Southwest Asia and North Africa

Oman and Yemen: So Similar, So Different…

Arabia Satellite ImageAt first glance, Oman and Yemen almost appear to be sibling states. They fairly evenly divide the southeastern slice of the Arabian Peninsula. Both countries have extensive highlands on their opposing extremities, which receive much more rainfall than the rest of region and thus allow intensive agriculture both within the uplands themselves and in the adjacent lowlands. They share the seasonally wet central coastal area of Dhofar/Al Mahrah. Both countries sit at the entrance of a vitally important strait that leads to a major sea (the Strait of Hormuz leading to the Persian [Arabian] Gulf in the case of Oman; the Bab-el-Mandeb leading to the Red Sea in the case of Yemen).

The histories of the two countries are also closely linked. Some sources date the formation of Oman to the migration of a large portion of the Azd tribe from Yemen in the first century CE, following the collapse of the Great Dam of Ma’rib, one of the engineering wonders of the ancient world. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Oman, “The present-day name of the country, Oman, is believed to originate from the Arab tribes who migrated to its territory from the Uman region of Yemen; many such tribes settled in Oman, making a living by fishing, herding or stock breeding…” Both countries also share a similar historical dynamic in the tension between theocratically Imamate of Oman and Muscat Maporiented, inward-looking inland areas and more secular, cosmopolitan coastal regions. Key to understanding Omani history was the periodic tension between Oman Proper, generally ruled by the elected Ibadi Imams, and the coastal Sultanate of Muscat (before 1970, the official name of the country was “Muscat and Oman”). Similarly, the history of Yemen must be understood in the context of the long-lasting rivalry between the Zaidi Imamate of the northwestern highlands and the more secular rulers of the coastal and southern highland regions. Equally significant is the fact that Oman and Yemen were two of the world’s least internationally oriented and socio-economically developed countries in the mid-20th century.


Such similarities should not be exaggerated, however. Yemen’s highlands are much more extensive than those of Oman, and they receive significantly more rainfall. As a result, the population of Oman Yemen Population Density MapYemen is, and has long been, much larger than that of Oman. Oman, moreover, has nothing like Yemen’s Hadhramaut, a sizable desert area with abundant water in its deeply incised wadis (seasonal waterways), which allow intensive cultivation and settlement. But despite Yemen’s much larger population, Oman played a much more important world historical role in the early modern period, when its Muscat-based empire controlled large parts of the western Indian Ocean basin. “Yemen proper” (the more densely populated western third of the country), on the other hand, was never much of a power center in this period. The Hadhramis of the Hadhramaut, on the other hand, did play a major economic and cultural role across most of the Indian Ocean realm, with their diaspora taking them all the way to Indonesia.

Yemen Oman ComparedDespite their similarities, Yemen and Oman are today remarkably different places. Yemen is war-torn country at the edge of being a completely failed state. Even before its recent descent into chaos, it was noted for its poverty and general lack of development. Oman, on the other hand, is a stable and prosperous state, with a per capita GDP almost 20 times that of Yemen.

It is tempting to attribute Oman’s better fortunes solely to oil, as oil wealth has allowed its extraordinarily rapid progress in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As the table posted here shows, Oman’s oil production is much higher than that of Yemen. The fact that Oman’s population is much lower, Yemen Oman Fertility Ratemoreover, means that its oil revenues go much further. Here the discrepancy between the two countries will only grow more pronounced, as Yemen’s birthrate in much higher than Oman’s, although it is dropping rapidly. Due to a combination of Yemen fast-growing population, chaotic politics, rampant insecurity, poverty, and general aridity, the country is experiencing a water crisis that could prove devastating within the next few decades. Oman faces problems of its own, most notably an impending oil production decline, but it will probably be able to adjust, given its more general developmental success and its small population. Much depends, however, on the sultanate’s uncertain political succession, as mentioned in a previous post.

The gargantuan difference between the two countries, however, also rests on institutions and even personalities. The tolerant, deliberative nature of Oman’s Ibadi religious establishment may be a foundation of the country’s success. A clear difference between the two counties is found in the characteristics of their recent governments. In Oman, Qaboos bin Said Al Said, in power since 1970s, has been an autocratic but competent ruler who has been devoted to the welfare of his country. In Yemen, president Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power from 1978 to 2012, has been rather different figure. As argued by Thomas Juneau in 2010:

The president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, rules by maintaining a precarious balance among a variety of competing forces, including the military and the security apparatus, the main tribes, political parties and factions, and key clerics. By buying loyalty through patronage and ruling through a combination of cooptation, inclusion and coercion, Saleh has painstakingly built an “administrative feudal system”2 that has evolved into a mix of “kleptocracy and plutocracy.


Finally, some observers link Yemen’s failure to its notorious qat habit. Development is constrained, they argue, when virtually the entire urban male population of the country devotes almost every afternoon to the convivial chewing of the leaves of this mildly narcotic, water-demanding plant. Many Yemenis agree with this perspective. As was reported locally in 2012:

“Qat, the cursed plant in Yemen,” was the headline in a five-part series published by the Yemen Times in 2010, documenting extensively the social problems associated with qat chewing in the country. …

On January 12 [2-12], through social media, Yemenis are organizing an event called “I want Yemen to change – I will not store qat”. This event, organized by Hind Aleryani, a Yemeni activist based in Beirut and who made headlines with the “Shame Reuters” campaign, is a call for all Yemenis, wherever they are, to say no to qat, to not store any qat and to protest the cultivation and consumption of qat. International organizations should watch for this event and support the people of Yemen in making a transition that is much more difficult than any political process: That of building a new country in which the widespread cultivation and consumption of qat can be eventually replaced.

H=Greater Yemen MapDespite Yemen’s myriad problems, a “Greater Yemen” movement evidently still seeks the enlargement of the country, hoping to acquire the southwestern corner of Saudi Arabia as well as Oman’s Dhofar Governorate. Right now, there seems to be a larger chance that a “Lesser Yemen” will emerge from the wreckage of the shattered state.



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Yemen’s Beleaguered Al Mahrah Seeks Autonomy

Al Mahrah Yemen MapYemen’s Al Mahrah Governorate has much in common with Oman’s adjacent Dhofar Governorate. The two areas share the seasonally humid landscape of the south-central Arabian coastal uplands, and both have large non-Arabic-speaking communities, which instead speak languages in the Modern South Arabian group. Both Al Mahrah and Dhofar also maintain a strong sense of distinctiveness from the rest of Yemen and Oman respectively. Dhofar, however, has made peace with its incorporation into Oman, following a prolonged struggle in the 1960s and ‘70s. Al Mahrah did not experience anything like the Dhofar Rebellion, but today it finds itself in a precarious situation, owing mainly to the near collapse of Yemen.

Yemen Proposed Regions MapAs Yemen began to unravel in 2014, its government hatched a plan to try to keep the country together by turning it into a federation composed of six semi-autonomous regions. Yemeni officials thought that this plan could satisfy the aspirations of southern separatists as well as those of other disgruntled regional forces. But it quickly backfired, as the Zaidi Shia Houthi rebels of the north concluded that the proposal would, as reported by J. Millard Burr, “only cement Yemen’s existing uneven distribution of wealth.” As a result, the Houthi rebels surged ahead, forcing the governmental forces to retreat from the densely populated northwestern highlands.

The plan for a federal Yemen also went over poorly in Al Mahrah Governorate. The main problem here is that the proposal would put Al Mahrah in the Hadhramout region, which is a very different place in terms of both cultural geography and historical development. The Mehri-speaking people in particular tend to be suspicious of the Hadhrami people of the Hadhramout, but even the Arabic-speakers of Al Mahrah overwhelmingly reject the six-region federal plan. An October 2014 National Yemen article, quoting Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University, explains the situation:

[P]lans to transform Yemen into a six-region federation are deeply unpopular in Al-Mahra, which would be lumped together with Hadramawt, the neighbouring governorate and Al-Mahra’s long-time foe due to lingering animosity since 1968 when Al-Mahra was overrun by socialist forces entering from Hadramawt, said Kendall.

One of the few Western researchers to gain regular access to eastern Yemen, Kendall helped conduct in April and May a poll of Al-Mahra electorate in which 99 percent of 34,000 respondents said they opposed the idea of a merger with Hadramawt.

“If something is going to be instituted which is that strongly against the wishes of a well-armed people with not much to lose, I think you’re going to have a civil war,” she said.

Yemen June 2015 Political MapAlthough the most recent maps of the political situation in Yemen show Al Mahrah remaining under the control of the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, its hold on the region is not secure. According to Kendall, two-thirds of the local inhabitants do not believe that they benefit from being part of Yemen, and resentment against Hadi “runs high” throughout the region. Deep poverty and a lack of infrastructure exacerbate the situation. One result of such problems, Kendall claims, is an underground economic system: “Their economy is largely illegal – it’s smuggling drugs, guns, weapons and people.” Al Mahrah has also Yemen January 2015 Political Map2been plagued by Islamist extremist groups infiltrating from the west. Kendall argues that the people of Al Mahrah have little sympathy for extremists, noting that they “have taken to patrolling their capital al-Ghayda and its border with Hadramawt to prevent incursions by the jihadist group.” But she also fears that al-Qaeda could gain a foothold in the region if its problems are not addressed, and further worries that the destabilization of Al Mahrah could lead to a humanitarian disaster.

