1. Saudi Arabia (2,149,690 km2)
Saudi Arabia, officially the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is a country in Western Asia constituting the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula. With a land area of approximately 2,150,000 km2 (830,000 sq mi), Saudi Arabia is geographically the largest sovereign state in Western Asia, the second-largest in the Arab world (after Algeria), the fifth-largest in Asia, and the 12th-largest in the world. Saudi Arabia is bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north, Kuwait to the northeast, Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates to the east, Oman to the southeast and Yemen to the south; it is separated from Egypt and Israel by the Gulf of Aqaba. It is the only country with both a Red Sea coast and a Persian Gulf coast, and most of its terrain consists of arid desert, lowland and mountains. As of October 2018, the Saudi economy was the largest in the Middle East and the 18th largest in the world. Saudi Arabia also has one of the world's youngest populations: 50 percent of its 34.8 million people are under 25 years old.
The territory that now constitutes Saudi Arabia was the site of several ancient cultures and civilizations. The prehistory of Saudi Arabia shows some of the earliest traces of human activity in the world. The world's second-largest religion, Islam, emerged in modern-day Saudi Arabia. In the early 7th century, the Islamic prophet Muhammad united the population of Arabia and created a single Islamic religious polity. Following his death in 632, his followers rapidly expanded the territory under Muslim rule beyond Arabia, conquering huge and unprecedented swathes of territory (from the Iberian Peninsula in the West to modern-day Pakistan in the East) in a matter of decades. Arab dynasties originating from modern-day Saudi Arabia founded the Rashidun (632–661), Umayyad (661–750), Abbasid (750–1517) and Fatimid (909–1171) caliphates as well as numerous other dynasties in Asia, Africa and Europe.
The area of modern-day Saudi Arabia formerly consisted of mainly four distinct regions: Hejaz, Najd and parts of Eastern Arabia (Al-Ahsa) and Southern Arabia ('Asir). The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932 by Ibn Saud. He united the four regions into a single state through a series of conquests beginning in 1902 with the capture of Riyadh, the ancestral home of his family, the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia has since been a totalitarian absolute monarchy, effectively a hereditary dictatorship governed along Islamist lines. The ultraconservative Wahhabi religious movement within Sunni Islam has been called "the predominant feature of Saudi culture", with its global spread largely financed by the oil and gas trade. Saudi Arabia is sometimes called "the Land of the Two Holy Mosques" in reference to Al-Masjid al-Haram (in Mecca) and Al-Masjid an-Nabawi (in Medina), the two holiest places in Islam. The state's official language is Arabic.
Petroleum was discovered on 3 March 1938 and followed up by several other finds in the Eastern Province. Saudi Arabia has since become the world's second-largest oil producer (behind the US) and the world's largest oil exporter, controlling the world's second-largest oil reserves and the sixth-largest gas reserves. The kingdom is categorized as a World Bank high-income economy with a high Human Development Index and is the only Arab country to be part of the G-20 major economies.
The state has attracted criticism for a variety of reasons including: its role in the Yemeni Civil War, sponsorship of Islamic terrorism, its failure to take adequate measures against human trafficking, and its poor human rights record, which has been characterized by the problematic treatment of women, excessive and often extrajudicial use of capital punishment, state-sponsored discrimination against religious minorities and atheists, state-sanctioned racism and antisemitism, and its strict interpretation of Sharia law.
The kingdom has the world's fifth-highest military expenditure and, according to SIPRI, was the world's second-largest arms importer from 2010 to 2014. Saudi Arabia is considered a regional and middle power. In addition to the GCC, it is an active member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and OPEC.
2. Iran (1,648,195 km2)
Iran, also called Persia, and officially the Islamic Republic of Iran , is a country in Western Asia. It is bordered to the northwest by Armenia and Azerbaijan, to the north by the Caspian Sea, to the northeast by Turkmenistan, to the east by Afghanistan and Pakistan, to the south by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, and to the west by Turkey and Iraq. Its central location in Eurasia and proximity to the Strait of Hormuz give it significant geostrategic importance. Tehran is the capital and largest city, as well as the leading economic and cultural hub; it is also the most populous city in Western Asia, with more than 8.8 million residents, and up to 15 million including the metropolitan area. With 83 million inhabitants, Iran is the world's 18th most populous country. Spanning 1,648,195 km2 (636,372 sq mi), it is the second largest country in the Middle East and the 17th largest in the world.
