Southwest Asia


  1. Regional Characteristics
  2. Demographic Analysis (USE POPULATION DATA SHEET)
  3. Middle East Countries
  4. Arabian Peninsula
  5. The Empire States
  6. References
  7. Review Questions

Regional Characteristics

Most of the population in Southwest Asia is located where there is water: along the Asian eastern and northeastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, in the Tigris-Euphrates Basin, in far-flung desert oases, and along the lower mountain slopes of Iran south of the Caspian Sea. The land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is called Mesopotamia. This land is very fertile. The agricultural development influences villages far away from Mesopotamia. As well as rich in agriculture, Mesopotamia is also rich in culture. The cultural ideas of the Mesopotamian lands spread to other lands and were used as precedents for other cultures. The Mesopotamians produce wheat, rye, barley, vegetables, fruits, and domesticate animals as well. The different agricultural products of Mesopotamia aid other countries and areas in their economy.

Deserts, steppes, and mountains dominate the physical environment in Southwest Asia. Except for the Mediterranean coasts, this is a realm of very low and highly variable annual precipitation, searing daytime heat and chilling nighttime cold, and strong winds and dust-laden air. Soils are thin and mountain slopes carry little vegetation. Water brings exceptions to these conditions along the coasts, rivers, and in oases and qanats. Qanats are tunnels dug into water bearing rock strata at an angle, so that the water drains to the surface. Southwest Asia can best be summed up as a B climate, desert and steppe, with the Arabian Peninsula being the driest with an average rain fall of four inches a year.

Southwest Asia is known as the "Arab World" and "Islamic World." These are the realm's two biggest cultural links. The Arabic language is the most common spoken language throughout the realm, although in many areas of the realm it is not used by most of the people. Turkey, Iran and Israel do not speak Arabic and they each have their own language.

Southwest Asia is dominated by the Islamic religion with the exception of Israel, which is Jewish, and Lebanon, which is Christian. The prophet Muhammad, who was born in Arabia in AD 571, brought the Islamic faith into Southwest Asia around AD 610. He was on a mission, sent by God, to spread the new religion across the world. The religion continued after his death in 632 and spread into Africa, Asia, and Europe. Today, the Islamic faith has reached more than 1 billion followers throughout the world and extends well beyond the limits of Southwest Asia.

The two primary groups of Islam are the Shiites and the Sunni. They both follow the teachings of Muhammad and the Quran. The Quran is compared to the Bible of the Christian religion. 85% of the Muslims are followers of the Sunni. Shiites do not agree with the Sunni because they feel every decision should be made on what the Quran says and they believe in following a blood family member of the prophet Muhammad. The Sunni have a more governmental view and are not as strict as the Shiites on the teachings of the Quran.

The Islamic faith requires all Muslims to follow the "Five Pillars:"

  1. Repeated expression of the basic creed
  2. Daily prayer
  3. Month of daytime fasting
  4. Almsgiving
  5. Pilgrimage to Mecca.

Mecca is a place where thousands of culturally different people meet and have something in common: the Islamic faith. Islam set out to give the Arabian world a faith that was universal. Islam wanted all of its followers to be unified. The Islamic religion's aim was to give the followers a new goal and a sense of pride in their life. In the Islamic religion the followers could feel good about themselves. Different actions were strongly discouraged, for example: drinking, smoking, and gambling. Even though the Muslims discouraged drinking and other things, polygamy was not forbidden. Monogamous couples were praised.

The Islamic faith continued to spread after Mohammed’s death. When Muhammad died the successor title was given to his wife's father. After this occasion, the religion split into two resulting into two subdivisions: Shiites and Sunni.

The development of Southwest Asia has been slowed by wars over territories, religion differences, and by the lack of resources in some countries. Oil is the biggest resource in Southwest Asia. Industry and manufacturing are the major part of the economy of Israel and Turkey, because they have very little oil. Israel is the most prosperous nation with the least amount of resources. Some of the smaller countries, located along the Persian Gulf, have become very rich from the exportations of oil.

Middle East Countries

Iraq has a population of 22 million, comprises nearly 60 percent of the total area of the Middle East and has 40 percent of the region's population. Iraq is endowed with natural resources and has major oil reserves and large areas of irrigated farmland. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers run through Iraq and join to form the Shatt al Arab, Iraq’s water outlet to the Persian Gulf.

Iraq is bounded by as many as six neighbors, and has recently had adversarial relationships with most of them. The heart of Iraq is the area centered on the capital, Baghdad, situated on the Tigris River amid the productive farmlands of the Tigris-Euphrates Plain.

