The Arab world comprises twenty-two countries stretching from Morocco in the west to Oman in the east. They have a combined population of 300 million people and their combined economies surpass 1 trillion U.S. dollars annually.
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Language, politics, and religion
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 Arabic retains its cultural prestige primarily as the language of religion and of theological scholarship, but the populace generally uses non-Arabic languages.
Although the majority of people in Arab countries profess Islam, it is by no means the only religion represnted in the Arab world. There are sizable numbers of Arab Christians, living primarily in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, and Syria. The greatest proportion of the people who make up the Arab diaspora (Arab emigrants worldwide) are also Christian, as are the majority of Arab Americans. There were also significant minorities of Arab Jews residing throughout the Arab world prior to the establishment of the state of Israel and their subsequent emigration. Today there still exist tiny communities of Arab Jews, ranging anywhere from 10 to 1000 members each, still inhabiting the Arab world. Overall, Arabs make up less than one third of the world's one billion Muslims, a group sometimes referred to as the Islamic world.
These states (twenty-three altogether) are generally included as part of the Arab world. The statehood of the Western Sahara and Palestine is sometimes disputed, and, although Djibouti, Somalia and the Comoros are in the Arab League, they are predominantly non-Arab.
The Arab world stretches across more than eleven million square kilometers (four million square miles) of North Africa and the part of western Asia called the Middle East (the Arabian Peninsula or simply Arabia). (In conventional usage, the term "Middle East" includes Egypt and Libya, both part of Africa; hence the term is probably as much cultural as geographical.)
Its total area is the size of the entire Spanish-speaking Western Hemisphere (also 11 million square kilometers), larger than Canada (10 million), China (9.6 million), the United States (also 9.6 million), Brazil (8.7 million), or Europe excluding Russia (5.6 million). Only Russia – at seventeen million square kilometers, the largest country in the world – and arguably 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 square kilometers) in the southeast of the region and Algeria (2.4 million) 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 America. The largest country in the Arab Middle East is Saudi Arabia (two million square kilometers).
At the other extreme, the smallest autonomous mainland Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East are Djibouti (23,000 square kilometers) and Lebanon (10,400), and the smallest island Arab countries are Comoros (2,170) and Bahrain (665).
The political borders of the Arab world have wandered with history, leaving Arab minorities in non-Arab countries of the Sahel and the Horn of Africa as well as in the Middle Eastern countries of Israel 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 (Arabian, Middle Eastern) areas.
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 (claimed 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 black 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 (جبل طارق), 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 (المغرب).
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 millenium 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 colonization by 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, 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 al Mendeb 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 stripe of scrubland known as the Sahel, that crosses the continent south of the Sahara, dipping further south in Sudan in the east.
Arabia and the Arab Middle East
The Asian or Middle Eastern Arab world comprises the Arabian peninsula, more broadly or narrowly defined. The peninsula is a roughly a tilted rectangle that leans back against the slope of northeast Africa, the long axis pointing toward Turkey and Europe.
- Hourani, Albert (1991). A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, MA: Warner Books.
- Reader, John (1997). Africa: A Biography of the Continent. New York: Vintage.