I’ve made some graphs about Europe’s mountains, using data from this thorough report made by the European Union:
This graph above shows, approximately, the size of European countries’ mountainous areas (in the y axis) and how big their mountainous areas are as a share of their overall territories (in the x-axis). With the exception of Slovenia, the graph does not include any of the mountainous countries of the former Yugoslavia, since the report does not mention those countries. Nor does it mention Morocco, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, or some of Europe’s other peripheral non-EU countries. Norway, though, which is not in the EU either, is included in the report, and as you can see it is by far the biggest outlier on the graph above.
This graph above shows that, as one might expect, there is a strong correlation between how mountainous a European country is and how much of its population lives in mountainous areas. Switzerland leads in both categories, followed by Norway, Slovenia, Greece, and Austria.
In this graph above the main outliers are Italy and Spain, which have by far the largest populations living in mountainous areas. Had Turkey, Morocco, and Algeria been included, however, they would have been even further ahead of Italy and its 18 million people living in mountain areas.
Using data from the World Bank , here are the top 15 and bottom 15 countries in terms of per capita arable land, among countries in which at least 15 million people live:
Here’s zooming in on the bottom 15:
Using data from Nationmaster (from 2005, so it may be outdated in some cases), here are the top 15 and bottom 15 countries in terms of per capita forest area, among countries in which at least 15 million people live:
And zooming in:
If these numbers are correct, then Canada has 43.7 times more arable land per capita and 10,667 times more forest area per capita than Egypt does.
These graphs could be incorrect, though. The data used to make them came from this source (which does not show per capita stats), which seems to have come in turn from the World Bank. But if you look at more recent per capita World Bank data presented here you will see that, although the order of countries is generally pretty similar to graphs shown above, countries like Iceland, Libya, Algeria, and Ireland are no longer at the top.
The China Labour Bulletin website provides maps displaying incidents of labour strikes that have occurred in recent years. While of course these should be viewed with a hefty grain of salt, they may be worth scrutinizing all the same.
This image below shows the number of strikes in general that have occurred since 2011: as you can see, they have been becoming a lot more common since the beginning of 2014.
Yet this may be somewhat misleading: nearly half of the strikes indicated in the map above are thought to have had fewer than 100 people participate in them. It may be better to look just at the number of larger strikes that have occured, as the following two maps do:
These maps above show that the larger strikes, with 1000-10,000 people and 10,000+ people, respectively, occured most often in 2014, unlike the smaller but more numerous strikes that occured most frequently in 2015 and so far in 2016. Since 2015 there have not been any strikes involving more than 10,000 people, according to the China Labour Bulletin.
Now let’s have a closer look at the differences between China’s many provinces. Below I have tried to graph the number of strikes that have occurred in each province, first since 2011 and then since 2015:
Guangdong, China’s most populous province, finished at the top of both graphs, while Tibet, Qinghai, Hainan, Tianjin, Ningxia, Gansu, and Xinjiang finished at the bottom of both graphs. All of the provinces of China are more or less in the same position in both graphs, in fact. And there are no major regional patterns that can be gleaned clearly from either list.
What if we adjust the figures to take into account the population size and GDP of each province? Then we get the following graphs:
Here Guangdong and Tibet again finished at the top and bottom of both graphs, respectively. Ningxia, however, which had finished fifth from the bottom before adjusting for population and GDP, has now moved up to second from the top. Ningxia is China’s third least populous province (the two Tibetan provinces, Tibet and Qinghai, are the least populous), is one of China’s five “autonomous regions” (the others are Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Guangxi), and, along with Xinjiang, has by far the highest concentration of Muslim inhabitants of any province in the country.
In the adjusted-for-population graph, China’s relatively small and wealthy “direct-controlled municipalities”, namely Shanghai, Beijing, Tianjin, and Chongqing, were much higher up than they were on the adjusted-for-GDP graph, with the exception of Chongqing. (Chongqing is quite a bit less urbanized than the three others are). Shanghai and Beijing were third and fifth, respectively, while Tianjin, which was the least strike-prone of any province when adjusted-for-GDP, was close to the middle of the pack when adjusted-for-population.
Another big change was Hainan, China’s southernmost province and only island province (not counting Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan), which was third from the bottom before adjusting for population size or GDP, but fourth from the top when adjusting for GDP and eighth when adjusting for population size. Shanxi and Shaanxi, meanwhile, two neighbouring provinces located in and around the mountains of north-central China, moved from around the middle of the pack to near the top once adjusted for GDP and population.
Shanxi in particular is China’s major coal producing region, and the coal industry has come under a lot of pressure in recent years, which may help explain Shanxi’s high position on both of these graphs. (Shaanxi too is a top coal producer. Inner Mongolia, though, China’s second biggest coal producer, is admittedly near the bottom of the GDP-adjusted labour strikes graph). Shanxi has also been arguably the main provincial target by far of Xi Jinping’s intense “anti-corruption” campaign.
