Frank Bernheisel: The View From Here
Frank Bernheisel
Frank Bernheisel
Posted 04.22.15
Just Outside Washington


Musings on the Middle East

The United States has been involved in the Middle East and North Africa for its entire history. Cast your mind back to high school history and you will remember the Barbary Pirates and the Barbary Coast Wars; one in 1801 and the other in 1815. These activities essentially led to the development of the U.S. Navy. (The Barbary Coast includes Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunisia.)

Fast forward to the early Twentieth Century and we have William Yale (of the Yale University family) prospecting for oil for Standard Oil in Palestine, which then included what is currently known as Israel. After the start of WWI, Yale became a spy for the British and worked with T.E. Lawrence. Then he became an American representative for the State Department after the U.S. entered the war (note 1).

The Ottoman Empire was aligned with Germany and falling apart. Britain (and France) were helping the disintegration and pitting one tribe against others in order to take over the territory. A number of Jewish colonists and Jews in Europe (Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann, and Baron Walter Rothschild) were trying to get Britain to carve out a Jewish state in Palestine as the Ottoman Empire broke up and the British and French grabbed control. The Zionists were successful but there was a delay until the end of the British mandate (1948).

Lawrence was busy racing around the Arabia and Palestine getting various tribes to war on the Turks and other tribes. He was also successful but his backing for King Hussein's claim to Syria was instrumental in ibn-Saud taking over Arabia (note 2). The U.S. got its share through the Arabian-American Oil Company that involved Standard Oil of California (SoCal), the Texas Oil Co. (Texaco), Standard Oil of New Jersey (now Exxon), and others.

The population of the Middle East and North Africa increased very little from the time of the Roman Empire until 1800, as shown in Table 1.

The table shows the Middle East and North Africa as thirteen countries established by the Versailles Conference (note 3) after WWI, plus Israel, which did not exist until 1948. In the individual countries that make up these regions, there were some increases and some decreases but the overall population increase was only 28 percent. This population stability is accounted for by a number of factors:

  • Organization breakdown -- the Roman Empire disintegrated

  • Warfare -- Islam's sweep through the area, Timur the Lame in fifteenth century, various tribal wars, and European colonialization

  • Disease -- The Black Death

  • Economic Recession -- Mediterranean-wide in the seventeenth century

  • Climate -- Always dry and hot which limited agriculture and with some negative swings.
Between 1800 and 1900 the population of the regions almost doubled; the increase was 72 percent. This was due mainly to the intervention in the regions by Europeans who were establishing a world economy. The trade with Europe, which was seeking resources, introduced improved agricultural and industrial technology to support the population growth. These included irrigation, crop rotation, more productive strains (corn, cotton, sugar, etc.), iron plows, steam engines, etc. Trade with Europe was fueled by the massive amounts of gold and silver extracted from the Americas (note 4) that gave the Europeans capital for investment and money for luxuries.

Table 1 -- Population of the Middle East and North Africa (note 5)

The population growth rates in the Middle East and North Africa are among the highest in the world, which brings challenges in the Middle East societies. During 1900-2014 the growth rate was higher than in either India or China.

In the thirteen countries shown in the table included, population growth during 1900-2014 was 382.8 million persons for an average of 745 percent growth. This averages to 6.5 percent per year. In comparison, population in the U.S. increased from 145 million in 1900 to 318.6 million in 2014. This constitutes an increase of 173.6 million or 0.5 percent per year.

These countries form the heartland of the Arab/Islamic expansion that started in Arabia in the Seventh Century and expanded until it started to decline in the Sixteenth Century. The decline was coincident with the rise of European and Turkish peoples. There was plenty of fighting going on throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Much of the fighting was tribal and some of the current leaders in the areas are members of the families of the winning tribes i.e. the Sauds, Hussains, etc.

Part of the fighting was over the trade routes because whoever controlled the trade routes could exact tribute or outright theft. Some of the fighting was over political control and that is still going on. Much of the fighting has been between religious groups. The two major factions of Islam, the Sunnis and the Shia, have been sporadically at war.

Many of the non-Islamic religious groups have been driven out of the areas since the mid-Twentieth Century. The religious breakdown of the countries in 2014 is shown in Table 2. Israel's population reflects the migration of people of the Jewish religion from the thirteen countries as well as Europe.

Table 2 -- Population by Religion (2014) (note 6)

Population Notes

1 -- Ratio of Sunni to Shiite assumed to be the same as Jordan.

2 -- Other in Lebanon are mainly Druze.

3 -- Ratio of Sunni to Shiite assumed to be the same as Jordan.

4 -- Saudi Arabia has almost eight million non-citizens, most are Muslim who are shown in the Other category; the Christians are also non-citizens.

5 -- Other in Syria are Druze

6 -- Many Muslims in Tunisia are non-denominational and are grouped with the Sunni.

Overall in the area, Sunnis predominate, comprising 61 percent of the population of the Middle East and North Africa. Iran and Iraq are the exceptions, and they are predominately Shia, 92 percent and 62 percent respectively.

However, religion is not the only difference among the people of the areas; they are made up of different ethnic groups. Iran is only about 60 percent Persian and has a large mix of other ethnic groups including Turks, Kurds, and Arabs; there has been a longstanding enmity between the Persians and Arabs. Iran also has over a million refugees from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Turkey's primarily ethnic group is the Turks but with substantial minorities including the Kurds. In the establishment of Turkey, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a lot of minority groups were kicked out of Turkey; think Greek and Armenian.

Over 90 percent of the people in Egypt are Egyptian, the only people of the ancient Near East who have stayed where they were. One could consider Egypt the world's oldest nation and for most of their history, Egypt has been a state, but sometimes ruled by others from Rome to the Brits.

The Berbers are the indigenous ethnic group of Algeria, which has blended with the various conquerors, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and Turks. The majority of Algerians identifies with an Arabic-based culture.

Then there are the Jews. Where do we start? In about 1 CE most of what became Palestine was a Jewish state within the Roman Empire. It had about 300,000 Jews but the local governing and social system broke down. After a lot of messiahs and two big wars, Rome had enough and kicked the Jews out and brought in the Arabs.  This scattered the Jews throughout the Empire: the Middle East, and North Africa as well as Europe. Since the establishment of Israel, migration into Israel has been roughly equally divided between Europe, including Russia and the countries that we have identified as the Middle East and North Africa. As shown in Table 2, there are almost no Jews left in these countries.

(Note 1) 'Lawrence in Arabia,' by Scott Anderson
(Note 2) 'Paris 1919' by Margaret MacMillan
(Note 3) Ibid.
(Note 4) 'The Times World Atlas of History'
(Note 5) Atlas of World Population History, Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones
(Note 6) World Bank and CIA World Factbook