What Does the Term “Middle East” Mean?

By: Dr. Kaveh Farrokh


I would first like to take this opportunity to introduce an excellent article by Professor Pirouz Azadi from New York entitled:

Looking Middle Eastern? You Are a Prime Suspect

Professor Azadi’s article is exemplary and highly recommended as it encapsulates what people of 'Middle Eastern" descent are going through these days. There is one tangential but very important point to be made here however. What does the term "Middle Eastern" mean, exactly?

The term -
Middle East - when examined in cultural, anthropological and cultural terms makes very little sense. Allow me to state this bluntly: the construct  "Middle East" is a geopolitical invention - void of any scientific basis. The term was first invented by American lecturer and Anglophile Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914):


Mahan first invented the term 'Middle East' in the September 1902 issue of London's monthly "National review" in an article entitled "The Persian Gulf and International Relations" in which he wrote: "The Middle East, if I may adopt the term which I have not seen

Mahon's term referred only to the Persian Gulf region and Iran's southern coastline. Mahon was trying to find a way to remove the historical reference to the "Persian Gulf" since this offended the geopolitical sensitivities of the British imperial office. Translation: the British imperial office has sought for ways for over 100 years to remove the legacy of Persia in the Persian Gulf. The very term 'Persian' continues to elicit a knee-jerk reaction among the distinguished petroleum and geopolitical barons who hold lucrative interests in the (so-called) "Middle East"...

Britain, Southern Persia and the Islands close to the Persian coastline in particular, were viewed as geopolitically and militarily important as Malta or Gibraltar for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. Note that petroleum was just beginning to gain importance to modernizing economies and the Royal Navy just before World War One (1914-1918).

Mahon's invented term was popularized by Valentine Ignatius Chirol (1852-1929), a journalist designated as "a special correspondent from Tehran" by The Times newspaper.


Chirol's seminal article "The Middle Eastern Question" expanded Mahon's version of the "Middle East" to now include "Persia, Iraq, the east coast of Arabia, Afghanistan, and Tibet". Surprised? Yes, you read correctly -Tibet! The term Middle East was (and is) a colonial construct used to delineate British (and now West European and US) geopolitical interests.

Mahon and Chirol's nomenclature (Middle East) provided the geopolitical terminology required to rationally organize the expansion of British political, military and economic interests into the Persian Gulf region. After the First World War, Winston Churchill became the head of the newly established "Middle East Department".


Churchill's department again redefined "The Middle East" to now include the Suez Canal, the Sinai, the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the newly created states of Iraq, Palestine, and Trans-Jordan. Tibet and Afghanistan were now excluded from London's Middle East grouping.

Churchill's removal of
Afghanistan from the 'Middle East' made perfect sense from a British standpoint, as they have been keen to inculcate a sense of 'separateness' in the Persian speaking Afghans with respect to their Iranian brethren in Iran and Tajikestan. Even the term 'Dari' may be at least partly be due or inspired by the distinguished offices of British East India Company of colonial India.

The decision to affirm non-Arab
Iran as a member of the Middle East in 1942 appears to have been mainly as a means of rationalizing British interests in the region in World War II, along with support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. This also rationalized the role of British Petroleum in Iran.  The term "Arab Gulf" was also invented to (a) pretend that Persia's legacy does not exist in the Persian Gulf and (b) to provide a rallying point for Arab nationalism against Iran. The term "Arab Gulf" was first (unsuccessfully) proposed in the 1930s to the British government by Sir Charles Belgrave who was in Bahrain - and then popularized by British Petroleum employee and MI6 agent Roderic Owen.

For further discussion of this topic, kindly click:

Pan-Arabism's Legacy of Confrontation with Iran

Turkey's status is particularly interesting in that despite over 90 percent of her landmass being in Asia and her population being predominantly Muslim, is currently being supported by the United States and Britain to have its status changed from that of a 'Middle Eastern' state to that of a 'European' one.

The definition of the term
Middle East is defined by geopolitical strategists who reside outside of the so-called 'Middle East'. The term is certainly elastic is it not? This elasticity is again in accordance with contemporary British and Eurocentric geopolitical calculations.

So much for the 'origins' of the so-called '
Middle East'. It is important for Iranians to understand the overtly racist and geopolitical origins of this term.  It is comical to see gullible Arabs, Iranians and to a lesser extent Turks (many who now wish to be 'European' actually) saying that they are 'Middle Eastern'.

Many Arab scholars (e.g. Al-Ibrahim) do not see the term as valid as it simplistically lumps Arabs with non-Arabs: they envision an Arab '
Middle East' without the non-Arab states of Iran, Israel and Turkey. Arab scholars have noted that "the term Middle East … tears up the Arab homeland as a distinct unit since it has always included non-Arab states". Simply put, scholars such as Dessouki and Mattar use a paradigm that unifies the Arab speaking regions of North Africa, the Fertile Crescent, the Arabian Peninsula as well as the Arab regions of the Persian Gulf.

A final point is of interest. First, as we have seen, the term "
Middle East' is void of any geographical, linguistic or cultural validity. This leads to the second point: the expression 'Looking Middle Eastern' is itself a fraudulent term of mainly English and Western European origin. In purely anthropological terms, this simply does not make any scientific sense.

If the criterion is darker Caucasians, then one has to also identify inhabitants of parts of the Balkans,
Greece, Italy, Spain, Albania, the Caucasus, Ukraine and certain locales in Wales, England as 'Middle Eastern'. This is of course, nonsense. Conversely, blondism does sometimes occur in Arab countries such as Syria (esp. the Druze), Lebanon, Jordan (esp. Arabs of Circassian descent), and Iraq. More frequent cases are seen in Iran, itself of Indo-European origins, which has a prevalence of blondism in regions to its north and west, and even locales in its interior (the Iranian Plateau). Western Turkey also exhibits incidences of blondism, as well as among its Kurds in Eastern Anatolia. Northeast Iran is also home to a vibrant Turcoman population, who at times physically resemble Far East Asian populations.

It is interesting to investigate this point: why are westerners so intent on grasping at a simplistic definition for the diverse peoples and regions of the Arab
World, Turkey and Iran? Interestingly, Israelis are not usually classified as 'Middle Eastern' - yet many of them certainly fit the stereotypical profile of the Hollywood inspired 'Middle Eastern appearance'. A comical situation did occur in which Iranian born Israeli defense officer, Shaul Mofaz was questioned by US immigration officers even as he was to have attended a meeting with the neocons in an anti-Iran summit!


It would seem that simply being dark and swarthy makes one a suspect! I know personally of Greeks, Italians and Welsh people who have been questioned by US immigration officers simply because of their 'Middle Eastern' appearance!' Perhaps British actor Sean Connery (of James Bond 007 fame) may himself become a suspect by US immigration authorities as his swarthy and dark looks make him look somewhat 'Middle Eastern looking':


In my humble opinion, the term 'Middle East' is wholly inaccurate when describing Iranians - esp. given Iran's very diverse, rich and multivaried cultural and anthropological diversity. Mahon, Chirol and Churchill were not considering scientific or historical factors when they were seeking for ways to delineate British imperial interests.


Dr. Kaveh Farrokh