International borders are never completely just. But the degree of injustice they inflict upon those whom frontiers force together or separate makes an enormous difference — often the difference between freedom and oppression, tolerance and atrocity, the rule of law and terrorism, or even peace and war.
The most arbitrary and distorted borders in the world are in Africa and the Middle East. Drawn by self-interested Europeans (who have had sufficient trouble defining their own frontiers), Africa's borders continue to provoke the deaths of millions of local inhabitants. But the unjust borders in the Middle East — to borrow from Churchill — generate more trouble than can be consumed locally.
Chap and I are old friends; we agree on some things and disagree on others. One area that we're in complete agreement over, I think, is Ralph Peters; he is at turns brilliant and incredibly frustrating, and he's working overtime at being both in this particular article.
Go check it out.
Personally, I think that any significant understanding of the geography of the Middle East and Africa starts with its geology. I would recommend that interested students begin reading here:
US Geological Survey: Mineral Facilities of Africa and the Middle East (2006)
and then follow up with another USGS page, the World Energy Assessment.
(To *really* understand the politics of the Middle East, you'd need a detailed oilfield map showing which companies, from which countries, held which mineral rights where and for how long, but as you can imagine, reliably sourced versions of such maps, are, um, a little hard to come by on the Web. Pointers to reliable open-source maps meeting this description are gratefully accepted.)
And finally, the "Mapping The Middle East" lesson plan from WGBH.org, although designed for high school students in grades 9-11, is a hell of a refresher course for anybody interested in regional issues.