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Distribution of Arabic as sole official language (green) and one of several official languages (blue)

The Arab World (Arabic: العالم العربي, al-ʻālam al-ʻarabi) refers to Arabic-speaking countries stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Arabian Sea in the east, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean in the southeast. It consists of twenty-five countries and territories with a combined population of 358 million people straddling North Africa and Western Asia.

Language, politics, religion and people

The Arabic language forms a unifying feature of the Arab World. Though different areas use local dialects of Arabic, all share in the use of the standard classical language. This contrasts with the situation in the wider Islamic World, where in contiguous and non-Arab Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Arabic maintains its use in a similar alphabet and retains its cultural prestige primarily as the language of religion and theological scholarship, but where the populace generally does not speak Arabic in secular usage.

The linguistic and political denotation inherent in the term "Arab" is generally dominant over genealogical considerations. Thus, individuals with little or no direct ancestry from the Arabian Peninsula could identify as, or be considered to be, Arabs partially by virtue of their mother tongue. However, this definition is disputed by many peoples of non-Arab origins; thus Egyptians for example may or may not identify as Arabs.

The Arab League, a social, political and economic organization intended to encompass the Arab World, defines an Arab as:

An Arab is a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic-speaking country, and who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic-speaking peoples.[1]

The Arab League's main goal is to unify politically the Arab populations so defined. Its permanent headquarters are located in Cairo. However, it was moved temporarily to Tunis during the 1980s, after Egypt was expelled due to the Camp David Accords (1978).

The majority of people in the Arab World adhere to Islam and the religion has official status in most countries. Sharia law exists partially in the legal system in some countries, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, while others are secular. The majority of the Arab countries adhere to Sunni Islam. Iraq, however, is a Shia majority country (65%), while Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, and Bahrain have large Shia minorities. In Saudi Arabia, the eastern province Al-Hasa region has Shia minority and the southern province city Najran has Ismalia Shiite minority too. Ibadi Islam is practised in Oman and Ibadis make up 75% population of the country.

There are sizeable numbers of Christians, living primarily in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Sudan. Formerly, there were significant minorities of Arab Jews throughout the Arab World. However, as cautioned[2] in the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist establishment of Israel prompted their subsequent mass emigration and expulsion within a few decades. Today small Jewish communities remain, ranging anywhere from ten in Bahrain to 7,000 in Morocco and more than 1,000 in Tunisia. Overall, Arabs make up less than one quarter of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims, a group sometimes referred to as the Islamic world.

Some Arab countries have substantial reserves of petroleum. The Persian Gulf is particularly well-endowed with this strategic raw material: four Persian Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar, are among the top ten oil or gas exporters worldwide. In addition, Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia and Sudan all have smaller but significant reserves. Where present, these have had significant effects on regional politics, often enabling rentier states, leading to economic disparities between oil-rich and oil-poor countries, and, particularly in the more sparsely populated states of the Persian Gulf and Libya, triggering extensive labor immigration.

According to UNESCO, the average rate of adult literacy (ages 15 and older) in this region is 66%, and this is one of the lowest rates in the world. In Mauritania, and Yemen, the rate is lower than the average, at barely over 50%. On the other hand, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan record a high adult literacy rate of over 90%. The average rate of adult literacy shows steady improvement, and the absolute number of adult illiterates fell from 64 million to around 58 million between 1990 and 2000-2004. Overall, the gender disparity in adult literacy is high in this region, and of the illiteracy rate, women account for two-thirds, with only 69 literate women for every 100 literate men. The average GPI (Gender Parity Index) for adult literacy is 0.72, and gender disparity can be observed in Egypt, Morocco and Yemen. Above all, the GPI of Yemen is only 0.46 in a 53% adult literacy rate .

The literacy rate is higher among the youth than adults. Youth literacy rate (ages 15–24) in the Arab region increased from 63.9 to 76.3% from 1990 to 2002. The average rate of GCC States [3] was 94%, followed by the Maghreb at 83.2% and the Mashriq at 73.6%. However, more than one third of youth remain illiterate in the Arab LDCs (Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen) .In 2004, the regional average of youth literacy is 89.9% for male and 80.1% for female.[4]

The average population growth rate in Arab countries is 2.3%.

The United Nations published an Arab human development report in 2002, 2003 and 2004. These reports, written by researchers from the Arab world, address some sensitive issues in the development of Arab countries: women empowerment, availability of education and information among others.