The situation in the neighboring Dhofar Governorate of Oman could hardly be more different, owing largely to the political stability and successful developmental programs of the Omani state. Not surprisingly, Oman is concerned about the chaos along its western border. One of its proposed responses is a separation barrier, and it has been negotiating with an Indian firm to Arabian Leopard Mapcommence construction. This proposal, not surprisingly, is highly controversial. Elisabeth Kendall fears that by cutting off smuggling routes and preventing the cross-border movements of cattle herders it could drive some local people into the fold of Islamic extremism. Omani and Yemeni environmentalists are also wary of the project. Of particular concern is the Arabian leopard, whose last remaining redoubt of any size is the Dhofar highlands. As Al Jazeera reported in May 2014:

“[The border fence] would cut the population [of Arabian leopards] in two,” Abdulrahman al-Eryani, Yemen’s former Minister of Water and the Environment, told Al Jazeera. The creation of two distinct breeding groups unable to access each other for mating – already from one decimated population – could prove disastrous, he said.



It is unfortunate for both the people and the leopards of Al Mahrah that they ended up on the Yemeni side of the border. That they did was largely an accident of political history. From the 16th century, the region formed the Mahri (or Mahra) Sultanate of Qishn and Suqutra, which, as its name indicates, included as well the island of Socotra. At times the Mahri Sultanate was under the hegemony of Oman, but it remained an autonomous polity. In 1866 the mainland portion of this Arabia 1905-1923 Mapstate came under British “protection,” as did the island of Socotra in 1886. (The geographical extent of the Mahri Sultanate is difficult to determine. Curiously, the detailed political map of Joaquín de Salas Vara de Rey of the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century shows the core area of Oman’s Dhofar governorate, Salalah and its hinterlands, as having belonged to it. If that was indeed the case, it is unclear how this vital area became part of Oman. The formal boundary between Oman and Yemen was only established in 1992.)


South Yemen 1965 mapIn any event, as Britain prepared to depart from its Arabian imperial realm in the early 1960s, it reorganized the local political geography. In 1962, 15 small protectorates were merged with the crown colony of Aden to form the Federation of South Arabia, still under British authority. The larger protectorates located further to the east, including the Mahri Sultanate, rejected membership in this federation and were therefore grouped together as the Protectorate of South Arabia.

Meanwhile, opposition to British rule mounted, encouraged by both Yemen and Egypt and underwritten by socialist and Arab nationalist sentiments. The Egyptian-supported, Marxist National Liberation Front (NLF) began to fight the British military in 1963, resulting in the so-called Aden Emergency. Unlike Oman’s Dhofar Rebellion of the same period, British forces did not prevail. Exhausted, the government of Harold Wilson made a hasty agreement with the NLF and withdrew from the region in 1967. Almost immediately, the NLF took control of both the Federation and the Protectorate of South Arabia, which it merged together as the People’s Republic of South Yemen. Needless to say, the local sultanates were abolished. Britain’s abandonment of its “protected” states in the region to communist forces was seen by many as an act of betrayal. A recent thread in Monarchy Forum, a discussion board dedicated to the perpetuation of monarchical rule, frames it as nothing less than a “monstrous betrayal.”

Some voices are now calling for a return of the sultanates of southern and eastern Yemen, either as independent states or, more commonly, as parts of a more finely divided federal state. Such sentiments seem to be particularly pronounced in Al Mahrah and Socotra. Shadiah Abdullah Al Jabry, in a June 2014 article in The National World, reports that:

Slogans such as “We reject exclusion and marginalisation” and “A separate Socotra and Al Mahra region is the future and dignity” were everywhere. Also ubiquitous were the flags of the former Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra, which was abolished in 1967 after the British occupation. …

Sheikh Al Afrar denied he had any hidden agenda to restore his dominion of the former sultanate and said he had no plans to run for political office. As to why he wants the two provinces [Socotra and Al Mahra] to be autonomous under one regional authority, he said it was because they shared a common language, culture and history that can be traced back 700 years.

“My intention is not to claim territory or even independence from the central government,” he said. “Our primary objective is to achieve the aspirations and the hopes of the people of Socotra and Al Mahra and their right to have a separate region within the federation away from dependency, exclusion and marginalisation.” …

Sheikh Al Afrar also said that the demands of the people of Socotra and Al Mahra should not be ignored or denied and called for a popular referendum to be held. He said he was in favour of the federal system as an alternative to the unitary system, which, during the past few decades, has proved to be an utter failure in creating a successful country, as per his analysis. “Now is the time to give the federal system an opportunity to make a comprehensive development framework in all the regions of Yemen,” he said.

A post in the Monarchy Forum mentioned above claims that some local people want more than regional autonomy, as a “movement supporting an independent Mahra and Socotra sultanate is in evidence.” Unfortunately, the links provided are either dead or refer to articles in Arabic, which are inaccessible to me.


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Dhofar: Religion, Rebellion, and Reconstruction

Darbat Waterfalls Dhofar OmanAs mentioned in the previous post, Oman’s Dhofar region is highly distinctive in terms of both language and climate. It is also differentiated from the rest of Oman in regard to religion. Most Omanis follow Ibadi Islam, a branch that is said to predate the Sunni/Shia split, whereas most Dhofaris are Sunni Muslims. Dhofar also has a distinctive political history, and was essentially an imperial possession of Oman until 1970. From the early 1960s until the late 1970s, a major although largely forgotten Marxist revolution in Dhofar shook the foundations of the Omani state, forcing the country at long last to enter the modern world. Today Dhofar, like the rest of Oman, is generally quiet and peaceful – quite in contrast to the situation in neighboring Yemen. Yet it remains in many ways a land apart; as the Dhofari feminist blogger Nadia recently put it, “Our society in Dhofar is dismissive of outsiders, be it someone from another part of Oman or someone from another country…” (Nadia’s website, Dhofari Gucci, also has the best photo that I have seen of the region’s wet conditions during the monsoon season, reproduced here.)

Islamic Sects and Madhhabs MapMost sources claim that roughly 75 percent of the people of Oman follow Ibadi Islam, the faith of the country’s ruling establishment, although some state that the figure could be as low as 50 percent. Historically, Ibadis have often tended to stand apart from other Muslims, as those of Algeria’s M’zab oasis still do, but that is not the case in Oman. Most observers stress modern Ibadism’s unusual combination of strict orthodoxy and tolerance: as the Wikipedia article puts is, “Ibadis have been referred to as tolerant puritans or as political quietists due to their preference to solve differences through dignity and reason rather than with confrontation, as well as their tolerance for practicing Christians and Jews sharing their communities.” Dhofar at one Middle East Religion Maptime evidently had a significant Ibadi presence, but the region has long been dominated by Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence (madhhab), which extends across most of the Indian Ocean realm. The Wikipedia map of Muslim sects and school of jurisprudences posted here, although excellent overall, overlooks the non-Ibadi nature of Dhofar. Mike Izady’s map, on the other hand, does capture it, although it misses the substantial rural population of the humid upland belt located to the north of Salalah.


Over the course of the past few centuries, Dhofar has sometimes been Omani Empire 1856 Mapindependent and sometimes under the rule of neighboring powers, particularly those based in the Hadhrahmaut (to the west) or in northern Oman. In the ancient and medieval periods it often enjoyed marked prosperity based on the trade in aromatic resins, as it was, and is, the core area of frankincense production. Dhofar definitely came under Omani rule after 1750, when that sultanate created a remarkably powerful maritime empire. (The map of the Omani Empire posted here, however, exaggerates the extent of this realm in many areas, although it perhaps downplays the reach of Omani power in the Great Lakes region of central Africa). The website British Empire provides a useful overview:

Between the 1750s and the 1850s, Oman re-established its authority over the islands of the Strait of Hormuz, leasing them from the Persians, secured more than 100 miles of the Makran coast of Baluchistan, reasserted its claims to Dhofar and to the ports of East Africa, and even attempted to take Bahrain. The Mazrui rulers of Mombasa were repeatedly attacked and finally submitted in 1837. The Omani fleet once again became the most powerful local force in the Indian Ocean, if not throughout the East. The architect of this remarkable Omani expansion in the early nineteenth century was the Sultan Seyyid Said, who reigned from 1804 to 1856. He ordered vessels from Indian shipyards, including, for example, the 74-gun Liverpool, launched in 1826, which from 1836 became the Royal Navy Imaum. He possessed in all fifteen western-style warships, as well as a vast fleet of Arab vessels, which could be used for both commercial and military purposes. He could probably embark as many as 20,000 troops. When the Sultan arrived at Zanzibar in East Africa in 1828, his fleet consisted of one 64-gun ship, three frigates of 36 guns, two brigs of 14 guns, and 100 armed transport dhows with about 6,000 soldiers. [Emphasis added regarding Dhofar.]

By the time the Sultan moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840 he had established a highly successful economic system there: an Omani emigrant plantocracy was cultivating cloves, successfully introduced into Zanzibar in 1828, and Indian agents and capitalists, for centuries familiar in Oman and on the East African coast, were capitalising the ivory and slaving caravans which tapped the animal and human resources of the far interior of East Africa.


After the mid-1800s, however, Omani power withered in the face of British expansion, and Oman itself eventually became a protectorate of the United Kingdom. It did maintain a few odd corners of its empire, however, not relinquishing the port of Gwadar in what is now Pakistan until 1958. It also held firmly on to Dhofar; Said bin Taimur, sultan from 1923 to 1970, even based his court in Salalah, the main city of Dhofar. But, as noted in the Wikipedia, “Dhofar itself was a dependency of Oman and it was subjected to severe economic exploitation. Moreover, the population of Dhofar …were subjected to even greater restrictions than other Omanis.”

The restrictions faced by Dhofaris and other residents of Oman were at the time exceptionally harsh, and the country had one of the world’s lowest levels of socio-economic development. As Chris Kutschera, writing in the Washington Post in 1970, described Oman of the 1960s:

Everything, it seemed was forbidden. The inhabitants of the coast were forbidden to travel inland, and those of the inland valleys could not go to the coast, or even from one valley to another. No one was allowed to go to Dhofar, in the extreme southwest.

There were, in all Oman and Dhofar, three primary schools and not a single secondary school. Students who wanted to pursue their studies had to leave their country illegally and start a long life of exile in the Persian Gulf or Kuwait. It was forbidden to build new houses, or to repair the old ones; forbidden to install a lavatory or a gas stove; forbidden to cultivate new land, or to buy a car without the Sultan’s permission.

