Europe, Images, Middle East, South Asia

Image of the Day – December 3, 2015 – Morocco the Outlier

As a result of the conflicts in Syria and Libya, Morocco has become the only state in the Middle East/North African region that is not or does not border a failed or semi-failed state.

Morocco’s next-door neighbour Algeria, in contrast, borders two or three such states, namely Libya, Mali, and Niger. Algeria might also be standing on politically shaky ground itself, as its economy is highly dependent upon exports of oil and gas and as its leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has governed the country since 1999 (during the Algerian Civil War from 1991-2002), has now reached 79 years old and has very serious health problems but no clear political successor.

Tunisia, meanwhile, in sandwiched narrowly between Libya, Algeria, and the depressed economy of southern Italy. Egypt borders Libya and Sudan and Gaza. Saudi Arabia borders Iraq and Yemen. Iran borders Iraq and Afghanistan. Turkey borders Iraq, Syria, and the economy of Greece. Sudan borders several troubled states and also remains troubled itself. Jordan borders Syria and Iraq. Lebanon borders Syria. Kuwait borders Iraq. Oman borders Yemen.

The West Bank Palestinian Territory, like Morocco, does not have failed-state neighbours: it is directly bordered only by Israel and Jordan. Still, Palestine cannot be said to be on this list with Morocco, since it is not independent and since it includes the more troubled Gaza Strip. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, meanwhile, are no longer truly majority-Arab economies, as non-Arab foreign workers now significantly outnumber their own citizen labour forces.

Morocco is an outlier also in terms of its economy (it is a net importer of fossil fuels, unlike most other Arab economies) and in its geographic location at the outer edge of Africa and Europe. Though Morocco has not been able to capitalize much on these traits in the past – the country’s per capita GDP is under $4000 –  there are reasons to think that it will begin to outshine most other nations in the coming years.

Here are 5 factors to keep an eye out for:

1.  Ties to the Americas

Morocco has closer connections to the Western Hemisphere than do most other countries in the Arab world, for a number of reasons. One is geography: Morocco is an Atlantic country, and most people in North and South America live within the Atlantic basin. Marrakesh is 5900 km from Manhattan, 6900 km from Miami, and 4900 km from the easternmost edge of Brazil. By comparison, Marrakesh is 5400 km from the Saudi capital Riyadh, 4900 from Baghdad, and 3700 km from Cairo.

Another is language: millions of Moroccans can speak French, Spanish, or  (increasingly) English, which along with Portuguese are the languages spoken most often in the Americas.

Another is history: Morocco was not a British colony, so it does not have the same resentment against the English-speaking world that many other countries do. Also, it was liberated by the US and Britain relatively early on in the Second World War (insert Casablanca reference here).

And another is politics: the US wants at least one stable, large, non-Wahabbist political ally in the Arab world, and as a result it is views Morocco favourably. In addition, the US and British navies continues to require passage through the narrow Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain in order to access the Mediterranean.

(Morocco and the US struck a Free Trade Agreement in 2006. Outside of Canada, Australia, South Korea, Israel, Jordan, Oman, and some countries in Latin America, Morocco is the only country to have such an agreement with the US)

As the economies of Europe, East Asia, and most of the developing world are simultaneously struggling at the moment, whereas the economy of the United States remains relatively vibrant, Morocco’s linkages to the US and other countries in the Americas could provide it with a significant advantage over its peers.

2. Oil and Food Imports 

Falling commodity prices in recent years have left most Middle Eastern countries panicking, depending as they do upon energy export to maintain their economies. Morocco too could be hurt by the falling price of energy, as it has benefited in the past from tourism, investment, and financial transfers coming from oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia. Still, Morocco is not a net commodity exporter itself. Quite the opposite, in fact: as a share of GDP Morocco is one of the world’s biggest net oil importers among countries with significant-sized populations, and it is also one of the bigger food importers.

Morocco does not even trade much with its energy-exporting neighbour Algeria, as the two have been rivals of one another because of Morocco’s ongoing control of Western Sahara. Morocco does trade, however, with Spain and with Portugal, both countries that could benefit significantly should cheap oil and gas prices persist.

(Source: The World Bank; Wall Street Journal)

3. Spain’s Economic Recovery

Spain and Portugal have been in a very deep economic recession since the “global financial crisis” hit. The southern regions of Spain, meanwhile, have been in a Depression in which as recently as 2015 they had formal unemployment rates of well over 30 percent, higher even than in Greece. This has not been good for Morocco at all, which sits just 14 km across the Straits of Gibraltar from southern Spain. The two Spanish “ex-claves” in Morocco, Cueta and Melilla (which have a combined population of 165,000), have similar unemployment rates.

Since the beginning of 2015, however, Spain is thought to have been the fastest growing significant economy in “Western Europe” apart from Sweden or Ireland, and Portugal has also been doing much better than in previous years.  Meanwhile the heart of the “Eurocrisis” seems to have moved to Italy, which could be very bad for neighbouring Tunisia and so make Morocco even more of an outlier in terms of being a stable economy within the Arab world.