Still, these graphs again do not prioritize large strikes over smaller ones. Below, then, are the strikes with between 1000 – 10,000 participants that have occured since 2011. Since there have been very few strikes with more than 10,000 participants, the 1000-10,000 category accounts for an overwhelming share of the large labour strikes that have taken place:
The graph showing labour strikes with more than 1000 people since 2011, adjusted for GDP size, is I suspect the most important one. The population-adjusted graphs tend to somewhat misleadingly overemphasize the wealthiest provinces, like Shanghai or Tianjin, since they have lots of per capita economic activity and therefore also lots of per capita labour strikes. The graphs that are not adjusted at all skew in favour of populous provinces, meanwhile. The GDP-adjusted graphs, though, are perhaps the most indicative of provinces in which there may be growing social challenges to China’s political or economic establishment.
Notably, this GDP-adjusted graph is also the only one in which clear regional divisions can be seen. Apart from Guizhou, nine of the ten westernmost provinces in China- Tibet, Qinghai, Xinjiang, Yunnan, Ningxia, Inner Mongolia, Sichuan, Chongqing, and Gansu – are in the bottom thirteen provinces of the list, and six are also in the bottom seven of the list. Seven of the top nine provinces on the list, meanwhile, are seven of China’s eleven eastern coastal states. These also happen to be the seven most southern coastal states on the Chinese mainland.
Beijing and the provinces around Beijing, like Liaoning, Hebei, Henan, Tianjin, Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and Shandong, are near the bottom or the middle of the list. Shanghai on the other hand, as well as two of the three provinces that surround Shanghai, namely Jiangsu and Anhui, are quite close to the top of the list. Guangdong, which is the most populous province in China, remains far ahead at the top of the list. Three of Guangdong’s four neighbouring provinces, namely Jiangxi, Guangxi, and Fujian, are at the top of the list as well.
Remarkably, Guangdong’s GDP-adjusted figure for large labour strikes is roughly twice as high as any other province and five times the nationwide average. Guangdong has also been home to four of the seven labour strikes in China involving more than 10,000 people since 2011, according to the China Labour Bulletin. Given Guangdong’s enormous size and revolutionary history, this may be worth noting.
The other biggest outlier is the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, which apart from Guangdong had by far the most large strikes adjusted for GDP size. Heilongjiang has been a major oil and coal producing province, which may partially help to explain this. Strikes in the province have been putting its governor Lu Hao, the youngest provincial governor in the country, under a lot of political pressure of late.
Heilongjiang’s position also highlights an interesting trend: China’s most peripheral provinces, like Tibet, Guangdong, Heilongjiang, Xinjiang, Guangxi, Yunnan, Qinghai, Inner Mongolia, Hainan, and Jiangxi, are either at the very top of the list or at the very bottom of the list. Heilongjiang itself has the longest international border in China outside of the three “autonomous regions” of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. Heilongjiang’s border with Russia is only slightly shorter than the entire US-Mexican border. Hopefully Donald Trump will move there once he loses the election this year, and trouble America no more.
The China Labour Bulletin maps also zoom in to show which cities the strikes occured in, and gives basic information about them. For example:
It also breaks down the strikes by the response they are thought to have received, in five categories: “police”, “arrest(s)”, “government mediation”, “negotiation”, or “other”. According to the site, “Guangdong also led the country in the number of police interventions in labour disputes, accounting for about 19 percent of the total 831 incidents in which police were deployed and 24 percent of the incidents in which arrests were made”.
The graph above shows the size of countries’ largest provinces or states in relation to their overall populations. So California, for example, is home to approximately 12 percent of the total population of the United States, whereas Ontario is home to 39 percent of Canada’s population and Punjab to 47 percent of Pakistan’s.
The biggest standout here, though, is Argentina’s largest province Buenos Aires, which is by far the most populous of Argentina’s 24 provinces. In fact, the population of the province of Buenos Aires does not even include that of the “Autonomous City” of Buenos Aires – see map above – which is itself the fourth most populous province in the country. In Argentina’s presidential elections this past October, the two candidates were the leaders of the province of Buenos Aires and the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires, respectively.
Below is a graph, made using data taken from Wikipedia, which shows the GDP sizes of the biggest provincial/state economies around the world, in nominal terms. It is led by California, which is thought to have an economic output of nearly $2.3 trillion these days, larger than all but seven of the world’s countries. Given the nature of this information, though, this graph should probably be taken with a decent-sized grain of salt.
13 of the 34 provinces/states in the graph above are in the USA, 9 are in China, and 13 are in other countries. Germany and Japan both have 2, but they are the only countries apart from the US or China to have more than 1 province on this graph.
No Indian states made it on to the graph above. On the graph below, however, which shows the 34 most populous provinces/states in the world, 11 are from India, whereas California, the most populous US state, is ranked 33rd. 17 out of 34 on the graph below are Chinese, and 6 are neither Chinese nor Indian. This graph also shows the territory size of each province.
Note the dominance of India’s province Uttar Pradesh. In fact, India’s five most populous states – Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal, and Madhya Pradesh (combined population: approximately 580 million) – border one another in a direct line, and Uttar Pradesh also directly borders India’s seventh most populous state, Rajasthan, as well as India’s most densely populated state, Delhi (India’s capital). In China and the US, in contrast, some of the largest states, notably California, Texas, Florida and Illinois in the US and Guangdong and Sichuan in China, do not border any of the other most populous states within their own country.