Women in the Arab world are still denied equality of opportunity, although their disempowerment is a critical factor crippling the Arab nations' quest to return to the first rank of global leaders in commerce, learning and culture, according to a new United Nations-sponsored report in 2008.[5]

As of 2008, the US-based organization Freedom House rates only Comoros and Mauritania as Arab “electoral democracies”.[6]

Non-Arab people in the Arab World

Within the most common definition of the Arab World, there are substantial populations who are not Arab either by ethnic or linguistic affiliation, and who often or generally do not consider themselves Arab as such. Nevertheless, most are as indigenous to their areas and many, if not most, actually resided in the area before the arrival of true Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula during which the spread of Islam took place. Certain populations have expressed resentment towards the term "Arab World," and believe that their national and political rights have been unjustly brushed aside by modern governments' focus on Pan-Arabism and promoting an Arab identity. In some cases this has led to severe conflicts between the ethnic nationalism of these groups and the Arab nationalism promoted by governments lead by Arab leaders, which sometimes amounted to denying the existence of or forcibly suppressing non-Arab minorities within their borders.

States and territories

  • Algeria (al-Jazā'ir الجزائر)
  • Bahrain (al-Baḥrayn البحرين)
  • Chad (Tshād تشاد) Arabic is one of the official languages, the other being French. Often not considered an Arab state.
  • Comoros (Juzur al-Qamar جزر القمر) (Comorian and French are the other two official languages)
  • Djibouti (Jībūtī جيبوتي) (French is the other official language)
  • Egypt (Miṣr مصر)
  • Eritrea (Iritriya إرتريا) Arabic is one of the official languages, the other being Tigrinya. Has a large number of Arabic speakers. Often not considered an Arab state.
  • Iraq (al-`Irāq العراق) (Kurdish is the other official language (minority))
  • Jordan (al-'Urdunn الأردن)
  • Kuwait (al-Kuwayt الكويت)
  • Lebanon (Lubnān لبنان)
  • Libya (Lībiyā ليبيا)
  • Mauritania (Mūrītāniyā موريتانيا)
  • Morocco (Al-Maġrib المغرب)
  • Oman (`Umān عمان)
  • Palestinian Authority (Al-Sulta Al-Filasṭīniyya السلطة الفلسطينية) (Full member of Arab League and recognized by the majority of the World's nation states, but not recognized by the U.N., Israel, or most Western states)
  • Qatar (Qaṭar قطر)
  • Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (al-mamllakah al-`Arabiyya as-Sa`ūdiyya المملكة العربية السعودية)
  • Somalia (aṣ-Ṣūmāl الصومال) (Somali is the other official language)
  • Sudan (As-Sūdān السودان) (English is the other official language (minority))
  • Syria (Sūriya سورية)
  • Tunisia (Tūnis تونس)
  • United Arab Emirates (al-Imārāt al-`Arabiyyah al-Muttaḥidah الإمارات العربيّة المتّحدة)
  • Western Sahara (as-Ṣaḥrā' al-Ġarbīyyah الصحراء الغربية) (Status contested between the POLISARIO Front and the Government of Morocco, which has administered most of Western Sahara since 1975)
  • Yemen (al-Yaman اليمن)

The territory of Western Sahara is disputed between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which declared independence and a government-in-exile, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), following the withdrawal of Spanish forces. SADR, although having won support from many sub-Saharan African countries and full membership in the African Union, is not recognized by the Arab League. Generally, there has not been international support or recognition for the Moroccan annexation, nor for the establishment of an independent state. The Western powers and the UN support a negotiated settlement between the parties, and many if not most countries maintain a careful diplomatic ambiguity with respect to each parties' claims, pending a final settlement.

While Comoros is a member state of the Arab League and accords Arabic status as an official language, Comorian and French enjoy greater usage. The predominate language in Somalia and Djiboutiis Somali, which is a part of the larger Afro-Asiatic family of languages that also includes Arabic and Hebrew. Similarly, while the Maltese language is closely related to Tunisian Arabic, the people of Malta do not use standard Arabic nor do they consider themselves Arab.

Chad, Eritrea, and Israel all recognize standard Arabic as an official language, but none of them are members of the Arab League, though Chad and Eritrea have observer status. Mali and Senegal, West African countries which are neither a part of the Arab League nor the Arab World, recognize Hassaniya (the Arabic dialect of their Berber minorities) as a national language.

