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The term Arabs refers to the people who speak Arabic as their
native language. A Semitic people like the Jews (see SEMITES),
Arabs form the bulk of the population of Algeria, Bahrain,
Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman,
Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab
Emirates, Yemen (Aden), and Yemen (Sana). In addition, there
are about 1.7 million Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli
rule in the WEST BANK and GAZA STRIP, territories occupied by
Israel during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (see ARAB-ISRAELI
WARS), and more than 700,000 Arab citizens of Israel.
Estimates of the total Arab population of the countries above
range from 175 to 200 million. The great majority of Arabs are
Muslims, but there are significant numbers of Christian Arabs
in Egypt (see COPTIC CHURCH), Lebanon, and Syria and among
Palestinians. In geographical terms the Arab world includes
North Africa and most of the Middle East (excluding Turkey,
Israel, and Iran), a region that has been a center of
civilization and crossroads of trade since prehistoric times.


References to Arabs as nomads and camel herders of northern
ARABIA appear in Assyrian inscriptions of the 9th century BC.
The name was subsequently applied to all inhabitants of the
Arabian peninsula. From time to time Arab kingdoms arose
across on the fringes of the desert, including the Nabataeans
at PETRA in southern Jordan in the 2d century BC and PALMYRA in
central Syria in the 3d century AD, but no great Arab empire
emerged until ISLAM appeared in the 7th century AD and provided a
basis for Arab tribal unity.

Although a majority of Muslims today are not Arabs, the
religion was born in the Arabian peninsula and Arabic is its
mother tongue. MECCA, a place of religious pilgrimage for
tribes of western Arabia and a trading center on the route
between southern Arabia and the urban civilizations of the
eastern Mediterranean and Iraq, was the birthplace of the
prophet of Islam, MUHAMMAD Ibn Abdullah (c.570-632 AD); the
Muslim calendar begins with his flight to MEDINA in 622 because
it marked the founding of a separate Muslim community. By the
time of Muhammad`s death, Mecca and nearly all the tribes of
the peninsula had accepted Islam. A century later the lands of
Islam, under Arab leadership, stretched from Spain in the west
across North Africa and most of the modern Middle East into
Central Asia and northern India.

There were tow great Islamic dynasties of Arab origin, the
UMAYYADS (661-750), centered in Damascus, and the ABBASIDS
(750-1258), whose capital was Baghdad. Most Umayyad rulers
insisted on Arab primacy over non-Arab converts to Islam, while
the Abbasid caliphs (see CALIPHATE) accepted the principle of
Arab and non-Arab equality as Muslims. At its height in the
8th and 9th centuries, the Abbasid caliphate was
extraordinarily wealthy, dominating trade routes between Asia
and Europe. Islamic civilization flourished during the Abbasid
even though the political unity of the caliphate often
shattered into rival dynasties. Greek philosophy was
translated into Arabic and contributed to the expansion of
Arab-Persian Islamic scholarship. Islamic treatises on
medicine, philosophy, and science, including Arabic translation
of Plato and Aristotle, greatly influenced Christian thinkers
in Europe in the 12th century by way of Muslim Spain. The
power of the Arab Abbasid family declined from the 10th century
onward due to internal political and religious rivalries and
victories by Christian European Crusaders (see CRUSADES;
MIDDLE EAST, HISTORY OF THE) seeking to recapture territory
lost to Islam. The Mongol invasion of the 13th century
(see MONGOLS) led to the destruction of the Abbasid caliphate in
1258 and opened the way for the eventual rise of a great
Turkish Muslim empire known as the OTTOMAN EMPIRE. The
Ottomans took Constantinople (Istanbul) from the Byzantines in
1453 and had taken control of the Arab Middle East and most of
North Africa by the end of the 16th century. Arabs remained
subjects of the Ottoman Turks for over 300 years.
The Arab world of today is the product of Ottoman decline,
European colonialism, and Arab demands for freedom from
European occupation. At the beginning of World War I all of
North Africa was under French (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco),
Italian (Libya), or British (Egypt) domination. After World
War I the League of Nations divided the Arab lands that had
remained Ottoman during the war between Britain and France with
the understanding that each power would encourage the
development of the peoples of the region toward self-rule.
Iraq and PALESTINE (including what is now Jordan) went to
Britain, and Syria and Lebanon to France. Britain had
suggested to Arab leaders during the war that Palestine would
be included in areas to be given Arab self-determination, but
British officials then promised the region to the Zionist
movement, which called for a Jewish state there (see ZIONISM).
The Arab lands gained their independence in stages after World
War II, sometimes, as in Algeria, after long and bitter
struggles. Much of Palestine became the state of Israel in May
1948, setting the stage for the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which
five wars have occurred (1948-49, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982),
and contributing to the rise of the PALESTINE LIBERATION
ORGANIZATION (PLO), which gained prominence after the
humiliating Arab losses in the 1967 war.


