Population Comparisons. The Middle East has a population of about 246 million, or nearly as many people as the United States. The distribution of the population varies widely. The fertile regions are very densely settled; many others are only lightly populated; while others, particularly in the deserts, are completely empty of human life. The most populous Middle Eastern countries are Turkey, Egypt, and Iran, each with more than 50 million people. The Persian Gulf states of Bahrain and Qatar have the smallest populations, about 400,000 each. Saudi Arabia, although greatest in area, has a relatively small population for its size, a little more than 10 million, because much of its land is desert.

Ethnic Groups. Since ancient times, the Middle East has attracted migrating peoples. Mixing with the earlier inhabitants of the region, they produced the peoples that make up the Middle East today. They can be classified into three main ethnic groups--Arabs, Turks, and Iranians. There are, in addition, smaller numbers of Kurds, who are scattered across Turkey, Iran, and Iraq; Jews (of varied ethnic origin), who live chiefly in Israel; Pakistanis; Armenians; and Greeks, who live mainly on the island nation of Cyprus.

Language and Religion. Language and religion are basic elements of cultural identity in the Middle East. The major languages of the region, which correspond to the three main ethnic groups, are Arabic, the most widely used language; Turkish; and Persian (or Farsi), the language of the Iranians. Kurdish is related to Persian. The Hebrew spoken in Israel is, like Arabic, a Semitic tongue. Educated people throughout the Middle East frequently speak English or French as well.

Islam, the religion of the Muslims, is the predominant faith of the Middle East. There are two main branches: Sunni Islam, the larger branch; and Shi'i Islam, found mainly in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon. Christianity is practiced by some Arabs, particularly in Lebanon; by the Greeks of Cyprus; and the Copts in Egypt. Judaism was the faith of ancient Israel and is the religion of the modern state of Israel.

Way of Life. No more than 10 percent of the people of the region ever followed the nomadic way of life, represented by the desert Bedouin, and even fewer do so today. Early civilization in the Middle East was centered in agriculture and the majority of the people still earn their livelihood as settled farmers.

At one time most of the region's people inhabited villages or small towns, living and working much as their ancestors had done for centuries. This has changed dramatically as increasing numbers of people have been drawn to the cities, where about half the population of the region now resides.

Hyman Kublin
Author, The Rim of Asia