In Germany, meanwhile, the fifth most populous state in the country, Hesse, directly borders all four of the most populous German states: North Rhine-Westphalia, Bavaria, Baden-Wurttemburg, and Lower Saxony. Hesse’s chief city is Frankfurt, a European finance and transport hub.
Finally, in Brazil, the three most populous states, namely Sao Paulo (which is by far the largest), Minas Gerais, and Rio de Janeiro, directly border one another. Sao Paolo also borders the sixth largest state, Parana, while Minas Gerais also borders the fourth largest state, Bahia. The four largest Brazilian states are home to 48 percent of Brazil’s overall population.
With all the disgusting Trump talk on the issue of illegal immigration that has been going on, the other main source of American newcomers – legal immigrants – is sometimes overlooked. The maps above were made by Giorgio Cavaggion, using data from the Department of Homeland Security of immigrants who “became legal permanent residents during the fiscal year of 2012.” That year over one million people in the US became Legal Permanent Residents. Here are 10 thoughts on the maps above:
1. Mexico Still Dominates
Even in spite of the big drop-off in immigration from Mexico to the United States (see graphs below), Mexico still ranks first in half of the states in the country. Only in the northeastern and north-central regions of the US, from Montana to Maine, is Mexico not #1.
2. India a Strong Second
India finished first in six states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, and Virginia) and second to Mexico in twelve states (Washington state, Arizona, Texas, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). This is a big increase from previous generations (see graph below).
Still, nearly a third of all Indian immigrants in the US live either in California or New Jersey. More than 25% live in San Jose, Chicago, or Greater New York City. Also notable is that India’s many regions are not represented proportionally in America. Rather, Indian states like Gujarat and Punjab are highly over-represented. Gujaratis, for example, account for more than 20% of Indians in the US, though they are only 6% or so of the population within India itself.
3. Burmese in Fly-Over Country
Burma (aka Myanmar) was first in Indiana and second to Mexico in Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Iowa. This could be significant going forward, given that Myanmar may have finally begun to liberalize its political system and renew ties with the United States in recent years. Indeed, Myanmar has often been seen as one of Hillary Clinton’s primary achievements during her time as Secretary of State, so if she becomes president it could perhaps further impact the US-Burmese relationship. Since the mid-2000’s, though, most Burmese immigrants in the US have been from non-Burmese ethnic minority groups, like the Karen people.
4. Bhutan Surprises
I would never have guessed that Bhutan, a far-away Himalayan country of just 750,000 people, would finish first on this list in three separate states (Vermont, New Hampshire, and North Dakota). No other country, apart from Mexico, India, and the Philippines, was first in three or more states. And even the Philippines was first in just one of the Lower 48 states.
5. The French Connection
Vietnam finished first in just one state, Louisiana, and the fact that it did reflects two different ways in which history continues to inform the present-day United States. First is the French connection: Louisiana and Vietnam were both part of the globe-spanning French Empire, a fact that seems to resonate today even though neither Louisiana nor Vietnam even speak much French anymore. Or maybe Vietnamese just enjoy New Orleans jazz.
Second is the American military: wherever it goes, people from that country tend to end up in the United States. The Vietnamese have now become one of the biggest non-Hispanic groups in the US apart from Chinese and Indians, as have immigrants from Korea and the Philippines where the US also fought significant wars during the 20th century. Iraq too has seen its share of immigrants to the US grow over the past decade: on the maps above, Iraqis finished first in Michigan and second to Mexico in Tennessee and Idaho.
6. Cubans in Kentucky, Dominicans in Massachusetts
One might have expected Cuba to finish first in Florida, but in fact Mexico took that honour, leaving Cuba in second. But while Florida was the only state where Cuba finished second to Mexico, Kentucky, surprisingly, was the only state where Cuba finished first overall. Massachusetts and Rhode Island, meanwhile, were taken by the Dominican Republic, which did not finish second to Mexico in any states.
Though Cuba and the Dominican were the only two Spanish-speaking countries apart from Mexico on either of the maps above, the United States of course also has a very large population from other Latin American countries. These did not finish first – or second to Mexico – in any states, however, because many live in Washington D.C. (Salvadorans in particular) or in major immigrant-rich states like California, New York, and Florida, or come from Puerto Rico which is not considered to be a foreign country, or have not yet become Legal Permanent Residents.
7. East Asia in the West
This is an obvious one: immigrants from East Asian countries often continue to cling to the Pacific Ocean even once they reach the United States. Though Mexico still finished first throughout the entire US West Coast, the Philippines finished first in Hawaii and Alaska and second to Mexico in California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Oregon and Utah, meanwhile, were the only two states in which China was second to Mexico. India, though not a Pacific country, was second to Mexico in Arizona and in Washington state.
8. East Africa in the North
Of the ten states in the Lower 48 which directly border Canada, Mexico finished first in just two (Washington state and Idaho), Canada finished first in just one (Montana), Bhutan finished first in three, Somalia in two (Maine and Minnesota), and Iraq in one (Michigan). Another East African state, Ethiopia, finished first in nearby South Dakota. Ethiopia also finished second to Mexico in Colorado.
