The Ethnic Groups of the Middle East

One day whilst discussing politics of the Middle East with a sophisticated Egyptian friend, a statement was made that reflects how many in the Middle East feel about their ethnic and oil rich neighbors in the Gulf. “Tribes with flags,” he said condescendingly comparing his own rich Egyptian heritage to the newly moneyed elite of the Gulf. I’m sure it made him feel better to separate himself from garish, nouveau wealth that has enveloped the Gulf, as his own nation struggled with growing unemployment and lack of infrastructure. The Middle East has always been a place of disparity… disparity of culture, disparity of wealth, and disparity of religion.

When asked to imagine a person of Middle Eastern descent, most Americans can only imagine wild-eyed, radicals hopped up on vitriol spewed by the latest conservative mullah and armed with the latest explosive accouterments. This is not an accurate portrait of the ethnicity in this region. In discussing the ethnic groups of the Middle East it is important to identify the regions that make up this varied area . What countries makeup the Middle East is debated, but here is my regional and ethnic breakdown which I hope will help people understand the regions, its people, and its importance in the world today.

The Levant:
The region’s only non-muslim majority, Israel nonetheless has a varied ethnic makeup including Arab Israelis (including Palestinians Arabs), who are often of Muslim, Druze, or Christian faiths or backgrounds and Bedouin Israelis or Negev Bedouins, the Negev Bedouin community consists of numerous indigenous tribes, who used to be nomadic/semi-nomadic.
The Negev Bedouin tribes have been divided into three classes, according to their origin:
* those who are the descendants of ancient Arabian nomads,
* the peasants (Fellaheen), who came from cultivated areas,
* and those originally brought from Africa as slaves.
The two dominant Jewish ethnic groups in Israel are the Ashkenazim (the word comes from the old Hebrew word for Germany), which now includes Jews from northern and eastern Europe (and, later, their descendants from America); and Sephardim (the term comes from the old Hebrew word for Spain), which now includes Jews of Mediterranean, Balkan, Aegean, and Middle Eastern lands.


Like the other nations of the Levant, it is not always easy to separate ethnicity and religion,whilst most Lebanese are Arabs, they are divided into Muslims and Christians, each in turn then subdivided into different faiths or sects, most of them formed by historical development into separate ethnic groups. The Muslims are divided into Sunnis and Shi’is. The Druzes, whose religion derives from Islam, are a significant minority. The Christians are divided mainly among Maronites, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholics.

Although statistical breakdowns by language and ethnic group were unavailable, and estimates by authorities varied. Arabs, or native speakers of Arabic, were thought to constitute nearly 90 percent of the population,with the balance being Kurdish, Armenian, and Turkmeni. Arabs are divided into a number of religious communities. Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims, who constitute the largest single group, account for slightly more than half the population.

The majority of Jordan’s population are Arabs descended from the various tribes that have migrated to the area over the years from all directions. In addition, there are Circassians, descendants of Muslim refugees from the Tsarist Russian invasion of the Caucasus in the 19th century, and a much smaller group of Chechens. Jordan also has a small Armenian population.


Arabs again are in the majority especially in the South and Central areas of Iraq.The Kurds, Islamic and non-Arab , are the largest and most important minority group, constituting about 1520%. A semi-nomadic pastoral people, the Kurds live in northeastern Iraq in the Zagros Mountains, mostly in isolated villages in the mountain valleys near Turkey and Iran. Sharing the Northeast with the Kurds are the Turkomen who migrated from Turkey during the Seljuk Empire period. There are also about 2,000,000 Assyrians living in Iraq, and they continue to be persecuted in post Saddam Iraq. Iraqi Assyrians are an Aramaic speaking Christian people dating back to Ancient Mesopotamia.

Arabia or Arabian Peninsula The ethnically diverse Gulf States are home to many expats of various ethnicity all there to do one thing, make money.

Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is home to a number of different Arab tribes. The Hijazi Arab (more commonly known as the Saudi Arab) form the majority of the Saudi Arabian population and live predominantly along the Red Sea coast and in the major urban areas. The Hijazi are considered a melting pot of different ethnic groups, traders and pilgrims from all over the Middle East. The Nejdi Arab are the tribe of Al Sa’ud, the ultra conservative ruling class of Saudi Arabia from the interiour highlands. It would be unfair not to mention the ethnicity of Saudi Arabia’s expatriate workforce which consists of Indians, Bangladeshi,American, British, Australian,Pakistanis,Filipino, as well as small groups of Lebanese,and Egyptians.

Kuwait’s history as a seafaring nation has augmented its Nejdi population with traders and expatriates from various other Arab and Asian countries especially Iran (Farsi) and Egypt. Again the expatriate communities outnumber native Kuwaitis and the make up of expatriate workforce is similar throughout the Gulf.

The small island sheikhdom of Bahrain has long been a location of settlement for the many ethnic, cultural and religious groups that inhabit the region. The Baharna are the oldest inhabitants of the region of Bahrain. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad, most of the Baharna became Shia. Sunni Arabs are relatively recent arrivals in Bahrain,most came two hundred years ago with arrival of the ruling al-Khalifa family who are Nejdi. There are also Bahrainis of African descent,who used to be slaves employed by the ruling family and other influential families. The Farsi population arrived from Iran about 100 years ago following similar migratory routes of Persians throughout the Arabian Gulf comprise of both Shia and Sunni Persians who are identified by the term Huwalla. The country follows the standard expat workforce demographics for the area

Like almost all the ruling class in the Gulf area the ruling and upper class families are of predominantly Nejdi background. Qatari Arabs make up 20 percent of the population, and there are 25 percent Egyptian, Yemeni and Palestinian immigrants in the country. The remaining 55 percent of the population are non-Arab immigrants from countries such as Pakistan, India and Iran.