(Source: Eurostat)

(Morocco exports slightly more to France than to Spain, however given that France’s GDP is more than twice as large as Spain’s, this indicates Morocco’s closer economic ties to Spain)

4. Modern Communications

Morocco is a semi-rural country. According to the World Bank, 40% of Morocco’s population live in rural areas, compared, for example, to 57% in Egypt, 33% in Tunisia, 30% in Algeria, 31% in Iraq, 27% in Iran and Turkey, and just 17% in Saudi Arabia. Morocco is also the most mountainous country in the Arab world outside of Yemen, making many of its inhabitants – in particular its rural inhabitants –  somewhat isolated from one another as well as from the outside world. Morocco’s population could benefit from Internet and mobile phone access helping it to overcome this isolation, then.

Morocco might also benefit from modern communications because of its unique linguistic abilities: its population speaks four different prominent languages, namely Arabic (which is spoken not only in Arab countries, but also by at least tens of thousands of people in almost every Muslim country), French, Spanish, and (increasingly) English. Morocco is in fact one of the few countries outside of Spain or the Western Hemisphere in which significant numbers of people are capable of speaking Spanish. Moreover, if Spain and Portugal benefit from being able to forge closer connections with Spanish and Portuguese speakers in the Americas as a result of the Internet, Morocco could benefit indirectly from their success.

The Internet could be particularly useful in helping Morocco to connect usefully with the rest of the Arab world, which until now Morocco has been somewhat cut off from as a result of its faraway location – it is a five hour flight from Morocco’s biggest city Casablanca to Cairo, and nearly an eight hour flight from Casablanca to Dubai – and as a result of its poor political relationship with its next-door neighbour Algeria. Given that most of the Arab world’s population and almost all of the Arab world’s economic activity occurs in the Middle East (including Egypt) rather than in North Africa (excluding Egypt), the distance-shrinking effects of the modern Internet could be of special assistance to Morocco.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(above: Population by country; below: The Moroccan diaspora)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Self-Driving Vehicles 

Morocco is located at the front door of Western Europe. It has to cross just one border to reach Spain, two borders to reach France, and three borders to reach Germany, Britain, or Italy. (By comparison, Turkey has to cross at least five borders to reach Germany or Italy by land, six to reach France, and seven to reach Britain or Spain). Still, Morocco cannot yet seamlessly access these countries.

It is, for example, 2350 km from Casablanca to Paris by land, a route which crosses the Strait of Gibraltar as well as a number of mountain ranges in Morocco, Spain, and southern France. This can make transport difficult, particularly by train. Trains cannot easily drive on and off of ships like trucks can, and they cannot handle steep inclines and sharp curves in mountainous areas as easily as trucks (particularly small trucks) can.

Indeed Morocco has only the 71st largest railway network in the world, according to the CIA World Factbook, smaller even than Tunisia’s. Spain has a much larger rail network, of course, just not once you account for Spain’s economic size. Moreover, few lines cross the Pyrenees Mountains on Spanish-French border, and Spain’s railways mostly use a different rail gauge as France’s, so the two systems to do not always link up quickly.

Smarter cars and trucks — and, eventually perhaps, self-driving cars and trucks — would be a boon for countries in the mountainous Mediterranean region, notably Morocco but also Algeria, Spain, Italy, southern France, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans. They could make it safer and cheaper for cars and trucks to navigate difficult mountain roads. For Morocco, they could also make it easier to manage the long delay trucks typically face in crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, a body of water that is often too stormy to cross. If this happens, then the lack of national borders separating Morocco from large economies in Western Europe could become a significant economic advantage.

Over the longer-term, self-driving vehicles could also help Morocco to leverage its location as the sole land bridge between Western Europe and the huge region of Western Africa.

Economies in Western Africa often have a difficult time reaching European markets by sea. Either they are landlocked (approximately 70 million people live in landlocked countries in Western Africa, and many more are part of landlocked groups within non-landlocked countries, like the nearly 60 million Hausa or Fulani of Muslim-majority northern Nigeria), or they have to sail all the way around West Africa to reach Europe (most notably in countries like Nigeria — see map below — where most of the population of Western Africa lives), or they lack access to good natural harbours and ports (in the Nigerian megacity of Lagos, for example, “the [shipping] terminals are both practically in the city centre, so it can take an entire day for a lorry to get [through traffic] from the terminal to a warehouse“, according to the Economist), or their ships are subject to piracy.

(http://blog.crisisgroup.org/africa/nigeria/2015/12/04/nigerias-biafran-separatist-upsurge/)
The alternative to maritime shipping is to cross the Sahara Desert. That is, of course, far easier said than done: the routes across the Sahara are long, difficult, and dangerous. Still, they have a shot to become economical, given the challenges involved in the the sea route. Driverless trucks, which are both safer and cheaper than having a human driver risk crossing both the Sahara Desert and Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, could perhaps tilt the balance (in some cases, at least) between the land and sea routes. If this occured, it would reverse the process that began in the 1400s, when it first became easier to reach this region by ship than by caravan.

Finally, self-driving vehicles could perhaps make it easier for Morocco to access markets in Latin America. Most people in Latin America live in southern Brazil,  around Sao Paolo, and in neighbouring northern Argentina, around Buenos Aires. (The state of Sao Paolo alone accounts for an estimated 32% percent of Brazil’s GDP, without even taking into account neighbouring Rio de Janeiro). Yet this is a long sail from Morocco. It would instead be much quicker for ships to land somewhere around the eastern tip of Brazil and then drive overland to cities like Sao Paolo (see map below). Thus far it has been difficult to drive the more than 2000 km that this route is made up of, however, as it crosses long distances through Brazil’s eastern coastal mountains. Brazil’s traffic jams and road conditions are notoriously difficult to deal with; this route could certainly use a big boost from technology.

