Updated: 2018-11-04.
Arab Persian Middle EasternThese 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” and such, but it is imperative that we understand more fully the nature of the crises and history of the region if we ever hope to live to see the day where there might actually be peace.

Fundamental to understanding the region is understanding the differences between some key terms used to describe the people, places, languages, and ethnic groups, similar to explaining differences such as Race vs Ethnicity, Asian vs Oriental, or Spanish vs Latin American.

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, but usually consist of: 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, that are not included in the Middle East; these countries, 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.

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, the Arab peoples consist of the peoples of the member nations of the Arab League. The Arab League is a group of 22 nations and territories that formally formed back 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 those people who are 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 speak Arabic, which is a language and not meant to refer to the people, though you could say “Arabic-speaking people.”

Persia / Persian

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

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

To confuse you more, I’ll mention one final thing: since we stated that the origin of the term “Persian” 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) who 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, Arabic vs Arab, and Persian vs Middle Eastern? Got anything more to add? Let us know in the comments below!

30 COMMENTS

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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….

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

  5. 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.

    • 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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.

  9. 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;

  10. 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.

    • 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.

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

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