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Middle East

Land and Resources

Elburz Mountains, largest inland sea, Lake Tiberias, Aswan High Dam, Zagros Mountains

The total land area of the Middle East is 7.3 million sq km (2.8 million sq mi). Much of the region consists of flat plains or plateaus. Extensive desert areas stretch across the southern reaches, including the Libyan Desert and Arabian Desert in Egypt, the Rub‘ al Khali in southern Saudi Arabia, and the Syrian Desert at the junction of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. Northern mountainous areas include the Taurus Mountains in Turkey, the Elburz Mountains and Zagros Mountains in Iran, and the mountains of northern Iraq. Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel contain the northernmost extension of the Great Rift Valley, a depression that extends from the Middle East to southeastern Africa. The Caspian Sea, the largest inland sea in the region and the only one of any economic significance, indents Iran’s northern border. The area is particularly susceptible to earthquakes, which have caused massive devastation in the second half of the 20th century, especially in Iran and Turkey.


Rainfall and temperature vary considerably across the Middle East and even within countries. For example, the Caspian Sea coast of northern Iran receives up to 2000 mm (80 in) of rain a year, while the desert regions of Iran may receive no rain at all for several years. Temperatures also vary by region. Ankara in the central plateau region of Turkey averages 0°C (32°F) in January and 23°C (73°F) in July. In contrast, low-lying coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula (the large peninsula south of Jordan and Iraq) and those bordering the Mediterranean Sea experience much more moderate winter temperatures: Jiddah in western Saudi Arabia averages 24°C (75°F) in January and 31°C (89°F) in July. Lowland desert areas in the interior regions of the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Iraq, and Egypt experience periods of extreme heat in the summer, with temperatures often reaching 45°C (113°F) or higher.

Water Resources

Apart from the Nile River, which provides much of the water supply and irrigation systems of Egypt, and the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which supply Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, there are no major rivers or navigable waterways. The Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias) in northern Israel, fed from the north by the shallow, unnavigable Jordan River, provides Israel’s main source of fresh water. With such a limited water supply, access to water for drinking, irrigation, and hydroelectricity has become increasingly crucial in many parts of the Middle East.

The control of water resources is a frequent source of political tension. When Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 and parts of southern Lebanon in 1982, it gained control of the upper tributaries of the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, and the Litani and Baniyas rivers. Also, the Israeli government gives Israeli settlers permission to drill new water wells in the West Bank, but denies Palestinian residents the same right. Any peace agreement between Arabs and Israelis resulting in full or partial surrender of Israeli authority over this area will have to address the issue of control over water supplies.

A similar conflict persists over access to the waters of the Euphrates River, which rises in Turkey and flows across northeastern Syria before entering Iraq. All three countries depend on these waters for irrigation and hydroelectric power. As part of a major water development project begun in 1984, Turkey built two large dams on the Euphrates, substantially reducing the amount of water available to Syria for power generation. A dam in Syria further reduces Iraq’s water supply, adversely affecting the country’s agriculture. The situation nearly led to a war between Iraq and Syria in 1975.

Environmental factors can also affect water supply. From the late 1980s to the 1990s droughts in Ethiopia reduced the flow of the Nile, Egypt's only source of water. Rapid growth in Egypt's population over the same period compounded the water shortage. The Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt, opened in 1971, has decreased annual flooding of the delta region at the Nile’s outlet to the Mediterranean Sea, resulting in coastal erosion and increased salt content of the soil.

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