Defining the MENA region

There is no standard definition of the MENA region, however, as the name indicates, the term compromises two main areas.

The first part of the term, Middle East, creates a problem of definition as the geographical area does not have precisely defined borders. The Middle East was first used as term by the British in the late nineteenth century to refer to the Arabian Gulf region (Roudi-Fahimi and Kent, 2007, p. 4). It became more widely known when U.S. naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan used the term (Koppes, 1976). By 1940, the British established the Middle East Command, which was based in Cairo, for its military forces in the region. The Middle East then included not only Iran, Israel and the Arab states of Western Asia, but also Cyprus, Egypt, and Turkey. Recently, a new expanded political term has emerged called the “Greater Middle East”, which incorporates even more countries within the definition. The Greater Middle East was first coined and introduced by the Bush Administration at the 2004 G8 Summit  and encapsulates not only the Arab world, but also Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and Turkey (Ottaway and Carothers, 2004).

The second area, North Africa or Northern Africa, is the northernmost region of the African continent, linked by the Sahara to Sub-Saharan Africa. Geopolitically, the UN definition of Northern Africa includes the following seven countries: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Western Sahara. In an attempt to combine areas, different bodies and studies, the United Nations and related international institutions have aggregated them beneath the title of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

The World Bank uses the term to cover an extensive region including 21 countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, West Bank and Gaza, and Yemen. Similarly but excluding Israel, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) incorporate 20 countries within the MENA. The International Financial Corporation (IFC) covers in its operations under the name MENA 20 countries, from Morocco in the west to Pakistan in the east.

Figure 3: Map of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries.


The area covered in this research includes 23 countries in Western Asia and North Africa and includes the non-Arab countries of Iran, Israel, and Turkey. This will compromise the different region definitions particularly that are used by WB and IMF.

The boundaries of the MENA region are largely defined by the expansion of Islam in the seventh century and therefore share a common religion today. Before Islam was introduced, much of the region was part of the Roman and then Byzantine Empires. The national borders of contemporary MENA countries date to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I when the region was carved into many smaller states by European powers, namely Great Britain and France. After the Ottomans had ruled much of the region for six centuries (13th to 20th century), the European powers drew often arbitrary national borders across the map of the MENA region that would fall beneath their tutelage as mandates (Fahimi and Kent, 2007, p. 4).  In general, three geographical facts can be attributed to the region: firstly, the region is largely desert land; secondly, the region strides Asia, Europe and Africa and is therefore a trading centre; and thirdly, it has the world’s largest reserves of oil and gas, making it of immense geo-political importance (Sachs and Warner, 1995).

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