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Home » Borders, Cartography, Myth of the Nation-State, Religion, Southwest Asia and North Africa

Robin Wright’s Audacious Remapping of the Middle East

Submitted by on October 1, 2013 – 11:27 am 37 Comments |  
Robin Wright's Remapped Middle EastI was taken aback this past Sunday (September 29) by Robin Wright’s colorful map of a politically re-divided Middle East in the New York Times, which illustrated her article “Imagining a Remapped Middle East.” The map, entitled “How 5 Could Become 14,” shows a hypothetical future division of Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia into 14 potential new countries along with two additional city-states. I was immediately reminded of Ralph Peters’ troublesome remapping of the same region. As explained in a previous GeoCurrents post, Peters’ intriguing mental exercise in redrawing national boundaries was widely misinterpreted across the Muslim world as indicating a nefarious plot to enhance US power. As a result, the region’s pronounced anti-Americanism was further inflamed.

Ralph Peters' Remapped Middle EastWright’s article, however, shows that her purpose is different from that of Peters. Whereas Peters sought to depict a more rationally constituted political map, Wright rather speculates about a map that might be developing on its own, regardless of her personal preferences, much less her country’s geo-strategic designs. In this regard, the map has much to recommend it. Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq could well be in the process of disintegration, splitting into de facto states or state-like entities that might bear some resemblance to the territories depicted by Wright’s map. The likelihood of Iraq and Syria regaining stability as effective states within their internationally recognized boundaries seems remote, given the viciousness of the conflicts currently being waged. As things already stand, the non-country of Iraqi Kurdistan is almost as much of a state as Iraq itself, and arguable more of a nation. Whether Libya and Yemen can politically reintegrate is also an open matter. Mapping how the Middle East appears today, rather than how the international political community thinks it should be configured, is thus an essential task. Thinking about where such processes might lead is equally important. Wright’s thoughts on the subject are generally insightful, and her map has many pertinent and intriguing features. I commend the New York Times for publishing such a provocative piece.

French Mandate of Syria MapBut that said, I do have a few quibbles, and a couple of serious misgivings, about the manner in which Wright has remapped the region. To take the minor points first, the Jabal al-Druze could not form a realistic city-state simply because it is too large and too rural (under the French mandate of Syria in the 1920s, the semi-autonomous Druze state was roughly the same size as both Lebanon and the semi-autonomous Alawite state). A second minor issue concerns Wright’s division of Yemen into two rather than three states; the Houthi rebellion among the Zaidi (sometimes mistakenly called “Fiver” Shiites) rebels of northwestern Yemen has as much pertinence as the rebellion that that would revive “South Yemen” in the southern and eastern parts of the country. A final quibble concerns Wright’s “Alawitestan,” which would actually be a minority Alawite state, barring the massive ethnic cleansing of Sunnis and Christians.

Saudi Arabia Remapped by Robin WrightMy serious misgivings concern Wright’s  treatment of Saudi Arabia. She realizes that she goes out on a limb here, noting that “The most fantastical ideas involve the Balkanization of Saudi Arabia…” Unlike the other countries that she remaps, Saudi Arabia is a relatively stable state, with no serious challenges to its territorial integrity. Imagining the division of this country thus does not involve speculating about the possible end-points of processes already in motion, as is the case in the other countries considered. It is not at all clear, moreover, why Wright has divided Saudi Arabia as she has, as her article is largely silent here. Presumably, her division is based on the idea that the non-Wahhabi peripheries of the country could detach themselves from the Wahhabi core, potentially resulting in the emergence of the new states of North Arabia, Eastern Arabia, South Arabia, and Western Arabia.

As a purely mental exercise, there is nothing wrong with imagining the possible division of a relatively stable country such as Saudi Arabia, even if it will—as Wright herself admits—“infuriate Arabs who suspect foreign plots to divide and weaken them…” Saudi Arabia’s stability, moreover, might not be a solid as it appears. The entire country, after all, is something of an anachronism; as the personal domain and namesake of the Al Saud family, its essence is premodern. The lack of a regular system of succession in an absolute monarchy based on the 15,000-strong House of Saud further clouds the country’s future. (Similar problems exist in neighboring Oman, as explored in a previous GeoCurrents post.) Saudi Arabia’s religions minorities, moreover, are sternly repressed and deeply restive in several peripheral areas. The fact that Saudi Arabia’s main Shiite zone along the Gulf is also the site of its main oilfields is an added complication, one that provokes Saudi fear about Iranian power and political-religious design.