9. Filipinos in Coal Country
Outside of the offshore states of Hawaii and Alaska, the only state the Philippines finished first in was West Virginia. Outside of California, Nevada, and New Mexico, the only state the Philippines finished second to Mexico in was Wyoming. Today Wyoming accounts for approximately 40% of US coal production and West Virginia accounts for about 10% of US coal production. Both states produce considerably more coal than any other state; only Kentucky even comes close to their level of coal production. Wyoming, West Virginia, and Alaska also have the highest per capita energy production of any states in the country.
10. China “Seemingly” Underrepresented
China, in spite of its huge population, only finished first in one state, and only finished second to Mexico in two states. This could be a bit misleading, though, since the state that China finished first in was New York. New York was the only one of the “Big 4” states (California, Texas, Florida, and New York) not to be finished by first in by Mexico, and, with the exception of Michigan, it was the only one of the fourteen most populous states in America not to be finished first in by either Mexico or India.
Countries have different way of ordering their own provinces and capital cities, and how they choose to do so may sometimes say a lot about what sort of politics they have. Where countries’ capital cities are concerned, there is usually something akin to one of the following four set-ups:
The Argentine model: the country’s capital city serves as its own unique administrative district and is surrounded on all sides by a single province that it influences to a large degree.
The American model: the capital city serves as its own unique administrative district but is not surrounded by a single province (or state, etc.), but rather by two or more provinces.
The Saudi model: the capital city is not its own unique administrative district, but is part of an important province that is named after itself.
The Canadian model: the capital city is sometimes annoyingly full of bureaucrats, but is otherwise more or less a normal place. It is not its own administrative district.
The Argentine Model
Examples of the Argentine model include, of course, Buenos Aires, which is surrounded by the province of Buenos Aires (Argentina’s recent presidential election, in fact, was between the mayor of Buenos Aires and the governor of Buenos Aires province); Berlin, which is surrounded by Brandenburg (see map below); Moscow, which is surrounded by the Moscow oblast; the Australian Capital Area, which is surrounded by New South Wales (see map below), Vienna, which is surrounded by Lower Austria; Brussels, which is surrounded by Brabant (though Brussels does not directly border Walloon Brabant, which is several km to the south of Brussels); Prague, which is surrounded by the Central Bohemian Region; and Addis Ababba, which is surrounded by Oromia.
Beijing probably also belongs in this category: it is surrounded mostly by the province of Hebei but in two spots also by the city of Tianjin, which like Beijing is one of China’s four “direct-controlled municipalities” (the other two are Shanghai and Chongqing). Tianjin was temporarily made part of Hebei province in the 1960s, and in recent years there has been much talk of increasing integration and cooperation between Beijing, Hebei, and Tianjin in order to form a sort of capital city macro-region, which is often referred to by the acronym Jingjinji.
Seoul in South Korea has a similar set-up to Beijing. It is surrounded almost entirely by the province of Gyeonggi, but also touches the coastal city-province of Incheon, in the same way that Beijing does the city-province of Tianjin:
Note by the way that South Korea has a number of city-provinces. Of these, only Gwangju, in the southwest, conforms fully to the “Argentine model”.
Capitals which are their own unique administrative districts but lack their own single encircling province include Washington D.C. (which is surrounded by both Virginia and Maryland), Tokyo, London, Delhi; Mexico City, Bangkok, Tehran; Hanoi, Abuja (though Nigeria’s largest city by far, Lagos, which was the capital until 1991, is an example of the Argentine model), Baghdad (which is surrounded by four other provinces), Manila, Jakarta, Madrid, Islamabad, Brasilia (though just barely …and the capital of Brazil prior to 1960 was Rio de Janeiro), Kinshasa, and Bogota (though in a relatively weird way; see map below, Bogota is the sliver between the departments of Cundinamarca – which Bogota is also the capital of – and Meta).
One feature that a number of these have in common is that, while the capital city’s administrative district often borders two other provinces, it is usually surrounded much more by the less populous of the two other provinces. Notable examples of this include Washington D.C., which is surrounded much more by Maryland (population 5.9 million) than by Virginia (population 8.3 million); Delhi, which is surrounded much more by Haryana (25 million) than by Uttar Pradesh (205 million); and Brasilia, which is surrounded much more by Goias (6.5 million) than by Minas Gerais 21 million.
Capitals which do not fit this pattern, however, are Mexico City, where the federal capital district is surrounded much more by the state of Mexico (population 16 million) than by the state of Morelos (population 1.9 million); and Islamabad, which is surrounded much more by Punjab (population 91 million) than by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (population 27 million).
A number of non-capital cities, meanwhile, such as Hamburg, which is the most populous city in Germany apart from Berlin, fit into this category as well.
The Saudi Model
A capital city which is not its own unique province, but rather is part of an important province named after itself. Examples may include Riyadh, Stockholm, Dhaka, Santiago, and Ankara. Bern also could probably be on this list, but Bern is only the de facto capital of Switzerland; Switzerland has no de jure capital city.
