Defining the Middle East

By Danny Stoker

Today, there is no single uniform definition for what comprises the Middle East. Visit any major news website covering global affairs and there will likely be a section devoted to this often discussed region, yet each site may vary slightly in its definition from another. The British coined the term Middle East in the 20th century, when it gained traction as the descriptive label for areas of West Asia and Egypt. In the 19th century, Europeans referred to the region as the Near East, but shortly after the WWI this term began to decline in popularity. It is however still in use. Due to cultural, geographic, historical, and political similarities, journalists, academics, and policy makers have tacked on North Africa to the region often calling it the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region.

What exactly comprises the Middle East or MENA region is arbitrary and often debated by those who study and work on the region. In its broadest definition, the Middle East is comprised of various combinations of North African and West and Central Asian states. In its narrowest definitions, the Middle East is comprised of the states in the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, and Iran and Turkey. 

In order to demonstrate the diversity with witch the Middle East is defined let's take a look at a few maps of region as defined by different organizations. Since Wikipedia is so ubiquitous and somewhat reliable that is where we will start.

The Middle East as defined by Wikipedia consisting of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey

The Middle East as defined by Wikipedia consisting of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, UAE, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey

The Middle East as defined by the CIA World Fact book, the definition removes Egypt from the Middle East and adds Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

The Middle East as defined by the CIA World Fact book, the definition removes Egypt from the Middle East and adds Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia.

The Middle East according to the World Bank, they include North Africa, but exclude Turkey and the Caucasus region.

The Middle East according to the World Bank, they include North Africa, but exclude Turkey and the Caucasus region.

Here is a an expanded definition of the region, this is probably the closest to the region I studied in Graduate school. It includes Mauritania, Mali, and Sudan in the North African countries

Here is a an expanded definition of the region, this is probably the closest to the region I studied in Graduate school. It includes Mauritania, Mali, and Sudan in the North African countries

These maps demonstrate how the open debate about what exactly comprises the Middle East. These are just a few of the many definitions of the Middle East today. In the broadest sense, these states all share historic, cultural, religious, and economic ties to varying degrees and for the sake of organization have been lumped together in various formulas. There is no perfect way to define the Middl East. It is a complex and diverse region with a varied history. It is unlikely that there will be a universally agreed upon definition for the Middle East anytime soon.