The possible future division of Saudi Arabia is thus conceivable if unlikely, but it is a much further stretch to imagine that it would split into the units that Wright has mapped. Detaching the core region of the country, homeland of both the Saud family and the Wahhabi religion establishment, from the peripheries does make a certain amount of sense, but one must wonder whether such a maneuver is based more on rational analysis or wishful thinking. Considering the harsh nature of Wahhabi beliefs and practices, coupled with the fact that Saudi state struggles to spread those beliefs and practices across the Muslim world, it is understandable that an American scholar such as Wright would want to see the territorial reach of the Wahhabi establishment cut down to size. (Note that her map results in a landlocked “Wahhabistan,” unlike that of Peters, which at least gives her hypothetical rump “Saudi Homelands” access to the sea.) But shorn of its oil revenues as well as those stemming from the Hajj, it is highly questionable whether this region could maintain a stable state. Local resources and enterprises would not be nearly large enough to support central Arabia’s current population.

M. Izady's Arabian Religion MapA deeper problem stems from the fact that much of Wright’s Wahhabistan is not actually majority Wahhabi, as can be seen in a comparison of her map with that of M. Izady (who idiosyncratically excludes Wahhabism from Sunni Islam). The key area here is Ha’il province, a historically non-Wahhabi area nonetheless ceded by Wright to Wahhabistan. Not only do most of the people of Ha’il practice a more mainstream version of Sunni Islam than those of Riyadh and Al-Qassim, but their province was the historical center of resistance in central Arabia against both the House of Saud and the Wahhabi clerics. Ha’il was the seat of the Rashidis, historical enemies of the Saudis, who were noted for their friendly tolerance of Shiites, a branch of Islam despised by the Wahhabis. Ha’il would thus fit much better with Wright’s “North Arabia” than with her “Wahhabistan.” Nor is it clear why Wright divides her North Arabia from her Western Arabia, as both regions are mostly mainstream Sunni in orientation.

Greater Yemen MapWright’s “South Arabia,” composed of four Saudi provinces and small section of a fifth, is also problematic. This region is indeed distinctive from the rest of Saudi Arabia, and is thus occasionally claimed as part of a would-be “Greater Yemen.” Yet little exists that would potentially hold this region together and provide glue for a new national identity. Most of this region is majority Sunni, but important Zaidi Shia communities are found near the border with Yemen (although Izady’s map might exaggerate their extent). Of all the sects of Shiite Islam, Zaidiyya is closest in form and content to Sunni Islam, but it also has a heritage of political autonomy that has nurtured the protracted rebellion across the border in northern Yemen. In Najran Province in the eastern portion of Wright’s South Arabia, however, a different religious community is demographically dominant: Ismaili Islam. This sect is invisible on Izady’s map, as it also falls into the general category of Shiism. But the Ismaili sect is quite distinctive from other varieties of Shiism, noted globally for its cosmopolitanism, devotion to secular education, and relative liberalism and gender egalitarianism. Not surprisingly, Ismailis in Najran have been deeply persecuted by the Saudi establishment. As noted by Human Rights Watch:

The Ismailis, a religious and ethnic minority with historic roots in Najran province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, face increasing threats to their identity as a result of official discrimination.  With the arrival of Prince Mish’al bin Sa’ud as the governor of Najran in 1996, tension between local authorities and the Ismaili population increased, culminating in a confrontation between armed Ismaili demonstrators and police and army units outside the Holiday Inn hotel in Najran city in April 2000. The ensuing crackdown continues to reverberate throughout the region to this day.

Official discrimination in Saudi Arabia against Ismailis encompasses government employment, religious practices, and the justice system. Government officials exclude Ismailis from decision making, and publicly disparage their faith. Following the clashes in April 2000, Saudi authorities imprisoned, tortured, and summarily sentenced hundreds of Ismailis, and transferred hundreds of Ismaili government employees outside the region. Underlying discriminatory practices have continued unabated.

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  • sm5sandstorm

    Robin Wright is a femaie, just FYI…

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Oops. Thanks for pointing it out. I’ve fixed it.

      • http://www.polgeonow.com/ Evan (PolGeoNow)

        There are still about three male pronouns that were missed when revising it (when this happens to me, I use CTRL + F and just do a search for all the “he”, “his”, and “him”/”himself” words).

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thanks. I think I got them all now.