The Canadian Model
Examples of countries in which the capital city is not its own unique independent unit may include Ottawa, Amsterdam, Rome, and Warsaw.
According to Wikipedia “two national capitals in federal countries are neither federal units [like provinces, states, etc.], special capital districts, nor capitals of federal units: Ottawa, the capital of Canada [because Toronto is the capital of Ontario, the province in which Ottawa is located], and Palikir, the capital of the Federated States of Micronesia“. Ottawa is situated entirely within the province of Ontario, but also directly borders French-speaking Quebec.
Please let me know if I’ve made a mistake on any of these; administrative divisions can be a bit complicated – and I can be a bit lazy.
A typical assumption has been that China and Japan will be the primary beneficiaries of the canal. China, after all, leads the world in importing commodities and exporting bulk goods, and Japan has accounted for 40% of the world’s LNG imports – far more than any other country – in recent years.
Yet while China and Japan lead the pack in terms of the value of their absolute trade, they lag far behind both South Korea and Taiwan in the more relevant category of relative trade; that is, the value of their trade relative to the overall size of their economies. As can be seen in the chart above, the economies of China and Japan are generally not as trade-oriented as those of South Korea and Taiwan. As such, they might not benefit as much from the canal, which is intended to ease trade — in particular LNG trade, which the pre-expansion canal could not facilitate.
Of course, none of this means that South Korea and Taiwan are risk-free investments. They are not. Both, for example, have significantly more exposure to China’s economy, which has been struggling of late, than Japan does. All else being held equal, though, South Korea and Taiwan appear likely to be two of the greatest beneficiaries of the new canal.
Iraq’s population is thought to be just under 35 million, roughly the same as that of Canada and greater than any other Arab country apart from Egypt, Algeria, and possibly Sudan.
Most Iraqis, and almost all Iraqis who identify as Shiite Muslims, live in the low-elevation Mesopotamian plain, the part of the map below that is coloured in the darkest shade of green.
The only significant city to have a considerable Shiite population outside of this area is, perhaps, the city of Samarra, which is holy to Shiite Muslims. Yet Samara lies just barely beyond this Iraqi Shiite heartland, and is relatively small. It had 350,000 or so inhabitants prior to the US invasion of the country in 2003. In 2006 and then again in 2007 the Al-Askari Shrine, a mosque that was built in Samarra in 944 AD, was bombed, leading Shiite groups in Iraq to retaliate by forcing many Sunnis to leave their homes in Baghdad.
The largest cities in Iraq’s Shiite region are not located in the region’s centre, but rather around its outer edges. The largest by far is Baghdad, located in the north of the Shiite core region. Baghdad is perhaps 3-5 times more populous than any other city in Iraq; it may be home to nearly one in four Iraqis. It is maybe the most populous city in the entire Arab world, outside of Cairo. Historically it was the capital of an enormous caliphate, stretching from Central Asia nearly to the Atlantic Ocean, during most of the years between 762 AD and 1258 AD. Even as recently as the 1970s, before Iraq fought three major wars between 1980 and the present day, Baghdad was one of the leading cultural and commercial cities in the Arab world.
Baghdad has historically been the place where Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni areas meet, and where minority populations like Kurds, Christians, Jews, and Turkic peoples have all lived in significant numbers as well. Though the conflicts in Iraq during recent years and decades has changed this to a great extent, with many minorities leaving (the Jewish population, for example, has dropped from around 50,000 in 1900, which was perhaps a quarter of the city’s total population at the time, to nearly zero today) Baghdad remains the heart of the country.
Baghdad’s existence has probably been one of the main impediments to, and arguments against, splitting the country into three separate states as many have recently been advocating for. However because of its diversity and centrality, it was also the site of many of the violent deaths during the (in some ways ongoing) civil war. Since 2003 the city’s neighbourhoods have become more divided by sect, while the share of its population that identifies as Sunni has shrunk in size due to the fleeing of Sunnis and the inward migration of Shiites from southern Iraq.
Baghdad in 2003 Baghdad in 2007
Baghdad’s geographic significance comes from being located in the only spot, apart from the swampy southern coastlands of Iraq, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers come close to meeting one another. Around Baghdad the Tigris and Euphrates are just 30-40 km or so apart from one another, compared to about 150-200 km apart in most of southern Iraq, 120 km or so apart in the area to Baghdad’s immediate north, and 220-300 km apart in the northern Iraq-Syria region.
Baghdad is located 530 km from Iraq’s only coast (on the Persian Gulf), 450 km from Iraq’s border with Turkey, and 475 km from its western, desert border with Jordan. It is about 700 km from Tehran, 740 km from Aleppo and Damascus, 95o km from Riyadh, and 1300-1450 km from Mecca, Dubai, Cairo, Ankara, and Crimea.
Apart from Baghdad, the biggest Shiite city in Iraq, maybe even twice as populous as any other, is Basra. Basra is located in the only other place where the Tigris and Euphrates meet, just 95 km or so north of the coast of the Persian Gulf, and just around 20 km from the Iranian border and 40 km from the Kuwaiti border. Because it is located just 4 metres above sea level (compared to 35 metres for Baghdad), Basra’s climate is an extremely hot one, with temperatures hitting average daily highs of around 40 degrees celsius (105-ish fahrenheit) for almost five months a year.
