From Bahrain and Qatar to Kuwait and Oman, there are 17 countries in the Middle East; here’s everything you need to know.

Located at the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia, there’s no internationally agreed-upon definition of the Middle East. Encompassing parts of West Asia, the Mediterranean and in some cases, North Africa, lists of how many countries are in the Middle East typically encompass nations like Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Some definitions extend to include parts of North Africa, such as Egypt and Libya, due to historical and cultural ties.

The region is known for its historical significance, serving as the cradle of civilization with ancient Mesopotamia and being the birthplace of major world religions like Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The Middle East also plays a pivotal role in global affairs, particularly due to its vast energy resources and ongoing conflicts, making it a particularly fascinating case study into geopolitics.

In this article, I’ll explore the different definitions of the region, as I explain how many countries are in the Middle East.

How many countries are in the Middle East?

The term ‘Middle East’ originated in the early 20th century, particularly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when European powers were expanding their influence in the region. The term was initially used by British military strategists and diplomats to refer to the area between Europe and East Asia.

One of the earliest recorded uses of the term ‘Middle East’ in its modern context was by American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan in his book ‘The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783’, published in 1902. In the book, Mahan referred to the Middle East as a strategic region of geopolitical importance due to its location between Europe and the Far East.

Over time, the term ‘Middle East’ became widely adopted by scholars, journalists, policymakers, and the general public to refer to the region encompassing countries in Southwest Asia and, in some definitions, parts of North Africa. While the term itself is of Western origin and may carry colonial connotations, it has become a widely recognised and used descriptor for the region.

While the exact boundaries of the Middle East are subject to interpretation, it generally encompasses approximately 17 countries. Among the prominent countries in the region are Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Additionally, some definitions of the Middle East may include parts of North Africa, such as Egypt and Libya, due to historical and cultural connections. Many definitions also include Cyprus, an island nation which is more typically classed as European (especially as Cyprus is a member of the European Union).

Nakhal Fort And Hot Springs Oman
Nakhal Fort in Oman, one of the 17 countries in the Middle East.

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List of Middle Eastern countries

The Middle East encompasses approximately 17 countries, including:

  1. Bahrain
  2. Cyprus
  3. Egypt
  4. Iran
  5. Iraq
  6. Israel
  7. Jordan
  8. Kuwait
  9. Lebanon
  10. Oman
  11. Palestine
  12. Qatar
  13. Saudi Arabia
  14. Syria
  15. Turkey
  16. United Arab Emirates (UAE)
  17. Yemen
Map of the Middle East, created by the Central Intelligence Agency.

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What’s the geographical definition of the Middle East?

The geographical definition of the Middle East varies depending on the source and context, but it generally encompasses a region in Southwest Asia and, in some definitions, parts of North Africa. Geopolitically, the Middle East is bordered by several bodies of water and mountain ranges:

  • Western Boundary: The boundary between Europe and Asia is often considered to be the Ural Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian Sea, and the Caucasus Mountains. Therefore, the western boundary of the Middle East is usually considered to be the eastern edge of the Caucasus Mountains.
  • Northern Boundary: The northern boundary of the Middle East typically includes parts of Turkey, along with the southern coast of the Black Sea.
  • Eastern Boundary: The eastern boundary is generally the western border of Iran, separating it from Central Asia.
  • Southern Boundary: The southern boundary extends to the Arabian Peninsula, including countries like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Some definitions extend further south to include countries like Sudan and Egypt.
  • Surrounding Bodies of Water: The Middle East is surrounded by several important bodies of water, including the Mediterranean Sea to the northwest, the Red Sea to the southwest, and the Persian Gulf to the southeast.
The Red Sea marks the boundary of the Middle East.

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Is West Asia the same as the Middle East?

West Asia is often used interchangeably with the term ‘Middle East’, but while the two terms have overlapping definitions, they also include different countries. West Asia is a region that encompasses countries located in the western part of Asia. It includes countries that are traditionally considered part of the Middle East, as well as some countries that may not be included in all definitions of the Middle East.

The term ‘West Asia’ is often used in academic and geopolitical contexts to refer to the region in a more neutral and geographically accurate way, as it describes the western portion of the Asian continent. It can include countries such as Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

While there is overlap between West Asia and the Middle East, the two terms should not be used interchangeably. The biggest difference is the Caucasus nations of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, which are not usually considered Middle Eastern countries. Overall, West Asia is a broader term that encompasses a larger geographical area, while the Middle East tends to focus more specifically on the countries and regions located in the eastern part of the wider West Asian region.

Nizwa Oman
The author hanging out in Nizwa, Oman, with an Omani date seller in traditional dress.

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A brief history of the Middle East

The history of the Middle East is woven with threads of ancient civilizations, empires, religions, and conflicts. Here’s a brief overview:

Ancient Civilizations

The Middle East is often referred to as the cradle of civilization, with some of the earliest known human settlements dating back to the Neolithic period. Mesopotamia, located in present-day Iraq, was home to ancient civilizations such as Sumer, Babylon, and Assyria, known for their advancements in writing, agriculture, and governance.

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Classical Period

The region witnessed the rise and fall of empires, including the Persian Empire, which at its height, extended from Anatolia to Egypt. Alexander the Great’s conquests brought Greek influence to the region, followed by the establishment of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire.

Roman and Byzantine Rule

The Roman Empire conquered much of the Middle East, incorporating it into the provinces of Syria, Judea, and Arabia Petraea. After the division of the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire maintained control over the region until the Islamic conquests.

