Looking back over the years that I’ve been involved with foreign policy; I find it noteworthy that policymakers spend so much time and attention on the Middle East. It has only 3% of the world’s population and is not particularly wealthy or powerful, but the world watches and is often fixated there.
Last month the international focus was again on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As tensions rose, Hamas militants fired rockets into Israel, and Israel launched air attacks on Gaza. Twelve Israelis and at least 230 Palestinians were killed. President Joe Biden got involved, speaking by phone with Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Secretary of State Antony Blinken flew to the region to support a cease-fire and offer U.S. help rebuilding Gaza.
Along with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Middle East faces tensions that cry out for attention, including wars, terrorism, autocratic rulers, lack of vibrant economic growth and human rights abuses. It is a diverse region, with countries that vary widely. The largest by population is Egypt, with a little over 100 million people. The largest by area is Saudi Arabia, about three times the size of Texas. At the other extreme is Bahrain, with fewer than 2 million people in a nation about the size of a typical Indiana county.
The region has a young population, with about half the people under age 24, but education lags. There is a mismatch between the knowledge that students learn and the skills that employers require. According to UNESCO, one in five children in the region are out of school, often because of wars and violence. Girls are more likely than boys to be deprived of education.
The region’s economy depends overwhelmingly on energy; it is home to about half the world’s proven oil reserves. Saudi Arabia has the second-most oil reserves in the world, behind Venezuela, and is the top exporter and the No. 2 producer of oil. But despite the energy wealth, the Middle East is responsible for only about 4% of the world’s GDP. Germany, for example, has fewer than one-third as many people, but the German economy is larger than that of the entire Middle East and North Africa.
Many of the largest and most powerful countries are ruled by royal families or military leaders. Democracy struggles to be born in most of the countries. Instability and terrorism plague the region, including Iraq, where about 2,500 U.S. troops remain to guard against a resurgent ISIS. In Syria, 10-year civil war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced 12 million from their homes. In Yemen, an anti-government uprising morphed into a proxy war with forces backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side and by Iran on the other. A financial crisis threatens stability in Lebanon.
With so many intractable problems and so little reason for optimism, it’s tempting to divert our attention, but the region can’t be ignored. Its location, where Europe, Asia and Africa converge, gives it strategic importance. Its energy resources have a global impact with far-reaching consequences. Its volatility could spark outbreaks of carnage and chaos.
It is, of course, the cradle of three great religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. More than half the world’s people practice religions that have their holiest sites in the Middle East.
No wonder, then, the region has long captured our attention. That will not change.
By Lee H. Hamilton