Change in Egypt, and why it matters

January 29, 2011

Every semester, when I begin the section of my World Regional Geography course dealing with the Middle East, I start by saying: “This is a good time to be studying the Middle East, because it’s in the news so much right now.”

This is an opening line that has served me reliably for the past two decades, and I am confident that it will continue to do so for the rest of my teaching career. It would also have worked 30 years ago, or 50, or a hundred or a thousand years or two or three thousand years ago. And, with Egypt so much in the news right now, the line will certainly work this semester.

Geographers don’t believe in coincidence; we don’t think it’s by accident or happenstance that the Middle East has seen so much more than its fair share newsworthy events (many of them violent).  The question is, why?

Each particular conflict in the region obviously has its own unique causes, but there is a simple reason that the region has been so conflict-prone, and that that the conflicts in the region garner so much outside attention: this part of the world is really important to us. (Would CNN have non-stop coverage of anti government protests in Lesotho or Paraguay?) I’m not being American- or Eurocentric here; by ‘us’ I mean pretty much everyone: the Middle East is really important to most people in most parts of the world.

There are two main geographic reasons for this: what’s there, and where it is. Or, to put it in geographical jargon, the Middle East’s site and its situation.

What’s there, of course, is oil, and lots of it. Saudi Arabia is the third largest supplier of oil to the United States (after Canada and Mexico.) Algeria is our 7th largest supplier, and Kuwait is 12th.  Four of the top ten oil suppliers to the European Union are in North Africa and Southwest Asia. China is expected to rely on the region for 70 percent of its oil imports by 2015. What makes the region even more important is that the region holds a significant proportion of the world’s oil reserves. According to the CIA, six of the top ten oil reserves are in this region, and 20 percent of known oil reserves are in Saudi Arabia (It’s no coincidence that the CIA takes an interest in such matters.)

Site, and specifically the presence of vast oil reserves, therefore explains why the Middle East is important to the industrialized world (and just about everyone else) today. But it only explains the importance of the region for the part century or so. Before that time oil wasn’t a resource, it was just a gooey mess of little value to anyone. After the invention of the internal combustion engine and the automobile, though, oil became essential to transportation, and during twentieth century petroleum products became critical also in making everything from plastics to pesticides.

So why is it that just about every big power in Europe and Western Eurasia over the past few millennia, not just the past century, has not just taken an interest in this region, but fought wars to control it? (I highly recommend this animated map, which gives a vivid picture of the battle over the Middle East for the past 5,000 years.)

The answer lies in the Middle East’s geographic situation. This place is a crossroads of trade routes, and has been so for thousands of years. If you want to travel by land or water between Europe and most of Asia, the most convenient route goes through the Middle East. To the north, high mountains and very cold climates make transit difficult, and to the south are the Sahara Desert and the Indian Ocean. This was true at the time of  the Babylonians, the Silk Road passed through here, it was a fact of life during the Ottoman Empire, it was the reason for the building of the canal in the 1860s, and it’s still the case today (About 8 percent of all world trade today passes through the Suez Canal.)

The Promised Land (near the Dead Sea)

Notice that I haven’t mentioned religion so far. Yes, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their origins to the Middle East, and all three religions have – and have fought over – holy sites in the region. But this is as much a consequence of the geography of the Middle East as it is a cause. If Jesus Christ had been born in Patagonia and the Prophet Mohammed was an Australia Aborigine would Christianity and Islam have so many adherents today? Clearly they wouldn’t. Jesus and Mohammed preached their messages at a crossroads, which is in part why they spread so far. The map of Islam in the 21st century (below) is essentially a map of trade routes in the Middle Ages.

The geography of Islam

Trade routes in Eurasia, 1000 - 1500 C.E.

The world’s attention is now on Egypt not because Egypt is a crucial supplier of resources we depend on (although it is an important cotton producer and is world’s 68th largest exporter of oil.) Rather, it is because of Egypt’s situation along one of the world’s most important trade routes. We don’t get a lot from Egypt, but a lot of what we need comes through the Suez Canal. Who controls this trade route is of critical importance to the United States and Europe in particular.

