8.1: Middle East

Map of the Middle East
Map of the Middle East – Note: We will cover Egypt when we study Africa!

When geographers divide the world into regions, we often do so using landmasses. Have a big chunk of land that is mostly surrounded by water? Let’s make it a region! Sometimes, though, making these sorts of divisions is more difficult. Africa, for instance, is almost entirely surrounded by water except for a small land connection with Asia at Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. But Sub-Saharan Africa is physiographically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from the African countries north of the Sahara. In fact, North Africa has much more in common in terms of its physical and religious landscape with the Arabian Peninsula and Southwest Asia than some of its continental neighbors to the south.

Lonely Planet: Introducing the Middle East

Historically, this perhaps awkwardly named region of North Africa and Southwest Asia was commonly called the “Middle East.” This begs the question, though, what is it in the middle of? What is it east of? On a globe, east and west are relative terms. California is west of Europe but east of China. Indonesia is in Southeast Asia but is northwest of Australia. The equator might objectively be in the middle of the globe, but the “Middle East” is over 1,000 miles to its north. In truth, the term “Middle East” originated in Western Europe. Eastern Europe and Turkey were commonly referred to as the “Near East,” while China was called the “Far East.” The “Middle East” was in between these two regions.

The Arabian Desert dominates the landscape of the Arabian Peninsula.

Map of the Arabian Desert
Map of the Arabian Desert

In the southern portion of this desert is the Rub’al-Khali, the largest contiguous sand desert in the world. It is also one of the world’s most oil-rich landscapes.

Rub’al-Khali (also known as the Empty Quarter)
Rub’ al Khali or Empty Quarter is the largest sand desert on earth.

There are also a number of highland areas across the region including the Zagros Mountains of Iran, Iraq, and Turkey.

Zagros Mountains
Zagros Mountains
Dena Mountain, the highest point in the Zagros Mountains

While part of Iran is desert, northern Iran is actually home to dense rainforests and there are a number of scenic lakes.

Think Iran is all desert? Think again! This is a picture of a broadleaf deciduous forest in Gīlān Province, Iran.

Coastal Turkey along the Mediterranean is often called the Turquoise Coast owing to its scenic blue waters.

The climate and physical geography of the Middle East has shaped population patterns and culture in the region. People in the region are generally clustered around the region’s sparse water resources reflecting ancient patterns of human settlement.

Thousands of years ago, humans in North Africa and Southwest Asia settled in the Fertile Crescent, the area surrounding the Tigris, Euphrates, and Nile rivers.

Fertile Crescent

Here, humans first domesticated crops and animals and created the first farming settlements. In Mesopotamia, in particular, the river valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, innovations occurred that would change the trajectory of human existence. This was where the wheel was first invented, the first system of mathematics was created, and the first cereal crops, such as barley and wheat, were planted. Mesopotamia was also the site of the first urban civilization, called Sumer. Uruk, a city of Sumer, had a population of over 50,000 people by 2500 BCE making it the most populous city in the world at the time. The ancient city of Babylon, located between the Tigris and Euphrates, was inhabited for thousands of years and was likely the first city to reach a population of 200,000.

Ancient Mesopotamia 101 | National Geographic

The people of this region have developed a number of adaptations to living in such a dry climate. Buildings are commonly designed with high roofs. Since hot air rises, having a higher ceiling allows the living area to remain relatively cool. Rooms are also often arranged around a common, shaded courtyard. This allows for maximum privacy, but also provides air flow throughout the living spaces. The traditional style of dress in parts of this region is also distinctive and reflects the physical landscape. Men might wear a cotton headdress to provide protection from the sand and sun as well as a long, flowing robe.

Arab men wearing thawbs in Salalah, Oman.

Women’s traditional clothing in the region is more reflective of religious values than environmental factors.

Woman in the niqab (face veil) and abaya (long outer-garment) in Aleppo, Syria
Women wearing burqas in Afghanistan
Women wearing burqas in Afghanistan
Young women in Herat, Afghanistan, wearing chadors

The Persians, from modern-day Iran, devised an innovative way to transport water known as a qanat. Qanats are underground tunnels used to extract groundwater from below mountains and transport it downhill, where it is used to irrigate cropland. They were developed over 2,500 years ago and many old qanats are still in use today in Iran as well as Afghanistan.


In such a harsh, arid environment, agricultural potential is fairly limited. River valleys and coastal areas provided small stretches of fertile land, but in the absence of widespread agricultural development, what other resources could bring this region wealth? In the early 20th century, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia and this natural resource would prove both a blessing and a curse to the region.

Today, Saudi Arabia remains the world’s leading oil exporter, shipping over 7.3 million barrels per day as of 2015. Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates are also among the top seven global oil exporters. Oil revenues have been able to increase development in these countries, financing industrialization, infrastructure, and providing high incomes. Qatar, for example, a small, former British protectorate on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, has the highest GDP per capita in terms of purchasing power parity of any country in the world (as of 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund), at over $130,000 per person, largely due to its expansive oil and natural gas reserves. The tallest building in the world is now the Burj Khalifa, located in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Explore Views of the Burj Khalifa with Google Maps

Although the United Arab Emirates, in building this 828 meter (2,717 feet) marvel, is seeking to diversify its economy and gain international recognition, its economy is still heavily dependent on oil. As seen in the video, you can explore Burj Khalifa via Google Maps!

Countries in the developing world with oil resources have often been prone to authoritarian rule, slow growth, corruption, and conflict. Oil wealth has been used to finance armies, and corrupt governments have pocketed oil revenue rather than reinvesting it in social programs or infrastructure. Furthermore, placing such a high emphasis on exporting one resource, like oil, has made this region vulnerable to changes in global energy demand.

In an effort to coordinate oil production and prices, five countries including Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia formed the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1960. Today, OPEC has 14 member states and covers over 40 percent of global oil exports. OPEC cooperatively determines how much oil to produce and collectively bargains for the price of oil, rather than trying to compete to undercut one another. The United States and other countries have increased their own domestic oil production in recent years, causing OPEC’s global share of oil exports to decline.

OPEC Member States

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Next: Muhammad and Islam

Additional information and image credits:

Central Asia map
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69734
Middle East map
By Cacahuate, amendments by Globe-trotter and Joelf – Own work based on the blank world map, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22746336
Map of the Fertile Crescent (© Nafsadh, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Cross-section of a Qanat (© Samuel Bailey, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0)
Arabian Desert map
By Pfly – NASA, plus my additions by myself., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1591380
Rub’al Khali
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=734618
Zagros Mountains
By Joshua Doubek – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27171101
Dena Mountain
By Vah.hem – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30993636
Iran biotopes map
By Fabienkhan – Image:Iran biotopes.png, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1483822
Iran rainforest
By Argooya at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4371109
By անհայտ – http://www.poemhunter.com/imru-al-qays-ibn-hujr/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32260478
By Mary Paulose from Muscat, Oman – Assorted Arabs, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2816994
By The original uploader was Shijaz at English Wikipedia. – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8284436
By Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11777952
By Marius Arnesen from Oslo, Norway – Girls – Herat, Afghanistan, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25647323
By [1] – Buying the dry goods market, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38722552

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