No one could smoke in the streets, go to movies or beat drums; the army used to have a band, but one day the Sultan had the instruments thrown into the sea. A few foreigners opened a club: he had it shut, “probably because it was a place where one could have fun”, says one of his former victims. Three hours after sunset, the city gates were closed.

No foreigner was allowed to visit Muscat without the Sultan’s personal permission, and sailors on ships anchored at Muscat could not land. Not a single paper was printed in the country. All political life was prohibited and the prisons were full. Sultan Said was surrounded by official slaves in his palace at Salalah, where time was marked in Pavlovian fashion by a bell which rang every four hours.

Dissatisfaction in Dhofar with the rule of Sultan Said bin Taimur steadily mounted, especially among the Shehri-speaking (or Jibbali-speaking) indigenous population of the mountains. In 1962, an open rebellion broke out, aided initially by Saudi Arabia. Within a few years the sultan retreated to his palace, ordering his troops to burn villages and destroy wells in rebel-held areas. The rebellion gradually took a more leftist direction, receiving support from Nasser in Egypt and after 1967 from both the People’s Republic of China and the communist-run People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (or South Yemen, which was actually eastern Yemen in strictly geographical terms). By the end of the decade, Omani forces in Dhofar controlled little more than the city of Salalah, with the entire upland region having fallen into rebel hands.

Dhofar Rebellion1970 saw the deposition of the Sultan by his son Qaboos bin Said Al Said in a British-orchestrated palace coup. With substantial British aid, the new government immediately changed tactics, embarking on a “hearts and minds” campaign to win the support of the Dhofari people. Dhofar itself was transformed into a regular province of Oman, and appeals were made to both Islam and traditional tribal values in order to counter communist ideology. Rebels who surrendered were give cash bonuses, and some were reorganized into counter-insurgency squadrons. Oman’s newly upgraded air force was also effectively used against rebel positions. Military assistance was provided by Jordan as well as the UK, and in 1974 Iran sent a contingent of some 4000 troops. Oman also recruited troops from Baluchistan in Pakistan. The rebellion was officially defeated in 1976, although skirmishes persisted until 1979.

Operation Oman Dhofar RebellionAlthough the Dhofar Rebellion was largely forgotten in the West, memory of the struggle is now being revived through film, memoirs, and blogging. As noted in the blogsite MySecretWarDhofar :

“Only those who have been to Dhofar can fully appreciate the severity of the conditions in which the polyglot force fought and flew; at times extreme heat; at others cold, wet, permanent cloud and rugged terrain, the equal of which it would be hard to find anywhere…Those who fought there, including those who were wounded or died, did not fight in vain.”

Michael Carver – Field Marshal


Sultan Qaboos did far more than merely defeat the Dhofar rebellion. Using oil money he launched Oman on a crash-course modernization drive, which proved extraordinarily successful. Some Omanis no doubt chafe at their lack of freedom and worry about corruption and absolutist rule, and numerous protests broke out during the Arab Spring of 2011 and subsequently – although most were apparently focused on wages and the cost of living. But Qaboos is widely revered, and great concern surrounds the issue of succession. The sultan is ailing, allegedly from cancer, and he has not named an heir. He has no children and is widely believed to be homosexual. The future of Oman is thus quite uncertain, as is that of the country’s monarchy.


The mood of the country is perhaps best captured by the blogger Nadia, mentioned above, who writes at Dhofari Gucci. As she wrote on November 11, 2014:

But you must understand one thing if you are not Omani. You must understand what this man [Sultan Qaboos] means to us. He resembles the only form of true leadership we know. He is the only person we feel our country is safe with. He is the one person Omani trust. Did Oman promote diverse leadership over the past four decades? Not really. We have been dedicated to him as a leader and only him.

I’ll tell you why. People like my family will tell you why. My father was born in a cave. He lived a primitive and difficult life until he was an adult. No electricity, no running water, no warmth, living in the mountains of Dhofar sharing his shelter with animals. At times he was very hungry. There was never enough food.

Today, he has a career, a big car, several houses, children, and a very comfortable life. No matter how happy he is now, he will never forget where he came from. People will never forget what Sultan Qaboos did for them and how he led this country from the darkness to where we are today. You need to understand that. …

For 44 years this man has paved the way for our future. He had a vision. He still has a vision. The past few months have been so difficult for Omanis. We have been walking around with heavy hearts. There are no other visible leaders in Oman. There is no clear successor. We don’t want a successor. Not now. Not yet. None of us, young and old, can imagine Oman without him. None of us can even begin to comprehend our reality without this great human being in our lives.


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Dhofar: The Other Arabia

Arabian PeninsulaThe Arabian Peninsula is a relatively coherent region, tied together by a number of common features. In terms of physical geography, it is noted for its harsh desert landscapes. Even the highlands of Yemen, which receive enough precipitation for rain-fed agriculture, are relatively dry, covered with vegetation that could hardly be described as lush. In terms of cultural geography, the peninsula is the homeland of the Arabic language and hence the Arab people. Most language maps show Arabia as entirely Arabic speaking.

A relatively small area in south-central Arabia, however, differs significantly from the rest of the peninsula on both measures. Designated in a general sense as Dhofar, this distinctive region includes the southwestern portion of Oman’s Dhofar (Ẓufār) Governorate and the southeastern corner of Yemen’s Al Mahrah (Al Mahra) Governorate. Most Dhofar Camels Khareefrural people here speak non-Arabic “Modern South Arabic languages,” although Arabic is more common in the cities and is spoken everywhere as a second language. In the Middle East, the region is most famous for its seasonally humid climate. From late June through August, the Khareef season, the moisture-laden winds of the southwest monsoon catch a limited portion of southern Arabia, turning the landscape a verdant green.

South Arabian Languages MapThe Modern South Arabian Languages are distantly related to Arabic, but they are more closely linked to the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, such as Amharic and Tigrinya. (They were formerly believed to be descendants of the Old South Arabian languages, such as Sabaean, but this is no longer the case). The two most important mainland Modern South Arabian Languages are Mehri, spoken in Arabian Peninsula language mapboth Oman and Yemen, and Shehri (or Jibbali), spoken in southwestern Oman. Mehri has roughly 125,000 speakers and Shehri some 45,000. The other languages in the group are spoken by only a few hundred or a few thousand people, and are thus regarded as severely endangered. Even Mehri may be at some risk, due to pervasive bilingualism and the fact that it has no written form. Locally, these languages are sometimes incorrectly regarded as aberrant dialects of Arabic, and thus of no great significance. The Wikipedia reports, however, that, “Jibbali [Shehri] pride and sense of separateness has contributed to a strengthening of speakers’ attachment to their minority language.” And even if these languages were to disappear, a degree of Arabic Dialects Maplinguistic separation would persist, as the local Dhofari dialect of Arabic is limited to the region and is distinctive enough that it is sometimes regarded as a language in its own right.





Middle East Rainfall MapIntriguingly, the climatic peculiarity of the Dhofar region is not apparent on most climate maps or in most climatological tables. The rainfall map of the Middle East posted here shows it as receiving less than 10 inches (254 mm) annually, the conventional cut-off for a desert climate, whereas the precipitation map of Oman depicts it as extremely arid, getting less than 100 Oman Rainfall Mapmillimeters (3.9 inches) per year. Climate data for Salalah, the largest city in Dhofar, gives a slightly higher figure of 131 millimeters (5.1) inches. But total rainfall is not the only pertinent measurement when it comes to potential vegetation, as such features as seasonality and relatively humidity also play important roles. As can be seen in the Salahla data, rainfall here is concentrated in July and August, a period of extremely highly relatively humidity and very little sunshine. Even so, Salalah remains a dry place, marked by desert vegetation. But if one Climate Table Salalahtravels to the mountainous escarpment just to the north of the city, rainfall totals are significantly higher. In the 2014 Khareef season, one station near Salalah received 499 millimeters or rain (around 20 inches). Although 2014 was a wet year, a sizable strip of land in this area turns a lush green every year, owing to the almost continual light rain and drizzle carried by the southwest monsoon winds.

Humid Areas of Dhofar Map 1I have not been able to find any maps of the seasonally humid lands of Dhofar. But Google Earth does allow crude mapping of this distinctive region, as the local vegetation is so much denser than that of neighboring regions that it clearly stands out in satellite images, even those captured at the end of the long dry season. Photographs attached to the Google Earth site further allow one to visually assess the vegetation, and hence get a rough sense of precipitation. As can be seen from the maps that I made and posted here, one Dhofar Khareefpart of the humid zone is limited to a narrow coastal strip in far southeastern Humid Areas of Dhofar Map3Yemen and the adjacent portion of Oman. A little to the east around Salalah, a drier coastal plain is encountered, with the (seasonally) humid zone found a bit to the north in the uplands and along the mountainous escarpment. Elevation is not the crucial factor, however, as in the loftier heights slightly further to the east the humid zone is attenuated and appears to support scantier Dhofar Khareef2vegetation. What really matters is the existence of uplands situated at the correct angle to catch the saturated winds of the southwest monsoon. But as weather stations are few in this part of the world, it is difficult to make conclusive statements.

Tourists flock to Dhofar to enjoy the green landscapes of the khareef season, and Oman is eager to enhance the flow. As a recent promotional article in the Times of Oman put it, “World-class hotels, villas, furnished apartments and accommodation areas are also ready to receive the growing number of tourists visiting the governorate during the tourist season.” Oman’s government, along with private organizations, are also interested in conserving the region’s unique environment. The Muscat Daily recently reported that the “Environment Society of Oman (ESO) has planted 900 saplings of indigenous species in Dhofar as part of its Native Tree Planting Campaign.” Particular attention is being given to the endemic Dhofar baobab, which has been reduced to some 200 individual trees.

