Saturday, April 05, 2014

The Middle East Faces The Revenge of Geography

Today's Middle East began as an exercise in manipulating geography at the close of World War I, a century ago. The winners of that deadly war were the British and French, who "freed" the Arab world from the imperial embrace of the Turkish Ottoman Empire that dominated them until the end of World War I. The losing sides of that war were three empires of very long duration: Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian. These defeats set loose an entirely new set of nation-states, a system that the Europeans had established centuries before. However, this system has never worked well in the Middle East because of two factors: culture (religious and ethnic identities) and geography (boundaries dividing tribes, sects, and population explosion). Today a third geographic factor is looming over the region: greatly diminished water supplies.

o     Water. The Nile River is no longer enough to water Egypt. Up river in Ethiopia, on the Blue Nile, a dam is going up, threatening even further Egypt's water supply. In addition, Syria and Iraq, long depending on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, are finding their waters drying up. Yemen has so little water now that they may have to move their capital city. The water they have is used to grow their drug of choice, qat.  And Saudi Arabia, never a place with much water, has been trying to grow their own wheat, depleting their aquifers.

Iran, Muslim but not Arab, is also facing a disastrous desertification of their water supply. Major lakes are drying up, the aquifers no longer adequate, and climate change has reduced the rainfall and mountain snows that provided the country's water.

There are political consequences when people suffer from constant electricity blackouts and governance so sloppy that even sewage is not taken care of.

o     Demographics. The one given throughout the past century was that the region's newly independent nation states had a population explosion. Economists usually like this because it means that there is plentiful supply of young labor. Dictators like it because they have plenty of foot soldiers. However, when there is no work for that young labor force, they either become anarchistic mobs or foot soldiers for the Islamo-fascist cults roiling the region. We are seeing that now throughout the Middle East.

But now, to everyone's surprise, the region's birthrate is plummeting downward. I have written about this recently, but there is even more to be found in Daniel Pipes' excellent column #1310: "The Sick Middle East, January 23, 2014." Pipes confirms what I have heard before: that Iran's birthrate was 6.6 births per woman in 1977 but is 1.6 births in 2012. The Ayatollahs are panicked, but cannot do anything about it. I have seen similar figures for Turkey and anecdotal  figures for the  Palestinians. A shortage of young males means declining military clout for a country. (Russia, Germany, and Japan all have similar projections.)

Culture. The great scholar of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, pointed out in his latest book that the Muslim world's failure to thrive is the result of bad governance (either mafiosa-type dictatorship or Islamists); suppression of women, and terrible education systems, if they exist at all. They cannot become modern states with active persecution based on religion, ethnic identity, gender, skin color, and an active system of slavery.

Economy. Even oil, that lubricant of the region's billionaires, is beginning to run out. It is a given that countries whose wealth is extracted (natural resources) do not use these funds for national development. They do spend it on weapon systems they cannot use, some of them a death sentence for them if they do use them as weapons of mass destruction.

o     Refugees. Failure of governance has produced the largest numbers of refugees since the end of World War II, dwarfing that most popular of permanent refugee hordes, the Palestinians. People are also internal as well as external refugees. Syria's teetering neighboring states taking them in may collapse under the load.

The US cannot afford to look away from this region. Our intervention must be smart enough to counter and defend ourselves from the revenge of geography.
Contributing Editor Dr. Laina Farhat-Holzman is a historian, lecturer, and author of How Do You Know That? You may contact her at or

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