Consequently, U.S. administrations, whether Democrat or Republican, have spared no effort to gain and retain allies in the Middle East. Sometimes these countries become allies at gunpoint (Iraq and Afghanistan,) sometimes they are paid for for, and sometimes they are provided with weapons or other inducements (Saudi Arabia, which is wealthy enough not to need aid, gets large quantities of advanced weaponry from the U.S.) In one case, Israel, it is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that owes its continued existence to U.S. political, military, and economic support (it receives more U.S. foreign aid than any other country.)

For the three decades of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, Egypt too has been a staunch ally of the United States. In most recent years it has been the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, notwithstanding Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. In Egypt, as in the other countries in the region, the top priority for the US has been to cultivate friends, not to nurture democracy.

And so we can be absolutely certain that, no matter what happens in Egypt in the days and months ahead, the U.S. will spare no effort to ensure that Egypt remains a U.S. ally. Whatever it takes. And maybe this might involve a recognition that the interests of the US and those of the protesters coincide.

The government of Egypt may change, but its geography won’t.

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24 Responses to Change in Egypt, and why it matters

  1. Cori on January 30, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    How do you feel about how the situation is being handled on an American politics level and do you believe that other countries being involved and essentially “threatening” to refuse help to the country will change anything? Or do you think that other countries will look past what is going on and move in to take places of countries that refuse to deal with it?

  2. Dahlia Nelson on July 6, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    I agree Iraq and Afghanistan have become allies at gunpoint. In fact many would argue that the state of the middle east is a case of modern day imperialism or colonization by the western influences such as the United States. The fact that mouths are hanging open and the drool of so many politicians is falling on Egypt’s trade route’s is not entirely too surprising. Just as certain third world areas have been zapped for their resources they will continue to be. Just because the world has modernized I would have to agree that old interests die hard.

  3. Sherry Loehr on June 27, 2012 at 10:07 am

    I do believe your opening on the Middle East,“This is a good time to be studying the Middle East, because it’s in the news so much right now”,is going to be safe for many years to come. It is not likely that the U.S. will every be able suppress its need for foreign oil. Americans have learned that conflicts in the Middle East result in higher fuel cost. Higher fuel prices effect our daily lives and slow down our own economic recovery. Even people who don’t have cars are effected by higher fuel costs, because it results in higher prices of food and other goods. I would also not rule out the possibility of another war as the U.S. will have to continue to protect its interests in oil and the Suez Canal located in this region.

  4. Donald Rallis on June 27, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    I agree for the most part, Sherry. But you seem to be assuming that the importance of the Middle East is a result only of US interests in the region. Is this true? What about the rest of the world? And why was the Middle East so important before the US came into existence? (Moral of the story: not everything is about us!)

  5. Kasey Moore on June 30, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    I found this interesting. I guess I never noticed how geographically important the Middle East, Egypt were. I read a lot about Egypt, always have, but I never questioned why. I’ve learned that maybe their is more to news reporting than what I have assumed. From now on, I will be reading article asking why is this important. Why is this in the new constantly? is it the event? Is there more to it than just popular interest?

  6. Hannah Kincaid on February 19, 2013 at 10:22 pm

    I found that interactive map very interesting. I never thought about the Middle East that way. Of course I knew there was oil there, but I forgot about trade and the advantages that area gives. I am actually doing a group project on desertification in the Middle East specifically in Pakistan. So it will be interesting to incorporate this aspect of the middle east in discussing the environmental issues there.

  7. Donald Rallis on February 20, 2013 at 9:21 am

    I agree; I think the animated map of empires in the Middle East is fascinating way get to the heart of the history of the region better than just about anything else I have seen. If you liked it, you will probably also like the map of religions, from the same web site.

  8. Donald Rallis on February 20, 2013 at 9:25 am

    I agree; I think the animated map of empires in the Middle East gives an excellent idea of how important this region has been over several thousands of years of history. If you liked it, you will almost certainly be interested in the animated map of religions from the same site.

