Facts About Famous Arab Americans and the U.S. Arab Population

Americans of Arab heritage have played key roles in politics and pop culture

The month of April marks Arab American Heritage Month. It’s a time to recognize the contributions of Arab Americans in music, film, television, politics and other fields. Many famous Americans, including Paula Abdul, Ralph Nader and Salma Hayek are of Arab ancestry. Get to know more about the achievements of famous Arab Americans with this overview of notable figures in a range of professions.

In addition, learn more about the Arab population in the United States. When did immigrants of Middle Eastern descent first begin to arrive in the U.S. in large waves? To which ethnic group do most members of the U.S. Arab population belong? The answers to these questions may surprise you.

Arab American Heritage Month

Paula Abdul
Paula Abdul visits 'Extra' at Universal Studios Hollywood on Dec. 8, 2016 in Universal City, California. Photo by Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

Arab American Heritage Month is a time to celebrate the accomplishments of people in the United States with Middle Eastern roots as well as for the public to become informed about the history of Arab Americans in the U.S. While Middle Eastern people in the United States are often perceived as foreigners, Arab Americans first began to arrive on American shores in the late 1800s. About half of Arab Americans were born in the U.S., according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Most Arab Americans, approximately 25 percent, are of Lebanese descent. Significant portions of the Arab population also have Egyptian, Syrian and Palestinian heritage. Because the federal government classifies the Arab population as whites, it’s been difficult for demographers to collect information about this group, but there’s mounting pressure for the U.S. Census Bureau to give Arab Americans their own racial category by 2020.

Arab Americans in Politics

Ralph Nader
Ralph Nader attends Lapham's Quarterly Decades Ball: The 1870s at Gotham Hall on June 2, 2014 in New York City. Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage

In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama faced rumors that he was of “Arab” ancestry. While that’s not true, it may not be unrealistic to imagine an Arab American in the White House. That’s because politicians such as Ralph Nader, who is of Lebanese descent, have already run for president. In addition, a number of Middle Eastern Americans have served in presidential administrations.

Donna Shalala, a Lebanese American, served as the U.S. Health and Human Services secretary for two terms under President Bill Clinton. Ray LaHood, also Lebanese American, has served as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation in President Barack Obama’s administration. A number of Arab Americans have also served in the U.S. House of Representatives, such as George Kasem and Darrell Issa. 

Arab American Pop Stars

Singer Shakira
Maluma, Shakira and Santi Millan (R) attend the Los 40 Music Awards 2016 at Palau Sant Jordi on Dec. 1, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain. Photo by Miquel Benitez/Redferns

Think there’s no such thing as an Arab American pop star? Think again. A number of musicians of Middle Eastern descent have topped the music charts in the United States. Crooner Paul Anka was a major teen idol during the 1950s, and he continues to make music in the 21st century.

Dick Dale transformed rock music in the 1960s with his Lebanese-infused surf rock. Pop star Tiffany, born Tiffany Darwish, was a teen sensation in the 1980s. Paula Abdul, who’s of Syrian descent, cranked out one hit after another in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 2002, she embarked on new territory when she became a judge on the hit show “American Idol.” During that same time frame, Colombian pop star Shakira, who’s of Lebanese descent, began to top the Billboard charts in the U.S.

Arab American Actors

Actor Omar Sharif
Oct. 8 1974: Egyptian actor Omar Sharif, born Michel Shahoub in Alexandria. Photo by D. Morrison/Express/Getty Images

Arab American actors are no strangers to the film and television industries. Egyptian actor Omar Sharif won a Golden Globe for his work in 1965 film “Doctor Zhivago.” Marlo Thomas, daughter of Lebanese comedian Danny Thomas, became a star in the 1966 TV series “That Girl” about the trials and tribulations of a young woman trying to become a famous actress.

Other television stars of Arab American background include Wendie Malick, who is half-Egyptian, and Tony Shalhoub, a Lebanese American who won several awards for his role in the USA Network show “Monk.” Salma Hayek, a Mexican actress of Lebanese descent, rose to fame in Hollywood in the 1990s. She received an Oscar nomination in 2002 for her portrayal of the artist Frida Kahlo in the biopic “Frida.”