It was the phrase 'men of Middle Eastern appearance' that triggered the interest of All of Us creator Michel Lawrence in the whole issue of cultural diversity.

As the 2005 riots in Cronulla unfolded, the police and other commentators regularly referred to some of those involved as being 'Middle Eastern', but what does that mean exactly?

The term Middle East was popularised around 1900 by the British and has been criticised for its loose definition. Geographically, it has traditionally included countries or places in Southwest Asia and parts of North Africa.

The term became more widely known when it began to be used by the American naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan. During the early 1900s, the British and Russian Empires were vying for influence in Central Asia. Mahan realised the strategic importance of the region, particularly its centre, the Persian Gulf. He labelled the area surrounding the gulf as the Middle East and declared that, after the Suez Canal, it was the most important passage for Britain to control if it were to keep the Russians from advancing towards India.

Until the Second World War, it was customary to refer to areas centred around Turkey and the eastern shore of the Mediterranean as the Near East, while the Far East centred on China. The Near East included the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire, while the Far East included the countries of East Asia, such as China, Japan and the Koreas. The Middle East then meant the area between the Near East and the Far East, including Persia, Kurdistan, Afghanistan, present-day Pakistan and Central Asia, Turkistan and the Caucasus.

In 1958, the US State Department declared that the terms Near East and Middle East were interchangeable and defined the region as including only Egypt, Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar.

The region's significant stocks of crude oil gave it new strategic and economic importance. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates produce large quantities of oil.

Another defining feature of the Middle East is religion. It is most significantly the birthplace and spiritual centre of Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Yezidi, and, in Iran, Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and the Bahá'í Faith.

It is understandable then that, throughout its history, the Middle East has been a major centre of world affairs; a strategically, economically, politically, culturally, and religiously sensitive area.

While today the term Middle East is used by Europeans and non-Europeans alike, many criticise it as reflecting a Eurocentric view. After all, the region is only east from the perspective of Europe. To an Indian it lies to the west; to a Russian it lies to the south.

Large numbers of people from the Middle East have migrated to Australia, most notably from Lebanon, once considered the Paris of the Middle East; it was sons of Lebanese immigrants who were involved in the Cronulla incident.

While some countries in the Middle East have troubled histories and volatile relationships, the All of Us project revealed their people can live in harmony. Palestinians and Israelis live side-by-side in Australia along with people of such minority religions as Zoroastrianism.

Glenn Beanland / Lonely Planet Images