The fact that this southernmost area of Iraq around Basra has the country’s only direct access to the sea, and that this access is funnelled narrowly and vulnerably through a strip of land that is only about 15 km wide, sandwiched between the oil-rich Arab monarchy of Kuwait and the oil-rich Arab-inhabited Khuzestan province of southwestern Iran, was probably one of the reasons why Iraq went to war against Iran throughout the 1980s and then attempted to annex Kuwait in 1990.
Grabbing Kuwait and Khuzestan would give Iraq unfettered access to the Persian Gulf, greatly increased oil resources, and a mountainous rather than wide open border with southern Iran. Kuwait alone, in spite of having a population of just 3.4 million, produces so much oil that its GDP is thought to be roughly 75% percent as large as that of Iraq itself, and 40% percent as large as Iran’s.
Today, however, it is not clear whether Kuwait and Khuzestan have majority-Arab populations as they likely did in the past. Two-thirds of Kuwait’s population is now thought by some to be foreign workers who have come to the country mainly from South Asia. Some have estimated that 30-40% of Kuwait’s Muslim population is Shiite, though it is difficult to be certain. Khuzestan’s population of 4-5 million, meanwhile, has perhaps become majority Persian; statistics cannot really be trusted in this area, given that they can be politicized.
The other largest cities of the Shiite region of Iraq also lie along the region’s edges rather than in its centre; they are located either along the Tigris River, as for example the cities of Amarah and Samarra are, or along the Euphrates River, as the world’s two holiest Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala are.
The Shiite region of Iraq is divided, in a certain geographical sense, along both north-south and east-west lines. The north-south divide is between landlocked Baghdad and coastal Basra, the region’s two major cities, with Baghdad located close to its northern extreme and Basra close to its southern one.
The east-west divide is between the Tigris and the Euphrates; the two rivers were historically separated from one another by marshlands in some places, which according to Wikipedia “used to be the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia” before being drained during the second half of the 20th century — mainly by the government of Saddam Hussein, for political reasons. “After the fall of Hussein’s regime in 2003, the marshes have partially recovered but drought along with upstream dam construction and operation in Turkey, Syria, and Iran have hindered the process”. The “Marsh Arabs“, formerly half a million strong, are themselves considered to be a unique Iraqi ethnic group.
The Euphrates directly borders the Arabian Desert (Basra, Najaf, Karbala, and Ramadi are each located on the Arabian side of the river), whereas the Tigris runs closely parallel with Iran’s Zagros Mountains, which rise to heights as great as in the Colorado Rockies or Swiss Alps. Given its topography, Iraq has rarely been able to project force into the Zagros (though Saddam Hussein tried to do so during the deadly Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s); the Iranians, on the other hand, have often been able to influence politics within Iraq and occasionally even invade Iraq directly.
The division between Basra and Baghdad (such that it is) was seen to a certain extent in 2008, just prior to the US military withdrawal from the country, when the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki approved a significant offensive mission by the Iraqi Army aimed at pushing what was arguably the country’s main Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, out of Basra.
The Basra-Bagdhad divide goes back much further in history, however. Even when Iraq was ruled by the Ottoman Empire prior to the First World War, the country was divided into three administrative “vilayets”: Basra in the south, Baghdad in the centre, and Mosul in the north. The Ottoman era often saw the Europeans intrude into or make alliances with Basra, notably the Portuguese in the 17th century, and later the British. The British would return during the recent war: they were tasked with managing Basra while the Americans focused on other areas of the country.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab region also contains both north-south and east-west divisions. It’s two largest cities by far are Baghdad, which is located at the southern tip of the Sunni areas, and Mosul, which is located just 100 km from Iraq’s northern Turkish border and is currently held by ISIS fighters. This is the basis of its north-south division; its east-west division comes from the Tigris and Euphrates being located much further apart from one another north of Baghdad than in the south (where, around Shiite Arab cities like Basra, Karbala, and Kut, the waterways almost or completely converge), with desert lying in between them.
According to Wikipedia, “The Arabic of Mosul is considered to be much softer in its pronunciation than that of Baghdad Arabic, bearing considerable resemblance to Levantine dialects, particularly Aleppan Arabic. …Mosul Arabic is heavily influenced by the languages of the many ethnic minority groups which co-exist in the city: Kurmanji Kurdish, the Shengali (Ezdiki) of Yazidis, Turkmen, Armenian, and Neo-Aramaic. Each minority language is spoken alongside North Mesopotamian Arabic.”
“…Before 2014 takeover by ISIS, Mosul population comprised roughly of 60% Sunni Arabs; 25% Kurds, 10% Turkmens and 5% Assyrian. Following the takeover by ISIS, nearly all the population who were not Sunni Arabs (coreligionists of ISIS), fled or forced out, that is, 35% of the residents or just over half a million people.”
