along the southern shore of the Mediterranean from Morocco in the west to the Levant and the Fertile Crescent, extending to the Gulf countries and Iran in the east. It is predominantly Muslim. The old Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have mostly been destroyed or dispersed over the past 15 years, but bigger groups remain, especially in Lebanon. Most of the Muslims are Sunni, but the Shia dominate in Iran, are in the majority In Iraq and have a large following in Yemen and Lebanon. The Alawites in Syria are also close to the Shia. Islam’s main holy sites are Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Except for Morocco, Iran and parts of the Arabian Peninsula, the Ottoman Empire ruled the region for centuries. In the 19th century, the North African countries (except Morocco) were occupied by France, Italy and Britain. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, the Middle East was arbitrarily divided between Britain and France. That shortsighted partition remains the root cause of the constant tension and conflicts in the area.
The contrast between the richly endowed oil-and-gas economies and the resource-poor countries is an important factor in the region. Its sensitive strategic location between the East and West, along with its energy wealth, make the area vulnerable to the divergent policies and interests of global and regional powers. The interests of the U.S., Europe and Russia all clash there, as do the pursuits of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt. Such interventions tend to exacerbate local conflicts and civil wars, which then escalate into proxy wars between foreign powers.
While the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are still staunch allies, the former has strayed from the latter to pursue its own interests, especially its fruitful cooperation with Beijing. In the multisided Yemen conflict, Abu Dhabi has begun backing separatist movements in the hope of taking over ports that could prove crucial to the Belt and Road Initiative.
In 2018, the United Arab Emirates launched a five-year spending plan of more than $130 billion to overhaul its oil and gas sector, ultimately aiming to become gas self-sufficient. The increase in production could result in a larger share of the oil market, but only if environmental concerns do not cause a sharp drop in demand for petrochemical products.
Starting as an uprising by a marginalized ethnic group during the Arab Spring in 2011, the conflict in Yemen quickly gained momentum, becoming a civil war and later a proxy war between two of the region’s titans. The conflict is now a key element in the wider struggle for hegemony between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But as GIS analysts have pointed out over the years, it has the potential to spill over into a wider regional conflagration – even one with a nuclear dimension.
Europe’s long-standing policy of appeasement toward Hezbollah included looking the other way and even hiding evidence from the public on acts of terror attempted by the Iran-sponsored organization on European soil. Most European governments stick to the view that Hezbollah is a legitimate political force in Lebanon, a potential partner in negotiations, and ignore pleas from Israel and the U.S. for solidarity in trying to tame Tehran’s aggression.