Arabs have traditionally been considered nomads, epitomized by
the BEDOUIN of Arabia. Stereotypical portrayals of Arabs today
use the image of the nomad or tribal sheik, usually with
prejudicial intent. In fact, it is difficult to generalize
about Arabs in terms of appearance or way of life. Bedouins
are less than 10 percent of the total Arab population. Most
Arab societies are heavily urbanized, particularly the oil-rich
states of the Arabian Peninsula. This reversal of the
stereotype of the desert Arab owes much to the fact that there
is little if any agriculture in such societies. Major peasant
populations are found in countries such as Egypt (see
FELLAHIN), Syria, Algeria, and Iraq, where there is water for
irrigation, but even there generalizations are difficult. All
these nations have heavy urban concentrations; Cairo, for
example, has a population of 14 million and is still expanding.
As a whole, then, Arab society today is more heavily urban than
rural, as a result of major political, economic, and social
changes that have occurred in the last century. In addition,
there are important variations in political and religious
outlooks among Arabs.

In the midst of such diversity the two basic elements uniting
most Arabs are the Arabic language and Islam. Though spoken
Arabic differs from country to country, the written language
forms a cultural basis for all Arabs. Islam does the same for
many, with Arabic being the language of the KORAN, the revealed
word of God delivered through the prophet Muhammad. Most Arabs
are Sunni Muslims (see SUNNITES). A minority are SHIITES. The
division of Islam into two main branches is the result of a
dispute over succession to the caliphate that goes back to the
7th century and has led to certain doctrinal differences
between the two branches. The major Shiite country is non-Arab
Iran, but there are large numbers of Shiites in Iraq (where
they form a majority) and in Lebanon (where Shiites are now the
biggest single religious group). Shiite tensions are due
partly to Iranian efforts to promote Shiite Islam in the
aftermath of the 1979 revolution that brought Ayatollah
Ruhollah KHOMEINI to power and partly to the fact that Shiites,
who form the economic underclass in many Arab nations, feel
that they have been discriminated against by the Sunnite

Although traditional tribal life has nearly disappeared, tribal
values and identity retain some importance, especially when
linked to Islam. Descent from the clan of the prophet Muhammad
or from one of the first Arab tribes to accept Islam still
carries great prestige. Many villages and towns contain
prominent families with common links to tribal ancestors.
Blood ties contribute to the formation of political factions.
These types of relationships are less prevalent in cities;
even there, however, leading families may seek to intermarry
their children to preserve traditional bonds, and many urban
families retain patronage ties to their villages.

