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Persian vs Arabic vs Middle Eastern: What’s the Difference?


Middle Eastern, Arab, Persian: People often get these terms confused, but it’s important to understand these general concepts and their differences.

Updated: 2019-11-18.
These days, the Middle East garners nonstop attention from the world. Conflict, struggles, and other hardships continue to plague the region.

Most of us understand vaguely what the constitutes the “Middle East,” but it’s important to understand more fully the nature of the crises and history of the region as we encourage peace.

Key to understanding the Middle East region is understanding the differences between terms used to describe the people, places, languages, and ethnic groups, similar to explaining differences such as Race vs Ethnicity or Spanish vs Latin American.

Arab Persian Middle Eastern

Is Persian different from Arabic? Are Middle Eastern people all Arabs? What is the difference between a Persian and an Iranian? Let’s find out:

Middle East & Middle Eastern

First, we must tackle this set of terms, as we’ve used it already in the intro.

The Middle East is a region, revolving around the countries which surround the Arabian Peninsula, the large peninsula to the northeast of Africa that is a western part of Asia.

The countries that make up the Middle East vary slightly depending on the source. However, most agree that…

The Middle East countries are:

Bahrain, Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Northern Cyprus, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

Some sources, including the CIA World Factbook, categorize even Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia within the Middle East, though most disagree with this.

A Middle Easterner is a person from the Middle East.

One point often forgotten these days is that there are several countries, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, not included in the Middle East. These nations, as well as Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, and even Djibouti and Somalia have been referred to in the past as part of the Greater Middle East.

However, this term went out a while ago, as it was deemed too Eurocentric and insulting, similar to using Oriental to refer to an Asian person.

Arab & Arabian

Arab is an umbrella term for a panethnic group of people, a people that comprise many different ethnicities within, sort of like saying “Southeast Asian” or such.

Generally, and even more-so presently, Arabs consist of the peoples of the member nations of the Arab League. The Arab League is a group of 22 nations and territories that formed in 1945. However, being an Arab is much more an ethnicity, so there are people who live in the Arab countries that do not consider themselves Arabs, such as the Kurds.

Arabs are not necessarily Arabians.

Arabians are people from the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabian Peninsula is now home to Arabic peoples, so you could say that Arabians are Arabs, but not all Arabs are Arabians, since many live off of the peninsula. The Arab peoples are united by an identity of a shared culture and history.

Most Arabs speak Arabic, which is a language and not meant to refer to the people, though you could say “Arabic-speaking people.”

Now, to understand Persian vs Arabic…

Persia & Persian

Who is considered Persian? Is Persian and Farsi the same thing?

Persian can refer to people of Iran and a language. But, when referring to people, Persians are Iranians who speak the Persian language (Farsi).

And where are Persians from?

The term Persian people historically meant “from Persis,” which is around Pars, Iran, north of the Persian Gulf. With this definition, not all Iranians are Persians, but all Persians are Iranians, nationally.

So, Persian vs Iranian…

However, some now designate Persian people as a panethnic group (like the Arab people above) and use it as a demonym to define all people of Iran. If you’re unclear, it’s probably safer to call someone from Iran as Iranian.

To confuse you more, one final thing: Since we stated that the origin of the term “Persian people” originally meant someone from Persis, many Iranians often use “Persian” to make a locational distinction, rather than an ethnic one. Thus, there may be non-Persian people (who don’t speak Farsi) whom Iranians deem Persian, based on them being from the Persian region.

Again, maybe just use “Iranian.” Good luck! 😉

This is part of our ongoing series, “Versus: ‘What’s the Difference?’” For more like this, check out these articles:

Great Britain vs UK | Embassy vs Consulate | Hispanic vs Latino | Saint Martin vs Sint Maarten | Road vs Street | Tofu vs Tempeh

So, what did you think? Do you understand the difference between Arab and Persian, Persian vs Arabic, Arabic vs Arab, and Persian vs Middle Eastern? Got anything more to add? Let us know in the comments below!

Written by
Christian Eilers
Join the discussion

  • West Asian is not the same as Middle Eastern at leat genetically, though they do overlap geographically. Persian and Arab are definitely not the same thing.

