Largest Cities in the Middle East

The Middle East includes countries in Western Asia and reaches Egypt in North Africa. Its population is estimated at 476 million, spread over 16 countries, including Palestine and Israel.

The vast metropolitan area of ​​Istanbul. (Photo by Asia Pacific Images Studio/iStock)

Since the Middle East is such a vast territory, there are also many languages, such as Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, Berber and Persian. Besides languages, there are also a few religions; however, Islam is the dominant one. But what (or where) are the biggest cities? Well, that depends on who you ask and where you look. Oh, and there’s a (sometimes big) difference between metropolitan areas and city limits.

Here is a list of the ten largest cities in the Middle East by “urban area” population.

1. Istanbul, Turkey – 14.8 million

Istanbul can be considered by some to be the third largest city in the Middle East, registering a population of around 15 million people in the metropolitan area; however, it has 14.8 million in the urban area. Although not the capital, it is Turkey’s largest city and some might say the heart of the country. It is also the fifth largest city in the world by population within the city limits.

The city spans both Europe and Asia, as it straddles the Bosphorus Strait. A report made in 2021 stated that Istanbul’s population is 18% of Turkey’s population.

In 2010 it was named European Capital of Culture and was the eighth most visited city in the world in 2018.

2. Cairo, Egypt – 9.61 million

It is the most populous “metropolitan” area in the Middle East and Cairo’s population is twice the size of the fifth highest metropolitan city, Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. It is also considered the sixth largest metropolitan area in the world. In fact, its metropolitan area reaches a population of 21.7 million people.

The city of Cairo, however, registers a population of around 9.6 million and it is the capital of Egypt. The city, in fact, is associated with ancient Egypt, since the pyramid complex of Giza and the ancient cities of Memphis and Heliopolis are located in the same geographical area. It is also located near the Nile, more precisely near its delta.

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Cairo has always been a political and cultural center of the region, and its historic center was awarded World Heritage Site status in 1979.

3. Baghdad, Iraq – 7.22 million

Baghdad ranks fourth in terms of metropolitan area, and it is the fourth largest city in the Middle East and the second largest in Western Asia after Tehran, with a population of 7.5 million (its city population is closer to 7.2 million). It is also the capital of Iraq.

It is located on the Tigris. Since being chosen as the capital in 762 CE, Baghdad has become an important cultural, commercial and intellectual landmark of the Muslim world. It is indeed considered as the “Centre of Learning”.

4. Tehran, Iran – 7.15 million

Tehran is a city in Tehran Province and the capital of Iran. With a population of over 7.1 million, Tehran is the most populous city in Iran and Western Asia, and has the second largest metropolitan area in the Middle East, registering 16.6 million inhabitants.

After becoming the capital in 1786, it separated from Iran during the Russo-Iranian wars. The capital has been moved several times throughout history and Tehran is the 32nd national capital of Persia. It has been a destination for mass migrations from all over Iran ever since.

Most of its population is Persian, speaking the Persian language. However, many other ethnolinguistic groups live in Tehran and speak Persian as a second language.

5. Alexandria, Egypt – 5.26 million

Alexandria is a Mediterranean port city in Egypt. In 2022, it recorded a population of 5.2 million in the urban area.

It was founded in 331 BCE by Alexander the Great and since then it has been a major center of civilization and culture. Indeed, in Hellenistic times, it housed the lighthouse of Alexandria, which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, as well as the famous library of Alexandria.

Alexandria is nicknamed the “bride of the Mediterranean” by its inhabitants, as it is a very popular tourist destination and an important industrial center, due to its gas and oil pipelines.

6. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – 4.21 million

Riyadh, formerly known as Hajr al-Yamamah, is the capital and largest city of Saudi Arabia.

The urban area is home to about 4.2 million people, while the metropolitan area is home to 7.5 million. It sits on a plateau in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula. However, there has not been a census since 2010, so some population figures are not as accurate as they could be.

Its population is divided into Saudi and non-Saudi citizens, and the former make up about 22.7% of the total number of Saudi households in Saudi Arabia, while the latter make up 28.6% of all non-Saudi households in the country.

It has grown steadily since the 14th century and is famous for its trade in the country. Moreover, a unique aspect of Riyadh is the fact that it is home not only to nuclear families consisting of parents and children, but also the traditional extended families, in which parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and children stay in the same house.

7. Ankara, Turkey – 3.52 million

Ankara is the capital of Turkey, located in the central part of Anatolia. With a population of 5.3 million in the metropolitan area and 3.5 million in the urban area, it is the sixth largest city in the Middle East. It is also the second largest city in Turkey.

Historically, it was designed as a planned city that would have only accommodated a population of around 500,000 in the 1920s. Massive population growth occurred in the 1950s because people moved to the city ​​for a better quality of life and new career opportunities.

Due to this rapid growth, there was a lot of illegal housing around the city. Today, they have been replaced by social housing.

8. Dubai, United Arab Emirates – 2.96 million

Capital of the Emirate of Dubai, Dubai is located along the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It is considered the business center and cultural landmark of the Middle East.

Its last recorded population reached 3.49 million,

Dubai is famous for its beaches, weather, hospitality and deserts. Its economy, in particular, is very diverse and rapidly growing, and it has led to incredible growth over the past few decades.

Dubai is also the second largest region among the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.

9. Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – 2.87 million

Jeddah is the largest city in the province of Mecca, the largest city in Hejaz, the second largest city in Saudi Arabia and the tenth largest in the Middle East.

It records a metropolitan population of 4.7 million, while 2.8 million people live in the urban area.

Jeddah is the main gateway to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city to the east, and Medina to the north. It has been named a beta global city by the Globalization and Global Cities Study Group and Network.

10. Izmir, Turkey – 2.5 million

The population of the urban area of ​​Izmir reaches 2.5 million people, while the metropolitan area consists of just over three million people.

Izmir is a metropolis in western Anatolia. It is considered the third most populated city in Turkey, after Istanbul and Ankara. The city has over 3,000 years of history and up to 8,500 years of history as a human settlement since the Neolithic period.

Izmir has always been one of the main trading cities around the Mediterranean. It also hosted the Mediterranean Games in 1971 and the World University Games in 2005. It also participated in the Climathon in 2019.

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