Middle East, a term for an indefinite region centered on southwest Asia and extending into North Africa. According to the most widely accepted definition, the region includes Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. According to other definitions, it includes various adjacent countries. The term originated in the early 20th century and came into popular use during World War II. The older term Near East, now becoming obsolete, sometimes was also used to include the Balkan countries as well as the lands around the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea.
Much of the Middle East is desert or semidesert, and most of the people are clustered in oases or river valleys, where water makes the land productive. It was in these centers that some of the world's earliest known civilizations flourished. From the Middle East, also, came three major religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Today, the people are predominantly Muslim (Islamic); about half use the Arabic language.
The region's principal assets today lie in its rich oil fields, mainly in the Persian Gulf region, which have more than half of the world's proven reserves. This wealth has placed new importance on the Middle East's position at the junction of three continents, where it controls vital links in the international transportation system. There has scarcely been any period in history, however, when significant developments did not center on the Middle East.