  • Good article but an objection – Turkey isn’t in the Middle East. Anatolia was always recognised as its own region, Asia Minor, and today Turkey is a member of the Council of Europe – an organisation only European countries can join.

  • The term “Arab” is a tricky one. I say this mainly because I know that my husband, who is an Egyptian Copt (Orthodox Christian), does not consider himself to be Arab. Egyptian: yes, definitely, Middle-eastern: probably, Christian: absolutely, Arab: never….

    • Same as us. Assyrians, in the region of Syria, We are not Arabs for sure. You can Call me Syrian, Assyrian, Orthodox, or Middle Eastern if you want.
      Arabs come from the Saudi Arabia, they invaded the Middle East on the Time of Muhammad under the name of Islam 14 centuries ago. Then they forced their language (Arabic) on the natives. Now you know why I reject being called Arabic.

  • For us to better understand the specifications of those terms, this article should have provided maps with lots of color coded differentiations.

      • And we ( Arabs / I talk about the Arabs I know “from Palestine and Jordan”) like our brothers in Iran>> I believe other Arabs do not have problem with the great nation of Iran
        In our religion we consider that it a positive to have defirent nations with languages and colors.

        • You are dreamin my friend, Arabs do in general hate Iranians and we don’t want to be associated with them, they caused enough trouble here
          Only few Arabs have a good view on Persians mostly shia or anti-Arabian nationalists in Lebanon.

        • Hey bro, most of the Arab peoples at least in some countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates etc. hate Persian people, because most of Arab people are racists from a long time ago, in the age of Sassanian Empire and the Rise of Islam and when they call Persians as “Ajam” or “Magoos” and this changed the Persians to hate Arabs.

  • This is fascinating. The comments, I mean. I am mixed race and have always been intrigued by labels. I would love to see a Venn diagram of this part of the world.

  • Great, I am more confused. I’ve always wanted to know the difference. I am Mexican-American and with us, it’s very simple.

    • Hey, AJ, thanks for stopping by! I’m sorry if I made it confusing for you, is there any way I could make it more easily digestible?

    • Aj
      it’s not very simple with mexicans for one most wouldn’t even know what race they are since mexican isn’t a race. It’s just an ethnicity mixture of the Spanish and Indigenous Indian.

      Don’t believe me, ask any mexican what’s their race and watch all the weird answers you’ll get because many don’t understand the difference.

  • While this was a fascinating article, it really didn’t help when it comes to identifying such a person on-sight. My friends don’t mean to be derogatory, but most everyone I know calls the corner stores “Arab” stores, when for all we know, they could be something else completely. About 5 years ago, I started calling them “Ethnic” stores, but even that sounds weird coming out of my mouth. Perhaps we should just start calling them “corner” stores, period; I honestly don’t know how the owners’ ethnicity ever came into it, it’s just always been that way.

  • I was just looking for some information on ‘Perisan’ because my doctor listed her languages as English and Persian…these comments are indeed fascinating, but more imporantly, I am thankful for this distinct clarification. I agree maps would’ve helped with understanding, but still job well done. From what I understand of this article she speaks Persian because she is from Iran, nationally. I won’t assume anything, perhaps I’ll ask her. This was pure curiosity and not anything I’m dying to know or identify. She’s a great doc and that’s really all I care about.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Regina! I agree that maps would help, so I’ll try to update with some helpful ones soon. Have a great day!

  • Turkey is a European country. It seems weird, but that is a fact. Additionally, Egypt is an African country, not a part of the Middle East. Also a fact.

  • Ok so what are people from Afghanistan and Pakistan called since they’re not middle eastern ?

    ALSO what’s another word for people of India because I don’t want to call them Indian because I don’t want people thinking I’m talking about Native Americans from the U.S.

    ***One point often forgotten these days is that there are several countries, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, that are not included in the Middle East;

  • I’m still confused.

    Ok, Persians are Iranian.