  9. Abigial Fleming on February 20, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    It wasn’t very long ago that the Suez Canal was fought over in terms of who had the rights to use it/own it. It seems suprising now that it is only used 8% of the time (although it might be less now). If so much oil is coming from the middle east and being sent all over the world, particularly to China and Europe, I would think that the Suez Canal would be used a bit more. It seems illogical to ship crude oil in anything but an oil tanker. Why would they not be taking more advantage of the Suez Canal if the primary shipment of oil is through ships (assuming that it is)?

  10. sylkk Ansah on February 25, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    This might be a little off topic but the dependence of America on foreign oil is nothing new. The United states is channeling some resources and efforts into other smaller countries deep in Africa to supplement its oil usage. Not long ago was oil discovered for the first time in Ghana, a little West African country. Ghana receives a lot of aid from the U.S. and even that alone was not enough to hand over the rights to the United States. There was a battle between China and United States over who will control the rigging and refining of the crude into usable oil. Needless to say the United States won and partnered with the Ghanaian Government into exploring other regions of the country and that paid off big time when they discovered a vast amount of oil on the coastline.The point is, the United States knows the importance of having allies in the middle east but due to the unpredictable nature of that region, more efforts are being made to looks else where just in case the middle east falls into the wrong hands but I feel like it will take something very drastic for the United States to lose all its allies in the Middle east. I liked the interactive map. It was very informative

  11. Emily Bostaph on April 16, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    (More doing with the war) Even if the United States doesn’t have many allies in the middle east, I still think a number of middle eastern countries appreciate our presence. Obviously we have enemies in some of those countries, but I think in places like Iran and Iraq and Kuwait, the local people appreciate our effort in trying to make their lives better. Even if they resent the fact that we are over there fighting, they should appreciate the fact that we are trying to rebuild the communities we have destroyed because of the war. Some people say that all the local people want is for the US men and women to vacate their countries, but I think it is honorable that we recognize the damage we’ve done and our trying to fix it or help in the least to rebuild. Also I thought Kuwait was an ally? I found this really neat article on US allies in the middle east, with so updated information for February. (

  12. Rachel Hensen on June 17, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    From what I have read about Egypt and why it is so important to the US goes beyond just oil and trade. If the US doesn’t continue supporting Egypt’s current regime and that regime falls, the consequences could be very detrimental to the US and many other parts of the world. If Egypt’s regime falls, power could fall into the hands of dangerous extremist groups which pose a threat to all of us. Also, Egypt is in the heart of the Middle East and if we can help Egypt’s transition into their own sort of democracy is could really benefit the US and not to mention really impact the entire Arab world.

  13. Melissa S. on June 17, 2013 at 10:38 pm

    This article was very interesting. I never knew about the middle east except that we got a lot of oil from them and we are trying to help Iraq and Afghanistan from being at war. It is important that the US keeps allies in the Middle East for the oil. I was not aware of Egypt being in control of the Suez Canal, we definitely need to keep an eye on Egypt and make sure they keep control of the Suez Canal so it does not fall in the wrong hands. It seems like the Suez Canal is very important for the economies to continue striving.

  14. Jessica K on June 18, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    I knew that the Suez canal was a major achievement and extremely important back when it was the shortest route by sea to Asia but I hadn’t thought of the relevance it still plays today. I also found the Map link fascinating! Some of those empires I hadn’t heard of (Sassanid and Caliphate?)and I was surprised that the Macedonian Empire was larger than the Persian Empire.

  15. Brianna D'Agata on June 18, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    I agree with several ideas presented in this blog post. First and foremost, I found your opinion regarding the popularity of Abrahamic religions compelling. I agree that they may not have had as many followers if their leaders lived in more secluded areas. One question I would like to raise is what do you think will happen to the importance of the Middle East when their oil reserves finally dry up? I know you mentioned that the Middle East has been and will be in the news for a long time to come. However, apart from oil the Middle East’s importance is mostly due to to it’s location in regards to trade routes. In todays world with easy access to air travel and telecommunication, I believe that the Middle East could eventually fall out of the news if their natural resources (oil) are depleted. I found the link to the map of the Middle East very interesting as well. The way it was displayed really furthered my understanding of how intense the battles for control of the Middle East once were. I realized that I had been missing so much information in past history classes on the Middle East. I find it interesting that the Middle East has so much historical importance and yet, American students are taught so little about its history.

