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The Geography of the Middle East

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Framing the Issues

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How Have Civilizations Used Natural Resources?

Urban centers of early Middle Eastern civilizations were located in agricultural areas close to water, rather than being near raw materials and mineral wealth. The sources of wealth were extremely important to early states and empires, and their rulers organized trading expeditions and extracted tribute from resource-rich areas, but daily needs for water and food were more immediate necessities. Ultimately, manufacturing in urban centers generated greater wealth and more innovation than mining or logging in the resource-rich zones.

The relationship between natural resources and growth of civilizations has been considered many times. Jared Diamond, in his well-known book Guns, Germs, and Steel, has argued that the distribution of resources around the world gave Eurasian societies advantages over civilizations in Africa and America, and that it was inevitable that Europe would ultimately develop more quickly. This deterministic model has provoked a great deal of discussion among scholars. It is clear, however, that his model does not explain historical development at a smaller scale—resource distributions appear rarely to have determined the rise or fall of civilizations in the Middle East.

This issue has taken on new relevance in modern times, with the development of internal combustion engines and the discovery of vast oil reserves in many countries in the Middle East. These changes have generated a great deal of wealth for Middle Eastern governments (and the foreign oil companies that have worked in the oil fields), but have also posed significant challenges as they moved the Middle East into the position of being a resource-rich zone in a larger world economic system. The danger for Middle Eastern states is relying heavily on oil revenue, but not using that revenue to invest in education and develop robust economies that are not dependent on oil.

Supporting Links:

“Oil and Gas: The Atlas of the Middle East.” The University of Texas. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 29, 2010).

“Lesson Plans: Oil and Water in the Middle East Region.” National Geographic Xpeditions. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 29, 2010).

“Role of Wood in World History, The.” Environmental History Resources. Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 29, 2010).

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