“Mosul, although not at a particularly high elevation, still receives much more rain than most of Iraq. Rainfall is close to three times that of Baghdad and over twice that of Basra”. Indeed, unlike the arid cities along the Euphrates, Mosul has a relatively populous hinterland, as it is located next to the foothills of mountains both to its east and to its north. Mosul is just 75 km from Erbil, the comparatively successful capital city of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region. “After the 1991 uprisings by the Kurds Mosul did not fall within the Kurdish-ruled area, but it was included in the northern no-fly zone imposed and patrolled by the United States and Britain between 1991 and 2003″.
Mosul is one of the two most important cities which lie on the border between Iraq’s Sunni Arab and Sunni Kurdish areas. The other is Kirkuk, which is less populous than Mosul but is where much of Iraq’s oil is produced. The oil in this Arab-Kurdish borderland has led to conflict during the past decade; and of course ISIS and the Iraqi Kurds continue to do battle today. According to the map below, both Mosul and Kirkuk (spelled Karkuk) are surrounded on three sides by the Kurdish-inhabited territories, near to the mountainous Kurdish border regions of Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
Mosul is located along the Tigris River, north of the place where, in Syria, the Euphrates makes a sudden sharp turn westward towards Aleppo and the Mediterranean Sea. As such, unlike in most other cities in Iraq, Mosul sits at a spot where the Tigris and Euphrates are relatively far from one another (though still only 430 km apart). This has allowed Mosul to serve historically as a sort of oasis in the desert for east-west trade travelling between northern Iran (and Asia) and the Mediterranean (and Europe). Mosul sits almost exactly between Tehran and the Mediterranean, in fact. It is also located halfway between Basra and Russia’s southern border; in other words, between the Persian Gulf and the Black and Caspian seas.
In late 2004 the US attack on Mosul was concurrent with the one on Fallujah, the latter battle arguably being the deadliest in the entire US-Iraq War. In 2014, six month prior to the ISIS seizure of Mosul (and Kurdish seizure of Kirkuk), ISIS “retook” Fallujah, which is just 40 km from Baghdad. ISIS also took control of the large dam upriver of Mosul, which according to Wikipedia has the fourth largest reserve capacity of any hydroelectric facility in the Middle East. Kurdish forces, with help from the US and Iraqi militaries, have since captured the dam.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab region, in spite of being relatively small in population because it is located in the desert, and also landlocked, has some advantages that Shiite Iraq does not. It has proximity to the Mediterranean, as well as access to the Mediterranean via the Euphrates which in Syria reaches as close to 200 km from it. The entire distance from the Persian Gulf to any part of the Eastern Mediterranean coast, in fact, is only about 1300 km.
This Mediterranean access, however, is partly why the Shiite Iraqis and Iranians would prefer to keep Syria’s non-Sunni Assad government and Lebanon’s Shiite group Hezbollah in place, so as to block Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority and Syria’s Sunni Arab majority from working together to export Iraqi oil to the West via the Mediterranean and hence become powerful.
The Sunni Arab region’s upriver location, moreover, provides a potential advantage within Iraq as, especially towards the south, the country is often lacking in rainfall and dependent upon agriculture that can be devastatingly flooded by the actions of northern dams. In addition, because the Euphrates winds about a lot within the Sunni region (see map below), its cities can often be surrounded on three sides by the river and on the fourth by both the desert and the incline of the walls of the Euphrates Valley, giving them a defensible position. A series of three lakes, finally, running 200 km from north to south, helps to divide Baghdad and southern Iraq from the Euphrates’ Sunni-inhabited northwest.
It has become very popular to point out that Iraq’s borders, and particularly the Iraqi-Syrian border, are “artificial”, imposed on the region by the British and French in the aftermath of the First World War. This statement is not untrue, but nor is it necessarily as straightforward as many have come to believe.
Those saying that Iraq’s borders are artificial often ignore a number of facts. First is that, unless Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, and perhaps Lebanon are merged into a single state (a state which, given its position linking two oceans and containing the most oil anywhere outside of Saudi Arabia, could perhaps become the top power in the Middle East), or unless a united Kurdistan declares its independence in territories that are today part of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran (a declaration that could, and to an extent already has, led to war by those countries against Kurdish forces), then “artificial” borders must be drawn somewhere through the region.
Second, they ignore the fact that Iraq’s borders are actually not as random, geographically, as they are given credit for, as we discuss further below. Third, they ignore the fact that it is not only the West that has been responsible for messing with the “natural” borders of Arab lands. Iran and Turkey, for instance, both refused to give up Arab-inhabited regions of the Fertile Crescent they possess; a more consistent geographic or cultural rendering of Middle Eastern borders should perhaps have included Turkey handing over its province of Hatay to Syria (as Syria still officially claims it should) and Iran handing over its province of Khuzestan to Iraq.
And fourth, they often ignore the fact that the most “artificial” aspect of Iraq’s borders is not the fact that the borders themselves are drawn improperly, but rather is that Kuwait has been allowed to exist independently of Iraq at all. Why Kuwait, with its $53,000 per capita income, its nearly-autocratic monarchy, and its position that in effect walls-in Iraq’s only direct outlet to the ocean, should be allowed to maintain its political independence from Iraq remains a question, arguably, for those claiming that the real crux of Iraq’s problem is the “artificial” international borders between Iraq and Syria, or the lack of international borders between Sunni Arab Iraq, Shiite Arab Iraq, and Sunni Kurdish Iraq.