Despite the Khareef rains, Dhofar in general is still a dry region, often beset by water shortages. As a result, plans have been made to collect some of the region’s ample fog drip. As reported in the Muscat Daily in 2013:

To tackle desertification in the governorate of Dhofar, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), in cooperation with the Directorate General of Environment and Climate Affairs, is implementing fog collection project.

According to a press release, the directorate on recently received a delegation from Mitusbishi Company, which is implementing the project in the niyabat of Qyroon Hayrty. ‘It is one of the most important projects of the ministry to prevent desertification in Dhofar governorate. The project is being implemented in partnership with several international and regional organisations,’ the release stated.

Under the project, net traps, also called moisture traps, trap fog and condensate to produce water. ‘This water is expected to support the growth of vegetation in nearby areas and recharge groundwater.’


The next post will examine the political evolution of Dhofar and neighboring areas.


Dhofar: The Other Arabia Read More »

Forgotten Modern Kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, Part 1

Stanford University’s history department recently took its old collection of instructional maps out of storage to hang on permanent display in the hallways. This was an inspired decision, as some of these maps are gems and even the more ordinary ones have some interesting and unusual features.

1923 Arabia MapA 1923 map of Asia by Denoyer Geppert Co. of Chicago, for example, is unexceptional, but its depiction of the Arabian Peninsula is intriguing (see the detail posted to the left). It shows, for example, the small, independent state of Asir in the southwest, rarely seen on maps of this sort, as well as the short-lived (1916-1925) Kingdom of Hejaz. It oddly portrays Oman as if it were a sovereign state rather than a British protectorate, and more oddly still classifies both Qatar (somewhat distorted on the map) and what is now the UAE (then the “Trucial States,” another British protectorate) as parts of the Omani polity. The most unusual feature is the pink strip of land—color-coded as British territory—just to the southwest of Qatar, in an area that now belongs to Saudi Arabia. The mapping makes it seem as if this slice of land had been a northern extension of the British colonial sphere in southwestern Arabia (Aden and the Hadhrahmaut).


Arabian Neutral Zones MapDespite such odd and incorrect portrayals, I rather like this map of the Arabian Peninsular, as it reminds me of the recent establishment of the region’s geopolitical framework. When I was a child, I was intrigued by the undefined boundaries in the Empty Quarter (Rub’ al Khali; “Dahna Desert” on the map here), and even more so by the existence of the stateless Saudi-Iraqi and Saudi-Kuwaiti “neutral zones.” Later on, I was slightly disappointed to see the boundaries fixed and the neutral zones partitioned into nonexistence.


Rashidi Emirate MapOn the map in question, Saudi Arabia does not appear, and for good reason, as it did not exist in 1925. Nedj (“Nedjed”), however, does figure prominently, and Nedj was the nucleus of a state that would be proclaimed as “Saudi Arabia” in 1932. But even the Saudi conquest of Central Arabia was an early 20th century undertaking. Up to 1921, this area had been contested with the more liberal and cosmopolitan Rashīdis of Haʾil, whose state had long overshadowed that of the Saudis. The Saudi state, based on an alliance between the House of Saud and Wahhabi religious establishment, followed up its conquest of the Rashīdi Emirate with the annexation of the Kingdom of Hejaz in 1925 and then with mopping up operations against such small states as coastal Asir (technically the Idrisid Emirate of Asir). According to some sources, Hejaz has never been fully incorporated into the Saudi state at the cultural level. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Hejaz is the most cosmopolitan region in the Arabian Peninsula. People of Hejaz have the most strongly articulated identity of any regional grouping in Saudi Arabia. Their place of origin alienates them from the Saudi state, which invokes different narratives of the history of the Arabian Peninsula. Thus, Hejazis experienced tensions with people of Najd.


Izady Middle East religion mapSaudi Arabia is actually the world’s last great conquest empires, one formed in the unsettled environment that emerged with the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. It is such a recent entity that it net even fully figured out the problem of royal succession, and it still faces an unsustainable dynamic in the ever-increasing size of the House of Saud. In political terms, it is something of an anachronism, a pre-modern, absolute monarchy whose very name denotes the possession of territory by a family. (This would be like the UK styling itself “Windsorian Britannia.”). Given such conditions, “Saudi” national unity remains insecure, and the country faces the possibility of unraveling along regional lines in the event of a profound political or economic crisis. As Mike Izady’s map of religion in the Middle East shows, the Wahhabi sect on which Saudi Arabia rests is deeply rooted only in the central portion of the country, and is largely foreign to the economically vital Gulf and Hejaz regions.

The recent and imperial nature of the Saudi state is rarely discussed, just as the country’s diversity of Islamic sects is generally ignored. Articles on Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against the Zaidi Shia (Houthi) rebels in Yemen, for example, almost never mention the significant fact that most of the people in the neighboring highland region of southwestern Saudi Arabia are also Zaidi Shias (Those of neighboring Najran Region, on the other hand, are mostly Ismaili Shias.) Such historical amnesia is found the very title of the Wikipedia article on the creation of the Saudi state, “The Unification of Saudi Arabia,” which implies that the various conquered regions had some kind of preexisting and widely recognized unity that gives coherence to the current-day country.

If the Rashīdis of Haʾil or the Hashemites of Hejaz had prevailed over the House of Saud, world history would probably have taken a markedly different course from the one that led to the world of today. Speculating on how things might have developed, however, is futile exercise. But the main point remains: there was nothing inevitable about the 20th-century emergence of a state encompassing the area that now forms Saudi Arabia, much less of a state that has the religious-political complexion of the current Saudi polity.

DK Atlas Arabia 1925 MapThe same argument can be made in regard to the other contemporary countries of the Arabian Peninsula, most of which have shallow roots, at least in their current territorial configurations. Conventional historical maps of the early 20th century that depict a just a few British protectorates conceal the intricacy of the preexisting geopolitical order, one that could have yielded very different modern geopolitical formations. Compare for example, the standard map of Arabia in 1925 found in my favorite world historical atlas, the DK Atlas of World History, with the extraordinarily Arabia 1905-1923 Mapdetailed map of Arabia 1905-1923 made by Joaquín de Salas Vara de Rey. The latter map may seem to be overly elaborate, but as Yemen continues to implode, it may end up having more relevance for the future than we might imagine.

The next GeoCurrents post will examine two fascinating south Arabian political entities that did not make it onto the modern map: Mahra and Dhofar.



Forgotten Modern Kingdoms of the Arabian Peninsula, Part 1 Read More »

The Rightwing Nationalist Vote in the Turkish 2015 Election

Turkey 2015 election MHP Vote MapAs noted in previous posts, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) of Turkey did relatively well in the 2015 election, ending up in third place with 16 percent of the vote. It gained 80 parliamentary seats (the same number as the leftwing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), an increase of 28 seats from the previous election. Describing the political stance of the MHP is not easy. Previously a far right party, it has moved somewhat to the center in recent years. Some observers, however, are skeptical of this change. As noted in the Wikipedia:

The MHP used to be described as a neo-fascist party linked to extremist and violent militias. Since the 1990s it has, under the leadership of Devlet Bahçeli, gradually moderated its programme, turning from ethnic to cultural nationalism and conservatism and stressing the unitary nature of the Turkish state. Notably, it has moved from strict, Kemalist-style secularism to a more pro-Islamic stance, and has – at least in public statements – accepted the rules of parliamentary democracy. Some scholars doubt the sincerity and credibility of this turn and suspect the party of still pursuing a fascist agenda behind a more moderate and pro-democratic façade. Nevertheless, MHP’s mainstream overture has strongly increased its appeal to voters and it has grown to the country’s third-strongest party, continuously represented in the National Assembly since 2007 with voter shares well above the 10% threshold.

Despite taking only 16 percent of the vote, the MHP gained a relatively strong position owing to the divided nature of the election and hence of the Turkish parliament. Steven A. Cook recently described Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP, as the “the strongest man in Turkish politics today,” based on the idea that Erdogan’s AKP would have to reach out to him to form a coalition government. That will not be easy, however. According to a recent article in Today’s Zaman:

The preconditions set by Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to form a coalition with the AK Party included the reopening of the corruption claims against four former ministers and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, moving the presidential palace back to its original place in Çankaya and dropping the “settlement process,” also known as the “Kurdish opening.”

As a highly nationalistic party, the MHP is deeply opposed to any accommodation with Turkey’s Kurds. Erdogan’s government has made some openings here, upsetting the MHP, yet it is increasingly hostile to Kurdish interests in northern Syria, and has even threatened to invade if the Syrian Kurds try to form their own state.

The geographical contours of the MHP vote are not particularly clear-cut, as can be seen in the map posted here. The party did quite well in many provinces in central and northeastern Anatolia, and it took more than 10 percent of the vote across most of the country. It received fewer votes in the metropolitan areas of Istanbul and Izmir, but only in the Kurdish southeast was its support negligible. Its particularly strong showing in south-central Osmaniye is easily explained, as this is the home of the party’s leader, Devlet Bahçeli.

In general, provinces that supported the left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP gave extremely few votes to the right-wing, Turkish nationalist MHP, and vice versa. There is, however, one major exceptions to this rule, Iğdır Province located in the far east. Iğdır gave 27 percent of its vote to the MHP and 56 to the HDP. Considering the fact that Iğdır is split relatively evenly between Azeris and Kurds, with few ethnic Turks, I find these returns quite surprising. Evidently, large numbers of the provinces Shia Azeris voted for the hard-core Turkish-nationalist MHP.

Turkey 2015 election Conservative voteOverall, the Turkish electorate remains quite conservative, as can be seen in the final map in this series, one that shows the combined vote of the country’s two rightwing parties, the moderately Islamist AKP and the strongly nationalistic MHP. Over most of central Turkey, the conservative parties retain overwhelming levels of support.