(Morocco controls Western Sahara)

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Middle East, North America

Why Iraq is Still So Important

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So, why did the United States decide to invade Iraq in 2003? There may have been some sinister or stupid reasons for the war, as an overwhelming majority of Americans believe there were, but there were also strategic motivations behind it, which are almost never acknowledged. These were, namely:

1. To weaken the position of the Sunni Arabs in general, and Saudi Arabia in particular, within the Middle East. Even though Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist, Sunni-led government was often unfriendly towards other Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and even attempted to annex Sunni-majority Kuwait, Saddam’s Iraq was ultimately aligned with the Saudi Arabian position in the region anyway.

This was a result of Iraq’s intense rivalry with the Shiite non-Arab state of Iran, which it had fought an enormous war against throughout most of the 1980s, and because of Iraq’s repression of its own Shiite Arab majority population, which its had acted with brutality toward during the 1990s. The Saudis were afraid that Shiite Iran and Iraq’s Shiite majority would one day work together to undermine the Saudi position within Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite-inhabited Eastern Province, which is extremely far away from where most Saudis live and yet is also where most Saudi energy production is located.

[Saddam Hussein’s government may have been a nominally secular Ba’athist one, but that did not stop him from engaging in religiously sectarian politics during most of his time as Iraq’s leader, or from adding the phrase “God is Great” to the Iraqi flag in 1991 in what was sometimes said to be his own handwriting. With the collapse of Iraq’s secularist patron the Soviet Union around 1990, and with the increase in worldwide pan-Islamism around the same time (as a result of various factors, such as the Islamic victory in the Afghan-Soviet War in the late 1980s, the gaining of independence for Muslim countries in Central Asia as a result of the breakup of the Soviet Union, the wars between Muslim and non-Muslim populations in the 1990s in places like Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Palestine, Armenia, Kuwait, Kashmir, Sudan, and East Timor, and the increased globalization of Islam as a result of the emergence of the Internet), it is not clear to what extent Iraq’s Ba’athist-style secularism — such that it was — would have survived had it not been toppled by the US invasion].

The United States blamed the Sunnis, and especially the Sunni Arabs, and especially Saudi Arabia, for 9-11, and for most Islamic extremism in general. Even as the Bush administration named Shiite Iran, and not Saudi Arabia, as one of the three “Axis of Evil” countries, it also knew that Iran’s influence was limited by the fact that 90 percent or so of the world’s Muslims are Sunni rather than Shiite, and by the fact that Iran is not an Arab country. Moreover, it knew that Iran’s state-driven brand of religiosity was far less socially conservative – and far more often ignored by its own citizens – than that which exists in several of the Sunni areas of the Muslim world, in parts of Africa, Arabia, and South Asia.

Thus the United States was not too surprised to learn that fifteen of the nineteen 9-11 hijackers, in addition to Osama bin Laden and some of the other Al Qaeda leaders, were Saudi nationals. Saudi Arabia, after all, has such an extreme political and social system that its millions of women are still not even allowed to drive a car. The US also laid a portion of the blame for Pakistan’s aquisition of nuclear weapons in 1998 at the feet of Saudi Arabia.

[In fact, less than a year before 9-11 an airplane flying from Saudi Arabia to London was hijacked by four Saudis and taken to land in Iraq, which sent both the passengers and hijackers back to Saudi Arabia. A month before that, a Qatari plane was hijacked and flown to Saudi Arabia. And only six months before 9-11, a Russian plane was hijacked by Chechens and flown to Saudi Arabia, where it was stormed by Saudi special forces. Airplane hijacking has a long history in the Arab world; the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in particular hijacked many planes during much of the Cold War, and was able to pass on its experiences because its hijackers were often never arrested or killed. Most notably, on September 6, 1970, the PFLP hijacked four airplanes simultaneously – three of them successfully, one, an El Al plane, unsuccessfully – and landed two of them on a Jordanian airstrip. Yet another plane was hijacked two days later and also taken to Jordan, together triggering the Black September war a week later. The hostages from the hijacked aircraft, with the exception of Jewish hostages, were freed on September 11].

The US did not feel it could invade Saudi Arabia, however, because Saudi Arabia was too large and rugged (it has the seventh largest territory in the world, and is covered mostly by deserts and mountains), too rich in oil and natural gas infrastructure (unlike Iraq, where the energy sector had been severely underdeveloped as a result of decades of sanctions and war), too conservative and internally fractious (the US fears what would become of Saudi Arabia and Yemen if the Saudi royal family were overthrown), too strategic (the US worries that, absent the Saudis, Iran would become too influential within the Shiite-majority Persian Gulf region, and also that instability in Arabia might endanger global trade routes through the Red Sea to Suez), and too sacred (the US does not want to put its soldiers anywhere near the Saudi-controlled holy cities of Mecca or Medina, particularly given the ongoing American support for Israel’s control of Jerusalem).

As such, the Bush administration saw the de-Baathification of Iraq – i.e. the disempowerment of Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority, and by extension the empowerment of Iraq’s Shiite Arab majority and Sunni Kurds –  as the next best way to weaken the regional position of the Sunnis and Sunni Arabs in general and both Iraq and Saudi Arabia in particular. Indeed, the United States had already spent the decade prior to 2003 helping to build up the strength of Iraqi Kurdistan in defiance of Saddam Hussein’s government, and wanted to ensure that this work would not be undone by the Sunnis in Iraq and neighbouring Turkey who most fear Kurdish separatism.

