As of this writing there are approximately (the number differs depending on who you ask) 195 sovereign countries in the world. The United States has been criticized internationally for its lack of global awareness, but I doubt that very many citizens in any nation are able to name all 194 of their neighbors. This is understandable considering the prevalence of so many small, obscure, nations which dot the globe. As a way to honor these forgotten nations, this list will count down 15 Real Countries That You’ve Never Heard Of. Seeking to get an international flair, this list will feature countries from four separate continents (sorry Antarctica). While the geography, demographics, and history of these countries greatly varies, all are connected in their relative ambiguity on the international scale. In each entry, I will attempt to provide a brief description of the country (including where the heck it is on a map), as well as some ways in which its obscurity affects the people who live there. Perhaps this list can shine a light on these countries which for so long have been kept in the dark. All statistics referenced in this article are from the firsthand knowledge of the author or are from the United Nations website.
I am extremely fascinated in those nations which are completely surrounded by another foreign power. A perfect example of this is Swaziland, a small nation (about 7,000 square miles) completely surrounded by the nation of South Africa. Swaziland had already established itself as its own, sovereign, kingdom when European settlers began arriving in south Africa. The kingdom was ended, however, in 1906 and British officials forcefully integrated the small kingdom into the British protectorate of South Africa. It wasn’t until global decolonization efforts started to occur in the 1950’s that Swaziland was able to gain the independence (1968) that it still enjoys today. The current nation of Swaziland necessarily maintains very friendly relations with the much larger nation of South Africa.
14. Sri Lanka
Imagine for a moment that you are the leader of a small island nation off the coast of India. With two powerful eastern countries in close proximity to you (India and China), you would naturally fear that your nation’s interests would be overwhelmed by your more powerful and prominent neighbors. The best way to overcome this disadvantage would be to develop some industry that makes you indispensable to the international community. This, however, can be extremely difficult. An easier way to gain some international acclaim (and possibly scare away your more predatory neighbors) is to develop what is perhaps the most bada*s flag in the entire world. The Sri Lankan flag is adorned with twin lions holding sabers, an obvious warning to any nation that seeks to impinge upon their sovereignty.
13. San Marino
I am not sure what it is about the Italian peninsula that endears itself to tiny independent nations, but the next entry on our list is a perfect example of this phenomenon. This incredibly small country (23.6 square miles) is found in the northwest corner of the Italian “boot”. With a current population of less than 35,000, San Marino relies on the nearby nation of Italy to maintain its sovereignty. While this may seem counterintuitive, since the 3rd century CE Italy has seemed content (with some exceptions) to allow San Marino to govern itself. This cozy agreement has allowed the mountainous nation to maintain the smallest national military force in the entire world. This, among other things, has allowed San Marino to become fairly affluent in the 20th and 21st centuries.
12. United Arab Republic
Unlike most of the entries on this list, you have likely never heard of the United Arab Republic because it no longer exists. The U.A.R. was a short lived political union between Egypt and Syria that lasted a mere three years from 1958-1961. This union was the result of an attempt by Syria to further their ultimate goal of a large pan-Arab state. To achieve this goal, Syria sought to form a unified nation with another major Arab country (Egypt) and its leader Gamal Abdel Nassar. Like most attempts to unite the diverse Arab groups of the Middle East, however, the U.A.R. was a huge failure. The new state quickly became dominated by Egyptian political forces, and a military coup was formed to re-obtain Syria’s independence.
11. Vatican City
No state in the world has a more unique history than does the Vatican City. Based within the city of Rome, Vatican City is the seat of the Roman Pontiff, the head of the Catholic Church. What this means is that the Vatican City is an ecclesiastical state; a state headed by a religious ruler in place of a monarch. Vatican City is slightly different, however, from the Holy See. The Holy See is, of course, the main episcopal seat of the over a billion Catholics around the world. The creation of the Vatican City was the result of the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy in 1929, which sought to revive part of the much larger Papal States which encompassed much of central Italy from 756-1870.
Brunei is a sovereign state on the island of Borneo in southeast Asia. While the country is of little notoriety outside of the Malaysian islands, its ruler has become a fixture of American slang. Being as rich as the “Sultan of Brunei” was a prominent idiom in America that makes reference to the immense wealth once held by the state’s head. While the saying brings forth images of the Islamic Sultan’s of old (usually a Sultan is associated with the leaders of the Ottoman Empire), in modern day the Sultan of Brunei is practically very similar to a western President or Prime Minister. Currently the nation of Brunei has a population of just over 400,000, with oil and natural gas accounting for almost 90% of their annual gross domestic product (GDP).
9. South Sudan
Out of all the nations listed in this article, South Sudan is one of the largest. Why then are so many people unaware of its existence? The simple answer is that the nation of South Sudan is relatively new, it only gained its independence from the Sudan in 2011. The more complicated answer examines the decades of turmoil that have plagued the Sudan. Seeking to escape the oppression of its northern neighbors, the citizens of the South Sudan voted to separate and form their own country in a 2011 referendum which passed with an almost 99% acceptance vote. Gaining independence has not, however, solved all of South Sudan’s problems. According to the United Nations Fragile State Index, it has the lowest humanitarian score of any nation in the world.