  • Jonathan

    While I more or less agree that the whole thing is strange, I have in addition, 2 quibbles:
    Peters placed Tabriz in Kurdistan?
    And Peters is using a pre- South Sudan basemap…

    • HoundsTooth

      totally agree…
      no mention of darfur or south sudan (surely ANOTHER name could be used!!!)
      from what i’ve gleaned from libyan students (very trustworthy and reliable), these tensions don’t really exist ‘regionally’; fractures are on a much more micro-level. suburbs could be split with regards to allegiances, even neighbourhoods. short of creating bantustans, i don’t think this would happen. egypt would be in a similar position, i’d say…

      • Jonathan

        Peters’ map includes some of the territory of the independent country, South Sudan. But the border and name are missing. That’s all I meant.

      • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

        Excellent points. One of the main problems of trying to solve geopolitical problems by dividing existing states is that the process of division can keep going on, as there are almost always additional lines of fracture at more local scales. Tribalism is a major issue in Libya as well, as explored in an earlier GeoCurrents post.

        • HoundsTooth

          tribalism is rife in libya. but unfortunately, there is no clear delineation (geographically, at least) between the two or more groups. they have all integrated. next door neighbours could be on opposite sides! is there any shia / sunni rivalry / violence in libya?

    • HoundsTooth

      …and isn’t tabriz in azerbaichan (azeri state/province in iran)???

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      I don’t see Tabriz in her map — she has Erbil in Kurdistan, which is correct. Peter’s map was created before South Sudan gained independence, hence its absence.

  • HoundsTooth

    how exactly would a country/region become independent? isn’t one of the central tenets of islam to NOT fight against the governing power? again, this is all from student testimony (my libyan students/friends said that they viewed the libyan arab spring as a ‘jihad’ against gaddafi).

    on a different note, is there a guidebook on how to declare independence?

    • Chris in Binghamton

      HoundsTooth… yes, there is a guidebook on how to declare independence. “Don’t handle it like Ian Smith did with Rhodesia’s independence.” Lol.

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Your question gets to to the heart of some very important matters. The independence of a region with separatist aspirations can occur if the country to which it belongs agrees to it, and if it is done in a formal manner. Thus South Sudan separated from Sudan, and Montenegro from split off from Serbia (“Serbia and Montenegro,” actually). If Scotland votes for independence, it will probably get it. But if the larger country does not agree, one can end up with partially recognized de facto sovereign states such as Kosovo. Some of these states have very little recognition and thus appear on few maps (Northern Cyprus, South Ossetia, etc.) If the larger country breaks down entirely, the situation become even more muddy — the prime example here is the de facto but non-recognized country of Somaliland, which broke off from the internationally recognized “non-state” of Somalia.

      Perhaps a guidebook on such matters would be useful, but the international system is much too anarchic for that.

      Thanks for the question!

      • http://www.polgeonow.com/ Evan (PolGeoNow)

        Yes, I think this kind of articles and imaginative mapping tend to overestimate how easy it is for new countries to emerge. In international politics there’s an incredibly amount of momentum invested in the commitment to “territorial integrity”, with most declarations of independence, even they even come about, being roundly rejected (or just ignored) by the international community. Not to mention that domestic politics often aren’t as divided along ethnic lines as outsiders imagine they are.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thank you for these excellent points, Evan!

  • http://www.polgeonow.com/ Evan (PolGeoNow)

    Great critique – thanks for addressing this! One of the things that struck me most about Wright’s map was actually her surprisingly awkward country names – why “Alawitestan” and “Shiitestan” instead of “Alawistan” and “Shiastan”? And I think if “Sunnistan” comes to pass in the near future, it will more likely be called “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham”…

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Excellent points – thanks for sharing them.

  • Randy McDonald

    It’s interesting how Wright seems to believe that regionalism can only be satisfied by fully-fledged separatism, not federalism or anything like that.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Good point, Randy!

  • http://imjinah.blogspot.com/ imjinah

    Hi, Martin and Asya! I’ve always appreciated your though-provoking articles most especially in state-formation. Could you possibly create an article showing a world map compiling all possible shifts in political borders?

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you! This would definitely be an interesting excercise—but I wonder if it would be possible to create such a map because of the mutually contradicting shifts that different group envisage.

  • Per

    It’s interesting that wright even cannot imagine Palestine as a state. Imagine!

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Why should she?

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      As I focused on the countries that she divided, I did not pay any attention to the ones that she left alone. But it is interesting that she confined her attention to these five countries. The geopolitical situation with regard to Israel and the Palestinian lands is irregular (to say the least), and it does seem like a good candidate for potential change. Note that on Peters’ map the West Bank is labeled ‘status undetermined.” This topic is so sensitive that many prefer simply to avoid it.