Iran is home to one of the world's oldest civilizations, beginning with the formation of the Elamite kingdoms in the fourth millennium BC. It was first unified by the Iranian Medes in the seventh century BC, and reached its territorial height in the sixth century BC, when Cyrus the Great founded the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from Eastern Europe to the Indus Valley, making it one of the largest empires in history. The empire fell to Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC and was divided into several Hellenistic states. An Iranian rebellion established the Parthian Empire in the third century BC, which was succeeded in the third century AD by the Sasanian Empire, a major world power for the next four centuries.
Arab Muslims conquered the empire in the seventh century AD, and the subsequent Islamization of Iran led to the decline of the once dominant Zoroastrian religion. Iran subsequently became a major center of Islamic culture and learning, with its art, literature, philosophy, and architecture spreading across the Muslim world and beyond during the Islamic Golden Age. Over the next two centuries, a series of native Muslim dynasties emerged before the Seljuq Turks and the Ilkhanate Mongols conquered the region. In the 15th century, the native Safavids reestablished a unified Iranian state and national identity, with the country's conversion to Shia Islam marking a turning point in Iranian and Muslim history.
Under the reign of Nader Shah in the 18th century, Iran once again became a major world power, though by the 19th century a series of conflicts with the Russian Empire led to significant territorial losses. However, Iran would remain one of the few non-European states to avoid colonization by Europe. The early 20th century saw the Persian Constitutional Revolution, which created the country's first constitutional monarchy and legislature, and a gradual move towards greater democracy. Efforts to nationalize its fossil fuel supply from Western companies led to an Anglo-American coup in 1953, which resulted in greater autocratic rule under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and growing Western political influence. He went on to launch a far-reaching series of reforms in 1963, which included industrial growth, infrastructure expansion, land reforms, and increased women's rights. However, widespread dissatisfaction with the monarchy culminated in the Iranian Revolution, which established the current Islamic Republic in 1979. Iran was invaded by Iraq in 1980, leading to a bloody and protracted war that lasted for almost eight years, and ended in a stalemate with devastating losses for both sides.
Iran's political system combines elements of a presidential democracy and an Islamic theocracy, with the ultimate authority vested in an autocratic "Supreme Leader". The Iranian government is widely considered to be authoritarian, with significant constraints and abuses against human rights and civil liberties, including the violent suppression of mass protests, unfair elections, and unequal rights for women and children.
Iran is a founding member of the UN, ECO, OIC, and OPEC. It is a major regional and middle power, and its large reserves of fossil fuels—including the world's largest natural gas supply and the third-largest proven oil reserves—exert considerable influence in international energy security and the world economy. The country's rich cultural legacy is reflected in part by its 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the third-largest number in Asia and 10th largest in the world. Historically a multi-ethnic country, Iran remains a pluralistic society comprising numerous ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, the largest being Persians, Azeris, Kurds, Mazandaranis and Lurs.
3. Turkey (783,356 km2)
Turkey, officially the Republic of Turkey, is a transcontinental Eurasian country located mainly on the Anatolian peninsula in Western Asia, with a smaller portion on the Balkan peninsula in Southeastern Europe. East Thrace, the part of Turkey in Europe, is separated from Anatolia by the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and the Dardanelles (collectively called the Turkish Straits). Istanbul, which straddles Europe and Asia, is the largest city in the country, while Ankara is the capital. Turkey is bordered on its northwest by Greece and Bulgaria; north by the Black Sea; northeast by Georgia; east by Armenia, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and Iran; southeast by Iraq; south by Syria and the Mediterranean Sea; and west by the Aegean Sea. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of the country's citizens identify as Turkish, while Kurds are the largest minority, at between 15 to 20 percent of the population.
At various points in its history, the region has been inhabited by diverse civilisations including the Anatolian peoples, Assyrians, Greeks, Thracians, Phrygians, Urartians, and Armenians. Hellenization started during the era of Alexander the Great and continued into the Byzantine era. The Seljuk Turks began migrating into the area in the 11th century, and their victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 symbolises the foundation of Turkey for many Turkish nationalists. The Seljuk Sultanate of Rûm ruled Anatolia until the Mongol invasion in 1243, when it disintegrated into small Turkish principalities called beyliks. Beginning in the late 13th century, the Ottomans started uniting the beyliks and conquering the Balkans. The Turkification of Anatolia increased during the Ottoman period. After Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman expansion continued under Selim I. During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire encompassed much of Southeast Europe, West Asia and North Africa and became a world power. From the late 18th century onwards, the empire's power declined with a gradual loss of territories and wars. In an effort to consolidate the weakening social and political foundations of the empire, Mahmud II started a period of modernisation in the early 19th century, bringing reforms in all areas of the state including the military and bureaucracy, along with the emancipation of all citizens.