    However, when the Persian Empire was at its height, it covered a vast mass of land (and “countries” and regions). The countries mentioned above are relatively modern inventions. Over the thousands of years, people mixed, and so the divide is not so simple. The Arab world obviously scattered as well….

    So, Iranians are most likely Persian (but could be Arabs.. or even both). What about Iraqis? Or Syrians? Lebanese, Jordanians… etc etc.

    Since this discussion is about the Middle East, I think it needs a greater breakdown.

    • I can explain:
      Most of Arabs are in the Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait and people of these countries are just Arabic-speaking: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Oman, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and many other north African countries; People of Israel, speaks Hebrew; People of Turkey, speaks Turkish and People of Iran speaks Persian.
      There are 3 Country in the world that their formal language is Persian: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan, some times afghans considered as Iranians like Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
      About Persian and Arabian languages i can say that Arabic is a Semitic language but Persian is a Indo-European language and you can find some common words in Persian and English as two Indo-European language like: “Pajama” in English and “Pijame” that both means nightclothes or: “Brother” in English and “Baradar” in Persian; but you can’t find something like this in Arabic.
      unfortunately most of Arabs hates Persians and most of Persians hates Arabs that have some historical reasons like savagely attacks of Arabic Bedouins (they was nomads) to the Persian Sassanian Lands and the conquest of Persia by Arabic Rashidun Caliphate and after that the islamic golden era started and most of Arabs for this victory and victory against the Roman empire, becomes narcissist and they humiliate the Persians by calling them as “Ajams” (that applies for someone who don’t understand language and someone Dumb) and after that Persians also started to humiliate Arabs (for example they call Arabs as “Lizard eaters” or Peoples that eat camel’s urine) and gradually this things transfers to a high grade aversion between two nations and now in 2020, Iran and Saudi Arabia as the two leaders of these two great nations are the largest rivals for each other, but you can see that Iranian religious government try to have relations with some of Arabic-speaking countries like Syria, Yemen, Qatar, Palestine etc.
      I am a Persian and i try not to be racist but i think most of Arabs (not Arabic-speaking) try to hurt Iran by any method and they don’t use “Persian Gulf” term for the south Gulf of Iran and they usually call it as ” Arabian Gulf ” or simply ” Gulf ” and it’s like that we Persians call the Arabian sea as: ” Persian sea ” or simply ” Sea ! ”
      Sorry for this long explain and at end i should say i’m hopeful that these two great nations becomes two friendly nations, thanks.

    • Hey, Bok! I actually just watched Bohemian Rhapsody a couple days ago, and then I came home and Googled him, as well 🙂

      So, he was born in Zanzibar (modern-day Tanzania), and he is of Parsi descent (Zoroastrians who migrated to India and Pakistan about 1000 years ago to avoid the Persian conquest by Muslims). His birth name was Farrokh Bulsara, and “Bulsara” is a common name in Gujarat, India, because Bulsar was a district there that’s now known as Valsad.

      He moved to the UK when he was 17.

  • We all human beings are from one father and mother.
    And we have been disributed in to diffferent tribes for the identification

  • Good, clear article. It gives an idea of how terms are misused, used interchangeably, and morphed over time to fit a purpose. Turkey is not an EU member though it has applied to become one for years. There are several requirements to be met and a vote takes place. Is it Middle Eastern? Depends on geopolitical context and period. Ask people today, I am sure the responses would vary.

  • Egypt is not in the Middle East. Egypt is in AFRICA. Stop trying to remove EGYPT from the continent of Africa.

    • Well Syria, for example, is in Asia…but it’s still in the middle east…so why can’t Egypt be in Africa and also the middle east?

  • What makes Turkey middle-eastern ( physically attached to other middle east nations more than to Europe ? ) while Egypt is also middle-eastern but more attached to Africa than the other middle east nations…lol….???? Where does “attched” end ?

    I enjoyed the article. This comment is comedic, not critical – thanks for the try…:))

  • My family originates from Lebanon Beruit, they always tell me we are not Arabic that we are Middle Eastern. Our religion is Christianity, all my life I thought I was Arabic. Do I consider myself Arabic or Middle Eastern?

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