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The invention of the ‘Middle East’

January 24, 2022 at 3:22 pm

A vintage globe of the world for sale in an antique shop, 19 December 2019 [Robert Alexander/Getty Images]

What is the Middle East? Why is it the “middle”? And to whom is it “east”?  We should take into consideration that what is “east” to certain geographical location is “west” to another. Thus, Turkey, Iran and Russia are east of Europe, but they are west of Japan. What we know as the Middle East, is actually the Middle West for Japan!

In Orientalism, Edward Said argues that the “Orient” was a western invention made to be exploited by the Europeans. For the Europeans, “the world is made of two unequal halves, Orient and Occident” and the “relationship between Orient and Occident is the relationship of power, of domination, of varying degrees of a complex hegemony.” The East for European/Western historians, scholars, researchers, leaders, artists, merchants and traders, was a “career”, as stated by Benjamin Disraeli.

This argument is clear if we trace the development of the geo-political concept of the East. For a long time, the East for the Europeans was the Muslim lands that are flooded with milk and honey; the lands of One thousand and one nights; that of the great capitals of Jerusalem, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo and their hidden treasures.

For the Crusaders of the 12th and 13th centuries; kings, princes, knights, officers and soldiers, the East was a holy mission, a designated profession and a long-lasting career. The East for them was the land of the Holy Bible that must be captured and kept for ever.

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When the Ottomans captured the Arab-Muslim countries in the 16th century, the East for the Europeans became the lands of the Ottoman Turks, who as well capturing their western borders, threatening their existence.

When the Europeans reached China and initiated their conflict there by the 19th century, they discovered that the East was “so big” and that it extends beyond what they have known as East. They then divided this “vast” East into the Near East, the one they already knew, and the Far East, that they had just discovered.

The British introduced a new concept in the mid-19th century. They established their hegemony on India; and it was that East that separated their homeland in Europe from their Jewel of the Crown. They then introduced the term Middle East to describe the area that extends from the Red Sea to the British Empire in India. They looked to capture this Middle East to extend, or link, their Empire from the European borders up to the Indian sub-content.

Following World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East fill victim to British and French colonisation. Both competed to establish their domination over the countries released from the Ottoman hegemony and they succeeded to dominate the East till the end of World War II.

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The Middle East “Proper” is that geographical area that extends from the Nile Valley in the West up to the borders of the Soviet Republics (at that time) in the East. This area traditionally included the following countries:

– The countries of the Arabian Peninsula: Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

– The Fertile Crescent: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine.

– Turkey, Iran, Cyprus and Egypt.

Israel was created in 1948 and was considered a Middle Eastern country only because of its geographical position within the region, although it lacked all characters of Middle Eastern countries, in terms of language, religion and/or shared history and culture and in spite of being rejected by all Arab countries of the region.

In the French discourse, the terms Middle and Near East are used interchangeably, and do not include the Northern African countries. The French wanted to separate the Middle East that they shared with the British from the Northern African countries that they captured separately. Many American scholars and historians nominate the Middle East on a wide regional sphere that extends from Morocco to Pakistan.

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After the end of World War II, and with the beginning of the second half of the 20th century, the world witnessed the departure of the British and the French from the Middle East and North Africa. The Americans sought to replace the British and the French in the entire region, and so they reclaimed their definition of the term Middle East to include all the countries occupied by Britain and France together, i.e. the traditional Middle Eastern countries in addition to the North African Arab countries.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States became the only superpower, and this was the time of the “Greater Middle East”, a term launched by Secretary of State of America Condoleezza Rice in 2004, to the G8 countries in February 2004 as a reform project development in the Middle East and Arab countries.

The term refers to the 22 Arab countries that are members of the League of Arab States, in addition to Cyprus, Turkey, Israel, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and therefore the new designation includes the traditional countries of the Middle East and North Africa in addition to Pakistan and Afghanistan as well. These are the countries that America sought, and is still seeking, to impose its domination and control over them, either militarily, politically or economically.

The American plan to dominate the greater Middle East did not proceed for several reasons, perhaps the most important of which was the Arab Spring revolutions that erupted in 2010 and led to the fall of many of the region’s rulers on whom America was relying to impose its military and economic hegemony on their country.

However, perhaps the opportunity led America to re-impose its control over the region, after the “earthquake” of the new Arab-Zionist normalisation that began in 2020, and the subsequent attempt to impose the so-called Abraham Accords on the peoples of the region that were quarrelling, intersecting and even warring. Here America will not be the only leader of the new Middle East, but will share control with Israel, the historical, first and main enemy of the peoples of the region, and at the same time the first, closest and most important friend of the rulers of those peoples.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.