There are a great majority of Sunni Muslims in this area who dominate the core area and the country's political machine. Iraq's infrastructure and economy were shattered during the Gulf War, but Iraq had wasted a lot of potential on the earlier conflict with Iran, mismanagement, corruption, and inefficiency. With its good agricultural land and its enormous oil income, Iraq should be one of the economic success stories of the entire realm. Instead, its failed leadership has made it one of the world's tragedies.

Syria has a population around 16 million with 75 percent of them Sunni Muslim. Syria is not a democracy. Since 1963 it has been a republic under a military regime. Syria has a Mediterranean coastline where nonirrigated agriculture is possible. Damascus, the capital of Syria, is considered to be the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. Its population exceeds 2 million.

Syria has good cotton and wheat growing areas in the northwest around the Orontes River, which is the main source of irrigation water. In the eastern part of the country, the Euphrates River valley is the crucial lifeline. Syria earns substantial revenue from its cotton exports, but oil earns most of the income.

Jordan has a population of about 4.5 million. It has suffered heavily since the creation of Israel in 1948. Jordan received more than half a million Arab refugees, more than the total number of Jordan's original population of 400 thousand. Soon after, Jordan found itself responsible for another half million Palestinians who were forced to leave Israel. Jordan has survived by help from the U.S. and Great Britain. The 1967 war with Israel was disastrous for Jordan, which lost the West Bank as well as its sector of Jerusalem. Amman is the capital city of Jordan, and it reflects the limitations and poverty of the country. Jordan has no oil, very little farmland and very little unity and strength.

Lebanon with a population of about 4 million, has a strong Christian religion in the country, with 1/4 of the population as its followers, the rest of the population follow the religion of Islam. Lebanon must import much of its staple food, wheat. The coastal belt below the mountains, though intensively cultivated, cannot produce enough grain to feed the population. The country began to fall apart in 1975 when a civil war broke out between the Muslims and the Christians. Beirut, the capital city, has had a very hard time surviving. It approached total destruction during the late 1980s. Today, Beirut has embarked on a long rebuilding process and its population, now at 2.1 million, is rising once again.

Israel, created in 1948, lies at the very heart of the Arab world. The population is about 5 million with the Jewish religion dominating the country. With the help of foreign aid, large remittances by Jews living in other parts of the world, and the energies of its settlers, Israel has become a high-income society in the midst of comparative poverty. The core area, including Tel Aviv, Haifa, and the coastal zone between them, contains over three-quarters of the country's population.

Israel has many conflicts with its surrounding neighbors and is working on peace agreements. The conflict Israel has to deal with is religion. Israel and its Islamic neighbors are constantly at a conflict. Israel's future depends on a satisfactory settlement with its Palestinian minority, as well as normalized relations with moderate and secular Arab states.

Arabian Peninsula

As a region, the Arabian Peninsula is environmentally dominated by a desert habitat and politically dominated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has a population of 20 million and is dominated by the Islamic religion, as is the rest of the peninsula. Saudi Arabia possesses as much as 1/4 of the entire world's remaining oil. Most of the country is desert, with an annual rainfall of 4 inches. The rainfall is slightly higher in the mountains near the Red Sea. Here are some forms of agriculture with coffee as the cash crop. These mountains also contain deposits of gold, silver and metals which the Saudis hope to add to their large amounts of oil in the east, to diversify their exports. Saudi Arabia is also the home to Mecca and Medina, the two major religious cities of Islam.

Many countries on the Arabian Peninsula are very small and located on the Persian Gulf and are also very prosperous due to large amounts of oil. Kuwait has a population of 2 million with 13% of the world's oil. This makes it one of the richest nations in the world with a GNP of 24,000 dollars. It is located at the head of the Persian Gulf. It is a small country with all its income coming from oil. Bahrain is an island state with dwindling oil reserves. Their population is approximately 630 thousand people, with 50% of them Shiite and only 35% Sunni. Qatar has a population of 700 thousand on a peninsula jutting out into the Persian Gulf. It is a sandy wasteland made habitable by oil and natural gas.

The United Arab Emirates, a federation of seven emirates, faces the Persian Gulf between Qatar and Oman. The sheik is an absolute monarch in each of the emirates. Two of the emirates dominate the oil supply, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. The total population of the UAE is about 2 million. Oman is also an absolute monarchy centered on the capital city of Muscat. Oman consists of two parts, the large eastern corner of the peninsula and a small but critical cape to the north, the Musandam Peninsula. This protrudes into the Persian Gulf to form the Hormuz Strait. Oman has a population of 2.3 million.