8. Republic of Seychelles
I think schools (both public and collegiate) do a disservice by not teaching their students about the incredible diversity of the African continent. This includes not only its admirable diversity in diaspora and cultures, but also the incredible geographical diversity that the continent possesses. A perfect example of this is the Republic of Seychelles, a small island nation off of Africa’s east coast in the Indian Ocean. While this small republic has some of the most beautiful destinations in the entire world, they have the smallest population of any African nation. This state has committed wholly to tourism in recent years, and the influx of foreign capital has helped to eliminate many of the poverty issues which have plagued Seychelles in the past.
It would be a great bar trivia question to ask where the once proud nation of Sikkim is now located. The nation of Sikkim existed from the 8th century until 1975, and was a small landlocked country wedged in between India and China. Nestled snugly in the Himalayan Mountains, the small nation was never forced to succumb to foreign invaders, and instead chose of their own volition to merge with India in the 1970’s (due largely to economic reasons). Despite its small size, Sikkim was extremely diverse. The country of less than 3,000 square miles could boast an impressive 11 official languages (since merging with India this number has increased to 13). In the period from 1645 until their formation with India, Sikkim was ruled by a dynastic monarchy.
6. Cape Verde
While doing research for this list, I was truly astonished by some of the landscape photos taken of Cape Verde. Cape Verde is an island nation made up of 10 volcanic islands off the eastern coast of Africa. Unlike much of the African continent, Cape Verde was uninhabited until the arrival of European (Portuguese) explorers in the 15th century. It was at this point that the island’s ideal location in the Atlantic Ocean made them a ripe center for both pirate activity and the African slave trade. Despite its prominent place in trans-Atlantic history, the nation of Cape Verde is far less notorious than its more troubled neighbors. This relative ambiguity, however, does not stop “the Cape” from being an influential member of the African Union.
In compiling this list, I attempted to find unknown nations in every corner of the globe. I struggled, however, to find a nation in western Europe which wasn’t already well known in the international community. My hard work was finally rewarded when I began researching the small, landlocked, nation of Luxembourg. To give our American readers some perspective on the size of Luxembourg, depending on how you measure the mileage, the whole country can actually be considered smaller than the state of Rhode Island (the smallest state in the U.S.). Far from shrinking from international involvement, Luxembourg uses its inauspicious nature to its advantage. For example, since 1952 Luxembourg has been the seat of the European Court of Justice (an international court developed in the wake of World War II).
It is somewhat depressing that the name Macedonia does not invoke images of the current state in Eastern Europe, but instead brings to mind the ancient nation of the same name which was the home to the legendary general Alexander the Great. With the tumult that seems to be a continuous aspect of southeast Europe, however, Macedonia has bigger problems than sorting out their ancient history. One reason why the Republic of Macedonia is so unknown in the international community is because it is officially a fairly new country. It wasn’t until 1991 that Macedonia peacefully succeeded from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (and Yugoslavia itself didn’t become a nation until after World War II). While three regime changes since the 1940’s doesn’t seem like a lot, it does have an effect on how nations are perceived in the international community.
In Suriname we have our lone representative from South America. Suriname is one of 3 small nations (technically 2 nations and 1 protectorate) found to the north of gargantuan Brazil. Like many nations in the “new world”, Suriname was under the dominion of several indigenous tribes until the arrival of Dutch settlers in the 17th century. While many South American Nations began to gain their independence in the mid 1800’s, Suriname did not become its own sovereign state until 1975. It is largely because of their late entrance unto the global stage that Suriname continues to be so unknown internationally. An interesting tidbit about Suriname is that it is actually considered to be a Caribbean nation. This is due not only to their relatively close location to the Caribbean, but also because of certain ethnic and cultural similarities to their island neighbors.
2. St. Lucia
To be frank, this list could have been created entirely from the small island nations in the Caribbean Sea. With the decline of imperial control of the region, several small states have emerged from the Caribbean island colonies. As a representative of all of these nations, I elected Saint Lucia. On the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea (immediately adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean), Lucia was at one point settled by both French and British settlers. Saint Lucia gained its independence in 1979, and has since subsisted on its primary industries of tourism and banana production. Despite its imperial history, Saint Lucia retains close ties with the United Kingdom which provide them with some advantages in the international market. Lucia has a land mass of less than 250 square miles.
While most of our readers have likely heard of Tibet in some sense (most likely associated with their legendary monks), I doubt that many of them know that Tibet was at one point its own sovereign state. In fact, the rural nation of Tibet was its own nation for hundreds of years before it was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China in 1951. Though tourism has grown in recent years (now the province of), Tibet relies heavily on subsistence agriculture much as it has for its entire history. Despite being dwarfed politically by China for much of its history, at times the Tibetan territory has dwarfed its more famous neighbor. A large reason for Tibet’s subordinate relationship to China is the lack of any major cities in the territory, an issue which compounds many of the issues still facing Tibet today.
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