    • ocschwar

      Imagine what?

    • Mainlander

      It’s very hard to imagine actually.

      Alexander Keith

      After visiting Palestine in the mid-1800′s, Keith detailed in his book The Land of Israel one view of desolation after the next. One can only refer the interested reader to his book where he concludes, “The astonishment is, not that a land now desolate should once have teemed with population and produce, but that, rich as it is, and able as ever to sustain many myriads throughout all is borders, regions of the highest fertility should remain fallow; that continuous leagues of the richest soil should be wholly unproductive to man; that corn should be imported for the few men that are left, while surrounded by the richest land capable of furnishing food for hundreds of thousands of inhabitants. Well may a stranger from a far land, and the enemies that dwell within it, be astonished at it; even at the desolation of so fertile a country in so fine a clime.” (Italics in the original, Pg. 372)

  • Mainlander

    Israel: “Pre-1967 Borders”? Ignorant beyond belief.

  • Mohammad

    Tabriz and Oroumieh in Kurdistan??????
    your basic knowledge is so wrong!!!!!!!!!

  • oxtay

    It is very fun :))
    all of Azerbaijan is Azerbaijan. Tabriz, Urmiya, Hamadan, Ardebil, Zanjan, Qoshachay, sulduz(nagade), mahabad, … are in Azerbaijan. This text writer is very stupid. He is basic information is very very wrong.
    Please clear this article.
    thanks alot

    • Kenan

      It is not the text writer who is claiming that, it is the Ralph Peters map which has been around since 2006.
      Years ago, when I first saw the map the first thing to pop out of the image was the exaggerated size of “Free Kurdistan” which extended all the way north to the Black sea into traditional Laz and Turkish areas of Turkey and all the way eastwards to encompass Azeri Turkish cities in Iran like Urmia and Tabriz.
      Right away you could tell the map was unrealistic. I don’t think it was intentional however, just ignorance about the demographics of the region and possibly been misinformed by Kurdish nationalist sources he would of considered in drawing up the map.

  • Kenan

    Drawing up maps based on ethnic/religious/cultural etc. groups will always be problematic. The geographic extent of any people isn’t clear cut and there will be places where the population is mixed, therefore drawing a political boundary through them to recognise one group over the other is a formula for civil unrest.
    You could just as easily redraw the British Isles, Western Europe or any other part of the world if you dig deep enough into its demographics and say this is how it should be. For example, in England you could remap the country by imagining many countries based on cultural, historical or dialectal differences, Northumbria, Cumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, the West Country, Wessex, Sussex etc. Yet that would be focusing too much on the differences than what unites them, a common history and a sense of a collective destiny.
    It would be far more preferable re-imagining Western Asia along traditional geographic regions with civil institutions which recognise the plurality of its population and collectively united in a West Asian Federation. Such a multinational federation would recognise the core peoples made up of Arabs, Jews, Kurds, Persians and Turks and the multitude of languages and dialects spoken by them. Composing their institutions fairly of these peoples and expressing the work of the institutions in the languages spoken by them.
    This would be far more preferable than dividing the region along improbable and problematic borders.

    • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Kenan! The idea of a federal Near Eastern state sounds great, except I don’t think it’s realistic at all. A state where Arabs, Jews, Druze, etc. live together, speak their languages and are representated in state institutions already exists—Israel. Yet it is also the state that gets criticized the most, not to mentioned physically attacked by neighbors who’d hate to be part of it. Whenever anyone speaks of one state solution for Palestine, they get much flak too. If a state like that can’t exist in a subpart of the Near East, what makes you think that it would work in a larger variant, incorporating other groups like Persians, Turks, and Kurds? The idea is even more problematic if we consider what happens to such federal states or state bodies, be it the United States or the European Union:

      http://www.geocurrents.info/place/north-america/northern-california/state-level-secession-movements-united-states-northern-colorado-jefferson

      http://www.geocurrents.info/cultural-geography/the-rapid-rise-of-the-xenophobic-right-in-contemporary-europe

      • Kenan

        Aww Asya you don’t need to be so pessimistic. You know there was once a time when Jew, Christian and Muslim could walk the streets of Jerusalem accepting of each other and respectful of each others presence. Of course I don’t want to romanticise the past too much just want to highlight today’s polarised differences are very much contemporary problem of the times we live in.

