There is no single, agreed-upon, definition of what specifically constitutes the Middle East. Defining the Middle East through ethnicity, religion, or national identity is problematic. Therefore, for the purposes of this module, the Middle East will include the states of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel.
It is important to note that at this time there is no state of Palestine--only territories (the Gaza Strip and portions of the West Bank) within the Middle East that are controlled by the Palestinian National Authority.
The Middle East region represents an area of over 5.0 million square miles. The physical geography of the Middle East is varied. Vast deserts are common in the region. The Sahara Desert runs across North Africa, essentially limiting settlement to along the Mediterranean coastline and in Egypt along the Nile River. The desert of the Arabian Peninsula is so inhospitable that it has been given the name "The Empty Quarter." Other significant deserts exist throughout the region. In areas better served by rainfall and rivers (for example the Tigris-Euphrates river system, the Jordan River, and along the Mediterranean coast), rich agriculture is abundant. Mountain ranges exist throughout the region with some peaks rising as high as 19,000 feet. Snow is a common sight in these mountain ranges. Between the mountains, high plateaus are common.
Ease of movement in and out of the Middle East by water is also affected by the presence of a number of narrow water passageways. Gibraltar controls the water route linking the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Water access between the Mediterranean and Black Seas is only possible through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, which in some places is only half a mile wide. Other critical water routes would include: the Suez Canal, which links the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea; Bab el Mandeb, a strait that separates the Red Sea from the Indian Ocean; and the Strait of Hormuz, which links the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
As for climate, the region again displays a great variety. In the desert areas, rainfall is low, averaging about four inches per year. Temperatures in such areas show great extremes. Along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as the Black and Caspian Seas, the water serves to lessen the temperature extremes of the desert resulting in a more moderate climate that is similar to that of southern Italy or California.