Nevertheless, the importance of kinship has been weakened by
the rapid expansion of urban society, by modern educational
systems, and by the creation of centralized governments whose
bureaucracies are often the major source of employment for
university graduates. Many educated young people choose
spouses from among fellow classmates, a development that
reflects especially the expansion of educational and
professional opportunities for women. It is not uncommon for
young people to become engaged and then wait a year or two to
marry because they cannot find or afford suitable housing
immediately. In the past the bride would have become part of
the husband`s family household, a custom still followed in many

This rapid pace of urbanization and social change has been
encouraged by economic constraints found in many Arab
societies. Except for oil, there are few natural resources to
be exploited for industrial development. Agricultural
productivity is generally high in Arab countries, but
productive land is scarce in some regions because of the lack
of water, and droughts and rising demand have increased the
possibility of conflicts over water resources shared by
neighboring countries. Fewer opportunities in agriculture,
coupled with social modernization, have caused young people to
flock to major cities seeking education and employment. This
has placed serious strains on governmental abilities to respond
to social needs.

This process has been exacerbated by another factor--the rapid
rate of population growth in many Arab countries. Most have a
rate of increase near 3% annually, as compared to rates of
growth in Western Europe of under 1%. These growth rates
reflect the impact of modern medicine and social services that
have lessened infant mortality. The tendency to smaller
families found in Western urban societies has not occurred
because of the prevalence of traditional attitudes favoring
large families, particularly among the poor and in areas where
tribal values prevail. The United Arab Emirates has a growth
rate approaching 9%, and even a rate of 2.7% for Egypt means
that a million Egyptians are born every 9 months in a country
where agricultural land comprises only 12% of the total land
area, forcing further urban congestion and the need to import
more food to maintain subsistence levels. This inability to
feed one`s population from indigenous resources leads to
increased indebtedness and a diversion of funds needed for
One final element in this equation is the large number of young
people in these expanding populations. For example, 6% of all
Tunisians are under 20 years of age, a not unrepresentative
statistic suggesting that future problems of unemployment and
food shortages will be greater than they are now. These
population indices suggest great potential for social unrest,
and the failure of many secular Arab regimes to fulfill their
promises of economic prosperity and national strength have
contributed to the increasing adherence to Islam by young
people in some Arab countries. Among the young, in particular,
Arab inability to regain the territories lost in the 1967 war
with Israel led to questioning of the secular ideologies that
had dominated regional politics during the post-World War II
era, while a growing gap between rich and poor and the spread
of education increased demands for greater participation in
largely undemocratic political systems.


The men who led the Arab independence movements after World War I
were usually secularists. Although many of them, such as
Egypt`s Gamal Abdul NASSER, were Pan-Arab nationalists who
advocated the creation of a single Arab nation, they believed
it essential that their countries adopt many aspects of Western
civilization, such as secular laws, parliamentary government,
and the like. These views challenged the primacy of Islam in
everyday life. Islamic law (see SHARIA) makes no distinction
between religious and temporal power. Muslims believe that all
law derives from the Koran, and that God`s word must therefore
apply to all aspects of life. The gradual relegation of Islam
to the realm of personal status, a process that began during
the period of Western dominance, continued as Arab nations
gained independence under nationalist leaders who believed that
Islam lacked answers to the problems confronting modern society
and national development.

Many devout Arab Muslims disagreed. The Muslim Brotherhood,
for example, was formed in Egypt as early as 1929 to meet the
needs of Egyptians uprooted by modern economic and cultural
inroads into traditional Egyptian life. A central tenet of all
such Muslim groups is the belief that Western economic and
social values cannot restore past Arab greatness, and that
Muslim societies must be based on principles derived from their
own roots. Beyond this, such groups often differ on the type
of society they envisage and how to achieve it. Some
organizations advocate overthrow of existing regimes, others
the spread of their views by peaceful means. The call to Islam
has special appeal to those who are unemployed and have little
hope of a secure future, people who are the victims rather than
the beneficiaries of modernization. Many others who have
rejected membership in such groups have returned to the private
religious duties of Islam, such as praying five times daily,
fasting during the holy month of RAMADAN, and making a
pilgrimage to Mecca.

