Contemporary Issues in the Middle East

Instructor: Dominic Fruges

Dom Fruges has an MBA from Rutgers Univ, worked in business for 40 years, and has a Certificate of Eligibility - Social Studies in NJ. He has worked in schools from K-12.

In this lesson, examine the religious, social, economic, and environmental factors over the last 30 years that makes the Middle East a complex yet interesting study.

What's Happening in the Middle East?

The Middle East (Mid-East) has often been center stage in the news media. Although it is quickly identified with war and conflict, how much do you really know about specific issues faced in the region?

Who are the main players in regional politics and religion? What are some of the challenges? Although there has been a long history of issues in the Mid-East for hundreds of years, let's concentrate on the last 30 years or so.

Map of the Middle East

Religious Differences

Religious differences play a big part in the contemporary issues of the Middle East. There has been a lingering religious and political divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims for hundreds of years. Sunni Muslims believe there was no direct successor while Shia Muslims believe there was. Today, roughly about 85% of Muslims are Sunni and about 15% are Shia.

Syria has a mix of many religions, but the leader as of 2017, President Assad, is of the Alawite, which are closely aligned with Shia and Iran.

Social Issues

Arab Spring

One of the major social issues happening in the Mid-East is the rise of 'Arab Spring' demonstrations throughout the region, forcing the change of governments such as Libya and Egypt.

In Egypt, the regime of President Hosni Mubarak ended when demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Cairo in January 2011.

In Libya, the long-time ruler Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime of 42 years ended when demonstrators marched in the capital of Tripoli and another large city, Benghazi, in August 2011. During that period, Gaddafi was killed by local demonstrators.


Another major social problem is the lack of work for many people in the region. Although the oil industry is associated with some of the countries in the Mid-East, the major producers are along the Gulf of Arabia - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, and Oman. That leaves many countries without oil to support their economy, including Jordan, Lebanon, and to a lesser degree Egypt.

Because of this the leaders of many of the Mid-East are in constant fear of Arab Spring demonstrations.

Women's Rights

There has also been a rise of Arab woman's rights throughout the region as they demand jobs, education, the right to participate in government and voting. In Saudi Arabia, women have been given some leeway in working with and within the government. They have even been given the right to drive cars, which would have been unthinkable in former times.

Economic Issues

One of the key issues facing the Mid-East countries is the lower oil prices in commodity markets worldwide. Oil producing countries around the world have formed a group called the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). It currently has thirteen members including countries outside the Mid-East.

In the 2010s there has been great dissension among the members in setting the oil production goals. Saudi Arabia refused to lower production (which would drive up commodity pricing), causing great controversy among the members.

Poorer OPEC countries like Venezuela and Nigeria want to see prices rise to better support their economies.

International Conflict and ISIS

The U.S. has led two wars against Iraq. The first was the Gulf War in 1990 - 1991, where allied countries recaptured Kuwait from then Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. President George HW Bush then called a halt to the operation and the conflict ceased.

His son, President George W. Bush, lead yet another coalition of countries against Iraq in the Iraq War (2003 - 2011). This was fought citing Hussein's possible harboring weapons of mass destruction (though oil industry power was also on the table). Hussein was later captured by US troops, tried, and executed.

As the coalition became more involved in Iraq, there developed an anti-coalition sentiment among sections of the Iraq people. This was largely due to the sectarian government led by Shia leader Nouri al-Maliki who became Prime Minister in 2006 until 2014. His time in office became a flash point as sectarian violence between Shia majority and Sunni minority groups increased.

This time was marked by bombings, murders, and other vile attacks throughout Iraq. The Sunni minority felt they were being marginalized and left out of the Iraq government.


In 2014, this sectarian violence led to the creation of a very violent organization made up of many former Iraq Army leaders and soldiers who were removed during Al-Maliki's reign, largely because they were Sunni.

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