The 1913 coup d'état effectively put the country under the control of the Three Pashas, who were largely responsible for the Empire's entry into World War I in 1914. During World War I, the Ottoman government committed genocides against its Armenian, Assyrian and Pontic Greek subjects. After the Ottomans and the other Central Powers lost the war, the conglomeration of territories and peoples that had composed the Ottoman Empire was partitioned into several new states. The Turkish War of Independence, initiated by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his comrades against the occupying Allied Powers, resulted in the abolition of the sultanate on 1 November 1922, the replacement of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) with the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey on 29 October 1923, with Atatürk as its first president. Atatürk enacted numerous reforms, many of which incorporated various aspects of Western thought, philosophy and customs into the new form of Turkish government.
Turkey is a charter member of the UN, an early member of NATO, the IMF, and the World Bank, and a founding member of the OECD, OSCE, BSEC, OIC, and G20. After becoming one of the early members of the Council of Europe in 1950, Turkey became an associate member of the EEC in 1963, joined the EU Customs Union in 1995, and started accession negotiations with the European Union in 2005. In a non-binding vote on 13 March 2019, the European Parliament called on the EU governments to suspend Turkey's accession talks; which, despite being stalled since 2018, remain active as of 2020. Turkey's economy and diplomatic initiatives have led to its recognition as a regional power and a newly industrialized state by several analysts, while its location has given it geopolitical and strategic importance throughout history. Turkey is a secular, unitary, formerly parliamentary republic that adopted a presidential system with a referendum in 2017; the new system came into effect with the presidential election in 2018. Turkey's current administration, headed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of the AKP, has enacted measures to increase the influence of Islam and undermine Kemalist policies and freedom of the press.
4. Yemen (527,968 km2)
Yemen, officially the Republic of Yemen, is a country at the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula in Western Asia. It is the second-largest Arab sovereign state in the peninsula, occupying 527,970 square kilometres (203,850 square miles). The coastline stretches for about 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles). It is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the north, the Red Sea to the west, the Gulf of Aden and Guardafui Channel to the south, and Oman to the east. Yemen's territory encompasses more than 200 islands, including the Socotra islands in the Guardafui Channel. Yemen is characterized as a failed state with high necessity of transformation. Yemen's constitutionally stated capital is the city of Sanaa, but the city has been under Houthi rebel control since February 2015.
In ancient times, Yemen was the home of the Sabaeans, a trading state that included parts of modern-day Ethiopia and Eritrea. In 275 CE, the region came under the rule of the later Jewish-influenced Himyarite Kingdom. Christianity arrived in the fourth century. Islam spread quickly in the seventh century and Yemenite troops were crucial in the early Islamic conquests. The administration of Yemen has long been notoriously difficult. Several dynasties emerged from the ninth to 16th centuries, the Rasulid dynasty being the strongest and most prosperous. The country was divided between the Ottoman and British empires in the early twentieth century. The Zaydi Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen was established after World War I in North Yemen before the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic in 1962. South Yemen remained a British protectorate known as the Aden Protectorate until 1967 when it became an independent state and later, a Marxist-Leninist state. The two Yemeni states united to form the modern Republic of Yemen (al-Jumhūrīyah al-Yamanīyah) in 1990. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was the first president of the new republic until his resignation in 2012 in the wake of the Arab Spring. His rule has been described as a kleptocracy.
