In response to the challenges posed by the climate, topography, and limited water supply, the people of the Middle East have from the beginning of recorded history pursued three different but related living patterns: urban, rural, and nomadic. The juxtaposition of the city, the village, and the nomad's camp is a distinctive feature of the Middle East as a culture area.
The region boasts some of the oldest cities in the world, such as Damascus and Istanbul. Middle Eastern cities have been and remain the center of political, religious, economic, and intellectual life; they dominate and overshadow the rural countryside where, until fairly recently, the majority of the population lived as peasants, working on land owned or controlled by absentee urban landlords. In 1900 it was estimated that no more than 10 percent of the region's population was urban dwelling; by 1970, the proportion had grown to 40 percent. Although there is no agreement concerning the definition of a "city" or "urban settlement," scholars agree that, on the whole, slightly over half the inhabitants of the Middle East today live in centers of more than 20,000 people. The projection for the year 2000 is that more than 70 percent of the inhabitants will be urban dwellers. The largest city in the region, Cairo, has more than 12 million inhabitants and there are now thirty cities with populations exceeding half a million. As is the case with other parts of the third world, this accelerated urban growth, which is largely the result of rural-urban migration, has generated severe problems in housing, employment, schooling, and services. Given that the majority of the region's population is below 20 years of age, it is not surprising that cities and towns, with their burgeoning shanty towns, are hotbeds of political dissent and activism.
In contrast with the urban and rural populations, nomadic pastoralists have always constituted a small minority of the total population of the region (and in the late twentieth century, no more than an estimated 1 percent). Although conditions affecting nomads vary from one country to the next, overall, nomadic pastoralism has been on the decline since the turn of the twentieth century. In Iraq, for example, nomads were estimated to make up about 35 to 40 percent of the population in 1900; by the 1970s, their proportion had declined to 2.8 percent. In Saudi Arabia, nomads constituted approximately 40 percent of the population, a figure that had declined to about 11 percent by 1970. Likewise, Libya's population was 25 percent nomadic in 1960; in the mid-1990s nomads constitute only 3.5 percent of the total.
This decline was vastly accelerated in the 1950s with the establishment of the modern nation-states and the influx of oil wealth into the region; nomadic pastoralists have been increasingly brought under the authority of central governments. In Saudi Arabia, the once proudly independent "noble" camel-herding Bedouin are now members of the Saudi Reserve National Guard or laborers in the oil fields. In Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Egypt, land-reform measures, changing patterns of land use, and the availability of wages have combined to undermine the nomads' traditional way of life by hastening their integration into the national culture.
As an economic strategy, pastoral nomadism is an adaptation to the general semiaridity of the region. Where true desert conditions obtain, such as in the Sudanic belt of northern Africa and in the Arabian Peninsula, camel breeding dominates. In other, less arid areas, including the high plateaus and mountains of the region, nomads concentrate on sheep and goats.
Nomadic pastoralists, who account for a small part of food production in the region (when compared with peasants), have a historical and cultural significance that far outweighs their number and economic contribution. This is generally true for all tribally organized nomadic populations, be they Arab, Berber, Turkish, Kurdish, or Persian speakers. Historically, armed and mounted tribally organized Arab-speaking nomads played an important role in the early Islamic conquests of the Byzantine and Sāssānid empires. Likewise, Berber-speaking nomadic and seminomadic tribes were instrumental in the Muslim conquest of Spain. On the local level, nomadic pastoralists have traditionally posed a challenge to the political authority of their respective states as they struggled to maintain their political autonomy and their distinct cultural traditions.
Despite certain shared elements of economic and sociopolitical organization, it is important to keep in mind that nomadic pastoralists do not represent a homogeneous segment of Middle Eastern population. They differ in language, sectarian affiliation, and cultural traditions. Even within one country, pastoralists may vary widely. In southeastern Turkey, for example, Turkish-, Arabic-, and Kurdish-speaking groups share a common territory. Likewise, in southwestern Iran, the powerful Khamseh Confederacy is made up of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish tribes. The large majority of Kurdish pastoralists are Sunni Muslims, but some groups profess Shia Islam. In Mauritania, Morocco, and Algeria, Arab- and Berber-speaking tribes commingle.