in Iran in 1908 it has come to play a major role in the region’s fortunes. The main energy producers  are Saudi Arabia,  Iran,  UAE, Kuwait,  Iraq,  Algeria,  Libya, and Qatar,  but other  states have indirectly depended  on oil as the oil producers  have given out various loans and attracted  several million workers who have sent back remittances.

Dependence  on oil also means dependence  on its changing price. This has proven volatile. In the first three  to four decades  after 1945, economies  in the region grew quite  fast. Growth  then  decelerated  to the start of the 21st century, and the region acquired its more negative reputation for poor economic performance. But the price of oil surged again, bringing with it an economic upturn.

Socially, the  Middle  East  has  experienced  rapid modernization and urbanization.  Its demographic transition has been fast, but there is still a legacy of very high labor force growth. Educational levels have risen but job opportunities have not kept pace with these. There is a relatively high level of unemployment and a past pattern of poor real wage growth. State policy has tended to be interventionist with strong public sectors run by undemocratic governments. Both political and economic reform continues to prove difficult, but this seems in line with what is sometimes called “the natural resources curse.” Oil revenues enable governments to avoid the need for a more popular mandate.

State redistributive  policies mean that the level of absolute poverty is relatively low compared  to other developing regions. Social inequality, however, is real and extends far beyond the notorious  wealth of the oil families of the Gulf. But in many countries  there is a reluctance to admit and explore the scale of social inequality. Governments  have used social provision as a way of consolidating an “authoritarian bargain” to reduce discontent  and the pressure for change.

Prosperity  in the oil states has been the basis for large-scale imports of manufactured goods, consumer goods, and foodstuffs. Oil revenues have also provided the basis for huge sovereign wealth funds in the Gulf States, which have then been invested in the West. In addition, the Gulf States have also developed a tourism industry and shipping services. Dubai is one of the largest free trade zones in the world. By contrast, the larger states and especially Iran, Egypt, and Turkey have much  more diversified economies  with important agricultural  and industrial  sectors. Israel, too, has a diversified economy with a significant high technology defense sector.

Major sources for an understanding of the situation in the Middle East are the Arab Development Reports of 2002–05 prepared by the United Nations Development  Programme  (UNDP). These not  only provide information  but  were intended  as part  of a reform program to deal with a “crisis of human development in the Arab region.” This is explained not by alleged traditional  shortcomings  but  institutional problems reflecting the rentier nature of key states and the narrow self-interested visions of their rulers. The reports regretted that “the Arab spring has yet to bloom” and that in some respects the global and regional context was worsening.

Three related areas of regionwide reform were identified—knowledge, political freedom, and the empowerment of women. The Middle Eastern states have too  often  depended  on  importing  knowledge without  creating  the structures  to generate  and use it. Rising education levels sit alongside a fear of unrestricted   knowledge—a  crude  but  telling  indicator is the low level of book publishing. The result is an inability to  capitalize  on  knowledge  transfer  and  a significant brain drain. This can be contrasted with the breadth and generosity of the region’s culture at a previous stage of human  history when the West was relatively backward.

Social And Political Flashpoints

Freedom is associated with economic, civil, and political rights,  and  good  governance  based  on  political representation and  democratic  accountability.  Most Middle Eastern states perform  badly here. This helps to create frustration as education levels rise. The fear of democracy and the attempt to repress forces for change or to buy off parts of the opposition  inevitably push those who want change in a more radical direction.

Images of the Middle East are often molded by the perception  of the subordinate  position of women. But Islam does support male and female equality—it is only certain  interpretations (as in Christianity)  that  insist on female subordination. There is a need to recognize that there have been real achievements. On a regional basis, male to female school years have converged from around 2.5:1 in 1960 to 1.4:1. But some states still need to achieve the relatively modest goals of ensuring the elimination  of female illiteracy and universal education for girls to the age of 12 by 2015. Reformers see no intrinsic  reason why the Convention  on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination  against Women is inconsistent with the traditions of the region.

These arguments can be used to appeal to the enlightened  self-interest  of the ruling groups in the Middle East. The difficulty is that leaders do not necessarily recognize the merits of these arguments. Even if they do, they are reluctant to allow an opening up of the political systems for fear of where this might lead. Western policy too remains caught on this contradiction—encouraging  “democratization” in the abstract but fearing its real consequences.