Yemen's population of about 15 million is second only to Saudi Arabia. Yemen was recently formed from North and South Yemen to form a multiparty, secular, democratic state, the only one in the region. Its economy is by far the weakest, with very limited oil production. Its ongoing conflict with Saudi Arabia and their disagreements in territorial boarders spells trouble for Yemen in the future.

Oil Production

As you can see above, oil plays a large part in the economy and well being of the Arabian Peninsula. The countries of the Arabian Peninsula have high incomes and high standards of living. The industrialization and modernization are both due to the oil industry. Arabia is able to modernize its capitals and other religious and precious monuments.

The Empire States

Turkey is a mountainous country of generally moderate relief and considerable environmental diversity ranging from steppe to highland. Coastal plains are limited in size, but they are productive and densely populated. Turkey's population is just over 60 million and is dominated by the Islamic religion. Despite Turkey's religious ties with Southwest Asia, they have very close ties with Western Europe and are very westernized. Turkey has very little oil and depends on its industry for economic wealth, by manufacturing electronics, textiles, and steel.

Iran is an Islamic Republic and has a majority Shiite population. Their population is also over 60 million. Iran controls the entire corridor between the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Iran is a country of mountains and deserts. The Iranian Plateau is the heart of the country that is surrounded by the Zagros Mountains. The capital city, Tehran, lies in the southern slopes of the Elburz Mountains. In 1979 an exiled Ayatollah (holy man) named Khomeini returned to Iran from exile in France and a revolution exploded which ran the leader, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlave, out of the country. Ayatollah Khomeini reinstated the Shiite religious actions back into the government. The ten-year war with Iraq, which ended in 1990, left Iran very poor and with a tough road ahead.

Afghanistan has little to unite its people and much to divide them. Sunni Islam is the dominant religion, but the faith has not been an intercultural bond. Afghanistan remains one of the realm's weakest and poorest countries. Urbanization is below 20 percent, circulation is minimal, agricultural and pastoral subsistence remains the dominant livelihoods. Fruits and carpets are the main exports. Its population of 18 million does not have any unity and Afghanistan's weakness may attract intervention by neighbors that already have stakes in the country.

Review Questions

  1. Which of the following people look across their border to Iran because they share a common Shiite Muslim faith?
    1. Georgians
    2. Armenians
    3. The people of Azerbaijan
    4. Nagorno-Karabakhians
    5. Russians

  2. Which country in the North Africa / Middle East region has the greatest oil reserves?
    1. United Arab Emirates
    2. Kuwait
    3. Saudi Arabia
    4. Qatar
    5. Yemen

  3. Mecca, a city with great religious significance to the Islamic religion, is located in:
    1. Saudi Arabia
    2. Jordan
    3. Egypt
    4. Israel
    5. Syria

  4. Which countries in the North Africa/ Middle East region have populations in excess of 60 million?
    1. Iraq and Iran
    2. Egypt and Iran
    3. Saudi Arabia and Iran
    4. Syria and Iraq
    5. Egypt and Jordan

  5. Which country in the North Africa / Middle East region is least typical in terms of religion and level of industrialization?
    1. Lebanon
    2. Israel
    3. Jordan
    4. Syria
    5. Saudi Arabia

  6. The Ottoman Empire was headquartered in the city of:
    1. Constantinople (Istanbul)
    2. Mecca
    3. Jerusalem
    4. Berlin
    5. Vienna

  7. Which of the following oil producers does not border the Persian Gulf?
    1. Iran
    2. Libya
    3. Kuwait
    4. United Arab Emirates
    5. Saudi Arabia

  8. Man-made underground irrigation channels originating with mountain streams are called
    1. Fellaheen
    2. Aqueducts
    3. Riverines
    4. Negevs
    5. Qanats

  9. Shiite Moslems make up a great majority of the population of:
    1. Egypt
    2. Saudi Arabia
    3. Turkey
    4. Iran
    5. Libya

  10. Jubail and Dhahrain are two burgeoning urban centers located:
    1. In the southern part of Iran on the Persian Gulf
    2. In the part of Iraq that borders on the Persian Gulf
    3. In the United Arab Emirates
    4. Within the Saudi Arabian oil-boom area that borders the Persian Gulf
    5. In Jordan

  11. All of the following are true about North Africa/SW Asia, except:
    1. The people of this region have uniformly benefited from the export of petroleum.
    2. The realm is almost exclusively Islamic. This faith pervades cultures from Morocco in the west to Afghanistan in the east.
    3. The population is widely dispersed in discontinuous clusters. Population concentrations occur where the water supply is adequate to marginal.
    4. The realm is a source region of several world religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
    5. Enormous reserves of petroleum, about 50% of the world's proven reserves, lie beneath certain portions of the realm.

