The area known in the West as the Middle East lies between the Eastern Mediterranean Sea to the west and Iran in the East. It covers a distance west to east of approximately 1300 kilometres. Today the Middle East is one of the richest regions in the world, based on the possession of vast reserves of oil. It is also an area of conflict, with armed disputes between Shia and Sunni religious sects, as well as conflict between Muslim forces and western Christian nations. How was the Middle East created, and how has the present situation arisen?
To find out we need to return to the foundation of the Roman Empire in Italy around 2,700 years ago. As it expanded over the next 1,000 years, Rome grew to cover vast areas surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. The distance to the eastern periphery from Rome became so great that it became necessary to establish an eastern administrative centre at Constantinople on the Bosphorus. This was a narrow channel linking the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. After Rome finally collapsed in 471AD, the eastern Empire became known as Byzantium, and continued to prosper. Constantinople was eventually overcome in 1453 by armies of the Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey.
The Ottomans themselves created a large empire, which extended from Austria in the West to Iran in the East. Thus the Ottoman territory included the land we now know as the Middle East. After about 1680, this empire started to decline, and by the beginning of the Great War (in Europe) in 1914 was near to collapse. The Ottoman Empire, or Turkey as it was now called, allied with Germany in the Great War, and was thus on the losing side. As a consequence, its Middle Eastern territories were dismembered, resulting in the creation of a number of new countries.
Unfortunately, a number of these countries have suffered nearly a century of intermittent conflict and dispute. Syria, which has no oil, has recently been engaged in military conflict for several years. Iraq has large oil reserves, but its population is a mixture of Shia and Sunni Muslim sects, which has led to conflict. In addition, in 2003 President George Bush in the USA led an attack on the country resulting in a war and subsequent unrest. Israel was created as a new country in 1948 and has become a stable and prosperous country created from the immigration of jewish settlors from many different countries. However, Israel has been involved in a number of wars with its Muslim neighbours.
Saudi Arabia has been one of the most stable countries in the region. It was founded in 1933 in a vast southern area of the Middle East essentially comprising a largely uninhabited desert region. However, in 1938 oil was discovered in the country. It eventually transpired that not only is this one of the largest oil reserves in the world, it is also the easiest and cheapest to access. The cost of extraction of these reserves is less than 70 yuan per barrel, compared to more than 400 yuan per barrel for US shale based oil.
The “oil war” from late 2014, in which Saudi Arabia and other oil producing countries have continued to produce oil in competition with growing volumes of US shale oil, has led to the halving of the price of oil. It is expected that the benefit of cheaper gasoline will have a favourable impact and help the global economy to grow in 2015.