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All at sea over 'the Gulf'

How a false name was fabricated for the Persian Gulf?


By Mahan Abedin [ * ]

December 2004

Edited by CAIS


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United Nations Official map of Iran

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United Nations Official documents on the correct usage of the name of the Persian Gulf (August 18, 1994)

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United Nations Official documents on the correct usage of the name of the Persian Gulf

(May 14, 1999)

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Charles D. Belgrave

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Ras Al-Khaima Sheikh with Roderic Fenwick Owen

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Sheikh Khalid, Sheikh Shakhbut, the Sultan of Muscat and Sheikh Zayed

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Donald Rumsfeld shakes Saddam Hussein's hand in a meeting in 19-20 December 1983. During the 1980s, the United States maintained cordial relations with Saddam as a bulwark against Iran.

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Saddam Hussein, from the leader of the Arab World

to his downfall and execution

  (Click to enlarge)


The 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.


After 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.


The 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.


Many 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 "Persian" Gulf.


Millennia of 'Persian Gulf'

It 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 ages.


Even 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.


At 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.


The 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)


There 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.


The 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.


Several 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.


This 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 identity.


Why 'Persian Gulf'

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. 


This 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.


While this 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.


In 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."






















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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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