North Africa and Southwest Asia: Physical Geography
The North Africa and Southwest Asia Region is notable for its dry climates and the dominance of Islam. The twenty-two
countries that make up the region are not homogenous, however. There are linguistic divisions, religious divisions, and a
sharp divide between rich and poor. In spite of the vast oil wealth found in the Persian Gulf, much of the region is mineral
This region takes up about 11.8 million square kilometers -- a little more than 10% of the Earth’s inhabited land. The smallest
country is Bahrain, a group of tiny islands in the Persian Gulf that together are about the same size as Baltimore County. The
largest country is Algeria, a mostly desert country located in North Africa that is over three million square kilometers.
Algeria may seem small on the map, but it is about three-quarters of the size of the continental United States.
There are three peninsulas you should know. The
largest of the three is the Arabian Peninsula, which
lies to the southeast.. In the north lies the Anatolian
Peninsula, home to most of present-day Turkey.
Between Africa and Southwest Asia lies the small
but religiously significant Sinai Peninsula.
North Africa is relatively flat, but you should know
the Atlas Mountains on the northwest coast running
through Morocco, northern Algeria, and Tunisia.
There are mountains elsewhere, as you can see on
the figure at right. These are detailed in the
landform section, but you don’t need to learn their
The Sahara Desert is the largest desert in the world.
It stretches across most of North Africa, covering
more than 9 million square kilometers – that’s
about three times bigger than the continental
In addition to the Mediterranean, Black, and
Caspian Seas, which you learned for the
Northwestern Eurasia, you should familiarize
yourself with other important water bodies.
The Suez Canal is the most important canal in the
world. Without it, ships sailing between Europe
and Asia would have to travel all the way around
The Red Sea has tremendous religious significance
and is an important boundary between Africa and
The Persian Gulf has two-thirds of the world’s petroleum reserves.
The Arabian Sea lies off the Arabian Peninsula.
The Strait of Hormuz is the tiny neck of water that separates the Persian Gulf from the Arabian Sea. More than 90% of all oil
exported from the Persian Gulf passes through the two-mile wide strait in oil tankers. Little more than 40 kilometers across at
its narrowest point, it represents a significant security risk to the global economy.
THE POLITICS OF WATER
In this arid region, rivers are necessary to
biological survival. The two major river systems of
the region are also important because they are
cradles of ancient civilizations. The major river of
North Africa and the longest river of the world is
Embroiled in Iraq, it is hard to believe that there is
another destabilizing factor in the region besides
oil and religion – water. Water is also a strategic
resource and it is one that doesn’t change as
technology changes. In fact, in desert regions it is
MORE strategic than petroleum because it is
necessary to biological survival and the supply can
In the deserts of North Africa and Southwest Asia, the rivers are exotic streams. Exotic rivers are rivers that flow through arid
lands. This means that most of the water that flows through the desert was added further upstream. (Remember that all
rivers flow from high ground to low ground. If you go up stream, you are going closer to where the river starts; if you go
downstream, you are going closer to where the river ends.) With exotic rivers, the actions of upstream countries can have dire
consequences for countries downstream. Extremely high population densities are found along these exotic streams.
The Jordan River and the Peace Process
The Jordan River is shared by Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories, and Syria. To understand its geostrategic
importance, look at the map at the top of page 197 of the Atlas or on Plate 30 of the atlas (the right-hand inset map). Israel
shares the Jordan River with the country of Jordan and with the Palestinians in the West Bank, which is occupied by Israel.
Israel alone uses more water than the river can replenish each year. Per capita, Jordanians use only half as much water as
Israelis. But with an RNI of 2.8%, Jordan’s demand for water could double in just over 25 years.
Most peace proposals for Israel include the return of at least some of the occupied territories. Israel’s prime water sources are
located in these territories, meaning that Israel would be giving up control over critical water supplies. The West Bank alone
accounts for a third of Israel’s water. Israel cannot afford to cede these water rights. In 1990, King Hussein of Jordan (father
of the current king) declared that water was the only issue that could draw him into another war with Israel.
The Jordan River also has religious significance. Look at the maps again. Note that the Jordan River flows into the Sea of
Galilee and then into the Dead Sea. All of these spots play a tremendous role in the history of Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam. This religious significance makes the fate of the river even more significant.
The Nile River
Egypt has a population of more than 80 million people, all of whom rely on Nile River water. By 2050, the Population
Reference Bureau forecasts that there will be more than 130 million people in Egypt.. Even if the amount of water remains
constant, it will not be able to meet the demands of the growing Egyptian population.
Eight countries lie upstream and could potentially disrupt Egypt’s water supply. Ethiopia is the biggest threat. About 85% of
the water of the Nile falls in the highlands of Ethiopia. This desperately poor country wants to modernize. Building dams
would generate cheap hydroelectric power. So far, Egypt has managed to block the loans that would make this possible
because the same dams that would help Ethiopia would be a clear threat to Egyptian water security.
The Tigris and Euphrates
The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers are exotic streams that begin in the mountains of Anatolia. Turkey is in the process of
building more than 20 dams along both rivers, hoping to provide a quarter of Turkey’s energy needs. Syria and Iraq are afraid
that this massive hydropower project will leave them short of water. They are also afraid that Turkey will use its control of
the rivers to exert political leverage over its neighbors. They have some reason to be afraid. In 1989, Turkey threatened to cut
off water to the Euphrates to punish Syria for supporting Kurdish separatists. (Remember that we talked about the Kurds with
respect to Armenian Muslims. We will discuss them more in the demography section for North Africa and Southwest Asia.)
In 1991, during the first Gulf War, the UN asked Turkey to cut off some of Iraq’s water supply. Given the fact that Iraq really
did have weapons of mass destruction in 1991, Turkey politely declined.
