Climate change and the Arab Spring

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History-making political turmoil and regime changes in the Arab World on the one hand, and anthropogenic climate change on the other; a brace of seemingly unrelated phenomena. Or so I thought before taking a course on climate change with the Open University where it was argued that the nexus between the two is clear and disarmingly simple.

In some regions of the Middle East and North Africa a scarcity of water and arable land has meant that much food has to be imported. For the indigent, who are compelled to allocate so much of their limited income to foodstuffs, price fluctuations are particularly threatening.

Adverse human-induced climatic events have led to irregular harvests across the globe which lift the price of grain imports and reinforce an acute cost of living crisis and overall hardship. The year 2010, in particular, experienced harsh droughts and storms, limiting yields.

May we envision an alternative ecological history of the world where the maelstrom of the Arab uprisings did not eventuate simply because mankind successfully forestalled dangerous climate change? This scenario seems most unlikely. The climate factor can never be deemed a primary player in the unhappy cast of causes that fed into the uprisings – despotism, kleptocracy, egregious human rights violations, economic stagnation, massive unemployment, entrenched corruption, a perilous ‘youth bulge’ – but may be adduced as an unexpected and overlooked bit player. But what of timing? It is just conceivable that climate change may have affected the timing of the uprisings if not their inevitability. In the counter history indicated above, 2011 may not have been the year of turmoil that it in fact turned out to be.

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Where is the Middle East?

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This introductory blog post will address the slippery issue of the geographical location of the Middle East. Readers hoping for a precise resolution to this question will be confounded. To assert that the region lacks sharp boundaries is a gross understatement as the various rolls of the states constituting the Middle East differ enormously according to the definition taken.

The first point to make is that the Middle East is a euro-centric term denoting a transcontinental region comprising parts of Asia, Africa and, according to some formulations, Europe, and delineates no evident geographic or cultural unity.

Much of what is now the area was formerly labelled the Near East, a zone consisting of the territories of the Ottoman Empire which at certain periods extended deep into Europe. The newer term Middle East was in use in some circles by the beginning of the twentieth century but until the Second World War the older term continued to hold sway. Greece was a component part of the Ottoman state until its revolt in the 1820s and was as such for a time considered a part of the Near East.

The 1939 establishment by the British colonial authorities of the Cairo-based Middle East Command to coordinate the allied war effort in the region cemented the use of the newer label which is used in most popular and scholarly writing today, with the older term Near East typically reserved for works on the region’s ancient history.

Sources such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica define the region as extending from Morocco to Iran and including Turkey and Israel. My own study reveals the following as most current: the Arab-majority states of the Arabian Peninsula, the Fertile Crescent and Egypt, alongside the non-Arab countries of Turkey, Israel and Iran. The inclusion of the North African Arab states beyond Egypt is a little less common but now widely accepted. Turkey’s inclusion within the Middle Eastern fold has long been a moot issue, with many of its westernised nationals claiming a European identity. This topic will provide fodder for discussion in a future post on this blog.

The area is not coterminous with the Arab world or the Islamic world. Overlapping sub-regional divisions include the Levant, Greater Syria, the Maghrib, and the Fertile Crescent. To complicate further, certain Arab-minority countries that form part of the Arab League (such as Somalia and Djibouti) are rarely deemed part of the Middle East. Cyprus was at one time considered a Middle Eastern country based partly on geographic location but is culturally much closer to Europe.

A recent modification of the nomenclature is the Greater Middle East (or New Middle East), a term coined by the administration of President George W Bush as part of an attempt to reshape the paradigm defining US relations with the region. This enlarged definition drew other states into the fold: Afghanistan, Pakistan, the trio of south Caucasian republics and sometimes the republics of Central Asia.

An intriguing point is that this euro-centric label is frequently employed by the peoples of the region it denotes and has direct Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and Turkish translations. More neutral terminology such as West Asia or South-West Asia and North Africa have yet to gain widespread purchase.

Which returns us to the troubling point made at the outset of this post. Definitions are problematic and have fluctuated over time and vary even by geographical perspective (American or European). Variations in land mass, population and number of states differ enormously according to the formulation selected. Unlike other regions of the world, such as Eastern Europe, South Asia or South-East Asia, all of which are generally uncontentious, the very term ‘Middle East’ can be discussed and argued over almost as much as the chronic conflicts and messy politics that are said to typify the region.