The Rightwing Nationalist Vote in the Turkish 2015 Election Read More »

Turkey’s Leftwing Peoples’ Democratic Party and the Kurdish Question

Turkey 2015 Election HDP mapThe new, leftwing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) did relatively well in the 2015 Turkish election, taking 13 percent of the vote nationwide and sending 80 representatives to the Turkish Parliament. As noted in the previous post, the HDP’s main area of support is the Kurdish-speaking southeast, where it was the clear majority party. Its overwhelming victory in such provinces as Hakkâri and Şırnak, where is gained over 80 percent of the vote, is probably linked more to its embrace of Kurdish aspirations than to its insistently leftist orientation. As explained in the Wikipedia article on the party:

As a democratic socialist and anti-capitalist party, the HDP aspires to fundamentally challenge the existing Turkish-Kurdish divide and other existing parameters in Turkish politics. The party’s programme places a strong emphasis on environmentalism, minority rights and egalitarianism. When fielding candidates, the party employs a 10% quota for the LGBT community and a 50% quota for women. Despite the HDP’s claims that it represents the whole of Turkey, critics have accused the party of mainly representing the interests of the Kurdish minority in south-eastern Turkey, where the party polls the highest.

As the first map posted here shows, the HDP did extremely poorly over most of Turkey, gaining less than five percent of the vote in most provinces in central and northern Anatolia, areas generally noted for their conservative and nationalistic attitudes. But it did little better in the northwest (outside of greater Istanbul and Bursa), which is in general a secular-leaning region where the center-left Republican People’s Party drew a plurality of the vote. In Edirne, in the extreme northwest, the HDP took barely more than three percent of the vote. The HDP did better in the large cities of western Turkey, gaining between 10 and 15 percent of the vote in Istanbul Province and in Izmir. It is unclear how much of the support for the HDP in Istanbul came from leftwing ethnic Turks and how much came from ethnic Kurds, who number up to three million in a city of some 14 million (giving Istanbul a larger number of Kurds than any other city).

Turkey Language Map 1In eastern Turkey, electoral support for the HDP is correlated with Kurdish-majority areas. But how close this correlation actually is difficult to assesses, due largely to the fact that province-level ethnic data in Turkey is difficult to obtain. Even basic language maps of the country vary widely in their depiction of the Kurdish-speaking zone, due in part to the prevalence of linguistic mixing in many areas. Some maps, for example, show large pockets of Kurdish across much of central and south-central Turkey (see, for example, the Muturzikin map posted here). Such partially Kurdish regions, however, Kurds and Turkish Election Map 1are not apparent on the electoral map. To illustrate this fact, I have overlaid the main Kurdish areas from the Muturzikin map on the 2015 electoral map. As can be seen, a number of provinces, such as Yozgat, that supposedly have a substantial Kurdish population gave very few votes to the HDP. To the extent that the Muturzikin mapping is accurate, we would have to conclude that support for Kurdish-oriented politics is to some extent limited to Kurds who live in the core zone of the ethnic group in southeastern Turkey.


Turkey Language Map 2Other language maps, however, show a much more limited extent of the Kurdish population in central Turkey, as can be seen in the figure posted to the left. Again, I have overlaid the main Kurdish zones from this map on the electoral map. The fit here is much closer, although it might seem odd that the HDP gained only 38 percent of the vote in Şanlıurfa Province, which is depicted as mostly Kurdish. In actuality, however, the province has a mixed population of ethnic Kurds, Turks, and Arabs, and is estimated to be only around 47 percent Kurdish. Kars Province in the northeast, on the other hand, Kurds and Turksih election 2is estimated to be only around 20 percent Kurdish, yet it gave just under half of its votes to the HDP. This province, however, also has a large Azerbaijani population, many members of which might be attracted by the HDP’s more general support for minority rights.


Zazaki and Turkish Election 1Tunceli Province in east-central Turkey fits the same patters as Kars, although in a more extreme manner; more than 60 percent of its voters supported the HDP even though the province lies outside of the Kurdish-speaking zone. But just because the people of Tunceli do not speak Kurdish does not mean that they are not ethnic Kurds. Actually, there is no single “Kurdish language,” as the two main dialects, Kurmanji and Sorani, are easily as different from each other as are French and Spanish. Most of the people of Tunceli speak Zazaki (or Zaza), which is more closely related to the languages of Caspian Iran (Gilaki and Mazandarani) than it is to “Kurdish.” But such linguistic Zazaki and Turkish Election 2separation does not prevent the Zaza people from identifying as Kurds; according to the Wikipedia, most of them do. As a result, it should not be surprising that a clear majority of the people of Tunceli voted for the HDP. Yet in neighboring Elazığ Province, which is either predominately Zazaki-speaking or mixed Zazaki-Kurdish, the HDP received barely more than 15 percent of the vote. Elazığ, it turns, has long been noted for its conservatism and Turkish nationalism, despite its apparent ethnic background. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Elazığ is known for being conservative and patriotic. Not a single leftist party has managed to get a candidate elected in the past 34 years. Moreover, the BDP, an ethnic nationalist Kurdish party, has never managed to get an official elected to the Turkish Grand National Assembly in contrary to its neighbouring provinces Tunceli and Diyarbakır. Elazığ is also the most developed city (and province) in the region according to a report that was carried out by the Ministry of Development, making it the most developed region of Eastern Anatolia Region

Turkey Alevi Population MapTo understand the political disparities between neighboring Tunceli and Elazığ provinces, we must also look to religion. Importantly, Tunceli is the center of Alevism, a highly heterodox and generally quite liberal offshoot of Shia Islam. Alevis, who number up to 15 million, are scattered across much of Turkey, but only in Tunceli do they constitute the majority. But oddly, in Sivas Province in central Anatolia, which also has a large Alevi population, the HDP received a minuscule 1.8 percent of the vote. Obviously, neither religion nor ethnicity determines voting patterns, as many locally specific matters must be taken into account as well. In Tunceli Province, additional factors include its high levels of tertiary education coupled with the fact that an earlier Turkish administration shut down its university. As reported in the Wikipedia article on the province: “In 1979/1980 Tunceli had the highest number of students attending universities as well as the top entry points until the only higher education school [was] shut down and was converted to a military base. Tunceli University [,however,] was established on May 22, 2008.”

Another unusual feature of Tunceli is its concentration of Crypto-Armenians. As again noted in the Wikipedia:

Through the 20th century, an unknown number of Armenians living in the mountainous region of Tunceli had converted to Alevism. During the Armenian Genocide, many of the Armenians in the region were saved by their Kurdish neighbors. According to Mihran Prgiç Gültekin, the head of the Union of Dersim Armenians, around 75% of the population of Dersim are “converted Armenians.” … In April 2013, Aram Ateşyan, the acting Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople, stated that 90% of Tunceli’s population is of Armenian origin.

Obviously, many questions here remained unanswered. As always, I welcome feedback from informed readers.


Turkey’s Leftwing Peoples’ Democratic Party and the Kurdish Question Read More »

The 2015 Turkish Election: The Unclear Economic Dimension

Turkey 2015 Vote Parties MapThe 2015 Turkish General Election struck many observers as highly significant, due mainly to the drop in support for the previously dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP), closely associated with president and former prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Although the AKP remains the largest party in the Turkish parliament, it gained only 41 percent of the total vote, thwarting Erdoğan’s plans for strengthening the presidency. To some extent, the election can be seen as a referendum on Erdoğan himself. Highly popular a decade ago, when Turkey’s economy was growing strongly and the country enjoyed peaceful relations with most of its neighbors, Erdoğan has seen his support drop as the economy has faltered, as regional tensions have intensified, and as Turkish democratic institutions have been partially undermined.

As the first map, from the invaluable website Electoral Geography 2.0, shows, the moderately Islamist, “center-right to right-wing” (according to the Wikipedia) AKP triumphed across most of Anatolia, while the “center-left,” moderately nationalistic, “Kemalist” Republican People’s Party (CHP) came in first in most of European Turkey and along most of the greater Aegean coastal region. The new, left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), closely associated with Kurdish nationalism, did relatively well, taking a majority of the votes in the Kurdish-speaking southeast. It received fewer votes overall, however, than the extremely nationalistic Nationalist Movement Party (MHP): 13 percent for the HDP vs. 16 percent for the MHP. But the MHP triumphed only in a few districts concentrated in the south-central part of the country, as its electoral support is much more spatially dispersed than that of the HDP.

Turkey Income by Province MapEthnic and religious factors obviously played a large role in this election, as will be examined more closely in subsequent posts. For now, however, I will concentrate on economic factors. Can we find any geographical correlations between voting patterns and economic conditions? To address this question, we must first find a map that shows some measure of the economic ranking of the provinces of Turkey. Doing so, however, is not easy. A commonly reproduced Wikipedia map that purports to show “per capita income by province in 2011” is not adequate. This map is incomplete, lacking a key, but more problematic is the patterns that it depicts, which seem to be inaccurate. It places Mardin Province in the southeast, for example, in the highest economic category, yet the Wikipedia itself describes this province as suffering from serious poverty, unemployment, and out-migration.

Turkey Socio-Economic Development MapThe best map of economic differentiation in Turkey that I have located come from an article entitled “Regional Disparities and Territorial Indicators in Turkey: Socio-Economic Development Index (SEDI)” by Metin ÖZASLAN, Bülent DINCER, and Hüseyin ÖZGÜR. This map shows generalized levels of socio-economic development; note that I have remapped the original data with a different color scheme in order to emphasis disparities. The main pattern here is quite clear: western Turkey is much more prosperous than eastern and especially southeastern Turkey. Coastal areas also tend to be more developed that interior regions, although here the differences are not pronounced. More striking is the fact that the provinces containing Turkey’s largest cities, Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, and Bursa, are all in the top category of socio-economic development.