  16. Donald Rallis on June 18, 2013 at 11:44 pm

    I think that the Middle East will remain important after oil resources have dried up, for the same reason that it was important before the rise of oil. Electronic communications can move information, and air transport can carry only people and lighter goods economically. Heavier cargo (which means most cargo) will still have to go by sea and land, and the Middle East will remain a crossroads for these forms of transportation.

  17. Jenny Lang on June 19, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    I know the fact that the U.S. gets most of its oil from the Middle East. I remember reading an article about oil peak and its affects. But there are some saying that oil peak is just a myth that there will always be oil its just the matter of getting it out of the earth. Is this true?

  18. Paola Fuentelsaz on June 19, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    I didn’t know much about the Middle East other than the US being on war because of 9/11, which I think changed everyone’s perception about the Middle East but at the end of the day, we can’t ignore the fact that we need them. I really enjoyed both of the animations, the one about the battles and the one about the religions. I was able to grasp a better understanding of its history and why it affects us today. The religion was the most shocking one, at first I thought Islam had expanded incredibly but that was nothing compared to when Christianity got missionaries and were able to expand to places were they didn’t have a major religion such as South Africa. Great way to learn so much in so little time! I’m more of a visual person anyway so that was really helpful :)

  19. quentin dill on June 20, 2013 at 11:03 am

    UMW has a great connection with ESL – English as a Secondary Language, where students from all over the world come to our campus to learn english. The department is located over in Eagle Village where any given day you can find a handful of foreign students hanging out over there. While living in the apartments my sophomore year, i got the chance to have one of these students as a roommate. He was from Thailand. Throughout the semester i introduced him to many common customs of America, while he introduced me to many of his friends in the program. To make a long story short, what was interesting is that many of his friends and the students in the program were from the middle east, however with such high oil exports, i would think that the money has to be rolling in some way, and it surprises me that their education has not benefited from that. That even still, it would be better to come to America to learn english than anything they might have over there.

  20. Cheryl C. on June 20, 2013 at 5:51 pm

    Wow! I find all of this very interesting to know! I always knew that the Middle East was important because of the use of oil, but I did not know that Saudi Arabia had the most oil reserves in 2010. I found that very interesting, they had a lot more than the others shown on the graph. Another thing that I found interesting as I was reading this was the part about the religion. No matter what I think that the Middle East will always be important even if its not because of the oil supply.

  21. Alicia L. on June 20, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    I found this article interesting and the animated map was very educational. I never knew much about the Middle East, but the maps help be getting a better understanding of the Middle East. I think a lot of countries over their need our support and appreciate it. Also, I did not know that anyone in particular controlled the trade route. I always thought the open seas were there for everybody to travel. It is important for us to stay great allies with Egypt because of the Suez Canal, we need to be able to keep the trade route open to be able to keep economies stable.

  22. Stephen Weidman on June 27, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    The animated map was very interesting and showed a lot of information of how it changed. Just like Alicia said countries in the Middle East need our help but in my mind i think we are trying to way to much and should try to do so much. The middle east will always be important just for the simple fact of oil. But when all of that has dried of they will still remain important for the trade routes that go through the heart of the Middle East. One thing i really didnt understand is why are we getting all of our oil fro thee middle east when we have the second largest oil reserve in our back yard.

  23. Katelyn P. on July 16, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    The animated map was pretty interesting and gave me a better idea of how the middle east has changed. It is so interesting how geography accompanied by situation can create a country’s worth and value. I think even without their oil, the middle east will always be significant and important not only because of its history but because of its valuable location of being a crossroads for travel.

  24. Eric Raterman on July 20, 2013 at 1:07 am

    Recently, Morsi was overthrown, and now the country has a new wave of protests. It will hopefully remain as civil as it has been. It really hasn’t, but compared to Syria and Libya, Egypt still has yet to go into a civil war. Syria itself is dragging into a quarter of a decade, and besides minor corridors into Lebanon, no side has made any definitive gains, even with several Middle East Countries pouring a lot into the conflict (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and formerly Egypt on one side, Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon on the other). The Middle East is certainly full of oil, and one spark has started a massive fire.

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