20.03_Research_Geopolitical state of the Arab Region

New Geographies

What defines the Arab word? Religion, language, terminology?

The Arab world is mostly described as the Middle east, or the Near east yet it has no definite boundary. Such terms have been invented by the West. It was used for late-nineteenth-century strategic and diplomatic naming of the region between the Near East, based on Turkey, and the Far East based on China . It originated with an American, Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1902 but he did not give a precise delineation of the area. A year later, the term gained popular recognition by Valentine Chirol, A British chief of the foreign department of The Times. There have been attempts of talking about the Middle East in terms of the Near East by the U.S State department, yet, both terms reflect a Western perspective of the world and has now won world-wide acceptance to describes countries further north, south and west than the Middle east itself.

In actuality the Arab world is a lot more complex than the terminology suggest with a mosaic of cultures and religions. Each Arab country has very diverse surface area, economy, population density and language dialect.

New maps and diagrams have been drawn to redefined the boundaries of the Middle East.


Middle east as Fragments

Rather than generalizing ‘the Middle east’ the region is fragmented into individual countries and examined with a more critical eye. By studying the countries’ size, economy, politics and religion, a large range of diversity and complexity in the middle east starts to apprear. One can start questioning the validity in generalizing the region into one category or group.



Cultural Mosaic

According to the map done My Dr. Micheal Izady there is a glaring discrepancy in Western sources when identifying various ethnic groups in the Middle East. This is exacerbated by the confusion by which the local state identifies the ethnicity of their own citizens, which is often marred by political motivation and expedient.

In the middle east ethnicity/group identity can be base on language (e.g. Turkmens), religion (e.g. Alawites/Alouites, Levantine Christian, Iraqi, or Lebanese Shias, the Armenian), life Style (e.g. Kurds), common history of suffering and persecutions (e.g. Jews, Circassins) integrated economy, or combination of two or more of these or other factors (e.g. Arabs) origin fact, something a unique criteria (e.g. Druze).

The current identification of diverse ethnic groups of the Middle East by the element of language alone is faulty and indeed misleading. The civil strife in Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia among others would be puzzling if one were to assume that the multitude of ethnic groups in these states are all Arab and share a common ethnicity/group identity. They clearly are not.


Many arabists were in fact trying to suppress ethnic and religious strife in the region by just joining everyone under one single pervasive identity, namely, Arab. The champion fht ebest known ideology that was developed for the purpose, namely the Arab Renaissance (Ba’ath’) movement were an Alazites (Zaki Arsuzi), A Levantine Christian (Micheal Aflaq) and an Arab Sunni (Sala Al Baitar).


The recent events in the Middle east have unveiled part of the stereotypes. The Iraqi civil was between “fellow Arabs” i.e. Sunni and Shia, clearly showed the ethnic fissure between them, based on religion and not language, as their group identities.

A more accurate map of the Middle east needs to be drawn to help better understand the ethnic sources of the much unrest that has affected the new Middle east. From Egypt and Syria to Iraq Bahrain and Saudi Arabia…

Meanwhile this map represents the tradition a view of Ethnic Subdivisions of the Middle east through its different groups of  language.


International perceptions

International institutions firstly exhibited Arab art in an “Oriental ambience” with Goupil’s Islamic Collection (prior 1888) in Paris that stereotyped the oriental view of the region. Later, the perception shift towards one of colonialism with the famous Munich Exhibition of 1910 and Islamic festival in London of 1976. They were the only two major exhibitions that brought the focus of middle eastern art to the west however they falsely organized the countries into one unified religious Islamic Group It only after the disastrous event of September 11 where Contemporary Arab Art was being notice into regional distinction.

Among the exhibitions are DisORIENTation in Berlin, Images of Middle east in Copenhangen, Arabise me at the V&A and Unveiled at the Saatchi in London.  Yet again the is a grouping of Arab countries into a similar culture undermined their individuality and again a lack of a deeper understanding in the region.


There has been an going western interest of Islamic art. It is the bed of civilisation however Linda Komaroff explains that with improved trading routes in the early 19th century the West had a growing interest in the arts of the near East. She outlines that collections and temporary exhibitions of Islamic art at the end of the nineteenth century were initially motivated by commercial interest. Gradually, such as Groupil’s Islamic collection in Paris 1888, exhibitions tried to re-contextualized the objects on display. The objects were put on show “to provide an appropriate ‘oriental’ ambiance”[1] as well as Frederick’s Martins “1897 Stockholm exhibition continued to recreate an ‘authentic’ setting in which vast numbers of objects were artfully displayed, helping to reinforce the notion of immense riches of the Orient”[2].  This was a defining time when Islamique and European architectural trends met.

A pivotal moment for Islamic art in the West, was the Munich exhibition of 1910. It was the first time such a vast number of collections and objects were exhibited together. Instead of contextualizing the objects, this exhibition was  arranged “according to class, and each group is preceded by a concise introduction, while each individual object is scientifically described on a fly-leaf facing illustration”[3]. This growing trend of Islamic Art that provoked a deluge of scholarly interest in the region. Nonetheless, the term of  “Islamic art” were introduced to help frame a very complex formation of countries, suggesting a very basic cultural understanding of the region, while normalizing it into colonial territories, and eventually irremediably fractured by the formation of Israel in 1948.

In more recent times, after 2001, the exhibitions describes the Arab art into a regional distinction. Yet again the is a grouping of Arab countries into a similar culture undermined their individuality and again a lack of a deeper understanding in the region. Gradually the perspective in art culture is changing from regional to individual distinction, however at present, the political tension is high as the USA has passed a “muslim Ban” in  2017 where 7 countries in the Arab world : Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen  have been reprevented from entering the United States for at least the next 90 days.

[1] Exhibiting the Middle East : Collections and Perceptions of Islamic Art by Linda Komaroff

[2] ibid

[3] The catalogue of the Munich Exhibition of Mussulman Art by Sir Martin Conway