I am not saying that Kuwait should definitely be refolded into Iraq like Hong Kong and Macau were into mainland China or like Gibraltar may be into Spain. I am saying, though, that things may be a lot more complicated where borders are concerned than they are often acknowledged to be.
Iraq-Syria: The valley of the Euphrates is generally much wider on the Syrian side of the border than on the Iraqi side of the border. Until the river gets close to Ramadi (the capital of Anbar province, by far Iraq’s largest by territory size) and Baghdad, where the river valley widens out again, the valley generally extends less than 100 meters out from either side of the banks of the river in Iraq, whereas on the Syrian side of the border it extends around 5000 meters out on average:
Zooming in on the border:
It is on the Syrian side of the border that the river cities of Raqqa, the “capital city” of ISIS, and Deir al-Zour, a Syrian provincial capital that has been fought over intensely by ISIS and Syrian military forces, are located. Notably, however, the entire Euphrates valley between Baghdad and Aleppo is actually barely larger in size than Rhode Island. The maps one sometimes sees in the media of “ISIS-controlled territory” are, for this reason, somewhat misleading, as in many cases they do not differentiate between desert and non-desert areas.
The Iraqi-Syrian border was drawn in such a way as to give Syria all of the significant tributary of the Euphrates that meets up with the Euphrates just south of Deir al-Zour (see map below), and to give Iraq all of the large, “lonely”mountain of Sinjar (lonely in that it does not link up with any other mountain ranges), which got attention earlier in 2015 as a result of a humanitarian crisis occurring there. You can see the mountain in the image below, west of Mosul and next to Syria’s border to the mountain’s west and north. Sinjar City, in the shadow of the mountain, had a population estimated at 90,000, mainly of the Yazidi religious and ethnic minority that groups like ISIS have deemed heretical or “devil worshippers”.
In Syria’s northeast the border with Iraq juts out eastward in order to allow the Tigris to very briefly serve as the border between the two countries. On the adjacent Turkish-Iraq border, however, the border swings back and forth from one side of the river to the other; it is a more “artificial” border, perhaps. The Iraqi-Jordanian desert corridor, meanwhile, is extremely artificial, yet it serves the useful purpose (in theory, at least) of giving Iraq a link to Jordan’s Red Sea coast or, via Israel, to the Mediterranean. Though it is across the desert, in which ISIS now has influence, Baghdad is just 785 km from Amman and 860 km from Jerusalem.
Finally, there is the Kurdish border. Though this border artificially divides Kurdish peoples from one another, with most Kurds living in Turkey (even though, from an ethnolinguistic perspective, Kurds are more similar to Iranians than to Turks or Arabs), the Kurdish borders between Iraq and Turkey and Iraq and Iran both adhere for the most part to the geographic barrier of the Zagros Mountains, as can be seen in the map below.
This does not mean that the Kurds do not “deserve a state of their own”, of course, but, given the height of these mountains, it does mean that border is hardly arbitrary. The Kurds have, in fact, many internal linguistic and political divisions themselves, reflecting the ruggedness of their mountain landscape; these internal divisions are not usually mentioned in the media outside of the Middle East, which has become generally pro-Kurdish.
Still, Kurdish groups have, at least for the time being, been able to overcome their internal differences within the borders of Iraq. According to Martin Lewis of Stanford, “In constructing their own unrecognized state, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have had to overcome deep divisions within their own society. In the mid-1990s, the region’s two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), mostly representing the Kurmanji-speaking north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), mostly representing the Sorani-speaking south, fought a brief war. But although regional tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan persist, civil strife is no longer a threat. On both sides of the linguistic/political divide, most people have concluded that Kurdish identity and secular governance trump more parochial considerations. In the intervening years, the Kurdish Regional Government has managed to construct a reasonably united, secure, and democratic order”.
Finally, here’s one last map for the road. It shows, again, just how complicated this region can be:
When, in the media, the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are mentioned, usually in a sentence like “Russia may again threaten the tiny Baltic states, which unlike Ukraine are members of NATO and the EU”, they are frequently referred to as being “tiny”.
This is certainly true of their populations: only 3 million people live in Lithuania, 2 million live in Latvia, and 1.3 million in Estonia. (If, however, you include the Russian Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, which is located between Lithuania and Poland, or the Russian Baltic city of St Petersburg, which is between Estonia and Finland, there are an additional 5.5 million people). It is not nearly as true of the Baltics’ territory sizes, however: they are actually not so tiny, but only appear so because they are located next to much larger countries, most notably Russia.
All three Baltic states have larger territories, for example, than the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, and Switzerland, countries which most people probably assume are bigger than they are. In per capita terms, moreover, the Baltics have quite a bit more land than other European states outside of neighbouring Scandinavia or the former Soviet Union. (The Baltics’ population densities are about the same as the United States’). And in terms of per capita arable land and per capita forested land, their lead over other European countries is even greater.