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North Africa and Western Asia

North Africa and Western Asia is a region that is triangulated with Europe, Asia and Africa. It crosses part of the Mediterranean Sea to the mountains of Iran and, from north to south, it begins at the Black Sea and ends at the coasts of Saudi Arabia and Oman. It has great natural and cultural diversity, in addition to protecting different communities with various organizations, traditions and ideologies.

Based on the metrics used by the Mexican Center for International Relations (CEMERI), the countries that make up this geographic space are: Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Bahrain (Bahrain), Qatar, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Western Sahara (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic), Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey (including Eastern Thrace) and Yemen.

Countries like Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia do not belong to this region, mainly because the last three make up the sub-region of the Caucasus. On the other hand, Sub-Saharan Africa is physiographically, culturally, and linguistically distinct from African countries north of the Sahara. In fact, North Africa has much more in common in terms of its physical and religious landscape with the Arabian Peninsula and Southwest Asia than some of its continental neighbors to the south.

Origin of term

The geographical term of the region corresponds to changing geopolitical concepts, that is, it is elaborated and disseminated based on economic and strategic interests, for which reason reference has been made to the area in different ways such as: Arab Countries, Islamic World, Levante and Middle East. The latter was coined at the end of the 19th century by the British Foreign Service and was later used by the US Navy, which is why its use is more common. Regarding the definition "North Africa and Western Asia", this refers to the proximity as well as the connection that the southern and eastern regions of the European continent have.

Likewise, the terms that have been used throughout history are not entirely satisfactory since they reduce regional dynamics to Islamism or Arabism, ignoring existing minorities. This relationship of the concepts with Europe is not fortuitous, it is the result of the adjudication of geographical notions relative to the proximity that it maintains with other continents. An example of this is the conception of North Africa, during the 19th century, as the "Near East", due to its quality as non-remote territories for the colonizing countries; while the Asian extensions were attributed the name of "Western Asia". In particular, the Middle East category represents the trade connection that Europe intended to have with Asia during that period.

In turn, the region is home to great ancient civilizations and modern religions. The landscape of North Africa and West Asia, as their naming difficulties imply, is marked by regional differences in culture, language, religion, and resources. Even within countries there are imbalances both in terms of the physical landscape and patterns of human activity. Since the common term is based on a Eurocentric conception created from the vision of various geographers regarding the world, which limits the precise analysis of its reality, CEMERI has chosen to change said name to one with more neutrality.

Physical characteristics

The region, being extensive, has contrasts in terms of climate and geography, due to the fact that it presents extreme cold and heat, deserts and forests, fertile plains, arid or semi-arid mountains, temperate coastal areas, and burning interiors. Consequently, rainfall varies, going from being null for a large part of the year to being abundant, so that vegetation and crops depend on water as well as on the area where they are located.

As notable components are some of the largest mountain ranges in the world, such as The Atlas of the Maghreb, Zagros in Iran and Taurus in Turkey. In addition, the deserts are part of its characteristic features, being famous for its extension as the Sahara (the largest hot desert in the world, which expands over 9.4 million square kilometers), the Libyan and the Arabian.

Regarding its position that delimits with different coasts, the exits to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans are identified, as well as to the Mediterranean, Red, Black and Caspian seas. On the other hand, bodies of water have been essential for the development of various civilizations as well as routes for internal and external trade. In this sense, the Nile valley, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the Dab al-mandab, Gibraltar, Hormuz and Tiran straits stand out, in addition to the Sicilian channel.

In terms of resources, it is necessary to point out that, for a time, North Africa and Western Asia were considered "the granary of Europe" for the export of lentils, citrus fruits, rice, olives, pistachios, Mediterranean fruits and, one of the most important for being a food base generating conflicts, wheat. On the other hand, industrial crops include cotton, wood, flax, coffee, hemp and tea; combined with fish such as tuna and caviar. In the same way, oil, copper, natural gas and other minerals are present in its development and commercial exchange.

