The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
THE PERSIAN GULF
All at sea over 'the Gulf'
How a false name was fabricated for the Persian Gulf?
Mahan Abedin [ *
Edited by CAIS
recent furor over the National Geographic Society's decision to use the
fictitious term "Arabian Gulf" alongside the historically and legally
correct term "Persian Gulf" has had a much greater political impact
and corresponding media coverage that many had anticipated.
all, the name "Persian Gulf", although long recognized by the United
Nations as the only historically and legally valid term for the waterway
separating the Iranian plateaus from the Arabian Peninsula, is not universally
respected. The British Broadcasting Corp (BBC) and much of the British press
have been calling it "the Gulf" for more than three decades. Moreover,
even some organizations and publications in North America have not been immune
to the financial inducements of powerful institutions and individuals inhabiting
the western shores of the Persian Gulf.
abuse of the name "Persian Gulf" has been ongoing for more than 30
years, but until now it has never caused much media curiosity, let alone a minor
political crisis. But this time around things are very different. First and
foremost, the Iranian government has entered the fray for the first time and
banned the National Geographic Society (NGS) from Iran until it corrects its
mistake. Moreover, Iranian communities worldwide have become involved in a
campaign against NGS; an online petition has so far generated more than 70,000
signatures. Iranian bloggers have been at the forefront of the campaign, with
the more creative among them even generating a "goggle" bomb whereby
those searching for the politically constructed name "Arabian Gulf"
are directed to a site where they are presented with historical facts about the
body of water.
intelligent and curious observers may be tempted to ask what the fuss is all
about. To understand fully why this issue generates such powerful emotions in
Iranians would be impossible without a brief exposition of the history of the
of 'Persian Gulf'
was Darius the Great who originally named the body of water separating the
Iranian plateaus from the Arabian Peninsula as well as the Makran Sea (nowadays
Oman Sea) and the Arabian Sea as the 'Persian Sea',
and Greeks followed suit and translated the term as the "Persious
Sinus". This reflected both an appreciation of Persian civilisation and a
grudging respect for Persian naval prowess. Early Roman historians - in keeping
with the traditions of the ancient Greeks - called the waterway "Aquarius
Persico". Thus the ancient world universally recognized this strategic
waterway as the Persian Sea, a recognition that has persisted throughout the
after the conquest of Iran by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century AD, there was no
attempt to alter the name of the Persian Sea. The Muslim Arabs universally
referred to the gulf as "Bahr al-Farsi" (Persian Sea) and duly
respected the precedence established by the Greeks and the Romans. This
precedence was in turn respected by the various Islamic, Iranian and regional
empires that held sway in the region for the next 1,400 years.
what particular point in history the Persian Sea became the Persian Gulf is not
altogether clear. But what is important and acutely consequential is that the
United Nations has on two occasions formally recognized "Persian Gulf"
as the exclusive term for the strategic waterway separating Iran from its Arab
neighbours. The first announcement was made pursuant to the document t, and the second was pursuant to UNLA 45.8.2 (C) on
August 10, 1984. On both occasions, all 22 Arab nations represented at the
United Nations signed the documents.
Renaming Attempts by the British and Arab nationalists
Some observers have traced the origins of the campaign to change the name of the Persian Gulf to the rise of Arab nationalism and in particular, Jamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. In fact, this campaign predates Nasser by several decades and, like many other noteworthy events in that region, inevitably involved the British.
first person to propose changing the name of the Persian Gulf to the
"Arabian" Gulf was Charles D. Belgrave (1894–1969), the British
adviser to the Shaikhs of semi-autonomous
Bahrain on behalf of the British Government between 1926 and 1957. Belgrave
made the proposal to his masters in London, but both the Colonial and Foreign
offices rejected it outright.
The next attempt was made by a more consequential individual. After the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry by the nationalist government of Dr Mohammed Mossadegh in 1951, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Co (AIOC) was desperate to sabotage Iranian interests in the region to avenge its losses. The task of reviving the "Arabian Gulf" project was entrusted to the Roderic Fenwick Owen, arguably one of greatest unsung heroes of the British secret state in the 20th century. Using the cover of a shadowy functionary of the AIOC, Owen was in fact a senior MI6 officer in the Middle East. The primary product of Owen's campaign was a book called The Golden Bubble of the Arabian Gulf. This book constituted the first literary work of any significance to popularise the term "Arabian Gulf". Thus the campaign to distort and eventually displace the historical term "Persian Gulf" originates in the retreat and defeat of British colonialism in the Middle East.(1)
is no doubt, however, that Nasser was the man - and the militant Arab
nationalism that he represented was the ideology - that popularised changing the
name of the Persian Gulf to accommodate Arab chauvinism. Nasser was less
interested in changing the name of international waterways than being seen to be
confronting the Shah of Iran - who was almost universally disliked in the Arab
world at that time. Nasser's Egyptian regime, using the financial resources of
the small Arab sheikhdoms on the western shores of the Persian Gulf, started the
global campaign to change the name of the Persian Gulf, in earnest.