Muslim organizations see the West as the real threat to Islamic
stability. Most see Israel as an agent of the West in the
Middle East, depriving Palestinian Arabs of their rightful
homeland. Even secular Arabs who admire the West and fear
reintroduction of a Muslim theocracy nevertheless often feel
angered at what they perceive as Western and especially
American ignorance of and unconcern for Arab concerns. The
Palestinian uprising (intifada) launched in December 1988 has
created new awareness of the problem.

On the other hand, anti-Israel pronouncements have often served
to create a false impression of unity when real agreement was
lacking. The ARAB LEAGUE, formed in 1945, has been more a
forum for Arab infighting than a framework for cooperation.
Arabs genuinely feel common bonds based on language and a
shared historical and cultural legacy, but they also identify
themselves as Egyptians, Iraqis, and so on. Their ideological
differences reflect the wide range of governing systems in the
Arab world, from socialist regimes to oil-rich monarchies.

Complicating factors for the region have been the GULF WAR
(1980-88) between Iran and Iraq and increased tensions between
Iran and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. These conflicts
focused attention on the major oil-producing region of the
world. As of 1987, more than 69% of the proved oil reserves of
the globe could be found in the Middle East, particularly in
Saudi Arabia, which contains nearly half of the world`s
reserves. Oil has been exported from the Arab world since the
1930s, but only with the creation of the ORGANIZATION OF
revolution of 1969 did these countries begin to determine oil
prices themselves. Although only eight Arab nations are
substantial oil producers and OPEC has several non-Arab
members, the organization is usually associated with Arab oil;
the oil shortages of 1973-74 resulted from Saudi anger at U.
S. policy during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Overproduction
drove down prices in the 1980s, weakening OPEC`s clout and the
ability of the oil-producing Arab states to provide aid and
jobs for the poorer Arab nations. Oil experts believe,
however, that the Arab world will remain the strategically
significant center of world oil production well into the 21st
century, a fact that has contributed to the involvement of
foreign powers in the region.


The Arab world holds potential for both growth and conflict. A
solution to the Palestinian problem would defuse the likelihood
of another Arab-Israeli war and permit allocation of resources
to domestic sectors rather than to military outlays. Arab
states, however, need to settle their own differences as well.
Some efforts to promote more unified approaches to problems of
common interest have been made in recent years, including the
formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Saudi Arabia,
Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) in 1981 and
the Arab Maghrib Union (Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and
Tunisia) and the Arab Cooperation Council (Egypt, Iraq, Jordan,
and Yemen [Sana]) in 1989. The major inter-Arab rivalry is
that between Syria and Iraq, the principal internal problem
that of Lebanon, where communal strife has involved its
neighbors and destabilized the region. The impact of
population growth on economic development and the appeal of
Islamic revolutionary factions to the disaffected will remain
crucial to Arab prospects into the next century. CHARLES D.


(1986) (per 1,000
live births)
Algeria * 13,600 24,900,000 2,570 81 43
Bahrain 678 500,000 8,530 26 81
Djibouti 23,200 400,000 1,067 127 74
Egypt 1,001,449 54,800,000 760 93 45
Iraq * 458,317 18,100,000 2,400 69 68
Jordan 97,740 4,000,000 1,550 54 69
Kuwait* 17,818 2,100,000 13,890 16 94
Lebanon 16,000 3,300,000 1,000 50 80
Libya * 1,759,540 4,100,000 7,170 74 76
Mauritania 1,030,700 2,000,000 440 132 35
Morocco 446,550 25,600,000 590 90 43
Oman 212,457 1,400,000 4,990 100 9
Qatar * 11,000 400,000 12,520 31 88
Saudi 2,149,690 14,700,000 6,930 71 73
Somalia 637,457 8,200,000 280 137 33
Sudan 2,505,813 24,500,000 320 113 20
Syria 185,180 12,100,000 1,560 48 50
Tunisia 163,610 7,900,000 1,140 77 53
United Arab 83,600 1,700,000 14,410 32 81
Yemen 332,968 2,500,000 480 132 20
Yemen 195,290 6,900,000 950 113 40
* Member of OPEC /... /

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