Turkey 2015 AKP Vote MapIn comparing the map of the electoral showing of the AKP (Erdoğan’s party) with that of socio-economic development, only one pattern stands out: the impoverished southeast voted heavily for the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In some respects there is noting unusual here, as poor areas often vote for economically leftist parties. But the Turkish HDP is also noted for its culturally left positions, positions that might not be expected to gain widespread support in a mostly rural, peripheral portion of a developing country. Here, I think, one must look to the political aspirations of the Tuerkey Development Vote MapKurdish people, as will be explored in a subsequent post. Otherwise, the 2015 Turkish voting patterns do not correlate strongly with those of socio-economic conditions. Some very poor provinces voted strongly for the AKP, such as Bayburt, while some wealthy provinces, such as Kocaeli, gave a plurality of their votes to the AKP. Intriguingly, the party’s highest level of support came from provinces in the middle of the socio-economic spectrum: Konya and Rize.

One problem with generalized socio-economic rankings is the fact that they do not capture recent changes and general developmental tendencies. Turkey, for example, has over the past 15 years seen the rise of several so-called Anatolian Tiger cities, which have surged ahead in economic production and productivity. These cities have been widely associated with Islamic values, which differentiate them from the older and Anatolian Tigers Maphistorically more secular Turkish industrial cities, such as Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir. According to the Wikipedia article on the “Anatolian Tigers”:

Beyond their shared characteristics in an economical perspective, references have also been made, especially in international media, to different political connotations within the term, including by associating this capital with Islamic values or extending its whole under such definitions as “Islamic capital” or “green capital”. … A 2005 study by the European Stability Initiative that was focused on Kayseri uses the term “Islamic Calvinists” to define the entrepreneurs and their values.

Turkey AKP Vote Decline MapI have crudely mapped the most important of these “Anatolian Tigers” by highlighting the provinces in which they are located. Note that these provinces vary fairly widely in terms of their levels of socio-economic development. They also vary quite a bit in regard to their level of support for the AKP, although in general they did gave a higher percentage of their votes to Erdoğan’s party than did the “average” Turkish province. What I find most intriguing, however, is the fact that two of these “Tiger” provinces, Gaziantep and Kayseri, showed a major drop in support for the AKP between 2011 and 2015. Perhaps Turkey’s recent economic problems have played a role here. The AKP’s most precipitous drop in support, however, was found in the southeast, a phenomenon most closely linked to the emergence of the Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party.


The 2015 Turkish Election: The Unclear Economic Dimension Read More »

Iran Lecture Slides

Arabic Persian Islam MapMy second-to-last lecture on the history and geography of current global events has now been delivered, and the slides are available here at the link. As is noted on the first slide, the lecture was titled, Iran: Nuclear Negotiations, Geopolitical Ambitions, Cultural Complexities, and Historical Legacies.    

Next week I will speak on Nigeria; after that I hope to resume regular posting on GeoCurrents. 

In the map posted here, Farsi (Iran), Dari (Afghanistan), and Tajik (Tajikistan) are all taken to be dialects of Persian. Afghanistan is mapped as a Persian-speaking country even though it is possible that a bit less than half of its population speaks Dari as its mother tongue. But even if this is the case, Persian is still the main language of inter-ethnic communication in the country.

In the lecture, I played a four-minute video clip of the Iranian American comedian Maz Jobrani joking about the differences between Iranians (Persians) and Arabs (a still-shot of Jobrani’s routine is included in the slides). I played this clip because I think that comedy is an effective way of conveying  ethnic stereotypes that may be offensive but are still important to understand. I also think that Jobrani is a talented comedian. But in the beginning of his routine, Jobrani makes some comments about Iranians being “Aryans” that I could not let pass. As a result, the slides following the one of Jobrani take a short detour into the issue of Indo-European linguistics.


Iran Lecture Slides Read More »

Yemen Lecture Slides

Hadhrami Diaspora MapAs mentioned in a previous post, I have devoted most of the past week to preparing a lengthy lecture on Yemen for my course on the history and geography of current global events. I had planned to develop several blog posts on the issues, focusing on such matters as the position of Hadhramaut, an important and fascinating region in eastern Yemen, in the current struggle. (For those interested in the culture of this region, I would recommend the blog-site “Out of Hadhramaut”.) Unfortunately, other pressing issues have descended, making it impossible for me to write these posts.

But I have decided to share all of my many slides from this lecture in PDF format, available at the link below. The first group of these slides mostly provides headlines pertaining to recent events in the country (up to April 7, when the lecture was give). The next set explores the geographical, demographic, economic, and cultural background of Yemen, with a subset devoted to Hadhramaut. The final section examines the country’s historical background, going back to the Bronze Age. I have provided URL information for many of these slides; many of those lacking such information are derived from Wikipedia. In the future, I will try to provide URL information on all slides for this course.

I have some misgivings about sharing these slides without providing explanations of them, as I am sometimes critical of the images that I show. One example here would be the BuzzFeed photos of qat chewing, which I find over-the-top and somewhat reminiscent of the exaggeration found in early anti-drug films such as Reefer Madness, but rather amusing nonetheless.

I do hope that some readers will find these images to be of some use.



Yemen Lecture Slides Read More »

Final Maps on “Geopolitical Anomalies”

This post merely contains some of the additional maps that I prepared for my March 31 lecture on the history and geography of current global events. These maps, like those in the two preceding posts, focus on geopolitical irregularities and anomalies in a region of the world that might be called the “Greater Middle East” (for lack of a better term). The maps in this post, in general, depict anomalies that are less pronounced than those considered in the previous posts.

Unfortunately, I do not have time to prepare explanatory text to accompany these maps. I must be ready to give an hour-and-fifty-minute lecture on Yemen for the same course on Tuesday, April 7, and that will demand most of my time over the next two days.

Divided Territories Map Non-Contiguous States MapOman Exclave MapNew States MapRefugees Map 1Refugees Map 2European Colonial Spheres MapFederations Map

Final Maps on “Geopolitical Anomalies” Read More »

Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part 2

(note: The introduction to this post is found in the post of April 1)

Thus far we have examined a number of geopolitical anomalies in a sizable region of the world centered on Saudi Arabia. We have not yet looked at the most serious challenge to the standard model, however, that of state collapse. Other important issues remain to be considered as well.

Feeble States MapAs mentioned in the introduction to this series, Somalia has not functioned as a coherent state since 1991. Although its internationally recognized federal government controls more territory than it did a few years ago, large areas are still under the power of the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab, while the northwest forms the de facto state of Somaliland. Other areas are essentially run by local clans or other organizations that pledge their ultimate loyalty to the federal government but in actuality have complete or almost complete autonomy. A prominent example is Puntland in the northeast, which covers a third of Somalia and contains roughly a third of its population. Puntland’s constitution reveals its geopolitically ambiguity. It states, for example, that “Puntland is an independent integral part of Somalia”; being “independent” and being an “integral part” of a given country, however, would generally be seen as mutually exclusive propositions.

For many years, Somalia was the only collapsed state in the area covered by the map. That is obviously no longer the case. The official governments of Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq have lost control of vast stretches of their official territory to rival national governments, fully autonomous regions, and Islamist militias. It is now questionable whether any of them can be reconstituted as coherent states, at least any time soon. The authority that several of these states do still possess, moreover, relies heavily on military backing from other countries. The governments of both Iraq and Syria, for example, depend on the armed clout of Iran. The United States and other countries also help prop up Iraq by launching air strikes against ISIS (alternatively, ISIL, Daesh, or Islamic State). Afghanistan is more stable and unified than the other countries highlighted on the map, and is therefore depicted in a lighter shade of red. But if the United States military were to withdraw completely, it is quite possible that it too would unravel — as indeed has previously occurred in the recent past.

Islamist Organizations Greater Middle East MapOne of the main reasons for the collapse or near collapse of the states depicted on this map is the rise of radical Islamist organizations, the more important of which are shown on the next map. The territories under the power of these groups change rapidly, and as a result the map should be regarded as suggestive rather than strictly factual. But the rise of these groups is highly significant, presenting a major challenge to the standard model of global geopolitics. The more extreme groups, such as ISIS, vehemently reject the very notion of the nation-state, which they view as an unholy Western creation and imposition. Although the territories under the control of Islamist armies may well be rolled back in the coming months, these organizations still have the ability to attract militants both locally and from abroad, and thus will likely continue to present an obstacle to state consolidation for many years.

Combat Fatalities MapAlthough actual battle casualties in recent years have not surprisingly been highest in Syria and Iraq, many other countries in the region have experienced a good deal of bloodshed. The map to the left shows total combat fatalities by country for 2014 alone, based on a Wikipedia table. Two states stand out here that have not featured prominently on the other maps in this series: South Sudan and Central African Republic. South Sudan would actually rank second, after Syria, if I had selected the highest estimate given for each country rather than the lowest. South Sudan is noted as the world’s newest sovereign state, having gained independence in 2011. When South Sudanese rebels were fighting against the government of Sudan for independence, they were able to maintain a degree of cohesion, but when that struggle ended the two main ethnic groups of the region, the Dinka and the Nuer, quickly fell apart. Although the fighting has more recently subsided, it is uncertain whether South Sudan will be able to construct cohesive state. Central African Republic has a much longer history of independence than South Sudan, but it also continues to have difficulty in this regard. The vicious fighting between its Muslim and Christian militias in 2014 certainly does not bode well for future stability.