        Regional cooperation in Western Asia will only take place when there is the political will for it, and it doesn’t even have to affect the sovereignty of the current states in the region. I have been taking a look at the so called euroregions. These are regions in Europe that are contiguous with each other but usually transcend state borders. For example there is an Adriatic region composed of local authority regions bordering the Adriatic, the SaarLorLux region which is made up of Saarland, Lorraine and Luxembourg and many others.

        While scrolling through google maps and with Erdogans recent meeting with Barzani in Diyarbakir in mind, I noticed how natural the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates is. The jazira, or the island, is the land between the two rivers in upper Mesopotamia and with the region being in upheaval, with the war in Iraq calming down, Syria in unrest and Turkey going through its Kurdish opening you could say its ideal to set out a new cooperative order in the region. The Turkish part of the region includes the provinces of Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir, Batman, Mardin, most of Siirt and parts of Sirnak. In Turkey this region is inhabited by Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians. In Syria, should an open and democratic society succeed there, would include the settlements along the Euphrates, Ar Raqqah, Deir ez Zur and towns like Hasakah and Al Qamishli. In Iraq it would include towns along the Tigris like Mosul, and places to the west of it such as Tal Afar and Sinjar.

        All these regions have a multi ethnic demographic with various degrees of civil issues to resolve which makes a trinational regional authority the best hope to deal with them if they can’t be dealt with nationally.

        This will bring together representatives from all these regions to create a Jazira regional cooperation, where they will meet regularly to harmonise standards, set up commissions for transport, culture, environment, economy etc. Removing border controls, which was a reality between Turkey and Syria before the uprising there, will help greatly in boosting the movement of people, good and capital throughout the region. Tieing the politics of these regions together will increase the stake of local leaders and power brokers in ensuring it’s success. Also, making the official languages of this regional cooperation Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish will help those people who may feel disenfranchised from their own administrative authorities better relate to them once their native language is recognised at a local authority level.

        If this can lead to improved standards and prosperity for the peoples of the region then I believe the political will for other areas in the region will be found, in time of course. Other natural regions would include the Levant, composing of Hatay, Latakia, Lebanon and in time Israel/Palestine.

        I’m so sorry for the length of the response, way more than I originally planned, it was difficult to express my thoughts here without going into a certain amount of detail.

        • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thank you for your detailed comments. I do find the picture you paint rather “rosy” and unrealistic, at least in the forseeable future. “With the war in Iraq calming down” Kurds have no desire to live in the same state with the Arabs (or the Turks for that matter). “Should an open and democratic society succeed in Syria”—where would such society come from: the dictatorial regime of the Assads or the Islamic extremists who can’t even keep track of their own men and end up chopping one of their own guy’s head? It didn’t happen in Egypt and there’s little reason to expect it to happen in Syria, I am afraid. More generally, what sort of peaceful cooperation can you expect in a region where not only Muslims are killing Christians, but the Druze minority in one country is bitterly opposed to the Druze minority in the other? Shi’a are opposed to Sunni, not to mention all the Christian denomination in Lebanon that hate each other’s gut?

          Nor do I agree that “today’s polarised differences are very much contemporary problem of the times we live in” — Christians and Jews were not being accepted and respected in Jerusalem or anywhere in the Muslim world for centuries. Have you not heard about “dhimmi”? Or do you think it’s respectful to be treated as a second-class citizen?

          • Kenan

            I find a lot of people from all angles put on the rose tinted glasses when looking at the Middle East, but that isn’t really the point though is it. The “mapping” of the Middle East would be far more harmonious being transnational civic based cooperation rather than the ludicrous ethno-cultural states presented by the maps in the article.
            Would the Arabs and Turkmens in “Kurdistan” sit back and accept there homelands being part of Kurdistan? Would the Shia and Kurds not have something to say if their towns and settlements became “sunnistan”? or the Sunni Arabs in “Shiitestan” or “Alawitestan” accept the religion of another people to become the name of their new country? Naming a state after a people or a religion only disenfranchises those who don’t belong to that label, which according to these borders would be large minorities. This only puts a wedge between the peoples and causes civil unrest. For this reason the Robin Wright and Ralph Peters’ maps will never happen. My ideas may be unrealistic in the current climate but I would argue far more preferable.

          • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

            Kenan, I agree with you that it would be difficult to delineate territory for precisely this group or that one. There will always be people who end up on the right side of the border. Which is why state borders never seem to fit quite right. The problem is that the different group have so much negative feelings for each other that it’s near impossible for them to coexist. At least the way things are now. So even if your ideas are preferable in theory, I don’t see them realized in practice any time soon…