Background Basics: Key Middle East Countries

A look at regional actors gives a more complete understanding of the issues in play in Iraq and the solutions needed.

Saudi Arabia

  • A monarchy ruled by the al-Saud family, the birthplace of Islam, and home to Islam’s two holiest cities, Saudi Arabia has one-fourth of the world’s proven oil reserves and is the largest U.S. export market in the Middle East.
  • The September 11th attacks were a wake-up call for the Saudi government—15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. In the six years since those attacks, Saudi Arabia has taken measures to crack down on charities linked to terrorist activities and arrested hundreds of suspects affiliated with Al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia suffered from a series of terror attacks in 2003 and 2004.
  • A mostly Sunni country with a Shi’a minority, Saudi Arabia has grown increasingly concerned about Iran’s regional assertiveness and has taken steps to check Iran’s growing influence in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and other parts of the Middle East.
  • Saudi Arabia officially opposed the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq but allowed its territory to be used as a base for U.S. military operations. Saudi Arabia has offered minimal support for Iraq’s reconstruction and worries about the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government. Saudi King Abdullah recently criticized the U.S. military presence as an “illegitimate occupation.” Some Saudis have warned that Saudi Arabia might intervene on behalf of Iraq’s Sunni minorities, something that may already be occurring through financial support to Iraq’s Sunnis from private Saudi citizens.


  • President Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for more than a quarter century since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981. On paper a democracy with an elected assembly, Egypt’s government has a dominant executive branch with strong backing from the military and intelligence services. The most populous country in the Arab Middle East, Egypt has been a regional force for decades.
  • Egypt has experienced waves of terrorist attacks throughout the past two decades, with the government responding to a series of terrorist attacks in the 1990s with a tough crackdown. In recent years, Egypt has seen a number of attacks at tourist locations on its Sinai Peninsula. Many top Al Qaeda leaders, including second in command Ayman Zawahiri, are from Egypt.
  • Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace agreement with Israel. Since signing the agreement in 1979, Egypt has received more than $50 billion of assistance from the United States, with an annual average of more than $1 billion military assistance and $800 million in economic assistance. Egypt has served as a key mediator between Palestinian factions over the past decade.
  • A mostly Sunni country, Egypt has criticized the U.S. war in Iraq but has warned against a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops.


  • Israel was established in 1948 after decades of efforts to establish a country as a homeland for Jews. A parliamentary democracy, Israel has more than six million citizens, three-quarters of whom are Jewish; one-fifth are Arab.
  • Since its founding, Israel has faced several conflicts with its neighbors, including wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973, as well as numerous attacks from terrorist organizations operating in neighboring countries and the Palestinian territories. The 1948 war, which began with the invasion of neighboring Arab states, resulted in a 50 percent increase in Israeli territory. After the 1967 war, Israel retained control of the Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt in 1982, the Golan Heights of Syria, the Gaza Strip, all of Jerusalem, and the West Bank, which was controlled by Jordan before 1967. Israel withdrew its military forces from the Gaza Strip in 2005. The Golan Heights, Jerusalem, and most parts of the West Bank remain under Israeli control, though their final status remains unresolved.
  • Israel is a top U.S. ally and commitment to Israel’s security has been a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy since Israel’s founding in 1948.

The Palestinians

  • The Palestinians are a people with origins in the territory of the western part of the former British Mandate Palestine, an area controlled by Britain from 1920 to 1948. About four million Palestinians live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and there are about 1.3 million Arabs of Palestinian origin who are citizens of Israel. Another estimated five million Palestinians live in other countries as refugees or citizens, with the largest presence in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.
  • In 1974, the Arab League recognized the Palestine Liberation Organization as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” and the PLO is the entity that has signed interim peace agreements with Israel throughout the 1990s.
  • As a result of 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO, the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 with governing authority over parts of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
  • Since 1988, the United States has worked with a range of Palestinian leaders in an effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • In 2006, after the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas won a majority in Palestinian Legislative Council elections and thus gained control of the of the Palestinian Authority government—though not the presidency, which remained with Fatah leader and PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
  • In June 2007, Hamas seized military control of the Gaza Strip, prompting president Abbas to declare a state of emergency and form a new government based in the West Bank, where Fatah still exercises political control. Hamas rejected the new government as illegitimate.