Separatist Movements MapEven many of the countries in this region that have not experienced extensive combat nonetheless contain active separatist movements that seek independence for the people they claim to represent, thereby challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, most of the countries visible on this map are home to such separatist groups, as can be seen in the image posted here. Most of these organizations, however, are not particularly violent or effective, and many consist of little more than a few discontented persons banding together to create a website. But others have the potential to emerge as threats to the states in which they are located. Consider, for example, Ethiopia. According to the Wikipedia article, Ethiopia experienced only 218 combat fatalities in 2014, 172 in the war against Somali OLF Mapinsurgents in the eastern Ogaden region and 46 in the struggle against Oromo rebels in the central part of the country. The same article, however, gives much higher cumulative combat fatalities in these struggles (1,300 in both cases). Another Wikipedia article states that the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) ended in 2012, but a low-level conflict nonetheless persists, and as recently as the 1990s the organization boasted 60,000 fighters (current figures run around 5,000). Significantly, the OLF claims roughly half of Ethiopia’s territory, and its website maintains that it represents an Oromo nation some 40 million strong.


Border Disputes MapThe next map in today’s post shows the ubiquity of territorial disputes in this part of the world, based on another Wikipedia table. As can be seen, relatively few countries here have no border disagreements with their neighbors. Most of these disputes are admittedly relatively minor, and thus do not interfere much with international relations. Some are also rather obscure, such as the argument between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over Tiran and Sanafir islands. According to Wikipedia, Egypt controls these islands but Saudi Arabia claims them, but the article goes on to state that “the definite sovereignty over Tiran Island is left unclear by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, due to geostrategic reasons.”, however, frames the issue quite differently, stating that:

Tiran Island MapBoth of the islands officially belong to Saudi Arabia but are being used by Egypt. Because of strict military regulations, it’s not possible to enter the islands.

The Multinational Force and Observers [MFO] has soldiers stationed at observation points to ensure both parties abide the treaty. The force and observers, totaling 1,900, are under the command of a Norwegian military officer. The military personnel are on loan from 11 nations.

Other border disputes in the region are far more serious. The Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, for example, is absolutely rejected by the government of Afghanistan, which claims that it had been negotiated with the British colonialists in South Asia to separate spheres of influence rather than to fix an international boundary. This perennial border dispute plays into the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have recently intensified. As noted in a Wikipedia article on Afghanistan–Pakistan skirmishes, “The cross-border shellings intensified in 2011 and 2012 with many reports from different occasions claiming that Pakistani missiles have hit civilian areas inside Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province, Kunar Province and Nangarhar Province.”

Additional geopolitical anomalies found in this region of the world will be explored in the final post in this series. With luck, that post will go up on April 5. We will then turn our attention to the situation in Yemen.


Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part 2 Read More »

Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part I

(Note: The introduction to this post is found in the previous post, that of April 1))

U.N. Greater Middle East MapA detail from the Wikipedia map of United Nations members, discussed in the previous post, shows only one non-member in the region that we might crudely dub the “greater Middle East,” which is the focus of today’s post. That non-member is the Palestinian geopolitical anomalies map 1territory, composed of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as can be seen the second map. This area is deeply anomalous in regard to geopolitical standards, and would be worthy of an entire post. The two units of which it is composed are not just geographically but also politically separate, despite efforts to form a unity government.* They have some but by no means all of the attributes of sovereignty. As the map notes, they also occupy an ambiguous position in the United Nations, as well as in the global system of mutual state-to-state recognition.

geopolitical anomalies map 2But the Palestinian territories are merely one of a great many geopolitical anomalies found in the region depicted on this map. Consider, for example, the situation of Kosovo. Although the U.N. map portrays Kosovo as part of Serbia, it is in actuality an independent country. It is not, however, a members of the United Nations, and its recognition by other sovereign states is far from complete. Three other states in the region are also characterized by incomplete international recognition, as the next map shows. 32 U.N. members do not recognize Israel, while Cyprus and Armenia are each denied by one member, Turkey in the former case and Pakistan in the latter. Curiously, Pakistan refuses to acknowledge Armenia in deference to Azerbaijan, which has lost much of its internationally recognized territory to Armenia, yet Azerbaijan itself continues to recognize the country.

geopolitical anomalies map 3







geopolitical anomalies map 4The next map, “States With Barely Functional Central Governments,” highlights recognized U.N member states in which regional governments or factional militias have more power than the state itself, a category that encompasses Lebanon and Bosnia & Herzegovina. In the former case, the militia of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia political party, is much stronger than the national armed forces. As Hezbollah militarily operates on its own, with support from Iran and without oversight by the Lebanese government, its presence in Lebanon contravenes a key defining feature of the state, as states are supposed to have a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and coercion. Lebanon has a peculiar system of “confessionalism,” one in which politics are structured around religious communities. Although this system once functioned relatively well, it has not in the long run proved conducive to national unity. Intriguingly, Lebanese confessionalism was enacted as a temporary measure more than 80 years ago, yet it remains full ensconced.

Bosnia in many ways is even less of a coherent state than Lebanon. It is divided into three autonomous units, the “Serb Republic,” the Croat-Bosniak “Federation” (which is itself rather dysfunctional), and the self-governing unit of Brčko (which formally belongs to both the “republic” and the “federation”). Equally important, the highest political office in the country is arguably that of the “High Representative,” who is not even a citizen of the state, making Bosnia something of an international protectorate. As the Wikipedia notes, “The OHR’s [Office of the High Representative] prolonged interference in the politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also considered to be one of the causes of the low commitment of citizens towards the state.” The other reasons for the “low commitment of citizens towards the state,” however, are probably more significant, particularly that of the persisting ethnic animosity that marks Bosnia’s constituent communities. If given a free choice, most Bosnian Serbs would probably opt to join their territory with Serbia, just as most Bosnian Croats would likely want to join their lands with Croatia. Under such conditions, referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign state is a bit of a stretch, while calling it a “nation-state” is simply unreasonable.

geopolitical anomalies map 5The next two maps, showing internationally unrecognized annexations, are a bit more straightforward. Russia has officially annexed Crimea, and will likely retain full control over that territory. But as this action is widely viewed as illegitimate, most maps produced elsewhere in the world will almost certainly continue to show Crimea as geopolitical anomalies map 6Ukrainian territory. The situation in regard to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh is somewhat more complicated. The Armenian-majority territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has officially declared itself to be an independent state, although it has not been recognized as such by any member of the U.N. Most sources, however, regard it as having been unofficially annexed by Armenia. Most of the lands surrounding the official boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh, moreover, are controlled by the Armenian military and are therefore effectively part of that country. Armenia is able to maintain control over these territories, which formally belong to the larger and more economically powerful country of Azerbaijan, in large part due to Russian support.

geopolitical anomalies map 7The next map portrays internationally recognized sovereign states that do not control their full territorial extent due to the emergence of self-proclaimed states (which are themselves depicted on the following maps). All of these proclaimed statelets exercise effective power over all or most of the territories that they claim, but they do not necessarily possess all of the elements that constitute genuine sovereignty. Most of them are widely viewed as “puppet states” of larger independent countries.



geopolitical anomalies map 8The map posted to the left shows the three self-proclaimed states in question that have received some international recognition. Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey and is often regarded as Turkish client state. The other two, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have gained higher international standings, being reckoned as independent by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru. (Vanuatu had briefly recognized Abkhazia and Tuvalu had briefly recognized both states, but they later withdrew their recognition). Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are commonly regarded as Russian client states, with Nauru giving its nod of approval due to financial compensation from Russia, and Venezuela and Nicaragua doing so to signal their disapproval of the United States and other countries opposed to Russia’s actions. Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, rejecting membership in Georgia, which by international consensus should rightfully encompass them. Northern Cyprus declared its independence from Cyprus in 1983, a maneuver made possible by the Turkish invasion and partition of the island in 1974.

geopolitical anomalies map 9The next map adds to the previous one several self-proclaimed states that lack international recognition. One, Nagorno-Karabakh, has been discussed earlier in this post. Three of the other entities shown on this map, Transnistria (officially, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic), Luhansk People’s Republic, and Donetsk People’s Republic, are widely regarded as Russian puppet states. Transnistria was hived off from Moldova after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the latter two emerged out of far eastern Ukraine during the conflict of 2014. Together, Luhansk and Donetsk form the self-proclaimed federation of Novorossiya, or New Russia. They are recognized as sovereign states only by South Ossetia. Transnistria is recognized by South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Together, these four statelets comprise the inaptly named Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, also called the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States. The other self-proclaimed state shown on this map, Somaliland, enjoys more genuine independence, not serving as a client state. Yet Somaliland has no formal international recognition and is instead regarded as part of the non-functional state of Somalia. Ethiopia, however, comes close to recognizing it, with its local consulate headed by a diplomat with ambassadorial ranking. In 2014, moreover, the British city of Sheffield recognized Somaliland’s independence, a purely symbolic maneuver that nonetheless generated marked enthusiasm in the self-proclaimed state.

geopolitical anomalies map 10Finally, the last map includes as well a fully autonomous region that has not declared its own sovereignty but may well do so in the future: Iraqi Kurdistan. Of all of the “statelets” shown on this map, Iraqi Kurdistan probably has the most effective government; along with Somaliland, moreover, it has the best claims to possessing something approaching genuine independence. I have also appended to it the currently autonomous Kurdish areas of northern Syria, known locally as Rojava. The future situation of this area is of course highly uncertain.


Whatever Rojava’s future may hold, the region is currently structured in an interesting manner that has some bearing on geopolitical models. As described in the Wikipedia:

 The political system of Rojava is a mixture of socialist principles at the local level with libertarian principles at the national level. …

Political writer David Romano describes it as pursuing ‘a bottom-up, Athenian-style direct form of democratic governance’. He contrasts the local communities taking on responsibility vs the strong central governments favoured by many states. In this model, states become less relevant and people govern through councils similar to the early US or Switzerland before becoming a federal state in the Sonderbund war. Rojava divides itself into regional administrations called cantons named after the Swiss cantons. …

Its programme immediately aimed to be “very inclusive” and people from a range of different backgrounds became involved (including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen (from Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi religious groups).


Thus far we have examined just a few of the anomalies found in the geopolitical map of this region. We will look at many more in tomorrow’s post.

