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.
Long before Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to step down in April 2019, it was clear that the crony oligarchy he fronted for – known to ordinary Algerians as “the system” – could not last. If the wheelchair-bound leader looked moribund after a series of strokes, so did the country's hydrocarbon-dependent economy. Algeria is now embarked on a high-risk transition that could lead to a dead end or a civil war, sending another wave of migration and terrorism to Europe’s doorstep.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have taken advantage of a conflict fueled by regional and religious rivalries to fight a proxy war in Yemen. United Nations attempts to broker a cease-fire after years of bloodshed have failed, and everyday Yemenis are suffering tremendously. Yet both sides have powerful motives to keep the war going. For now, there is little hope that a political resolution can be reached.
The 2018 withdrawal of the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran set the two countries on a collision course, and the rift has only been growing. Iran has employed covert proxy attacks, threats to close oil routes, and most recently, renewed uranium enrichment above acceptable levels. A full-on war between the U.S. and Iran is the worst-case scenario, although unlikely. Iran has other responses at its disposal but may not be able to contain the blowback.
With the recent downing by Iran of a U.S. drone, tensions between the two countries may be entering a new phase. The Trump administration has imposed more sanctions and made new threats, in hopes of getting Iran back to the table for another nuclear deal. The U.S. does not want war, but it is hard to see how productive negotiations can resume. If it can bear the costs, Iran may prefer to wait out the situation until a more favorable American leader takes office.