2. To turn the United States into the dominant power in the Middle East over the short-to-medium term, by temporarily taking control of Iraq and its massive conventional oil and gas resources (the world’s third and seventh largest, respectively, according to the US Energy Information Agency), and by using Iraq as a platform from which it could put pressure on neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. There are a number of reasons why control of Iraq seemed necessary, or at least useful, for this purpose:

– eastern Saudi Arabia, which borders Iraq, is where most Saudi oil and gas is located, yet it is a Shiite-majority region in an otherwise Sunni-majority country

– western Iran, which borders Iraq, is where much of Iran’s oil and gas is located, yet it is a majority Arab, Kurdish, Azeri, and Lur region in an otherwise Persian-majority country. (Ethnic Persians only make up an estimated 50-65 percent of Iran’s population). The Arab region of Iran, Khuzestan, is particularly energy-rich and vulnerable to Iraqi intrusion.

– eastern Syria, which borders Iraq, is where most of Syria’s oil is located, yet it is a majority Sunni Arab and Kurdish region in a country ruled by the non-Sunni government of the Assad family

– Kuwait, as the events leading up to the First Gulf War in 1990 showed, is incredibly vulnerable to external Iraqi pressure. Kuwait is the world’s eighth or ninth largest oil producer. Though it is majority Sunni country, it also has a large Shiite minority – perhaps 20-25 percent of its total population – most of whom live in the areas where most of Kuwait’s oil is extracted or exported from. In addition, Kuwait’s population of non-Arab, and often non-Muslim, foreign workers now outnumbers its own citizens by a decent amount.

– Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, both of which also share the Persian Gulf with Iraq and are also among the world’s leading oil or natural gas producers, are in a somewhat similar position to Kuwait, albeit with less direct exposure to Iraqi influence

– Jordan, which borders Iraq, has in effect a Palestinian-majority population, yet is ruled over by a royal family that was brought in from faraway Mecca by the British in the 1920s. The Jordanian royal family has survived mainly via an alliance with the US, Britain, Israel, and the Gulf Arabs. It shares a long border with Israel, from which Jerusalem is only 25 km away, and with Syria, from which Damascus is only 75 km away. Back in 2003, Jordanian politics were crucial to Israel and its allies within the United States, as Israel was then in the midst of the Second Intifada (from 2000-2005), a guerilla war which was many times more deadly to Israelis than any of the Gaza or Lebanon wars since have been

– eastern Turkey, which borders Iraq, is where most of the dams on the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from which Iraq and eastern Syria derive most of their freshwater, are located. It is also where the Turks hope to build energy pipelines linking both the Middle East and Central Asia to Istanbul and Europe. It is, however, a majority Kurdish region, in an otherwise Turkish-majority country. Kurds in Turkey account for an estimated 20 percent of Turkey’s overall population, and for more than half of the overall Kurdish population that spans Tukrey, Iraq, Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria.

– eastern Turkey also borders Azerbaijan and the Christian countries of Armenia and Georgia. Armenia is an enemy of Turkey and ally of both Russia and the US, while Georgia is an enemy of Russia and an ally of the US. Azerbaijan, which fought a terrible war against Armenia during the 1990s, is a significant state in its own right: it is the world’s 20th largest oil producer, borders Russia’s separatist-inclined Muslim territories like Chechnya and Dagestan, and, most importantly, borders the Azeri-majority regions of Iran. Azeris account for perhaps as much as 25 percent of Iran’s entire population; indeed, Azerbaijan has even toyed with the idea of renaming itself “Northern Azerbaijan”, implying that Iran is in direct occupation of “Southern Azerbaijan”. Iran’s Azeris are linguistically about the same as those in Azerbaijan, and not too different from Turks in Turkey.

[Azerbaijan is also the world’s only formally secular Shiite state, which means that the religious Shiite Iranian regime, which rules an Iranian population that includes an increasingly large number of modern-minded Shiites as well as many Sunni, Sufi, and secular Muslims, views the Azeris as a major social and ideological threat as well. Thus Azerbaijan, which is less than 300 km from Iraq, is strategically important in spite of having a population of just around 10 million. Azerbaijan is, finally, the only link for future Turkish-European pipelines to cross the Caspian Sea to Turkmenistan, which has been thought to hold the world’s fourth largest accessible reserves of natural gas.]

Iraq, in other words, is not just immensely energy-rich: it is also far and away the most strategically vital country in the Middle East, capable of pressuring all of the countries it borders – Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, and beyond – when it is internally unified or under the domination of a foreign power.

The United States hoped to exploit both of these traits in order to throw its weight around within the region and attempt to prevent a second major terrorist attack from occurring on American soil. This is, similarly, why Iraq continues to draw global attention today. The recent US decision to cut a deal with Iran was in made in part because of the gains that ISIS – representing some of the Sunni Arabs – and the Sunni Kurds have made within Iraq.

None of this necessarily changes the fact that the Iraq War was arguably a strategic mistake for the United States, and possibly a moral failure as well. Still, it may be comforting to know that, contrary to popular belief, the reasons behind the invasion were not entirely incoherent or sinister (or at least, not incoherent or sinister in the ways that people have generally assumed they were). And perhaps we should not judge Bush too harshly for concealing his true purposes. After all, Obama cloaked his support for Syria’s rebels in precisely the same anti-tyranny, anti-WMD rhetoric that Bush once employed towards Iraq, consistently avoiding the fact that the rebels’ success benefited the United States by curtailing Iranian influence in places like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine.