United Arab Emirates
As in most of the Arabian Gulf foreign workers outnumber the native population. The original population of Dubai and the other emirates descend from the Qahtani (Southern Arabia tribe) Bani Yas, who took over as leaders and Sheikhs in 1700s. South Asians (Indians and Pakistanis) accounted for 50% of the total population at last estimate. Emiris constituted 19%, while other Arabs and Farsi made up 23%. Other expatriates, include Westerners and Australians and East Asians, Jordanians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Iraqis, and Bahrainis. There is also a substantial population of Balochis and Sindhi people who migrated to Southern Arabia 200years ago.

More than half of Oman’s population is Arab,several large Arab groups predominate along the coastal plain. The inhabitants of Dhofar’s mountains are known as jibalis, or “people of the mountains.” They are ethnically different from the coastal Arabs and are thought to be descendants of people from the Yemen highlands. The Jibalis are separated into two tribes, the Qara (or true Jibali) of the mountains, and the Al Kathir of the coastal lowlands. This population is different is separated from the predominantly Nejdi (Northern Arabians) by their ancient dialect which is unintelligible to most Northern Arabic speakers. Oman also entertains and expatriate work force with the same ethnic make up as the nearby Emirates.

Many ethnologists contend that the purest “Arab” stock is to be found in Yemen, the Arabs themselves have a name for such ethnic purity, “Asil”. They have divided themselves into Northern Yemeni and Southern Yemeni a historical division based on obscure linguistic differences. Those in the North are said to be descendants of Mesopotamians who came to Yemen in the 1st Millennium B.C. And claim relationship with the biblical figure of Ishamail, while the Southern Yemenis claim descent from Qahtan a biblical descendant of Joktan. There also exists minorities of Arabicized Africans and refugees from Somalia and an underclass of “untouchables” called the Ahkadam. They prefer to be called “Al Muhamasheen,” or the marginalized ones and have been in this southern corner of the Arabian Peninsula for as long as anyone can remember, and their ethnic origins are unclear. They are limited to street cleaning and latrine cleaning. The rest of the ethnic population are in the traditional pattern of most of Arabia, European, Indian, and Pakistani oil workers and service workers

The Maghreb and Egypt.

A very uniform country ethnically speaking 90% of Egyptians are descendants from Eastern Hamitic stock (Egyptians, Bedouins, and Berbers), Greek, Nubian, Armenian, other European (primarily Italian and French) make up the balance of the ethnic population.

Most Algerians are descendants of the Amazigh, the indigenous population of North Africa,The Amazigh which means “free humans” or “free men” are known to the world as Berbers. They are not genetically considered Arab, although the language is widely spoken. It has become politically incorrect to call oneself a Berber in Algeria. Since 1966, however, the Algerian census no longer has had a category for Berbers; thus, it is only an estimate that Algerian Arabs, the major ethnic group of the country, constitute 80 percent of Algeria’s people and are culturally and politically dominant. Non Arabic speaking Berbers are the Kabyles of the Kabylie Mountains east of Algiers and the Chaouia of the Aurs range south of Constantine. Smaller groups include the Mzab of the northern Sahara region and the Tuareg of the southern Ahaggar highlands, both of which have clearly definable characteristics. It is clear that there is an ethnic identity crises in the Maghreb brought about by Pan-Arabism.

Like most of the Maghreb the population of Tunisia is essentially Arab Berber with 1% European and Jewish . Tunisia has entertained several waves of immigration that influenced its native population including Phoenicians, sub-Saharan Africans, Jews, Romans, Vandals, and Arabs; Muslim refugees from Sicily settled in Al-Sahil after their homeland was captured by the Normans in 1091. The largest immigration was that of the Spanish Moors (Muslims), which began after the fall of Seville, Spain, as a result of the Reconquista in 1248 and which turned into a veritable exodus in the early 17th century. This resulted in some 200,000 Spanish Muslims settling in the area of Tunis, in the Majardah valley, and on the Sharik Peninsula in the north, bringing with them their urban culture and more advanced agricultural and irrigation techniques. To this day you can see the effects of these waves of immigration reflected in family names of Tunisia.

The Arab-Berber connection continues and expands into most of the Maghreb, where Arab and Berber have closely intermingled linguistically as well as culturally. There also exists a pure Berber community where Arabic culture and language are not predominant, Berber non Arabic speakers, who comprise a little more than 33% of the population, are concentrated largely in the northern regions of the Rif, the middle plains of the Atlas, and the Sous Valley. Morocco at one time had a flourishing Jewish population but it is now 0.2% of the population. Other group include French, Spanish, Italian, and Algerian nationals living in Morocco.

Arabic-speaking Muslims of mixed Arab and Berber ancestry make up 90 percent of the country’s population. Berbers, other indigenous minority peoples, and black Africans make up most of the remainder, although small scattered groups of Greeks, Muslim Cretans, Maltese, and Armenians make up long-established communities in urban areas.

In writing this piece I tried to emphasize the indigenous not the Pan Arab mentality. The Middle East is a complex place, made more complex by its proximity as the birthplace of three major world religions, The Shi’a / Sunni schism, the geopolitical processes which allowed European nations to carve out nations out of the tribal areas once belonging to the Ottoman Empire, as war booty, and the location of huge deposits of oil. These complicated issues are still being played out as the “Great Game” once played out by Russia and Britain, and now devolving into game to see which players can deplete the areas natural resources the fastest with little interest in the populations and people it destroys to achieve their goals.