The one-sentence summary
The Middle East must look beyond oil and sand to secure its future, the eastern Mediterranean is one of the most volatile flashpoints of the 21st century, and space is set to become the world’s next battleground.
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- The book uses ten maps to explain everything you need to know about global politics. Of course, to follow world events you need to understand people, ideas and movements, but if you don’t know geography, you’ll never have the full picture. Here are some selected interesting facts related to the ten maps.
It was in the middle of nowhere, became a very big somewhere, and is now centre stage. It would be difficult, but not impossible to invade, but it is vulnerable to blockade. China moving down from the north is a concern, but they are significant trading partners.
A vital Middle East superpower, a repressive regime linked to terror and bloodshed across the region, a potential nuclear state in a tense stand-off with Israel and regularly seeming to be close to blows with the USA. Given that it holds the world’s fourth largest reserves of oil, it should be a rich country, but the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) destroyed its main refining facilities and it is notoriously inefficient. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is a thuggish militia that has branched out into construction and other businesses.
- Saudi Arabia
In 1740, parts of the Najd region in central Arabia were controlled by a local emir called Muhammed ibn Saud. By 1930, one of his descendants had vastly extended the territory and renamed it. There are about 15,000 members of the royal family, with about 2,000 of them holding most of the wealth and power. 2 million nomads a century ago now has a population of 34 million. Of the nineteen attackers on 9/11, 15 were from Saudi Arabia, forcing the authorities to acknowledge their shortcomings in tackling radicalism.
- The United Kingdom
The Romans founded London but left to try to save their own Empire. For centuries after that the English understood that the Continent had a population far bigger and thus could muster armies capable of overwhelming their own. So the strategy was always to ensure a balance of power in Europe to prevent a dominant power emerging. The British may have thought they could hang on to the Empire by being America’s best friend, but the Americans didn’t think so.
As the ancient Greek city states formed, they were hemmed in by the hills to their backs, limiting large scale agriculture needed to support large numbers of people. Today only about 4% of GDP comes from agriculture. They gave us urban planning, the great philosophers, mathematical and medical knowledge. Ancient Greece ended in 299 when taken by Rome. Relations with Turkey are always tense, and they hold an important strategic position in the eastern Mediterranean.
Interestingly, the original Turks came from far away, east of the Altai Mountains in Mongolia. Throughout most of its history the Ottoman Empire struggled to contain rebellions in Anatolia, a problem that still exists with Kurdish uprisings. At its height in the late sixteen hundreds, the empire extended all the way across North Africa to Tunisia, through Egypt and down to east of the Red Sea. This is why there so much resentment in Arab countries that Turkey is once again pushing its way into their world. Their foreign policy post-9/11 was ‘zero problems with neighbours,’ but after the Arab Uprisings in 2011, this became more like zero friends. The 2008 Israel-Gaza conflict was an excuse to cool relations, and soon Hamas leaders were being courted in Ankara and antisemitic rhetoric was on the rise.
- The Sahel
The Sahel is effectively a belt of sub-Saharan land from Mauritania and Mali through Niger and Chad to Sudan. Much of it fell under French control, but the arbitrary demarcation of national boundaries was never accepted by the locals. The elites in the south, especially in the capital Bamako, enjoy a better climate on the Niger River, and are constantly at odds with the Tuareg in the north, whom they regard as backward. In 2019 there were over 500 deaths in terrorist attacks in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
Ethiopia is the origin of human life as far as we know, and was famously never colonized, but it has its own problems with nine major ethnic groups, who are constantly fighting each other. It is also the source of the Nile, which causes significant problems with neighbours. Egypt is mostly desert, with 95% of its 104 million people living on its banks, so the building of the Grand Renaissance Dam has not gone down well.
Spain is one big fortress, surrounded by sea and mountains, and was part of the Roman Empire for 600 years. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s caused havoc. Hitler and Mussolini sent forces, but Franco won and ruled brutally until 1975. In 1989 Basque separatists bombed a Barcelona supermarket, killing 21 people. More recently, separatism is alive and well in Catalonia.
If you establish a sovereign colony on the moon, are you a colonialist? The Russians and Chinese think so, and they may have a point. Space travel is no longer only the domain of powerful states. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have significant interests there. There are four categories of orbits surrounding the Earth. There is an Outer Space Treaty, but it was drawn up at a time when our ability to explore outer space was limited and people thought of it as a featureless void. Now it is of significant military and security significance, and mineral resources are highly sought after. As the ultimate frontier, it is very much a case of watch this space.
WHAT’S GOOD ABOUT IT
- The book was written in 2021. It is remarkably prescient about most world events occurring today, in particular those involving the eastern Mediterranean and Iran.