And now that Assad has weakened, Obama finds himself again with the same dilemma as Bush, wanting to move closer to the Shiites and/or Persians in the region in order to counterbalance the dominant Sunnis and/or Arabs, yet also concerned that this will result in increased Sunni militancy, a destabilized Arabia, and an ascendant Turkey or Iran.

Of course, this is not what the (Jeb) Bush’s or (Hilary) Clintons say. With those two running for office, we could be in for yet another round of Iraq War misdirection. May the best candidate win.

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Europe, Middle East

Europe and Arabia: A Geopolitical Perspective

As different as the Quran is from the New Testament, or the Constitution of France is from the Constitution of Saudi Arabia (which is, in fact, the Quran), these differences are arguably less important than those which seperate the geography of Europe from the geography of the Arab world.

Europe is a region of islands, peninsulas, mountains, rivers, forests, and marshes: natural barriers that have historically hindered the development of a unified European identity. The Arab world, on the other hand, is in effect an enormous coastal desert, stretching for nearly 8000 km from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and yet, with the exception of some notable mountain ranges around its edges, containing few internal barriers of any sort. This comparatively open landscape of the Arab world has allowed it to achieve a level of linguistic, religious, and cultural unity that Europe has rarely if ever been able to match.

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While the Desert and its coastal seas act as unifying force within the Arab world, the fact that significant supplies of freshwater can be found in just a few scattered areas within its gigantic territory (mostly in mountains, as in Morocco, Algeria, and Yemen, or in rivers, as in Egypt, Sudan, and Iraq) has meant that the pan-Arab identity it has fostered must compete with a wide assortment of intra-Arab identities, which in most cases have been far better than pan-Arabism at winning the allegiances of their inhabitantsIn addition, the geographic division between the Middle East and North Africa has led to sharp ethno-linguistic and political divisions between Arab and Berber peoples within countries like Morocco and Algeria.

The desert geography has also tended to make the Arab world relatively poor. This too is in stark contrast to Europe, which has become rich as a result of the commercial navigability provided by its numerous slow-flowing rivers, long coastlines, and sheltered seas and fjords, as well as by its luck in possessing a temperate climate and natural resources like freshwater, farmland, timber, and coal — and proximity to the natural riches of the Americas that it was able to access and exploit.

These opposing geographies have underlain the great historical contest between the “civilizations” Europe and the Arab world have cultivated for themselves. The advantage was first with Europe, arguably, as Italy, led by Rome, was able to conquer the entire Mediterranean basin as well as Mesopotamia, defeating the Carthaginians (a powerful Semitic empire based out of what is now the Arab state of Tunisia, which had controlled much of North Africa and Spain and was ethnically linked to the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean) and other African and Middle Eastern groups in the process. Even following the decline of the Christian Roman Empire, most of the inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa continued to be ruled by Rome’s successor, the Greek-led Byzantine Empire (which was also Christian), for several hundred years.

Eventually the tables turned, however, and around 600 CE the Arabian Peninsula united under Muhammad and then expanded its control outward during the rule of his immediate successors, quickly conquering Spain, most of France (for a very brief period), and a large part of Asia. In turn, the Arabs were invaded and occupied by Central Asian groups like the Mongols and Turks; however, in a sign of Arab influence, most of the conquering Turks ended up adopting the religion of the conquered Arabs, and long outlasted the Mongols.

While the Arabs then lost their beloved Spain after a more than 700 year long struggle with Christian forces to keep hold of it, the Muslim Ottoman Turks made up for the loss by conquering all of southeastern Europe as far as the Austrian capital of Vienna, which they besieged in 1529 and again in 1683. Muslims also continued to spread the faith into Southeast Asia: many of the ancestors of people living in what is now Indonesia, which today has the largest Muslim population of any country in the world by far, adopted Islam during the 1400’s, almost a millennium after the death of Muhammad.

Of course, the Europeans ultimately regained the advantage over their Muslim neighbours. During the late 1400’s the Portuguese first sailed a route to India which avoided passing through Turkish or Arab-held territory, while, around the same period, the Spanish reached the Americas and the Russians surged into Muslim Turkic Central Asia, conquering territory they mostly continue to hold today. The greatest blow to Islam then fell in the 1700’s and 1800’s, as the Muslim Mughal Empire, which at its height had governed over almost a quarter of the world’s population, lost its hold on the Indian subcontinent to the British. The colonizing Europeans also took over Muslim populations in places like Africa and Southeast Asia.

During the 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Ottoman Turks forfeited southeastern Europe and the Arab world in a series of assaults aimed at them by European powers like the British, French, Russians, and Austrians. The Persian empire was heavily intruded upon by both the British and Russians. Finally, in the 1970s, the last super-sized Islamic state, Pakistan, was divided into two separate countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which do not even border one another anymore since India lies between them. Today Pakistan and Bangladesh are the world’s sixth and eighth most populous countries, respectively.

For many people, the battle between Europe and Arabia, or between the West and Islam, continues to this day. After losing its main source of wealth when Europe stole the control of trade with India and China away from it, most of the Middle East seemed likely to become somewhat irrelevant to global politics. Instead, it gained a new source of wealth in the modern era: oil. As recently as 2010, more than 15 percent of world oil production occurred in Saudi Arabia alone, while an additional 15 – 20 percent occurred in other Arab countries and 40-50 percent occurred in the Muslim world as a whole.