* As noted in the Wikipedia, “On 30 November 2014, Hamas declared that the unity government had ended with the expiration of the six month term. But Fatah subsequently denied the claim, and said that the government is still in force.”

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Michael Izady’s Amazingly Detailed Map of Ethnicity in Syria (and the Syrian Armenians)

Syria Simple Ethnicity MapMost maps that show the distribution of ethnic groups within particular countries are relatively simple, depicting a few discrete populations within large, contiguous blocks of territory. The distinguishing characteristics of such groups are rarely specified. A good example of such a useful yet overly simplified map is the Washington Post’s portrayal of Syria posted here. This map reduces the complex mosaic of Syria to three groups, two based on religion (Sunni and Alawite) and the other primarily on language (Kurd). But as most Syrian Kurds are Sunni Muslims, the portrayal is somewhat misleading. A better key would have labeled the tan color as indicating the distribution of Sunni Arabs, although in actuality many non-Arab (as well as non-Muslim) communities are scattered across this large swath of Syrian territory.

Syria Ethnicity Summary MapBut an internet image search of “Syria ethnicity map” returns a sizable number of far better maps that depict vastly more intricate patterns. As it turns out, most of these maps were either made by, or based on the work of, Michael Izady, the word’s most accomplished cartographer of cultural matters. On the Gulf 2000 website that features Izady’s work, one can find several superb maps of ethnicity in Syria Large Ethnicity MapSyria (and in many other countries as well). A small-format summary map shows the basic patterns, breaking down the population of Syria into thirteen groups, with demographic data provided in an accompanying chart and table. Izady’s large map of Syria’s ethnic composition provides far more information. Although impossible to tell from my reproduction here, the map is gargantuan. As a result, one can focus in on particular areas without losing resolution, as can be seen in the map details posted here. The map’s key, moreover, points to the complex blending of language and religion that form the foundation of ethnic identity in this part of the world. On the actual map itself, a brief essay on ethnicity provides a sophisticated conceptual framework as well as a bit of historical background.

Syria Ethnicity Map Detail 1A close inspection of the map shows that much of western and northern Syria are characterized by staggering ethnic complexity. That Izady has been able to accurately depict such intricacy is Syria Ethncity Map Detail 2remarkable. Small but non-negligible groups that are almost always ignored, such as Syria’s Ismailis and Twelver Shias, are mapped with precision. Separate groups that are habitually conflated, such as the Alawites and the Nusairis, are distinguished and mapped accordingly.

At first glance, Izady’s separation of the Alawites and the Nusairis left me puzzled. I had been under the impression that “Nusairi” was merely a pejorative term used by Sunni Muslims to disparage the highly heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam that is more properly known as the Alawite sect, which also happens to be the faith of the ruling core of the Syrian government. But the Nusairi group proper is indeed distinct from the Alawites, although the faiths of both groups, as Izady indicates, are partly rooted in ancient Gnosticism. The limited amount of research that I was able to conduct did not allow me to determine what specific features differentiate these two groups. Unfortunately, most of the readily accessible internet sources come from hostile Sunni Islamist website that disparage both groups and tend to lump them together. Intriguingly, the Nusairis are shown in Izady’s map as inhabiting the higher reaches of the Coastal, or Nusayriyah, Mountains, whereas the Alawites proper are concentrated in lower-elevation areas. (The term “Nusayriyah Mountains,” derives, according to the Wikipedia, from “an antiquated label for the [Alawite] community that is now considered insulting,” again conflating the two groups. )

Syria Ethnity Map Detail 4As Izady’s maps show, Armenian communities are scattered through several parts of Syria. One of the largest Armenian communities is found in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zur (alternatively Deir ez-Zor, Deir Ezzor, Deir Al-Zor, Dayr Al-Zawr, Der Ezzor), a settlement of more than 200,000 inhabitants that is noted for its oil-refineries and other industries. Deir al-Zur is particularly important in Armenian history, as it was one of the main destinations of Armenians expelled by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, a deadly process regarded by most historians of the issue as genocidal in nature. Deir al-Zur is also located near the core power-base of the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS). As a result, the Armenian communities of the region are highly threatened.

ISIS Control mapOver the past two months, I have been periodically trying to determine the situation of the Armenians of Syria and especially eastern Syria, but with little luck. Some sources indicate that half of the Armenian population has fled the country. Many maps that show the current military situation depict the key city of Deir al-Zur as an island of Syrian governmental control in an ISIS sea (such a pattern is even found on maps that maximize the ISIS zone, such as the Wikipedia map posted here, which inaccurately portrays Kobane was having fallen to Islamic State forces). Other sources indicate that intensive fighting has recently occurred in the vicinity, and that much or perhaps all of the city has been taken by Islamic State fighters, but information remains thin. The most recent information that I have found dates from October 21 and comes from a Columbian newspaper. If my translation is correct, the paper reports that, “The group Islamic State today took part of the industrial area of ​​the city of Deir al-Zur in eastern Syria, after facing the forces of Bashar al-Assad regime, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” The sardonic humorist Ambrose Bierce once quipped that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” But if so, help by the media is still needed in this educational initiative, and I am not convinced that they are doing an adequate job.

The city of Deir al-Zur did gain brief attention in late September after ISIS militants destroyed a prominent Armenian Church as well as an Armenian Memorial to the ethnic expulsions of the early twentieth century, prompting widespread international condemnation. Armenian sources, however, expressed disappointment that the official response from the United States “failed to either mention the very reason for this holy site’s existence, the Armenian Genocide…”

Gathering information on Deir al-Zur is complicated by the fact that its name also denotes the Syrian governorate (province) in which the city is located. Most news searches for Deir al-Zur (regardless of which spelling is used) thus return information that pertains to the larger province, not the city per se. One of the more unusual and intriguing recent articles on the province examines, “rules for journalists” that have been put forward by ISIS in the regions that it controls. As can be seen from this excerpt of an official ISIS proclamation, the groups does not hold the Qatari media giant Al Jazeera in high regard:

3 – Journalists can work directly with international news agencies (such as Reuters, AFP and AP), but they are to avoid all international and local satellite TV channels. They are forbidden to provide any exclusive material or have any contact (sound or image) with them in any capacity.

4 – Journalists are forbidden to work in any way with the TV channels placed on the blacklist of channels that fight against Islamic countries (such as Al-Arabiya, Al Jazeera and Orient). Violators will be held accountable.


Michael Izady’s Amazingly Detailed Map of Ethnicity in Syria (and the Syrian Armenians) Read More »

The Extraordinary Cultural Cartography of Michael Izady, Part I

Middle East Oil Religion MapTo understand the political situation of the Middle East today, it is necessary to examine the geographical relationships pertaining to political borders, the distributions of religious and linguistic groups, and the patterning of oil and gas deposits. Of particular significance is the fact that many of the largest fossil fuel deposits are found in areas that are not primarily inhabited by Sunni Arabs. Many of the major oil and gas fields are rather found in Shia (and to a lesser extent, Ibadi) regions, and in Kurdish territory. This pattern is especially significant in regard to the oilfields of eastern Saudi Arabia, which are located in a mostly Shia region of a state noted for its hostility to Shia Islam. Just last week, Saudi Arabia sentenced a prominent Shia cleric to death for supporting non-violent protests.

Several years ago, I made my own amateurish map of this issue, focused on Saudi Arabia. I later discovered an extraordinarily detailed and accurate map of the same issue covering a much larger swath of territory. This map made was made by Dr. Michael Izady, a scholar of the Middle East and a cartographer extraordinaire. Izady’s maps can be found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, a site that I cannot recommend highly enough. To my mind, Izady is the world’s best cultural/historical cartographer. He has brought cultural mapmaking to a level never before seen, far surpassing all rivals. His map collection is substantial, he continues to produce new maps on new topics, and he continually revises his old maps. Many of his maps simultaneously show cultural and demographic patterns, mapping densely populated areas in darker shades from sparsely settled areas and leaving virtually uninhabited zones blank. Such a cartographic strategy is highly useful—and very difficult to pull off.

For the next week or so, GeoCurrents will be showcasing Izady’s maps. Today’s post is brief, but more detailed essays will follow.

Religion Arabian Peninsula MapWhenever I study one of Izady’s maps, I find patterns that I had not previously been aware of, making me want to learn more. I also use his maps extensively in preparation for teaching. This afternoon, for example, my undergraduate seminar on the history and geography of current global events will be examining the position of Shia Islam in Saudi Arabia (among other topics), and here Izady’s maps prove crucial. Most important, they show that Shi’ism in the country is by no means limited to the oil-region along the Gulf, although that is the way that the situation is generally portrayed in the media. Note, for example, the large Shia area in southwestern Saudi Arabia adjacent to the Shia portion of Yemen, which in turn has been at the core of the recent turmoil in that country. But despite the obvious importance of this issue in Yemen, the situation of the followers of Zaidi Shi’ism in adjacent areas of Saudi Arabia is almost never mentioned in the media.

Southwest Arabia Religion MapBut it gets much more complicated than that. The detail of Izady’s global map of Shia Islam posted to the left shows that the Zaidi sect is not the only branch of the Shia faith found in southwestern Saudi Arabia, as the Ismaili sect is represented as well. Izady’s map of Yemen Religion Mapreligion in Yemen shows the Ismaili areas of that country in extraordinary detail. Ismaili Islam is itself a complex branch of the faith, with numerous divisions of its own and a fascinating history (and one in which Yemen plays a major role.) If I had the time, I would now be delving into the persecuted Ismaili faith in Saudi Arabia’s Najran province. As Wikipedia notes, “In Najran city, the Khushaiwa compound, with its Mansura mosque complex, is the spiritual capital of the Sulaymani branch of the Ismaili sect…” But as it is, I must turn away from such matters and prepare for class! More later…





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