The regions, in geographical and political terms, are classified according to their common and similar characteristics. For instance, ‘continents’ are vast territories surrounded by seas. Peninsulas, mountains, rivers etc. determine the boundaries of geographical and political regions. Religions, sects or languages and dialects etc. may also be used to define a region (as for Islamic World, Latin America etc.). The income level is also useful for defining regions (like North-South). In short, for a territory to be distinctive from the others, it must have some meaningful particularities or at least some common characteristics.
When considered on the basis of these criteria, there is no region called the Middle East. Such a name was even non-existent up until the 20th Century. If we examine it carefully, the region presented in the recent years as “the Greater Middle East” is formed of different regions and the commonalities among the countries and people of the region, contrary to the general view, are quite few:
This so-called region neighbors two oceans (Indian and Atlantic) and six seas (Mediterranean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Black Sea, Aegean Sea and the Caspian Sea). It extends to three continents (Africa, Asia and Europe). It consists of ten sub-regions (Southern and Northern Caucasus, Northern Africa, Arabia, Greater Palestine and Syria, Mesopotamia, the Caspian Basin, Central Asia (Turkistan), Indian Peninsula). Three monotheistic religions (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), with their numerous sects and schools of thought, exist in this region. Thousands of religious and moral faith, including atheism and paganism, are practiced in this wide geography and thus, it is one of the largest laboratories of the world. Although viewed by the West as all-Arab, the region consists of tens of different ethnic-linguistic communities, with Turks, Arabs and Persians as the main ones.
In other words, the region named as “the Greater Middle East” is, perhaps, the last geography to be named as a region in terms of homogeneity. As a matter of fact, it will be easily understood how different countries we are talking about when we compare the Afro-Arabic culture of Sudan and Franco-Afro-Arabic culture of Tunisia. Or when Turkey and Afghanistan is compared, it will be easily noticed how different these two countries are. It is equally strange to compare Egypt and Azerbaijan and to address them within the same region. Saudi Arabia and Kyrgyzstan, Cyprus and Qatar are too different to be included in the same region.
So, why is this claim? Why everybody keeps on insisting on saying the Middle East? How did this region that cannot be a region emerge? And while the Middle East cannot be a region, how did this “Greater Middle East” emerge?
The Midde East: An Anglo-American Invention
As we pointed out before, the term “Middle East” was not pronounced until the 20th Century. If it is compared with the names Anatolia, Mesopotamia or Caucasus, it can be argued that the “Middle East” is an artificial, produced, or even invented term. As for all the inventions, there are expectations from this invention as well. The term has a function and considered from this point, the region called the “Middle East”, in fact, means Britain, and then American Zone of Interest.
The French, up until the beginning of the 20th Century, made up the term “Near East” for the Ottoman territories. This territory begins where the Ottoman territory begins but its end point was not defined. There is agreement that regions like China and Japan are Far East. Particularly, the economic and military expansion of the British Empire towards China and its periphery in the 19th Century led to more frequent use of the distinction between the Near East and Far East.
The expression “Middle East” was first seen in September 1902, in London based National Review journal. The “inventor” of the expression was a naval military officer and scholar Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914). Mahan is the owner of the theory that the ruler of the world would be the power which ruled the seas. Mahan, who especially specialized on the naval force of the British Empire, was not an ordinary scholar. During his three-day visit to Britain in 1894, the British showed him close interest; he met with important personalities including the premier and the leader of the opposition and discussed significant issues with them. Cambridge and Oxford universities also granted him honorary doctorate title. The Times newspaper went even as far as comparing him with Copernicus.
The name of Mahan’s article in National Review was “The Persian Gulf and International Relations”. For Mahan, Britain, which needed to assure the security of India and Far East, needed to keep the route to these regions secure as well. And this would happen by making the Persian Gulf secure. Russia’s trans-Siberian line and its advance in the Central Asia in particular made the Russians get dangerously closer to the Pacific and India. In this context, Persian Gulf was the most important “jump stone” after the Suez Canal for passage to India. In order to contain the Russians, the Britain should, if necessary, cooperate with the Germans and watch out for the Russians. Hence for Mahan, here was “the Middle East”, that is, Persian Gulf and its periphery. According to this view, “the Middle East” would be most useful in keeping the Russians away from the Pacific and India. It also had a strategic significance in the preservation of the domination in the seas.
Mahan’s “Middle East” term attracted wide interest and The Times republished the article, then it published Vanatine Iganitius Chirol’s (1852-1929) articles “The Middle Eastern Question”. Later on, this article serial was collected in a book named “The Middle East Question or Some Problems of Indian Defence” in 1903. Chirol’s “Middle East” was larger than that of Mahan’s. Chirol, when using the term “Middle East”, not only implied the Persian Gulf but also all the territories on the way to India, that is, Iraq, Eastern Arabia, Afghanistan, Tibet and other regions of Asia. So, Chirol had a “much more enlarged Middle East concept” and his “Middle East” was also appropriate for new enlargements. According to Chirol, Anatolia and the Balkans were “the Near East”.
For Chirol, the most important function of the Middle East was the protection of India. But Russia’s exploitation of oil in Baku, the Caucasus was also an important factor. Russia’s oil wealth was a significant superiority and Britain had to “take care of” the Caucasus in a short while. Moreover, the Germans were getting stronger in the Near East, that is, in Anatolia and the Balkans and “the Middle East” would be a great acquisition for this “attack”. Finally, Chirol touched upon the importance of the Middle East while the rise of Japan in the Far East was taken into account.
The Greater Middle East Zone of Interest
In short, the Middle East was “British Zone of Interest”. Apart from that, it had no distinctive geographical or political peculiarity originating from its own. A non-“regional” power was giving a name and a mission to a territory which it was paying attention to for its own interests.
The Britain’s Middle East concept expanded as far as Egypt during and after the First World War. The increasing importance of oil and the World War were influential in the expansion of the definition of the region. The US used the terms “Near East” and “Middle East” together in the wake of the Second World War. But in essence, Britain’s “zone of interest” passed to the US hereafter. Now, it was the US which would define and expand the term.
To put it short, there is no region as Middle East in fact. The Middle East is neither “the middle of the East”, nor it is a region with homogeneous characteristics. The Middle East is the name given to a “zone of interest” and it implies an appetite which has no sense of getting full. The more the appetite grows, the larger the region becomes.
Note: For further information about the emergence of the term “Middle East”, see: Roger Adelson, “London and The Invention of the Middle East: Money, Power and War, 1902-1922” (New Haven and London: Yale University Press: 1995).
Translated by Noyan Ozkaya, USAK
2 June 2006