The Muslim world also accounts for close to a third of world natural gas production (led by Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria), and is estimated to possess over 60 percent of the world’s “conventional” proven reserves of natural gas (not including gas from shale) as well as over 50 percent of non-shale oil reserves and over 75 percent of oil reserves that are neither from shale nor from oil sands.

Today, partly as a result of the energy wealth it has gained during the past century, the Arab world has a population of approximately 380 million (in contrast to a century ago, when its population was significantly smaller than even any of the major European nation-states were at the time, without even counting the Europeans’ overseas empires) and a nominal gross domestic product of just under 3 trillion dollars. This means that, if the Arab world could somehow reunite politically, it would have the third largest population and fifth largest economy in the world. It would, in other words, become a Great Power again.

Needless to say, few of the Arab world’s neighbours want to see any serious pan-Arab union come into being. Arab unification was in fact very briefly attempted in modern times, in a formal sense, with the joining of Egypt and Syria to form the United Arab Republic, which lasted from 1958 to 1961. From a purely geopolitical perspective, the potential of such cooperation between Arab countries is especially worrying to regions like Europe because of the Arab world’s shared religious identity – and to a lesser extent, shared cultural traditions and linguistic affiliations – with other parts of the Middle East and Muslim world.

(The “classical” version of the Arab language, which is understood by scholars and clerics in every country of the Islamic world –  and by many other people too, to varying extents – because it is the language of the Quran, is one potentially important example of a unifying factor throughout the Middle East).

If combined with non-Arab Middle Eastern neighbours Turkey and Iran, the population of the Arab world would rise to more than 530 million and its GDP would rise to more than 4 trillion dollars. The states that comprise the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, meanwhile, have a combined population of approximately 1.6 billion and a GDP of approximately 7 trillion dollars — and they do not even include the estimated 180 million Muslims living in India, 25 million living in China, 16 million in Russia, or 20 million living in the European Union.

While in the West there is much talk of the Muslim world being stuck in an economic decline, Muslims actually continue to have a higher per capita income than Hindus do, or than Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa do. Many Muslim countries have a higher per capita income than China does, even today following decades of rapid Chinese economic growth. The past decade has in fact been a terrific one for most Muslim economies, with oil and gas prices rising sharply, the developing world as a whole growing solidly, and a number of countries with large Muslim populations, most notably Indonesia, Turkey, India, and Nigeria, growing very quickly.

Apart from economic growth, the Muslim world’s geopolitical trajectory has also been positive in the past generation, mainly as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union having freed about 60 – 90 million Central Asian Muslims (the exact number depends on whether or not you count  Afghanistan as part of Soviet-occupied Central Asia) from Russian rule, along with the resource-rich, centrally-located region of Eurasia they inhabit.

Since then, some Muslims have been hoping or pushing for a further Islamic geopolitical revival, which many non-Muslim countries would obviously not be happy to see. Pan-Islamic sentiments have, to varying extents, found their way into local and regional disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world, in places like Kashmir, western China, Palestine/Israel, various African countries, various Southeast Asian countries, the Caucuses (both within Russia and without), and the Balkans. Arguably, technologies like the Internet have been strengthening pan-Islamic identities as well.

The West has, of course, generally aimed to gain influence within the Arab world, in part to prevent it from ever becoming too closely united. Europe, Russia, and the US have historically been focused on gaining influence in Egypt, for example, as Egypt has by far the largest population of any Arab country, is more internally stable and united than any other large Arab country, and is strategically located, sitting directly in the centre of the Arab world and encompassing the Suez Canal.

The West has also focused on gaining influence in the Persian Gulf, in particular by allying itself closely with the tiny energy-rich Gulf monarchies (Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain), as well as with  the royal family of Saudi Arabia and, not too far away, the Israelis, the Iraqi Kurds, and the royal family of Jordan. Given that the West is in some ways more powerful today than at any time in history (largely as a result of the rise of the US, which was completed with the fall of the Soviet Union), and that the Persian Gulf region is sharply divided between Arabs and Iranians, Sunnis and Shiites, and Iraqis and Saudis, gaining influence there has not been too difficult for the West to achieve.

And so, even leaving aside social values or issues explicitly tied to religious belief, many Arabs believe the West is acting unjustly or aggressively towards them. Most believe that the current political borders of the Middle East are artificial, imposed on them a century ago by ignorant or sinister British and French politicians. There is certainly truth to this, though, in defence of the British and French, some of the borders that were drawn actually did accurately reflect some of the existing social and geographic divisions within the Arab world.

With a number of possible exceptions, such as Kuwait and Lebanon (which arguably should not have been created as independent states), Israel and Palestine (which arguably should have been created as a single state, perhaps even including neighbouring Jordan as well), and Kurdistan (which arguably should be created out of parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, though even this is more complicated than it is often portrayed), it is not clear that the borders in the Middle East could actually be all that improved upon. But of course, this is a topic worth debating in much greater detail.

It is also not only the Christian world that has been responsible for messing with the “natural” borders of Arab lands. Iran and Turkey, for instance, both refuse 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.