Islamic Golden Age

In the 7th century, Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula, led by the Prophet Muhammad. The Arab-Islamic conquests spread Islam across the Middle East and beyond, establishing the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates. This era saw significant advancements in science, philosophy, and culture.

Medieval Empires

The Middle Ages saw the rise of powerful empires such as the Seljuk Turks, the Fatimid Caliphate, and later the Ottoman Empire, which expanded from Anatolia to include much of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Europe.

Colonialism and Modern Era

The decline of the Ottoman Empire coincided with European colonial ambitions in the Middle East. Following World War I, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement divided the region into British and French spheres of influence. This period also saw the establishment of the state of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflicts, as well as struggles for independence across the region.

Contemporary History

The Middle East remains a region of geopolitical importance, marked by ongoing conflicts, sectarian tensions, and struggles for democracy and human rights. Issues such as the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, the rise of militant groups like ISIS, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continue to shape the modern history of the Middle East.

How to travel to Khasab Oman by ferry
Ancient forts line the shores of the Arabian Sea.

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What’s the population of the Middle East?

The population of the Middle East is approximately 371 million people. However, this number can vary depending on the specific countries included in different definitions of the Middle East and the timeframe of the data.

The region is characterised by diverse demographics, with various ethnicities, languages, and religions represented across its countries. Rapid population growth, urbanization, and migration trends are significant factors shaping the demographic landscape of the Middle East.

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What are the smallest and largest countries in the Middle East?

The smallest country in the Middle East, in terms of land area, is Bahrain, an island nation located in the Persian Gulf. It covers an area of approximately 780 square kilometres.

The largest country in the Middle East is Saudi Arabia, which dominates much of the Arabian Peninsula. It has an extensive land area of around 2.15 million square kilometres, making it the largest country in the Middle East and one of the largest in the world.

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Are there territories and dependencies in the Middle East?

There are territories and dependencies associated with some countries in the Middle East. These territories may include overseas territories, disputed regions, or areas under the control of other countries. Here are a few examples:

  • Palestinian Territories: The Palestinian Territories consist of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. While they have limited self-governance, their political status is subject to ongoing dispute and negotiation.
  • Cyprus: The island of Cyprus, located in the eastern Mediterranean, is divided between the Republic of Cyprus in the south and the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the north. The latter is recognised only by Turkey.
  • Golan Heights: This area, situated between Israel and Syria, was captured by Israel from Syria during the Six-Day War in 1967. It is internationally recognised as Syrian territory occupied by Israel, but Israel considers it part of its territory.
  • Kurdistan Region: While not officially recognised as an independent state, the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq has its own regional government and a degree of autonomy within Iraq.
Famagusta Abandoned Holiday Resort Cyprus
Cyprus is divided into two political entities, as seen here on the border at Famagusta.

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Is Turkey in the Middle East?

Turkey is often considered a transcontinental country, meaning it straddles two continents: Europe and Asia. The majority of Turkey’s landmass, around 97%, lies in Asia, specifically in a region known as Anatolia or Asia Minor. However, a small portion of Turkey, including the city of Istanbul, extends into Europe.

Geopolitically and historically, Turkey has connections to both Europe and the Middle East. While it is not wholly within the Middle East, some parts of eastern Turkey are often included in the broader definition of the Middle East due to cultural, historical, and geopolitical reasons. Therefore, while Turkey is primarily an Asian country, its location and historical ties often lead to discussions about its relationship with both Europe and the Middle East.

Istanbul is a cross-continental city.

Is Cyprus in the Middle East?

Cyprus is geographically located at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. While it is not typically considered part of the Middle East, its proximity to the region and historical connections sometimes lead to discussions about its relationship with the Middle East.

Politically, Cyprus is a member of the European Union and is often categorised as part of Southern Europe. However, its location has historically made it a significant trading hub and a point of cultural exchange between Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The Top Things To Do In Northern Cyprus
Cyprus can be considered both European and Middle Eastern.

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FAQ: How many countries are in the Middle East?

Here’s an FAQ on the topic, ‘How many countries are in the Middle East?’:

Q1. How many countries are typically considered part of the Middle East?

The Middle East generally includes around 17 countries, although the exact number can vary depending on different definitions and perspectives.

Q2. Which countries are commonly included in the Middle East?

Commonly included countries are Bahrain, Cyprus, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Q3. Are there additional countries that some definitions include in the Middle East?

Yes, some definitions may extend to include parts of North Africa, such as Egypt and Libya, due to historical, cultural, or geopolitical connections.

Q4. Why is there variation in the number of countries considered part of the Middle East?

The variation arises from differences in geopolitical perspectives, historical ties, cultural affiliations, and even political alliances. Some definitions prioritize geographical proximity and historical connections, while others may focus on shared cultural or religious identities.

Q5. Is there a universally agreed-upon definition of the Middle East?

No, there is no universally agreed-upon definition, leading to differing interpretations among scholars, organizations, and individuals.

Q6. How does the Middle East’s geopolitical importance impact its boundaries?

The Middle East’s geopolitical importance, particularly its strategic location and vast energy resources, has led to complex political dynamics and varying interpretations of its boundaries.

Q7. What criteria are used to determine whether a country is part of the Middle East?

Criteria include geographical location, historical ties, cultural similarities, religious affiliations, and political considerations. However, the weighting of these criteria can differ significantly depending on the perspective of the definer.