Agriculture. Although only about 15 percent of the land is suitable for farming, agriculture remains the region's most important economic activity. Wheat, barley, and rice are chief food crops. Figs and dates are grown in desert oases and citrus fruits in the Mediterranean coastal region. The major commercial crops are cotton, coffee, and tobacco. Livestock raising is especially important to the agricultural economy.

Oil and Industry. The discovery of vast oil deposits revolutionized the Middle East's economy. More than half of the world's known oil reserves are found in the region, although they are not equally distributed. Saudi Arabia has the largest deposits and is the world's leading oil producer and exporter. Iran, Iraq, and the small Persian Gulf state of Kuwait are the other major producers. Aside from oil, chrome, coal, sulphur, and magnesium mined in Turkey, and phosphates from Jordan, the region is generally poor in mineral resources.

Turkey, Egypt, and Israel are the most industrially developed countries of the region. The processing of agricultural products, petroleum refining and the production of petrochemicals, textiles, and such traditional crafts as rug weaving are the chief areas of industrial activity. Heavy industry, including machinery and steel production and motor vehicle assembly, is being encouraged.

Perhaps the most important underlying problem of the Middle East today is that of modernization. How are the traditional societies of the region to cope with the modern world? How are they to use the new oil wealth wisely, in order to change but not destroy existing structures of society? There is also serious political tension between the countries that have oil and those that do not and between the rich and poor within countries.

Hyman Kublin
Author, The Rim of Asia