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Why is the Middle East called the Middle East?


A question commonly raised during Middle East cross-cultural training is why the region is named this way.

Geographically, there’s very little ‘east’ in the Middle East.

Since the region encompasses some of the most northern parts of Africa and South West Asia then what exactly is the region to the east of and what is it in the middle of?

To explain this in a nutshell, the term ‘Middle East’ is actually a political construct, which was coined in the 1850s by staff in the British India Office.

During this period, the Orient (a term used to describe the East) was split into three distinct areas – the Near East, the Middle East and the Far East.

The Near East included the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans and the Far East included Asian countries along the Pacific Ocean. British colonisation of India made this region of critical importance to the British during this time.

The Middle East, therefore, came to mean the lands in between these areas – essentially areas to the East of the Near East and to the West of the Far East.

The Middle Eastern region was particularly important during this time as it served as a buffer region in the defence of British interests in India.

The terms made sense when they were first coined, and they helped to designate locations from a Eurocentric perspective.

The term ‘Middle East’ then evolved to become common verbal currency in 1902 when Alfred Thayer Mahan, a USA naval officer and historian, used the term in an article to describe the land between Arabia and India.

Despite the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and other geopolitical events, the term ‘Middle East’ is an established term, widely used by people both within and outside the region.

Many people argue however, that, since the term is Eurocentric and only valid from a Western perspective, that it should be replaced with a term that is more appropriate.

Jerwaharlal Nehru (the first Prime Minister in India), for example, argued that the term should be replaced with ‘West Asia’. His suggestion continues to receive a great deal of support and many academics

"Middle East” is problematic because it is, undeniably, a Western term reflecting a Western perspective.

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If you're interested in Middle Eastern culture, and especially if you work in the region, you will find our Middle East eLearning Online Cultural Awareness Course a great resource.

Not only does it give practical tips on doing business in the region, but also provides specific insights into the different cultures wtihin the Middle East, the people, societies, values and mindsets.

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