It's the Arabian Gulf and that's that

Published: 26 August 2009
It's the Arabian Gulf and that's that
© istockphoto / Chad McDermott

The gentle water that laps the shores of the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq and Iran has become a source of contention. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet but it certainly irks most people in this part of the world when outsiders invariably refer to the Arabian #Gulf as the Persian #Gulf. Those of us who grew up here swam in the Arabian #Gulf as children and were told that the big ships we could see in the distance were sailing through the Arabian #Gulf to the Arabian Sea. And, today, most tourists who flock here from every corner of the globe do not consider themselves visitors to the Persian #Gulf.

It may be true that pre-1960’s maps and treaties made reference to this body of water as the Persian #Gulf in the same way that many ancient European maps referred to the Red Sea as Sinus Arabicus or the Arabian #Gulf. But let’s fast forward to the 21st century. Today, there are several reasons why the international community and its cartographers should officially recognise the ’Arabian #Gulf’.

The first is obvious. Persia hasn’t existed since 1935 and, therefore, does not appear on modern maps. So, by saying Persian #Gulf we are implicitly attributing domination of this 24,000 square kilometre body of water to a long gone era.

Secondly, the modern-day Islamic Republic of Iran is just one of eight countries which share this waterway with all the rest being Arab. Moreover, many Iranians who live near Iran’s southern coastline are ethnically Arab or Arabic speaking.

Thirdly, we are living during a time when countries in the #Gulf have attained unprecedented geopolitical and economic clout, which should be recognised.

Fourthly, history notwithstanding, there are numerous examples of countries, cities and seas undergoing a name change to reflect the contemporary status quo. For instance, Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, the Gold Coast became Ghana, Burma changed its name to Myanmar and Bombay is now known as Mumbai.

You may be interested to know that the Romans called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum or ’Our Sea’ while the ancient Greeks called the Atlantic Ocean ’Oceanus’ but you don’t find present day Italians and Greeks up in arms about the name change.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our good friends the Iranians. They are hanging on to the ’Persian #Gulf’ like a mother lion defending her cubs. In 2004, hundreds of organised Iranian bloggers and webmasters launched what is called a ‘Google Bomb’ and were successful in manipulating the Google Search engine so that each time anyone searched for ’Arabian #Gulf’ up popped a spoofed Internet Explorer page that read “The #Gulf you are looking for does not exist. Try Persian #Gulf”. Iranian hackers have also been busy hacking into Arab websites and superimposing maps of the #Gulf with their own.

In 2005, the Iranian government was incensed when Qatar used ’Arabian #Gulf’ in its official documents relating to the 2006 Asian Games and threatened to boycott them. In the same vein, Tehran has threatened to cancel the 2009 Islamic Solidarity Games planned for October because GCC member countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have asked that the ‘Persian #Gulf’ tag be dropped from the event’s promotional materials and medals. However, negotiations are ongoing and they still might be salvaged. In the past, Iran has also banned National Geographic publications because its World Atlas had “Arabian #Gulf” in parentheses as well as The Economist for using “#Gulf” in connection with a map published in the magazine.

Frankly speaking, if Iranian sensitivities are that delicate then I have no problem with any name they care to give this shared body of water as long as they do not impose their terminology on anyone else. In a spirit of ‘live and let live’ there should be no reason why they can’t continue with ’Persian #Gulf’ while we Arabs hold to ’Arabian #Gulf’ or, simply, ’#Gulf’ in the same way the British say ’English Channel’ and the French ’La Manche’ (the Sleeve) when speaking of the Atlantic waters that separate the UK from France.

Just as the labels English Channel and La Manche are legally interchangeable, ’Arabian #Gulf’ and ’Persian #Gulf’ should be likewise in the eyes of the international community. Despite appeals from #Gulf nations, as things stand, UN directives stipulate that ’Persian #Gulf’ should be used in official documents, while the US and the UK have both endorsed ’Persian #Gulf’ as the official term of reference. Given the close relationship that GCC countries enjoy with Washington and London, this entrenched stance on their part is uncooperative at best, offensive at worst.

Lastly, our predicament is shared by North and South Korea which have asked the UN Conference on the Standardisation of Geographical names to change the ’Sea of Japan’ to the ’East Sea’. Unlike its support for ’Persian #Gulf’, in this case, the UN has ruled that such issues should be settled by the countries concerned.

We are just as proud of our history and geopolitical status as the Iranians are and we deserve just as much respect from our friends, especially when we host so many throughout the #Gulf region. I would, therefore, ask our leaders to vigorously pursue this issue at the UN and, further, I would request our allies to look favourably upon any such a request.

Until now, Arab nations have been treating this issue with kid gloves. It’s about time that we made ourselves heard. The warm waters of the #Gulf will be around long after we’re gone but as Theodore Roosevelt once said, “The one thing I want to leave my children is an honourable name.”

Comment (2)
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Added 11:31 January 31 2019
Dear Mr.Ahmed Khalaf Al Habtoor Its since 5 years that I did not get any reply from you concerning the name Persian Gulf. But I have a good news, the first and the only English book about the documents of the Persian Gulf s name that is my new book in this topic,few months ago is published and even the better news is that you can easily go to our website (English section) and download the PDF book by the name "TOPONYMY and the name Persian Gulf". By the way, the meaning of the word "TOPONYMY" that you probably don't know about it means: the study of geographical names. It will help you to find the truth. This is a scientific issue and you should not involve fanaticism. I suggest you to read the book and just once in your life act like civilized people let me know your opinion! Best Regards Seyed Abbas Mojtahedi 31 January 2019
S.A.Mojtahedi , IRAN
Added 10:18 January 30 2014
Dear Habtoor I read the comment ,any way its your opinion. honestly I think your problem is the lack of knowledge in this field. we say the name of the waterway between the Iranian plateau and the Arabian peninsula is "Persian Gulf" because all historical documents(maps ,notes, books ,etc....) says that and because the science of history and geography says that , its a scientific issue. in the same time also as an expert in this field we say the name of the river between the Iran and Iraq is Shatt-el-Arab, because historically the name is Shatt-el-Arab. I always stand against some people in Iran using the wrong name of Arvand for this because of these historical and geographical facts, UN as the highest legal source of the world use the correct names of the "Persian Gulf " and Shatt-el-Arab for these waterways. denying facts does not change facts my friends. documents are available at it will be my pleasure to hear from you. With Kind Regards S.A.Mojtahedi (researcher and senior adviser to the managing director of the Persian Gulf studies center) 30 January 2014
S.A.Mojtahedi , Iran (Islamic Republic Of)