The Arab world spans two continents and stretches for five thousand miles from East to West. Nineteen* countries make up this region of more than 350 million people, more than half of whom are under the age of twenty-five.
It would be easy to assume that the people of the Arab world are all the same, but it is much more helpful to think of this region the way you would think of Europe: it comprises many different nations that have some things in common, but are really quite diverse.
Although Arabs are the predominant ethnic people group, there are many other indigenous peoples in the region, including Berbers, Bedouins, Kurds, Nubians and Assyrians. Some have retained their own language and remain fairly distinct as cultural groups. Others are less easy to distinguish.
The major religion is Islam, but there are significant numbers of Christians living in parts of the Arab world.
Of the three hundred million or more Muslims, most are Sunni but there are also Shia Muslims and various offshoots, such as the Wahhabis, who hold to a very conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam.
The Christian church has been present in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Palestine since early church times. Lebanon has the highest percentage of Christians, who make up almost forty percent of the population, while Egypt has the largest number at 7.5 million. In some, though not all, of these countries, Christians are marginalized and struggle for equality.
Prior to the establishment of the modern state of Israel, there were pockets of Jews in various Arab world countries, including Tunisia, Morocco and Bahrain. There are now very few Jewish people living in the region outside of Israel itself.
Government & leadership
In reflection of the majority religion, most governments are Islamic and, to a greater or lesser extent, apply Sharia law. This can make life very difficult for religious minorities, and especially for converts from Islam.
Almost half of the nineteen countries have a monarchy of some sort. Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain have kings, sultans and emirs, each having huge influence on their government.
Many countries of the Arab world are undergoing significant political and social change following the Arab Spring that began in 2010/11.
Culture & society
Society in the Arab world is community driven rather than individualistic. It’s much more important to be part of your community than to go your own way and you mustn’t do something that would bring shame on your family.
The people of the Arab world are famous for their hospitality. If you visit someone, expect to be offered something to drink and eat during your visit. If you eat a meal, you must not empty your plate unless you want more food. An empty plate is a sign that you have not been given enough to eat!
Also avoid paying compliments to your host’s possessions or they may feel obliged to give them to you!
Food & drink
Arab food is delicious. In the Middle East you’ll find Mediterranean dishes like humus, falafel and stuffed vine leaves, while North Africa has its own culinary delights, such as tagine (stew). You can find a shawarma (kebab) almost anywhere. Wash it down with mint tea (very sweet) or coffee (very strong). For dessert, how about some dates or sweet pastries?
Climate & landscape
Most people think of hot, dry deserts when they picture Arab countries, but the landscape and weather are actually very diverse. Yes, it does get very hot in summer, but most Arab countries have winters, too – some almost as cold as the West. It’s true that there is a lot of sand, particularly in the Arabian Peninsula and Sahara, but there are also green and fertile plains in places like Morocco and Yemen. There are mountains and rivers, and there’s miles of beautiful coastline.
There is so much more to the Arab world, but hopefully this gives you a glimpse of what it’s like. Of course, nothing beats going and seeing for yourself!
*We define the Arab world as countries where the main language is Arabic and the main ethnic group is Arab. These countries are: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.