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Defining the Middle East All Over Again   by David Hulme

Defining the Middle East has long been an awkward task. Robert Kaplan, writing in the NYT, believes it should include a much greater area and that the Mumbai terrorist attacks lend credence to his position. Certainly, there is confusion over what comprises the region. Standard textbooks in Political Science and International Relations can't seem to agree. Here's a selection:

In The Foreign Policies of Middle East States (2002), Hinnebusch and Ehteshami have a map labeled "The Middle East (the Arab League plus Iran, Israel and Turkey)." There are 22 countries in the Arab League. They stretch from Mauritania in the far west of Africa to Oman, east of Saudi Arabia. The League includes Sudan, Djibouti and Somalia, the Comores in the Indian Ocean and three observer states Eritrea, India, and Venezuela. To be fair, the Arab League's observers were added in 2003, 2006 and 2007.

The map in Politics in the Middle East (2000) by Bill and Springborg shows an area that stretches from Morocco (including Western Sahara) to Pakistan. It excludes Somalia and Djibouti and includes Turkey, Israel, Iran and Afghanistan.

The cover on State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (2004) by Roger Owen, shows Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, part of Afghanistan and part of Pakistan. Inside, there's a 20th century inter-war map of the Middle East, showing an area from Morocco to Iran and from Turkey to Sudan.

Monte Palmer's The Politics of the Middle East (2006) has a map bounded on the west by Egypt and Sudan, on the east by Iran, on the north by Turkey on the south by Yemen. In his written definition of the Middle East, Palmer says,

The Middle East is generally defined as the vast geographic area that embraces North Africa and much of Western Asia. As indicated on the adjacent map, it is bordered on the south by the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, on the north by Greece and Eastern Europe, and on the northeast by Afghanistan, Russia, and the newly independent states of Central Asia. The latter could reasonably be considered part of the Middle East, for most are Islamic in character and many have strong cultural and ethnic links to Turkey and Iran. Much the same could be said of Afghanistan.

And according to Politics and Change in the Middle East (2008) by Anderson, Seibert and Wagner, the term Middle East raises some problems for it originates in recent Western military usage and uses present national boundaries that cut across historically significant cultural and geographic divisions. The reference to the region as part of the East reveals a European bias; from a larger perspective of the whole civilized area stretching from Western Europe and East Asia, the so-called Middle East is located toward the West and has close cultural ties with the Mediterranean region as a whole. Despite these problems, we shall follow the more or less established convention and define the Middle East as the region bounded on the north west by Turkey, on the southwest by Egypt, on the southeast by the Arabian Peninsula and on the northeast by Iran. It must be remembered that this division is arbitrary, and the bordering regions such as Afghanistan and the Sudan and North Africa have much in common with their "Middle Eastern" neighbors.

Finally, let's consider Fred Halliday's view in The Middle East in International Relations (2005):

It was in this context, of Ottoman retreat and inter-European rivalry, that the modern concept of the 'Middle East' was born. Hitherto other, more specific, terms had been used--the 'Near East' referred to those Arab areas that border the eastern Mediterranean, the 'Levant to the same, 'Asia Minor' to the Turkish landmass that divided the Arab world from Russia. 'Araby' was a half-political, half-literary term, sometimes denoting the Peninsula, sometimes the Arab East as a whole, sometimes an imaginary zone of Amirs, harems and tents. Coined by the American Admiral Mahan in 1902, the term 'Middle East' reflected a new awareness of the unity not only of the Ottoman domains, but all those wider areas, former Ottoman provinces, Arabia and Iran, which lay between Europe and India and the Far East: the 'Middle' distinguished it from these areas. 'Middle East' became indeed the term used in the languages of the region itself….. Yet despite its apparently general acceptance, this was not a term universally used in the west, where some foreign ministries still continued to use 'Near East' to distinguish these countries from Arabia and Iran. Only after 1945 did the term 'Middle East' acquire a quite general and the national currency. In Russia the western sense of the term was never adopted: there the distinction was between … 'Central East,' that is those countries which bordered Russia and later the USSR--Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan--and.... Near East, in effect the Arab world.

Quite a range of definitions. On this basis, Kaplan's new/old Greater Near East may have traction.


About the Author: David Hulme holds a doctorate in International Relations from the University of Southern California with an emphasis on the Middle East. He's the author of "Identity, Ideology and the Jerusalem Question" and the blog, Causes of Conflict. He is president of Vision Media Productions and chairman of Foundation. Please email at


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