Yet most people who complain of Western-imposed artificiality among the borders of the Arab world are not concerned with either of these areas, even though both are significant to the politics of the region (especially Khuzestan). Indeed, while Arab bitterness toward Europe’s past imperialism remains wholly justifiable, complaints of imperialistic European map-drawing in the Arab world nevertheless tend to be somewhat exaggerated. If you want to see truly unfair and dangerously-drawn borders the Europeans were responsible for, you should not even begin to think of the Middle East, but look instead to regions like West Africa or Central Asia.

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Africa, Europe, Middle East

Europe and Arabia: A Geopolitical Perspective

As different as the Quran is from the New Testament, or the Constitution of France is from the Constitution of Saudi Arabia (which is, in fact, the Quran), these differences are arguably less important than those which seperate the geography of Europe from the geography of the Arab world.

Europe is a region of islands, peninsulas, mountains, rivers, forests, and marshes: natural barriers that have historically hindered the development of a unified European identity. The Arab world, on the other hand, is in effect an enormous coastal desert, stretching for nearly 8000 km from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and yet, with the exception of some notable mountain ranges, containing few internal barriers of any sort. This comparatively open landscape of the Arab world has allowed it to achieve a level of linguistic, religious, and cultural unity that Europe has rarely if ever been able to match.

While the Desert and its coastal seas act as unifying force within the Arab world, the fact that significant supplies of freshwater can be found in just a few scattered areas within its gigantic territory (mostly in mountains, as in Morocco, Algeria, and Yemen, or in rivers, as in Egypt, Sudan, and Iraq) has meant that the pan-Arab identity it has fostered must compete with a wide assortment of intra-Arab identities, which in most cases have been far better than pan-Arabism at winning the allegiances of their inhabitants. In addition, the geographic division between the Middle East and North Africa has led to sharp ethno-linguistic and political divisions between Arab and Berber peoples within countries like Morocco and Algeria.

The desert geography has also tended to make the Arab world relatively poor, again in stark contrast to Europe, which has become rich as a result of the commercial navigability provided by its numerous slow-flowing rivers, long coastlines, and sheltered seas and fjords, as well as by its luck in possessing a temperate climate and natural resources like freshwater, farmland, timber, and coal.

These opposing geographies have underlain the great historical contest between the “civilizations” Europe and the Arab world have cultivated for themselves. The advantage was first with Europe, arguably, as Italy, led by Rome, was able to conquer the entire Mediterranean basin as well as Mesopotamia, defeating the Carthaginians (a powerful Semitic empire based out of what is now the Arab state of Tunisia, which had controlled much of North Africa and Spain and were ethnically linked to the Phoenicians in the Eastern Mediterranean) and other African and Middle Eastern groups in the process. Even following the decline of the Christian Roman Empire, most of the inhabitants of the Middle East and North Africa continued to be ruled by Rome’s successor, the Greek-led Byzantine Empire (which was also Christian), for several hundred years.

Eventually the tables turned, however, and around 600 CE the Arabian Peninsula united under Muhammad and then expanded its control outward during the rule of his immediate successors, quickly conquering Spain, most of France (for a very brief period), and a large part of Asia. In turn, the Arabs were invaded and occupied by Central Asian groups like the Mongols and Turks; however, in a sign of Arab influence, most of the conquering Turks ended up adopting the religion of the conquered Arabs, and long outlasted the Mongols.

While the Arabs then lost their beloved Spain after a more than 700 year long struggle with Christian forces to keep hold of it, the Muslim Ottoman Turks made up for the loss by conquering all of southeastern Europe as far as the Austrian capital of Vienna, which they besieged in 1529 and again in 1683. Muslims also continued to spread the faith into Southeast Asia: much of what is now Indonesia, which today has the world’s largest Muslim population by far, adopted Islam during the 1400’s or 1500’s, many centuries after the lifetime of Muhammad.

Of course, the Europeans ultimately regained the advantage over their Muslim neighbours. During the late 1400’s the Portuguese first sailed a route to India which avoided passing through Turkish or Arab-held territory, while, around the same period, the Spanish reached the Americas and the Russians surged into Muslim Turkic Central Asia, conquering territory they mostly continue to hold today. The greatest blow to Islam then fell in the 1700’s and 1800’s, as the Muslim Mughal Empire, which at its height had governed over almost a quarter of the world’s population, lost its hold on the Indian subcontinent to the British. The colonizing Europeans also took over Muslim populations in places like Africa and Southeast Asia.

During the 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Ottoman Turks forfeited southeastern Europe and the Arab world in a series of assaults aimed at them by European powers like the British, French, Russians, and Austrians. The Persian empire was heavily intruded upon by both the British and Russians. Finally, in the 1970s, the last super-sized Islamic state, Pakistan, was divided into two separate countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, which do not even border one another anymore since India lies between them. Today Pakistan and Bangladesh are the world’s sixth and eighth most populous countries, respectively.

For many people, the battle between Europe and Arabia, or between the West and Islam, continues to this day. After losing its main source of wealth when Europe stole the control of trade with India and China away from it, most of the Middle East seemed likely to become somewhat irrelevant to global politics. Instead, it gained a new source of wealth in the modern era: oil. As recently as 2010, more than 15 percent of world oil production occurred in Saudi Arabia alone, while an additional 15 – 20 percent occurred in other Arab countries and 40-50 percent occurred in the Muslim world as a whole.