Different forms of government are represented in the Arab World: Some of the countries are monarchies: Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The other Arab countries are all republics. With the exception of Lebanon, and recently Mauritania, democratic elections throughout the Arab World are generally viewed as compromised, due to outright vote rigging, intimidation of opposition parties, and severe restraints on civil liberties and political dissent.

After World War II, Pan-Arabism sought to unite all Arabic-speaking countries into one political entity. Only Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and North Yemen considered the short-lived unification of the United Arab Republic. Historical divisions, competing local nationalisms, and geographical sprawl were major reasons for the failure of Pan-Arabism. Arab Nationalism was another strong force in the region which peaked during the mid twentieth century and was professed by many leaders in Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Syria, and Iraq. Arab Nationalist leaders of this period included Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Ahmed Ben Bella of Algeria, Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar, Zaki al-Arsuzi, Constantin Zureiq and Shukri al-Kuwatli of Syria, Ahmad Hassan al-Bakr of Iraq, Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia, Mehdi Ben Barka of Morocco and Shakib Arslan of Lebanon.

Later and current Arab Nationalist leaders include Muammar al-Gaddafi of Libya, Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. The diverse Arab states generally maintained close ties but distinct national identities developed and strengthened with the social, historical and political realities of the past sixty years. This has made the idea of a pan-Arab nation-state increasingly less feasible and likely. Additionally, an upsurge in political Islam has since led to a greater emphasis on pan-Islamic rather than pan-Arab identity amongst some Arab Muslims. Arab nationalists who once opposed Islamic movements as a threat to their power, now deal with them differently for reasons of political reality.[7]

Modern boundaries

Many of the modern borders of the Arab World were drawn by European imperial powers during the 19th and early 20th century. However, some of the larger states (in particular Egypt and Syria) have historically maintained geographically definable boundaries, on which some of the modern states are roughly based. The 14th century Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi, for instance, defines Egypt's boundaries as extending from the Mediterranean in the north to lower Nubia in the south; and between the Red Sea in the east and the oases of the Western/Libyan desert. The modern borders of Egypt, therefore, are not a creation of European powers, and are at least in part based on historically definable entities which are in turn based on certain cultural and ethnic identifications.

At other times, kings, emirs or sheiks were placed as semi-autonomous rulers over the newly created nation states, usually chosen by the same imperial powers that for some drew the new borders, for services rendered to European powers like the British Empire, e.g. Sherif Hussein ibn Ali. Many African states did not attain independence until the 1960s from France after bloody insurgencies for their freedom. These struggles were settled by the imperial powers approving the form of independence given, so as a consequence almost all of these borders have remained. Some of these borders were agreed upon without consultation of those individuals that had served the colonial interests of Britain or France. One such agreement solely between Britain and France (to the exclusion of Sherif Hussein ibn Ali), signed in total secrecy until Lenin released the full text, was the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Another influential document written without the consensus of the local population was the Balfour Declaration.

As former director of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, Efraim Halevy, now a director at the Hebrew University said,

The borders, which if you look on the maps of the middle-east are very straight lines, were drawn by British and French draftsmen who sat with maps and drew the lines of the frontiers with rulers. If the ruler for some reason or other moved on the map, because of some person's hand shaking, then the frontier moved (with the hand).[1]

He went on to give an example,

There was a famous story about a British consul, a lady named Gertrude Bell who drew the map between Iraq and Jordan, using transparent paper. She turned to talk to somebody and as she was turning the paper moved and the ruler moved and that added considerable territory to the (new) Jordanians.[2]

Historian Jim Crow, of Newcastle University, has said:

Without that imperial carve-up, Iraq would not be in the state it is in today...Gertrude Bell was one of two or three Britons who were instrumental in the creation of the Arab states in the Middle East that were favourable to Britain.[3]

Modern economies

As of 2006, the Arab World accounts for two-fifths of the gross domestic product and three-fifths of the trade of the wider Muslim World.

