Readers have often inquired how our analysts can know so much about so many diverse places scattered across the globe. One essential component to this answer is maps—geopolitical cheat sheets for analysts. A single map can convey enormous amounts of information. This report contains a wide range of maps, each revealing a unique piece of information about its region or country. By constructing such a varied collection, we build a visual arsenal that provides countless insights to a location such as inhabitable and arable terrain, viable transportation routes, population composition, and so on.
Maps also aid in reducing the noise and seeing the obvious. Seeing the obvious may seem easy, but it entails learning to ignore the common knowledge of what “must be” and seeing what “is.” This plays a vital role in any geopolitical analysis and requires discipline and time to develop as a skill. When studying geopolitical events and conflicts, it is very easy to get caught up in political rhetoric, media hype, and other issues that distract from what really matters.
Maps concisely present information that reflects the basic components of the places represented. For example, it can show the most viable routes for military invasion, despite what any information campaigns may try to lead the public to believe. Maps are teeming with information. The key to unlocking that information is to note the obvious and then walk through what that reality means.
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When taken together, a series of maps becomes even more valuable as they can show history passing, illustrate patterns, and highlight geopolitical constants. Comparing territorial maps over time can illustrate the rise and fall of regional powers as well as the areas more vulnerable to conquest. Maps help explain why incidents repeat themselves—such as why the North European Plain is a regular battleground in European-Russian conflicts—and the impact of geopolitical trends—such as migration patterns and the mixing of populations in borderlands. Maps also help explain how countries respond to constraints, like India’s isolation due to the Himalayas or Japan’s interest in protecting trade flowing through the Strait of Malacca.
Now, let us share with you some of the valuable insights that we have gained from what we consider to be maps essential for understanding the world.
Middle East And North Africa
Geographically, the Middle East and North Africa region extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Indian Ocean in the east and from Turkey in north to Yemen in the south. The bulk of the region is situated along five waterways: the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Black Sea, and Caspian Sea.
A key feature of the Middle East is that much of it is sparsely populated. This is largely due to the desert conditions. People in the North African sub-region largely reside just south of the Mediterranean coast. The bulk of Egypt’s nearly 90 million people inhabit the areas around the Nile River. Most of the people in the Middle East live in the region’s northern rim that runs from Iran through Iraq to Syria and into Turkey.
The Arab-majority Middle East represents the core of the Muslim world. The map below shows the extent of the spread of Arabic-speaking populations in the region, which also reflects the spread of Islam. Founded in 610 in the city of Mecca on the west coast of modern-day Saudi Arabia, Islam covered the entire Arabian Peninsula along with the Levant and crossed the Persian Gulf into
Mesopotamia and Persia. At the same time, it advanced east into Egypt and from there across the North African coast up to modern- day Morocco, which served as a launch pad to cross into the Iberian Peninsula.
Arabs dominated many of these lands—save for Persia and Anatolia, which accepted Islam but retained their unique ethno-linguistic traits. Anatolia only became part of the Middle East due to the Ottoman conquest of the region in the early 16th century. Otherwise, the Arabs under both the Umayyad (661–749) and Abbasid (749–1258) dominions were unsuccessful in seizing lands from the Byzantines north of the Levant. While the Arabs were able to push into the Caucasus and Central and South Asia, Persian resurgence in the form of the Safavid Empire in the early 1500s limited Arab control beyond modern-day Iran. Turkic peoples of various sorts who converted to Islam controlled the areas north and northeast of the Middle East.
It should be noted that the term “Middle East” was coined in the early 20th century. Prior to that, the region was referred to as the “Near East.” Despite the fact that the term Middle East has become ubiquitous, the United States government and academia still refer to the Near East. The State Department’s division responsible for the Middle East is called the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Likewise, many prominent universities in the United States—such as Princeton, Berkeley, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins—call their academic units dealing with the Middle East departments of Near Eastern Studies.
The current borders of the region were largely drawn up by the British and French in the aftermath of World War I and in the wake of the implosion of the Ottoman Empire. However, the region was extremely divided prior to the Ottoman conquest in the first quarter of the 16th century going all the way back to the late ninth century, when the Abbasid dynasty began declining. Many competing caliphates, sultanates, and emirates ruled different parts of this region. Therefore, the many ethnic, sectarian, tribal, and ideological fault lines today are not simply the outcome of the present nation-state era.
As it stands today, the Arab core of the Middle East has hollowed out, with non-Arab polities dominating the region. The four major powers in the region are (in order of decreasing power) Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom is the only Arab power remaining after the so-called Arab Spring, and it too isn’t doing well given its inherent weakness and the fact that it shoulders the responsibility of (Sunni) Arab regional security. For the most part, the region’s Arab states are devolving into non-state actors.
This situation allows the proliferation of jihadist groups, of which the Islamic State is the most prominent. Iran and its Arab Shiite allies are also trying to take advantage of the growing chaos in the region to expand their geopolitical sectarian interests. Meanwhile, Turkey is trying to reassert itself in the areas previously occupied by the Ottoman Empire. Elsewhere, the only non-Muslim power in the region, Israel, is trying to manage the emerging anarchy on all of its borders.
Article by George Friedman, Mauldin Economics
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