Unlike Africa, Australia or the Americas, the Middle East is not a clearly-defined land mass and its exact boundaries, even today, are still largely a matter of opinion. The Middle East is not so much a geographical entity as a geopolitical concept – invented, just over 100 years ago, by the British and the Americans:
The term was clearly conceived in the framework of European/western geopolitical and strategic considerations, delineating the region as a realm of actual or potential political, military, and economic rivalry and spheres of influence among European/western imperial powers. Since then, this geographic designation has assumed more fluid boundaries and has come
to represent different sets of interests and considerations for the outside major powers.
(Radical History Review 2003 (86). Editors’ introduction, p 2)
Surprising as it may seem today, the term “Middle East” did not appear in print until 1900 – in an article by General Sir Thomas Gordon, a British intelligence officer and director of the Imperial Bank of Persia. Gordon, who was concerned mainly with protecting British-ruled India from Russian threats, located the Middle East in Persia (present-day Iran) and Afghanistan.
Two years later, an American naval historian, Captain Alfred Mahan, referred to “the Middle East” in an article entitled “The Persian Gulf and International Relations”. As an enthusiast of sea power, Mahan centred his Middle East around the waters of the Gulf.
Shortly after that, the term gained wider currency in Britain through a series of articles published in The Times in 1902 and 1903, under the title “The Middle Eastern Question”. Written by Valentine Chirol, head of the newspaper’s foreign department, the articles expanded Mahan’s concept of the Middle East to include all land and sea approaches to India: Persia, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, the east coast of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Tibet.
For more about the emergence of the term "Middle East" see Roger Adelson's book, London and The Invention of the Middle East.
Before the discovery of oil, British interest in the region focused mainly on protecting India, the jewel in its imperial crown. To that end, in 1839, Britain had taken possession of Aden on the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, which thereafter served as a refuelling post on the route east and as a base from which to protect shipping. Until 1937, Aden continued to be ruled as part of British India.
The issue of the security of the Indies route also entailed control of the Persian Gulf, a bolt-hole for pirates plying the Indian Ocean. Rather than direct rule, the British navy opted for the protectorate system, initially imposing a treaty on the shaikhs of the region, which turned the Pirate coast into the Trucial coast, now the United Arab Emirates. The same approach was used in 1899 with the shaikh of the little known town of Kuwait … and the Sultanate of Muscat [in modern Oman].
(Samir Kassir: Being Arab, p 70)
This set a pattern which continues to the present day, with the notional boundaries of “the Middle East” defined and occasionally readjusted according to the political and strategic interests of foreigners rather than those of its inhabitants. The changing concerns of foreigners over time are also reflected in the way “Near East” has gradually been subsumed into “Middle East”. Initially the word “middle” served to distinguish between the “far” east (India and beyond) and the “near” east (the lands of the eastern Mediterranean sometimes also known as the Levant).
By the end of the First World War, however, the distinction between “near” and “middle” was becoming blurred, at least in the minds of British policymakers. The war had brought the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the beginnings of Arab nationalism. Britain had gained control over Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and its strategic interests were changing. Protecting the route to India was still a vital concern, but there was also growing awareness of the importance of oil. In London, the Royal Geographical Society proposed extending the Middle East westwards to include all the Arabic-speaking lands, plus Turkey – an idea that was readily adopted in Britain.
During the Second World War Britain had a Middle Eastern command for its North African operations, though it remained unsure about the Middle East’s boundaries. Iran was included in 1942, while Eritrea was excluded in 1941, only to be returned to the fold a few months later.
The US, meanwhile, had settled on “Near East” as its preferred term. Although American presidents from Eisenhower onwards have generally talked in public about “the Middle East”, internally the US government has been slower to accept the term. The State Department still had its Near Eastern Affairs bureau (NEA), covering everything from Morocco to Iran (though Turkey was switched from the Near East to the European Affairs bureau in the 1970s for administrative convenience during the Greek-Turkish conflict over Cyprus).
For all practical purposes, though, there is no difference in American parlance nowadays between “Near” and “Middle” East: they are interchangeable even if different arms of the US government view the boundaries differently. The US Defence Department, for instance, favours “Near East” but, unlike the State Department, extends it further. When the Pentagon established its Near East and South Asia (NESA) centre in 2000, an official was asked which countries it would cover. “I believe we have 21 what we would call core countries,” she replied. “And if you look at the geographic, sort of, piece of real estate that we have included as core countries here, we start from Morocco, we go along north Africa through the Levant and all the way across to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.”
This, in turn, is different from the area covered by Centcom, the relevant section of the US military, which excludes Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco in the west but stretches east beyond the Arabian peninsula to include Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The picture has been further complicated by sometimes adding the word “greater” to the “Middle East” – again, in the context of specific western concerns. Originally coined towards the end of the 1990s, itseems to have originated with the publication of a book: Allies Divided: Transatlantic Policies for the Greater Middle East, published in the US in 1997. This extended the Middle East into the Caspian basin and, as the book's title suggests, viewed the region in terms of US and European policies towards it.
The term “Greater Middle East” was also adopted by the administration of George W Bush in its push for reform, democratisation – and, of course, security: “We will challenge the enemies of reform, confront the allies of terror,” Bush said in his 2004 state of the union address. However, Washington – perhaps wary of stepping too blatantly into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence – appeared to exclude the Caspian basin from its concept of a greater Middle East.
According to a leaked working paper prepared by the US for the G-8 summit in 2004, the “Greater Middle East” consisted of the Arab countries plus Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and Israel. The rationale behind these wider definitions is easy to see. The G-8 working paper of 2004, for instance, presented the case for reform in the “Greater Middle East” primarily in terms of self-interest: “So long as the region’s pool of politically and economically disenfranchised individuals grows, we will witness an increase in extremism, terrorism, international crime, and illegal migration,” it warned, adding that failure to embrace reform would “pose a direct threat to the stability of the region, and to the common interests of the G-8 members”.