The Arab states are mostly, although not exclusively, developing economies and derive their export revenues from oil and gas, or the sale of other raw materials. Recent years have seen significant economic growth in the Arab World, due largely to an increase in oil and gas prices, which tripled between 2001 and 2006, but also due to efforts by some states to diversify their economic base. Industrial production has risen, for example the amount of steel produced between 2004 and 2005 rose from 8.4 to 19 million tonnes. (Source: Opening speech of Mahmoud Khoudri, Algeria's Industry Minister, at the 37th General Assembly of the Iron & Steel Arab Union, Algiers, May 2006). However even 19 million tons pa still only represents 1.7% of global steel production, and remains inferior to the production of countries like Brazil.[8]

The main economic organisations in the Arab World are the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), comprising the states in the Persian Gulf, and the Union of the Arab Maghreb (UMA), made up of North African States. The GCC has achieved some success in financial and monetary terms, including plans to establish a common currency in the Persian Gulf region. Since its foundation in 1989, the UMA's most significant accomplishment has been the establishment of a 7000 km highway crossing North Africa from Mauritania to Libya's border with Egypt. The central stretch of the highway, expected to be completed in 2010, will cross Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. In recent years a new term has been coined to define a greater economic region: the MENA region (standing for Middle East and North Africa) is becoming increasingly popular, especially with support from the current US administration.

As of August 2009 it was reported that Saudi Arabia is the strongest Arab economy according to World Bank.[9]

Saudi Arabia remains the top Arab economy in terms of total GDP. It is Asia's eleventh largest economy, followed by Egypt and Algeria, which were also the second and third largest economies in Africa (after South Africa), in 2006. In terms of GDP per capita, Qatar is the richest developing country in the world.[10]


The Arab World stretches across more than 14 million square kilometers (8.6 million square miles) of North Africa and the part of North-East Africa and South-West Asia called the Middle East. The Asian part of the Arab world is called the Mashriq. The North African part of the Arab World to the west of Egypt and Sudan is known as the Maghreb.

Its total area is the size of the entire Spanish-speaking Western Hemisphere (14 million km²), larger than Europe (10.4 million km²), Canada (10 million km²), China (9.6 million km²), the United States (9.6 million km²), Brazil (8.7 million km²). Only Russia—at 17 million km², the largest country in the world—and Anglophone North America (eighteen million square kilometers) are larger geocultural units.

The term "Arab" often connotes the Middle East, but the larger (and more populous) part of the Arab World is North Africa. Its eight million square kilometers include the two largest countries of the African continent, Sudan (2.5 million km²) in the southeast of the region and Algeria (2.4 million km²) in the center, each about three-quarters the size of India, or about one-and-a-half times the size of Alaska, the largest state in the United States. The largest country in the Arab Middle East is Saudi Arabia (2 million km²).

At the other extreme, the smallest autonomous mainland Arab country in North Africa and the Middle East is Lebanon (10,452 km²), and the smallest island Arab country is Bahrain (665 km²).

Notably, every Arab country borders a sea or ocean, with the exception of the Arab region of northern Chad, which is completely landlocked. Iraq is actually nearly landlocked, as it has only a very narrow access to the Persian Gulf.

Historical boundaries

The political borders of the Arab World have wandered, leaving Arab minorities in non-Arab countries of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa as well as in the Middle Eastern countries of Cyprus, Turkey and Iran, and also leaving non-Arab minorities in Arab countries. However, the basic geography of sea, desert, and mountain provide the enduring natural boundaries for this region.

The Arab World straddles two continents, Africa and Asia, and is oriented mainly along an east-west axis, dividing it into African and Asian areas.

Arab Africa

Arab Africa—or more commonly Arab North Africa, though this is redundant—is roughly a long trapezoid, narrower at the top, that comprises the entire northern third of the continent. It is surrounded by water on three sides (west, north, and east) and desert or desert scrubland on the fourth (south).

In the west, it is bounded by the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. From northeast to southwest, Morocco, Western Sahara (annexed and occupied by Morocco), and Mauritania make up the roughly 2,000 kilometers of Arab Atlantic coastline. The southwestern sweep of the coast is gentle but substantial, such that Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott (18°N, 16°W), is far enough west to share longitude with Iceland (13–22°W). Nouakchott is the westernmost capital of the Arab World and the third-westernmost in Africa, and sits on the Atlantic fringe of the southwestern Sahara. Next south along the coast from Mauritania is Senegal, whose abrupt border belies the gradient in culture from Arab to Negroid African that historically characterizes this part of West Africa.