The Muslim world also accounts for close to a third of world natural gas production (led by Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria), and is estimated to possess over 60 percent of the world’s “conventional” proven reserves of natural gas (not including gas from shale) as well as over 50 percent of non-shale oil reserves and over 75 percent of oil reserves that are neither from shale nor from oil sands.

Today, partly as a result of the energy wealth it has gained during the past century, the Arab world has a population of approximately 380 million (in contrast to a century ago, when its population was significantly smaller than even any of the major European nation-states were at the time, without even counting the Europeans’ overseas empires) and a nominal gross domestic product of just under 3 trillion dollars. This means that, if the Arab world could somehow reunite politically, it would have the third largest population and fifth largest economy in the world. It would, in other words, become a Great Power again.

Needless to say, few of the Arab world’s neighbours want to see any serious pan-Arab union come into being. Arab unification was in fact very briefly attempted in modern times, in a formal sense, with the joining of Egypt and Syria to form the United Arab Republic, which lasted from 1958 to 1961. From a purely geopolitical perspective, the potential of such cooperation between Arab countries is especially worrying to regions like Europe because of the Arab world’s shared religious identity – and to a lesser extent, shared cultural traditions and linguistic affiliations – with other parts of the Middle East and Muslim world.  The “classical” version of the Arab language, which is understood by scholars (and other people too) in every country of the Islamic world because it is the language of the Quran, is one potentially important example of a unifying factor throughout the Middle East.

If combined with non-Arab Middle Eastern neighbours Turkey and Iran, the population of the Arab world would rise to more than 530 million and its GDP would rise to more than 4 trillion dollars. The states that comprise the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, meanwhile, have a combined population of approximately 1.6 billion and a GDP of approximately 7 trillion dollars — and they do not even include the estimated 180 million Muslims living in India, 25 million living in China, 16 million in Russia, or 20 million living in the European Union.

While in the West there is much talk of the Muslim world being stuck in an economic decline, Muslims actually continue to have a higher per capita income than Hindus do, or than Christians in Sub-Saharan Africa do. Many Muslim countries have a higher per capita income than China does, even today following decades of rapid Chinese economic growth. The past decade has in fact been a terrific one for most Muslim economies, with oil and gas prices rising sharply, the developing world as a whole growing solidly, and a number of countries with large Muslim populations, most notably Indonesia, Turkey, India, and Nigeria, growing very quickly.

Apart from economic growth, the Muslim world’s geopolitical trajectory has also been positive in the past generation, mainly as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union having freed about 60 – 90 million Central Asian Muslims (the exact number depends on whether or not you count Soviet-occupied Afghanistan as part of Central Asia) from Russian rule, along with the gigantic, resource-rich region they inhabit.

Since then, some Muslims have been hoping or pushing for a further Islamic geopolitical revival, which many non-Muslim countries would obviously not be happy to see. Pan-Islamic sentiments have, to varying extents, found their way into local and regional disputes between Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the world, in places like Kashmir, western China, Palestine/Israel, various African countries, various Southeast Asian countries, the Caucuses (both within Russia and without), and the Balkans. Arguably, technologies like the Internet have been strengthening pan-Islamic identities as well.

The West has, of course, generally aimed to gain influence within the Arab world, in part to prevent it from ever becoming too closely united. Europe, Russia, and the US have historically been focused on gaining influence in Egypt, for example, as Egypt has by far the largest population of any Arab country, is more internally stable and united than any other large Arab country, and is strategically located, sitting directly in the centre of the Arab world and encompassing the Suez Canal.

The West has also focused on gaining influence in the Persian Gulf, in particular by allying itself closely with the tiny energy-rich Gulf monarchies (Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain), as well as with  the royal family of Saudi Arabia and, not too far away, the Israelis, the Iraqi Kurds, and the royal family of Jordan. Given that the West is in some ways more powerful today than at any time in history (largely as a result of the rise of the US, which was completed with the fall of the Soviet Union), and that the Persian Gulf region is sharply divided between Arabs and Iranians, Sunnis and Shiites, and Iraqis and Saudis, gaining influence there has not been too difficult for the West to achieve.

And so, even leaving aside social values or issues explicitly tied to religious belief, many Arabs believe the West is acting unjustly or aggressively towards them. Most believe that the current political borders of the Middle East are “artificial”, imposed on them a century ago by ignorant or sinister British and French politicians. There is certainly truth to this, though, in defence of the British and French, many of the borders that were drawn actually did accurately reflect existing social and geographic divisions within the Arab world.

With a few possible exceptions, such as Kuwait and Lebanon (which arguably should not have been created as independent states), Israel and Palestine (which arguably should have been created as a single state, perhaps even including neighbouring Jordan as well), and Kurdistan (which arguably should be created out of parts of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, though even this is more complicated than it is often portrayed), it is not clear that the borders in the Middle East could actually be all that improved upon. But of course, this is a topic worth debating in much greater detail.

It is also not only the West that has been responsible for messing with the “natural” borders of the Arab world. Iran and Turkey, for instance, both refuse 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.

Yet most people who complain of Western-imposed artificiality among the borders of the Arab world are not concerned with either of these areas, even though both are significant to the politics of the region (especially Khuzestan). Indeed, while Arab bitterness toward Europe’s past imperialism remains wholly justifiable, complaints of imperialistic European map-drawing in the Arab world nevertheless tend to be somewhat exaggerated. If you want to see truly unfair and dangerously-drawn borders the Europeans were responsible for, you should not even begin to think of the Middle East, but look instead to regions like West Africa.

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