Change in Egypt, and why it matters

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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