Arab Africa's boundary to the north is again a continental boundary, the Mediterranean Sea. This boundary begins in the west with the narrow Strait of Gibraltar, the thirteen kilometer wide channel that connects the Mediterranean with the Atlantic to the west, and separates Morocco from Spain to the north. East along the coast from Morocco are Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, followed by Egypt, which forms the region's (and the continent's) northeastern corner. The coast turns briefly but sharply south at Tunisia, slopes more gently southeastward through the Libyan capital of Tripoli, and bumps north through Libya's second city, Benghazi, before turning straight east again through Egypt's second city, Alexandria, at the mouth of the Nile. Along with the spine of Italy to its north, Tunisia thus marks the junction of western and eastern Mediterranean, and a cultural transition as well: west of Tunisia begins the region of the Arab World known as the Maghreb.

Historically the 4,000-kilometer Mediterranean boundary has fluttered. Population centers north of it in Europe have invited contact and Arab exploration—mostly friendly, though sometimes not. Islands and peninsulas near the Arab coast have changed hands. The islands of Sicily and Malta lie just a hundred kilometers east of the Tunisian city of Carthage, which has been a point of contact with Europe since its founding in the first millennium B.C.E.; both Sicily and Malta at times have been part of the Arab World. Just across the Strait of Gibraltar from Morocco, regions of the Iberian peninsula were part of the Arab World throughout the Middle Ages, extending the northern boundary at times to the foothills of the Pyrenees and leaving a substantial mark on local and wider European and Western culture.

The northern boundary of the African Arab World has also fluttered briefly in the other direction, first through the Crusades and later through the imperial involvement of France, Britain, Spain, and Italy. Another visitor from northern shores, Turkey, controlled the east of the region for centuries, though not as a colonizer. Spain still maintains two small enclaves, Ceuta and Melilla (called "Morocco Espanol"), along the otherwise Moroccan coast. Overall this wave has ebbed, though like the Arab expansion north it has left its mark. The proximity of North Africa to Europe has always encouraged interaction, and this continues with Arab immigration to Europe and European interest in the Arab countries today. However, population centers and the physical fact of the sea keeps this boundary of the Arab World settled on the Mediterranean coastline.

To the east, the Red Sea defines the boundary between Africa and Asia, and thus also between Arab Africa and the Arab Middle East. This sea is a long and narrow waterway with a northwest tilt, stretching 2,300 kilometers from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula southeast to the Bab-el-Mandeb strait between Djibouti in Africa and Yemen in Arabia but on average just 150 kilometers wide. Though the sea is navigable along its length, historically much contact between Arab Africa and the Arab Middle East has been either overland across the Sinai or by sea across the Mediterranean or the narrow Bab al Mendeb strait. From northwest to southeast, Egypt, Sudan, and Eritrea form the African coastline, with Djibouti marking Bab al Mendeb's African shore.

Southeast along the coast from Djibouti is Somalia, but the Somali coast soon makes a 90-degree turn and heads northeast, mirroring a bend in the coast of Yemen across the water to the north and defining the south coast of the Gulf of Aden. The Somali coast then takes a hairpin turn back southwest to complete the horn of Africa. For six months of the year the monsoon winds blow from up equatorial Somalia, past Arabia and over the small Yemeni archipelago of Socotra, to rain on India; they then switch directions and blow back. Hence the east- and especially southeast-coast boundary of Arab Africa has historically been a gateway for maritime trade and cultural exchange with both East Africa and the subcontinent. The trade winds also help explain the presence of the Comoros islands, an Arab-African country, off the coast of Mozambique, near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, the southernmost part of the Arab World.

The southern boundary of Arab North Africa is the strip of scrubland known as the Sahel that crosses the continent south of the Sahara, dipping further south in Sudan in the east.

Arab Western Asia

The West Asian Arab region comprises the Arabian Peninsula, Bilad al-Sham or the Levant, and Iraq, more broadly or narrowly defined. The peninsula is roughly a tilted rectangle that leans back against the slope of northeast Africa, the long axis pointing toward Turkey and Europe.


  1. Dwight Fletcher Reynolds, Arab folklore: a handbook, (Greenwood Press: 2007), p.1.
  2. The Balfour Declaration of 1917, in addition to favoring and endeavoring to facilitate the achievement in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it includes being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country."

  5. Gender equality in Arab world critical for progress and prosperity, UN report warns, E-joussour (21 October 2008)
  6. Freedom House Country Report
  7. "Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity by Martin Kramer". Archived from the original on 2009-10-25. 
  9. World Bank : Saudi Arabia , strongest Arab economy
  10. CIA World Factbook, GDP by country classification


Further reading

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Arab World. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.