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The Middle East is a region that encompasses Western Asia and all of or part of Northern Africa, depending on the context. The term is considered to be Eurocentric and used as a synonym for Near East, in opposition to Far East. The corresponding adjective is Middle-Eastern and the derived noun is Middle-Easterner.
The history of the Middle East dates back to ancient times, and throughout its history, the Middle East has been a major centre of world affairs. When discussing ancient history, however, the term Near East is more commonly used. The Middle East is also the historical origin of major religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Middle East generally has an arid and hot climate, with several major rivers providing for irrigation to support agriculture in limited areas. Many countries located around the Persian Gulf have large quantities of crude oil. In modern times the Middle East remains a strategically, economically, politically, culturally and religiously sensitive region. The Middle East's expected economic growth rate is at about 4.1% for 2010 and 5.1% in 2011.
The term "Middle East" may have originated in the 1850s in the British India Office. However, it became more widely known when American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan used the term in 1902 to 'designate the area between Arabia and India'. During this time the British and Russian Empires were vying for influence in Central Asia, a rivalry which would become known as The Great Game. Mahan realized not only the strategic importance of the region, but also of its center, the Persian Gulf. He labeled the area surrounding the Persian Gulf as the Middle East, and said that after the Suez Canal, it was the most important passage for Britain to control in order to keep the Russians from advancing towards British India. Mahan first used the term in his article "The Persian Gulf and International Relations," published in September 1902 in the National Review, a British journal.
The Middle East, if I may adopt a term which I have not seen, will some day need its Malta, as well as its Gibraltar; it does not follow that either will be in the Persian Gulf. Naval force has the quality of mobility which carries with it the privilege of temporary absences; but it needs to find on every scene of operation established bases of refit, of supply, and in case of disaster, of security. The British Navy should have the facility to concentrate in force if occasion arise, about Aden, India, and the Persian Gulf.
Mahan's article was reprinted in The Times and followed in October by a 20 article series entitled "The Middle Eastern Question," written by Sir Ignatius Valentine Chirol. During this series, Sir Ignatius expanded the definition of Middle East to include "those regions of Asia which extend to the borders of India or command the approaches to India." After the series ended in 1903, The Times removed quotation marks from subsequent uses of the term.
Until World War II, it was customary to refer to areas centered around Turkey and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean as the "Near East", while the "Far East" centered on China, and the Middle East then meant the area from Mesopotamia to Burma, namely the area between the Near East and the Far East. In the late 1930s, the British established the Middle East Command, which was based in Cairo, for its military forces in the region. After that time, the term "Middle East" gained broader usage in Europe and the United States, with the Middle East Institute founded in Washington, D.C. in 1946, among other usage.