Of these resources, it is important to consider that the increase in demand abroad, the birth rates within certain countries and the environmental crisis have created scarcity. Within a realm largely defined by its hot, arid atmosphere, global climate changes would have profound effects. Rising temperatures could exacerbate droughts; heat waves and dust storms are likely to become more frequent. In some areas, the struggle for limited water resources has already begun.

Following the same order of ideas, oil revenues have been able to increase development in these countries, financing industrialization, infrastructure and providing high income. Qatar, for example, a small former British protectorate on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula, has the highest GDP per capita in purchasing power parity terms of any country in the world. However, development based on oil resources has often given rise to authoritarian regimes, slow growth, corruption and conflict.

Socio-cultural aspects

A distinctive feature of any community is the language, in North Africa and Western Asia there are three important divisions in this regard. The first covers the Semitic languages and dialects, which include Arabic, Akkadian, Hebrew, the so-called Canaanite, Armean, Sub-Arabic, and Semitic. Indo-European or Aryan languages such as Persian (Farsi), Kurdish, Baluchi and Luri also take place; Kurdish being, in this classification, the second most spoken and present in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Finally, the Ural-Altaic languages, used essentially in the Caucasus, are Tuco, Magyar and Finnish.

Likewise, the region has been understood according to three cultural sub-areas: Turkish, Arab and Persian (or Iranian). The first corresponds mainly to Turkey, which also extends to eastern Anatolia, in Iraq and Syria. The second has four regional groups: Egypt and Sudan, the countries of the Nile River; the Fertile Crescent, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine; the Arabian Peninsula which is made up of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen; the Maghreb, the Turkish and Iranian territories, the Ethiopian region with its periphery and African countries. As for the third, it is concentrated in Iran, although it covers part of the Turkish border.

The organizations as a way of life, being a wide territorial extension, are configured according to the natural and religious conditions, as well as the political or social situations of each country. In spite of this, in general, the basic unit is the family, which generally appears in an extensive patriarchal form due to male polygamy. It is also important to consider the diverse practices in terms of traditions and beliefs, however a dominant factor is the conformation of the Umma (Muslim community).


The main cults in the region are monotheistic, also known as the religions of the book: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The first comes from the traditions of the semi-nomadic Aramaic tribe and, in Israel, is present in all ethnic groups. Since the creation of the Israeli State in 1948, its elite in power is made up of Skenazi Jews who emigrated at the beginning of the century. It is important not to confuse Judaism with Zionism, an ideology born at the beginning of the 19th century with the aim of creating an independent Jewish State.

On the other hand, Christianity represents almost 10% of the population, its organization was given through five recognized patriarchates: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem, where the Coptic church is established in Egypt while the Orthodox finds its place. in Syria and Jacobin. The Roman Catholic Church has a presence in the region due to periods of crusades in Lebanon, a country in which the Maronite Church presides over the government. However, there the majority faction is the one with the greatest weight within the government and, in this case, the Muslims comprise that percentage.

As for Islam, whose meaning is "submission to the will of God", it refers to the religion of all those who believe in the mission of the prophet Muhammad (Mohammed in Spanish) as an apostle of God and who transmits his word through the Koran. Islam, being a totalizing religion, combines elements of legal, cultural, social and political organization in an integrating function among its members where their bond transcends ties of kinship and racial barriers. The country with the largest Muslim population, currently, is Indonesia.

However, prior to this conception, what united the Islamic community was the Arabic language. Muslims are guided by the same rights and traditions, although over time variations have arisen in the ways of following and interpreting religion. They are all part of a universal order known as Dar al-Islam or House of Submission.

However, there are different currents within Islam. In other words, there are divisions in the Muslim community where Sunnis, followers of the orthodox practice known as sunna, make up approximately 90% of the countries that make up North Africa and Western Asia, with the exception of Iran. The Sunnis, in turn, are subdivided into four rites: the Hanafi, the Shafii, the Hambali and the Maliki, and theological currents such as mutalzilism, asharism and maturidism also persist.