Subregions of North Africa and Southwest Asia
There are four subregions of North Africa and
Southwest Asia. Indicate them on the map at right.
The largest is North Africa, which includes
Western Sahara, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya,
The Arabian Peninsula is the second largest
subregion. It includes Kuwait, Saudi Arabia,
Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE),
Oman, and Yemen.
The third largest region is the Non-Arab North. This includes only two countries – Turkey and Iran. This is the only region
of North Africa and Southwest Asia where the dominant ethnic group is NOT Arab.
The Fertile Crescent’s small size belies its political significance. The region includes Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, the
Palestinian Territories, and Cyprus. The Fertile Crescent contains Mesopotamia, one of the source areas for the Agricultural
Revolution and home to some of the earliest civilizations.
Remember: Sedimentary rocks are often associated with fertile soils and fuel minerals. Metamorphic rocks are associated
with infertile soils and non-fuel minerals. Sedimentary rocks are most typically found in sedimentary cover. Metamorphic
rocks are typically found in shield landforms. Alpine and remnant mountains have a mix of rocks so it is harder to predict
either soil fertility or minerals.
Draw the various plate boundaries on the map at right.
The region has all three boundaries -- convergent,
divergent, and transform.
A ___________________ boundary runs through from
the toe of Italy along the south side of the Anatolian
Peninsula through Mesopotamia and into the Persian
A ______________ boundary runs from the toe of Italy
west to the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The Arabian Peninsula is surrounded by plate boundaries. To the north is a ______________________ boundary.
________________________ boundaries are on the east and west. A ____________________ boundary is on the south,
particularly in the Red Sea area.
What three geologic activities are associated with plate boundaries?
What type of landform is most closely associated with convergent and transform plate boundaries?
Which subregion is most mountainous?
A belt of __________ landforms runs from the Atlas Mountains through Southern Europe and the Balkans across to the areas
north and east of the convergent boundary – Turkey, eastern Iraq, Iran, and the southern margins of Central Asia. Most of the
earthquakes of the region occur in the alpine landforms. These areas are likely to have [fertile / infertile / mixed] soil
fertility and [fuel minerals / non-fuel minerals / is mineral poor].
Most of Sub-Saharan Africa along with adjacent areas of North Africa and the western third of the Arabian Peninsula are
dominated by ________________ landforms. These areas are likely to have [fertile / infertile / mixed] soil fertility and
[fuel minerals / non-fuel minerals / is mineral poor].
The Arabian Peninsula is lowest on the Persian Gulf side and highest on the Red Sea side. Why?
Sediment collects on the downward slope. The continent of Africa also slopes downward to the Mediterranean Sea.
Sediment collects on that downward slope as well. These deep layers of sediment are excellent sites for finding _______
Between the Alpine areas and the shield areas is a belt of ______________ landforms. This runs east-west across North
Africa, getting wider until it encompasses much of the Arabian Peninsula. These areas are likely to have [fertile / infertile /
mixed] soil fertility and [fuel minerals / non-fuel minerals / is mineral poor].
At the east end of the Mediterranean Sea is a
________________ landform. It runs through Syria,
Lebanon, Israel, the Sinai Peninsula and down through
the Red Sea. This is a small part of the largest rift zone
in the world. The Dead Sea, which you may have
observed earlier, lies in this rift zone. Like the Caspian
and Aral Seas, it is not really a sea but a salt lake. What
is the major difference between a sea and a salt lake?
At more than 400 meters below sea level, the Dead Sea is
also the lowest spot on Earth – on land.
Two isolated volcanic areas also lie in the center of
North Africa. These mountains, though isolated, are
extremely important because they draw ___________
precipitation. The runoff from this rainfall helps form the
oases that are critical to trade in the region. A picture of
one of these, taken from Wikipedia, is located at right.
North Africa and Southwest Asia
account for more than three
quarters of the world’s total known
petroleum reserves. By far, the
most productive area is the Persian
Gulf. The Persian Gulf oil region,
which includes much of the Tigris-
Euphrates River Valley, stretches
up through Mesopotamia almost to
Turkey. It has 66% of the world’s
known petroleum reserves. Smaller
deposits are found in the
sedimentary cover of North Africa,
particularly in Libya.
Other than oil, the region is mineral poor. Besides oil, only phosphate rock, used for fertilizer and soaps, is present in
significant amounts. Morocco is one of the largest phosphate exporters in the world. Morocco currently occupies Western
Sahara in order to plunder the phosphate resources there. Moroccan companies get richer while devastating the Western
On the map at right, draw in and label the
Tropic of Cancer. (The legend for this map can
be found with Plate 55 in The Geography
Coloring Book.) The area north of the Tropic
of Cancer is in the low / middle / high
latitudes. The area south of the Tropic of
Cancer is in the low / middle / high latitudes.
Most of the region, therefore, lies in the
The dominant climate by far is
__________________. This corresponds to the
letter ____ on the map at right. What factors
account for this climate?
The Sahara Desert is the largest desert on earth. Circle its approximate location on the map at right.
Mediterranean and steppe climates are best associated with the ___________ landform areas. (Compare the climate map
with the landform map.) You see them in the Atlas mountain area, at the east end of the Mediterranean Sea, on the edges of
the _____________ Peninsula, and on the north and west margins of Iran.
Because of the dry climate, mountains are critically important in the Middle East. They draw convectional / frontal /
Look at the population density map on pages 30 & 31 of your atlas. What climate area attracts the highest population
densities? In the Middle East and North Africa, what landform is associated with this climate type?
In the deserts, where are the highest population densities found?
What factors limit or encourage arability?
What factors limit or encourage accessibility?
What do the arability and accessibility of the region suggest about arithmetic population density and wealth?