  • Jordan is a constitutional monarchy with a limited parliamentary government. Ruled by King Abdullah II, Jordan is situated between Iraq to its east and Israel and the Palestinian territories to its west.
  • Jordan has cooperated closely with U.S officials in tackling the threat posed by global terrorist groups. In 2006, Jordanian intelligence was pivotal in the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
  • Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, making it the second Arab country to formally recognize Israel. Jordan has a sizable Palestinian population, with some estimates saying that at least half of Jordan’s citizens are of Palestinian origin. In the past year, King Abdullah has become a vocal advocate for the Arab Peace Initiative.
  • King Abdullah has expressed concerns about a “Shi’a crescent” in the Middle East. Jordan has assisted with the training of selected Iraqi police units.


  • Turkey is a Muslim-majority parliamentary democracy with a secular system of government. A member of NATO since 1952, Turkey has served as the alliance’s eastern anchor. In 1999, Turkey became a candidate for membership in the European Union.
  • Turkey is a pivotal country in the region, bordering Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Turkey has cooperated closely with Israel on military training and exercises.
  • Turkey opposed the 2003 Iraq war and expressed strong concerns about a push by Iraqi Kurds for greater autonomy, fearing that it would inspire secessionist Kurdish movements operating in eastern Turkey.
  • Turkey was a pivotal player in establishing regional conferences of Iraq’s neighbors, hosting the first meeting in 2003 before the start of the Iraq war.


  • Iran is ruled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, chosen to serve for life by a clerical body named the Assembly of Experts. The Supreme Leaders heads Iran’s armed forces and appoints the judiciary and other key bodies. Iran has presidential and parliamentary elections with all candidates vetted for allegiance to the ruling theocracy by a Council of Guardians.
  • Iran has become increasingly assertive in the region after the 2003 Iraq war and the 2005 election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It continues to support terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and offers assistance to Iraqi militias.
  • The world’s largest Shi’a-majority country, Iran’s nuclear research program has become a serious global security concern, with the United Nations passing two Security Council resolutions in the past year aimed at halting Iran’s unregulated nuclear research.
  • The United States has not had official ties with Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution. At times, the United States has quietly cooperated with Iran on Afghanistan, and in 2007, it began modest diplomatic contacts to discuss Iraq. The overall relationship remains tense, however, with the United States and Iran conducting military operations in the Gulf.


  • Syria is a one-party state ruled by President Bashar al-Assad, who holds powers to issue laws, declare wars, and appoint the government and military.
  • Syria has allowed several terrorist organizations, including Palestinian terrorist groups and Hezbollah, to use its territory as a base. At certain points after the September 11th attacks, Syria and the United States cooperated in apprehending and detaining suspected members of Al Qaeda affiliates.
  • After a more than 15-year presence in Lebanon following the Taif Accords that ended Lebanon’s civil war, Syrian forces departed in 2005 after popular protests against Syrian involvement erupted in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. In May 2007, after a lengthy investigation, the United Nations established an international tribunal to try suspects in Hariri’s murder, which has been widely blamed on Syrian elements.
  • A Sunni majority country ruled by an Alawite minority, Syria has close ties with Iran and receives signifi cant economic investment and support from Iran.
  • Syria has allowed its territory to serve as a transit point for insurgent and terrorist groups operating in Iraq, and former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party have operated out of Syria.


  • Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy with a system of government that divides power among Sunni Muslims, Shi’a Muslims, and Christians. An estimated 60 percent of Lebanese are Muslim, and another 40 percent are Christian.
  • Internally divided, Lebanon has suffered from numerous conflicts in the past three decades, including a civil war from 1975 to 1990. Last summer, Hezbollah kidnapped Israeli soldiers, resulting in a conflict that led to thousands of casualties and extensive damage to Lebanon’s infrastructure.
  • In 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated, triggering a series of popular demonstrations and civic actions known as the Cedar Revolution that ultimately led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in April 2005.
  • Since the end of last year’s conflict, the Lebanese government, backed by the United States, has been paralyzed by protests from the Shi’a opposition led by Hezbollah.

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