Since 2011, Yemen has been in a state of political crisis starting with street protests against poverty, unemployment, corruption, and president Saleh's plan to amend Yemen's constitution and eliminate the presidential term limit, in effect making him president for life. President Saleh stepped down and the powers of the presidency were transferred to Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, who was formally elected president on 21 February 2012 in a one-candidate election. Since then, the country has been in a state in a civil war (alongside the Saudi Arabian-led military intervention aimed at restoring Hadi's government.) with several proto-state entities claiming to govern Yemen: the Cabinet of Yemen, Supreme Political Council and the Southern Transitional Council. At least 56,000 civilians and combatants have been killed in armed violence in Yemen since January 2016. The war has resulted in a famine affecting 17 million people. The lack of safe drinking water, caused by depleted aquifers and the destruction of the country's water infrastructure, has also caused the largest, fastest-spreading cholera outbreak in modern history, with the number of suspected cases exceeding 994,751. Over 2,226 people have died since the outbreak began to spread rapidly at the end of April 2017. The ongoing humanitarian crisis and conflict has received widespread criticism for having a dramatic worsening effect on Yemen's humanitarian situation, which some say has reached the level of a "humanitarian disaster" and some have even labelled it as a genocide. It has worsened the country's already-poor human rights record which was already characterized by rampant torture, extrajudicial killings, and limited civil liberties.
Yemen is one of the least developed countries in the world and in 2019 the United Nations reported that Yemen is the country with the most people in need of humanitarian aid, about 24 million people out of a total of 28.5 million (2019 pop. est), or 85% of its population. It is a member of the Arab League, United Nations, Non-Aligned Movement and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
5. Iraq (437,072 km2)
Iraq, officially the Republic of Iraq, is a country in Western Asia, bordered by Turkey to the north, Iran to the east, Kuwait to the southeast, Saudi Arabia to the south, Jordan to the southwest and Syria to the west. The capital, and largest city, is Baghdad. Iraq is home to diverse ethnic groups including Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, Turkmen, Shabakis, Yazidis, Armenians, Mandeans, Circassians, Sabians and Kawliya. Around 99% of the country's 40 million citizens are Muslims, with tiny minorities of Christians, Yarsans, Yezidis and Mandeans also present. The official languages of Iraq are Arabic and Kurdish.
Iraq has a coastline measuring 58 km (36 miles) on the northern Persian Gulf and encompasses the Mesopotamian Alluvial Plain, the northwestern end of the Zagros mountain range and the eastern part of the Syrian Desert. Two major rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, run south through Iraq and into the Shatt al-Arab near the Persian Gulf. These rivers provide Iraq with significant amounts of fertile land. The region between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, historically known as Mesopotamia, is often referred to as the cradle of civilisation. It was here that mankind first began to read, write, create laws and live in cities under an organised government—notably Uruk, from which "Iraq" is derived. The area has been home to successive civilisations since the 6th millennium BC. Iraq was the centre of the Akkadian, Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires. It was also part of the Median, Achaemenid, Hellenistic, Parthian, Sassanid, Roman, Rashidun, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ayyubid, Seljuk, Mongol, Timurid, Safavid, Afsharid and Ottoman empires.
The country today known as Iraq was a region of the Ottoman Empire until the partition of the Ottoman Empire in the 20th century. It was made up of three provinces, called vilayets in the Ottoman language: Mosul Vilayet, Baghdad Vilayet, and Basra Vilayet. In April 1920 the British Mandate of Mesopotamia was created under the authority of the League of Nations. A British-backed monarchy joining these vilayets into one Kingdom was established in 1921 under Faisal I of Iraq. The Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq gained independence from the UK in 1932. In 1958, the monarchy was overthrown and the Iraqi Republic created. Iraq was controlled by the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party from 1968 until 2003. In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, sparking a protracted war which would last for almost eight years, and end in a stalemate with devastating losses for both countries.
After an invasion by the United States and its allies in 2003, Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party was removed from power, and multi-party parliamentary elections were held in 2005. The US presence in Iraq ended in 2011, but the Iraqi insurgency continued and intensified as fighters from the Syrian Civil War spilled into the country. Out of the insurgency came a highly destructive group calling itself ISIL, which took large parts of the north and west. It has since been largely defeated. Disputes over the sovereignty of Kurdistan Region continue. A referendum about the full sovereignty of Kurdistan Region was held on 25 September 2017. On 9 December 2017, then-Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIL after the group lost its territory in Iraq.
Iraq is a federal parliamentary republic consisting of 19 governorates (provinces) and one autonomous region (Kurdistan Region). The country's official religion is Islam. Culturally, Iraq has a very rich heritage and celebrates the achievements of its past in both pre-Islamic as well as post-Islamic times and is known for its poets. Its painters and sculptors are among the best in the Arab world, some of them being world-class as well as producing fine handicrafts, including rugs and carpets. Iraq is a founding member of the UN as well as of the Arab League, OIC, Non-Aligned Movement and the IMF.