  12. During the colonial period, the French dominated trade and commerce in all of the following countries in North Africa and SW Asia, except:
    1. Morocco
    2. Algeria
    3. Tunisia
    4. Lebanon
    5. Egypt

  13. This country borders the Mediterranean Sea is one of the richest in the North African / SW Asian region. However, it has no oil or coal and few resources:
    1. Tunisia
    2. Turkey
    3. Israel
    4. Syria
    5. Libya

  14. This desert Kingdom received over 1 million Palestinian refugees after the formation of Israel:
    1. Egypt
    2. Syria
    3. Lebanon
    4. Turkey
    5. Jordan

  15. This country does not receive more than 4 inches of rainfall anywhere in the country but has 24% of the world's supply of oil:
    1. Kuwait
    2. Iraq
    3. Syria
    4. Saudi Arabia
    5. Iran

  16. This SW Asian country on the Mediterranean, and having a population over 60 million, has the closest economic ties to Europe:
    1. Turkey
    2. Lebanon
    3. Syria
    4. Iraq
    5. Iran

  17. The religion most closely associated with Southwest Asia is:
    1. Islam
    2. Roman Catholicism
    3. Fellaheen
    4. Shi'ism
    5. Coptic Christianity

  18. Which of the following statements is incorrect?
    1. The precepts of Islam, in many ways, constitute a revision of the embellishment of Judaic and Christian beliefs and traditions
    2. Muslims believe in daily prayer
    3. The Islamic faith holds that Jesus was a "false" prophet
    4. The primary prophet in Islam is Muhammad
    5. Muslims are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca

  19. Shiite Muslims constitute the great majority of the population of:
    1. Egypt
    2. Israel
    3. Saudi Arabia
    4. Turkey
    5. Iran

  20. The Empire that ruled over much of Southwest Asia prior to World War I was:
    1. Ottoman
    2. Persian
    3. Byzantine
    4. French
    5. German

  21. Which of the following countries has little, if any oil reserves?
    1. Kuwait
    2. Azerbaijan
    3. Iraq
    4. Iran
    5. Turkey

  22. The impact of the oil industry has been greatest:
    1. In the countries with the largest supplies
    2. In the countries with large supplies and small populations
    3. In places like Saudi Arabia and Libya
    4. Only where domestic governments exist
    5. In countries with small populations and other important minerals industrial base

  23. A region of recent famine is the:
    1. Fellaheen
    2. Sahel
    3. Sunni
    4. Shiite
    5. Maghreb

  24. In 1990, Iraq invaded which of its neighbors?
    1. Jordan
    2. Kuwait
    3. Iran
    4. Saudi Arabia
    5. Turkey

  25. A minority group in Northern Iraq that has expressed its desire for an independent state is:
    1. Kurds
    2. Iranians
    3. Shiites
    4. Armenians
    5. Azeris

  26. Jordan has absorbed large groups of:
    1. Lebanese
    2. Iraqis
    3. Kurds
    4. South Syrians
    5. Palestinians

  27. Which of the following does not share a common border with Israel?
    1. Iran
    2. Egypt
    3. Jordan
    4. Lebanon
    5. Syria

  28. The country that controlled the West Bank of the Jordan River at the beginning of the 1990s:
    1. Israel
    2. Jordan
    3. The PLO
    4. Lebanon
    5. Iraq

  29. Two countries that recently united to form one are:
    1. Oman and Muscat
    2. North and South Arabia
    3. North and South Yemen
    4. Lebanon and Syria
    5. Israel and Palestine

  30. Iran differs from most of the North Africa/Southwest Asia:
    1. It is non-Islamic
    2. Its population is nearly 100 percent Arabic
    3. It is dominantly Shiite
    4. It is ruled by a monarchy
    5. As a nation it is very young

  31. The three largest countries in terms of population in North Africa/Southwest Asia are:
    1. Israel, Jordan, and Lebanon
    2. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran
    3. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen
    4. Egypt, Kazakh, and Uzbek
    5. Egypt, Iran, and Turkey

  32. How many inches of rain does the Arabian Peninsula get per year on average?
    1. 1"
    2. 4"
    3. 3"
    4. 356"

  33. Who was born in 571 AD?
    1. Elvis
    2. Dr. Peterson
    3. Muhammad
    4. Jesus

  34. What are the two major subdivisions of Islam?
    1. Atheist and Satanism
    2. Sunni and Shiites
    3. Lutheran and Judaism

Submitted by Brad Rothwell on 11/13/96. Updated by Sarah Larson on 3/18/97. Edited by Karen Oyler 10/10/03.