Similarly, in the Muslim division are the Shiites (asharis or imamis), believers in the existence of twelve imams as well as Ali's design as Muhammad's successor. They mostly inhabit Iran (where it is the official religion), Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and, to a lesser extent, Syria. Other Islamic groups of the Shiite current are the Ismailis or Sevenths, the Zaidis, the Druzes and the Alawites. The latter have completely abandoned the Sharia (Islam's legal system), bringing other religious practices.

In addition to the above, there are two groups that do not belong to Sunni or Shiite Islam: the Jarayites or Ibadists, located in Algeria and Oman, and the Yazidis, located in northern and eastern Syria, as well as in the Caucasus region. Also, today, ISIS represents a fundamentalist vision of Islam, known as Islamism, which is characterized by a strict and literal interpretation of the Qur'an, conservative moral values, and the desire to establish Islamic convictions throughout the world. Militant Islamist movements have inspired the violent ideology of jihadism, which seeks to combat threats to the Muslim community.

Political Features

Most of the political and social structures in the region of North Africa and West Asia can be explained given the changes by the breakup of the Muslim community, a division between Sunnis, Shiites and Kharijites that would also have internal fragmentations. In a brief summary, the disputes begin in the middle of the Caliphates, which are linked to the descent of the prophet Muhammad and the conflicts due to the change of headquarters, centers and administrative cities, mainly in the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates. The current political map reflects overlapping borders and a legacy of colonization. Most of the countries in this region have experienced long processes of political instability, the result of disparities and religious tensions that exist both among Muslims and with numerous minorities.

In general, the European colonizers (United Kingdom, France, Spain and Italy) were slow to cede control to the countries of North Africa and West Asia. Internal groups often reacted violently to try to secure independence. As a result, many newly created governments were formed by military groups, and in other cases, monarchs found military support or joined local religious leaders. However, the possession of oil in many areas of the region generated significant wealth that revived Western interest and involvement. During the Cold War, for example, the United States sought to limit Soviet influence in order to maintain its oil supply.

On the other hand, there are some regional and non-regional organizations to which all or some countries of North Africa and West Asia belong, such as the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Although these organizations are intended to strengthen the relationship between their parts, whether in the economic or political sphere, there are often power struggles between members.

On the international stage, the World Bank, since 2015, has issued strategies to support the recovery, stability and inclusive development of the countries of the region, which it calls the Middle East and North Africa (MENA, for its acronym in English). ), in order to promote peace and social security. One factor to consider is that the initiative to relax existing tensions has been supported by alliances with national, regional and global actors; in particular the United Nations (UN) and the Islamic Development Bank (IDB). In addition, it has been described as an area with strong disparities between the different subregions that make it up, particularly between the high-income States of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the less developed Arab countries.

Also, a key issue is the regional geography that often restricts development and transit to narrow channels. Conflicts over control of these bottlenecks, which are narrow passages to another region, such as a canal, valley, or bridge, can often break out. North Africa and West Asia have several strategically important bottlenecks, including the Strait of Hormuz, which provides the only sea passage to the Persian Gulf, and the Suez Canal, which was built to connect the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea. . Who controls these congestion points, and who they let through, has often been at the center of discussion.

Added to the list of problems facing the region are the increase in its foreign debt, the emergence of ISIS, as well as the sustained problems with Europe due to the migration of its nationals who seek to reach the territories of those countries of the European Union with the in order to find better job, academic and life expectancy opportunities. From the West, condemnations are launched at the region for the repression of women, repressive policies, management systems and endless other reasons that violate the ideals of freedom and democracy.


North Africa and Western Asia is a region that has differentiated profiles in all areas, from political, social and cultural to economic. It is the cradle of ancient civilizations and modern religions, however, these components have crossed borders of time and space, forming a crucial part of the identities in the area. However, its favorable territorial position, which highlights the strategic importance of having multiple outlets to the sea and bodies of water, as well as the connection of borders with Europe, Asia and Africa; As some countries have modernized and industrialized, traditional religious values create conflict and instability.