leadership of this campaign was gradually appropriated by the new Ba'ath regime
in Iraq. The post-1968 Iraqi Ba'athist regime struck a close alliance with the
government of Abu Dhabi - the most influential constituent of the embryonic
United Arab Emirates (UAE). This relationship proved decisive as the
Arab-nationalist propaganda campaign of the Iraqi Ba'athists had recourse to the
financial resources of the UAE. Interestingly, the government of Abu Dhabi
retained its close alliance with the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein right to
the bitter end in April 2003.
fake academic and research institutions were set up as fronts to propagate the
politically motivated name "Arabian Gulf". These organizations
established extensive links with universities, publishing houses and
cartographic centres around the world to offer inducements to adopt the
"new" name for the strategic waterway. In time many Western academics,
politicians and journalists were persuaded - thanks to generous financial
incentives - to adopt the fabricated name.
campaign had such a marked impact that in the early-1980s the BBC decided to adopt
the neutral term "the Gulf" for the waterway. This unprecedented move
constituted the Arab nationalists' greatest success, as the BBC had unrivalled
power and influence at that time. Indeed, the ripple effect had immediate
results insofar as much of the British press followed the BBC in adopting
"the Gulf" as the primary point of reference. In due course some media
on the European continent and a small minority of media and publications in
North America adopted the BBC approach in stripping the Persian Gulf of its
Those who follow the BBC in calling for the institutionalisation of the so-called neutral term "the Gulf" are missing several important points. First and foremost, the name "Persian Gulf" reflects millennia of history, and disrespecting this name inevitably diminishes the histories and civilisations that grew around this strategic waterway. Second, the name "Persian Gulf" has been legitimised by the highest international legal body, namely the United Nations.
legal premise is diminished at our peril; just imagine the crises that would
erupt if nations took it upon themselves to rename the historical and legal
names of seas and oceans. Imagine the Pakistanis calling the Indian Ocean the
"Pakistani Ocean"; Texans renaming the Gulf of Mexico to reflect the
identity of their own state. Clearly, renaming the historical identifications of
places is no trivial matter and can have very adverse political consequences.
Third, the campaign to change the name of the Persian Gulf, although rooted in
the frustrations of a collapsing British Empire, has been driven by the politics
of Arab nationalism. This nationalism is now almost universally condemned as a
failure, and any lingering dreams of pan-Arabia dissipated with the fall of
Baghdad and the ouster of Saddam Hussein on April 9, 2003.
After the Iranian government took its unusually robust stance against NGS, the Arabic broadcasting network al-Jazeera financed by Qatar and supported by the BBC put out a cartoon ridiculing the Iranian effort. The cartoon showed an Iranian mullah disregarding regional issues and "Muslim" unity (depicted in quintessentially distasteful and provocative al-Jazeera style by a US soldier carrying away a Muslim woman) and instead opting to punish NGS for its disrespect for the Persian Gulf.
kind of crude, provocative, false and hypocritical politicisation is typical
of al-Jazeera and the Arab media generally, it is important to underline
that this issue is not inherently political. It is about the history and
heritage of a waterway that has had a Persian identity for millennia.
a statement on its website, the National Geographic Society said that while it
considers "'Persian Gulf' to be the primary name, it has been the society's
cartographic practice to display a secondary name in parentheses when the use of
such a name has become commonly recognized". However, this position is
unlikely to mollify the grievances of Iranians who feel that the effort to
change the name of the Persian Gulf not only undermines the historical heritage
of that region but also constitutes a wider assault on their cultural identity.
(1). It is alleged that Owen who was a homosexual, had a close relationship with Shakhbut the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi who gave him the tile of court poet, apparently for a passionate poem expressing their affection for each other: "Through Abu Dhabi's golden sands; We walked and talked until the sea; Crept up and disenchanted me."
Mahan Abedin, is a Visiting Fellow at the New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis. Previously he has worked with numerous think tanks, including the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation and the London-based Centre for the Study of Terrorism. He has also been active in journalism, having worked for the Beirut-based Daily Star and most recently the Irbil-based AK News Agency where he was chief editor of the Persian and English sections. Born in Iran, but raised and educated in the United Kingdom. Abdein is also the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by the Jamestown Foundation.
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