Readers should refer to the separate entries on individual states, but no survey would be complete without a brief identification of the major regional flashpoints. The Middle East has been one of the least stable, most conflict-ridden  regions in the world since 1945. The first flashpoint is Israel. What some see as the “victim” state,  others  see as the  “oppressor state.” There can perhaps be some agreement that it is a “fortress state,” having for many years been the most important recipient of U.S. aid. What it sees as its necessary defenses (including its unofficial nuclear  weapons), others  see as a regional threat. Moreover, the attempt to link anti-Semitism to any criticism of the Zionist ideology on which Israel is built is seen by its critics as a way of delegitimizing any attempt  to criticize the long-running sore of Palestinian oppression and repression and the continual  ignoring  of UN resolutions.  This polarization of views seems likely to continue.

The second flashpoint is Egypt. Once the leading state of Arab nationalism,  its leaders have gradually accommodated to  the  West  and  Israel  to  such  an extent  that  Egypt has also been a recipient  of huge U.S. aid. This has done little to enhance its leadership in the eyes of some of its population. Much attention has been focused on radical Islamic tendencies,  but arguably more  important are the  social tensions  in Egypt and the emergence of a significant labor movement that challenges the social basis of that society.

The third  is Saudi  Arabia.  This highly secretive state claims a quarter  of the world’s oil reserves. It is seen as a key Western  strategic ally. This has allowed the West to tolerate  both the backward nature  of its society and its role as a base for the extreme Wahhabi form of Islam that  is especially associated with one aspect of the fundamentalist tradition.

Fourth  is Iraq,  which  claims the  world’s fourth largest  oil reserves.  The U.S. invasion  of 2003 has increased regional instability, without securing either the Iraqi state or its oil supplies. Fifth is Iran. Before 1979, like Saudi Arabia, this state was considered central to Western  influence. The popular  revolution  of that year put into power an anti-Western regime that combined nationalism and religion. Today Iran is the subject of enormous suspicion and hostility with little attempt  to understand it.

Western  policies in the  region  have often  backfired, partly  because  they  have tended  to  support the status quo, but also because they have been frequently  opportunistic. Support  of the  mujahideen resistance  to the Soviet occupation  in Afghanistan helped create the threat of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Support for Saudi Arabia has helped to give a strategic role to its Wahhabi  religious extremism. Support for Israel alienates the mass of the population of the Middle East and also puts Western policy in the hands of the leaders of that society. They too have experienced  “blowback.” Israel, for example, is alleged to have supported  the Gaza Islamic University to weaken the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) only for it to become  a center  for the more radical politics of Hamas.

The Middle East, therefore, is best approached with an open mind and a willingness to demonstrate some empathy with its diverse inhabitants  and cultures.


  1. Rawi Abdelal, Ayesha  Khan,  and  Tarun Khanna, “Where Oil-Rich Nations Are Placing Their Bets,” Harvard Business Review (v.86/9, 2008);
  2. Al Jazeera, english.aljazeera.net (cited March 2009);
  3. Robert Fisk, The Great War  for Civilisation:  The Conquest  of the  Middle  East (Alfred A. Knopf, 2005);
  4. Samir Kassir, Being Arab (Verso, 2006);
  5. Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong?: Western Impact and Middle  Eastern Response (Oxford  University  Press, 2002);
  6. Janet   Mullin   Marta,   Anusorn   Singhapakdi, Ashraf Attia, and Scott J. Vitell, “Some Important Factors Underlying  Ethical Decisions of Middle-Eastern  Marketers,” International  Marketing Review (v.21/1, 2004);
  7. Alan Richards and John Waterbury, A Political Economy of the Middle East (Westview Press, 2008);
  8. Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media  and  the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Vintage, 1997);
  9. David S. Sorenson, An Introduction to the Modern Middle East: History, Religion, Political Economy, Politics (Westview Press, 2008);
  10. UNDP, Arab Human Development Reports, Geneva 2002–2005,  undp.org (cited  March  2009);
  11. Robin Wright,  Dreams and  Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (Penguin Press, 2008).

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