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Thematic Essay

Persian Gulf Name Disputing



Iran Prior to Arab Invasion in 7th c. CE



Persian_Gulf_11th_century_Arabic_Manuscript.jpg (44526 bytes)

An Islamic map showing Persian Gulf, dated 320 A.H.


Persian_Gulfs_Biruni_Map.jpg (48591 bytes)

Haft-Darya (seen Seas) map by Birun



UN Maps

United Nationas Map of the Middle East 2004WM.PNG (278950 bytes)i

United Nations map of the Middle East


United Nationas Map of Iran 2004WM.PNG (510675 bytes)

United Nations Map of Iran

Courtesy of the United Nations

(Click to enlarge)



The name of the body of water separating the Iranian plateau and the Arabian Peninsula has been disputed by some Arab countries since the 1960s. This body of water is historically and most commonly called the Persian Gulf, after the land of Persia (Iran). Rivalry between Persians and Arabs, however, along with the emergence of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism in 1960s, has seen the name Arabian Gulf become predominant in some Arab countries.[1] Names beyond these two have also been applied to or proposed for this body of water.

On almost all maps printed before 1960, and in most modern international treaties, documents and maps, this body of water is known by the name "Persian Gulf", reflecting traditional usage since the Greek geographers Strabo and Ptolemy, and the geopolitical realities of the time with a powerful Persian Empire (Iran) comprising the whole northern coastline and a scattering of local emirates on the Arabian coast. But by the 1960s and with the rise of Arab nationalism, some Arab countries, including the ones bordering the Persian Gulf, adopted widespread use of the term al-Khalīj al-'Arabī (Arab Gulf or Arabian Gulf) to refer to this waterway. This coupled the decreasing influence of Iran after 1979 revolution in Iran on the political and economic priorities of the English speaking Western World led to increasing acceptance, in regional politics and the mostly petroleum-related business, of the new alternative naming convention "Arabian Gulf".

Until the end of the 19th century, "Arabian Gulf" was used to refer to what is now known as the Red Sea. This usage was adopted into European maps from, among others, Strabo and Ptolemy, who called the Red Sea Sinus Arabicus (Arabian Gulf). Both of these Greek geographers used the name "Persian Gulf" to refer to the body of water between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran.


In the early Islamic era, Muslim geographers did the same, calling the body Bar Fāris (Persian Sea) or Khalīj Fāris (Persian Gulf). Later, most European maps from the early Modern Times onwards used similar terms (Sinus Persicus, Persischer Golf, Golfo di Persia and the like, in different languages) when referring to the Persian Gulf, possibly taking the name from the Islamic sources. For a short while in the 17th century, the term "Gulf of Basra" was also being used, which made a reference to the town of Basra (Iraq), an important trading port of the time. Basra, however, is not on the shore of the waterway. The Times Journal, published in London in 1840, referred to the Persian Gulf as the "Britain Sea," despite the distant geography.[2]

Currently, the Google Earth application has included the term “Arabian Gulf” on maps where the body of water, historically and contemporarily known as the "Persian Gulf," is located. A similar mistake was made in 2004 by the National Geographic Society. As a direct results of efforts by the National Iranian American Council, in 2005 the National Geographic Society corrected their 8th Edition maps.

In February 2008, The National Iranian American Council's Board of Directors sent a letter to Google's CEO, Dr. Eric E. Schmidt, about the politically divisive consequences of including the term "Arabian Gulf" as a name for the body of water extending from Iran to the Arabian Peninsula.

Proposed alternative names
The matter remains very contentious as the competing naming conventions are supported by certain governments in internal literature, but also in dealings with other states and international organizations. Some parties use terms like "The Gulf" or the "Arabo-Persian Gulf". After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 some people in Islamic groups suggested the use of "Islamic Gulf." The originator of the term Islamic Gulf is not known, while some people suggest that prominent figures of the early years of the Islamic republic including Ruhollah Khomeini, Mehdi Bazargan, and Sadegh Khalkhali may have supported the idea. The idea was quickly abandoned after Iran was invaded by its predominantly Muslim neighbor, Iraq. Possibly the most famous person who has used the term "Islamic Gulf" recently has been Osama bin Laden, who used the term as late as 1996

Viewpoint of Iran
Iran does not recognize the naming when it is referred to as just "Gulf", or "Arabian Gulf."[3]

Viewpoint of Arab states
Most Arab countries, including members of the GCC, endorse the name "Arabian Gulf" and some including the UAE have even banned the use of the term "Persian Gulf" across their country. In the UAE this ban applies to textbooks, publications and newspapers among others.

Viewpoints of third parties
The United Nations
The United Nations on many occasions has requested its secretarial staff to use only "Persian Gulf" as the standard geographical designation for that body of water. Most recently, the UN Secretariat has issued two editorial directives in 1994 and 1999 affirming the position of that organization on the matter. [10][11]

The group of experts on Geographical Names was set up by the secretary-general of the United Nations in pursuance of economic and Social council resolution 715A(XXVII) on April 23, 1959 and has endorsed 'Persian Gulf' as the official name for this body of water.[3]

The United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names was set up by the secretary-general of the United Nations in pursuance of economic and Social council resolution 715A(XXVII) on April 23, 1959. The group discussed the naming issue during its 23rd session, held in Vienna from March 28th to April 4th, 2006. According to the report of the meeting, the Convenor "noted that countries could not be prohibited from using or creating exonyms."[4]

The use of the name 'Arabian Gulf' was described to be 'faulty' by the Eighth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names, Berlin, 27 August September 2002.[5]

The United States
In the United States, Persian Gulf has been the label sanctioned for U.S. government use [12] since a decision by the State Department's Board of Geographical Names in 1917[6]: As recognized by the United States Board on Geographic names, the name of the body of water that lies between Iran and the Arab states of the Gulf Cooperation Council is the Persian Gulf. For political reasons, Arabs often refer to it as the Arab or Arabian Gulf. The NGA GEOnet Names Server (GNS), maintained by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, is the "official repository of standard spellings of all foreign place names" sanctioned by the Board of Geographical Names.[13] The GNS lists "Persian Gulf" as the only "conventional" name, along with fourteen unofficial "variants" in different languages, such as "Gulf of Iran", "Gulf of Ajam", "Gulf of Basra", "Arabian Gulf", "Persian-Arabian Gulf", "Gulf of Fars", and "Farsi Gulf".[14]

In recent years, due to increased cooperation with Arab states of the Persian Gulf, various branches of the U.S. armed forces have issued directives to their members to use the "Arabian Gulf" when operating in the area ("Persian Gulf" is still used in official publications and websites), partially to follow local conventions, or simply to follow local laws that ban the use of "Persian Gulf", e.g. in the United Arab Emirates. Also for similar reasons, branches of American universities in the region have also dropped references to "Persian Gulf" in their teaching materials.[citation needed]

All multinational naval forces (including Australia, the US and UK) refer to the area as 'Arabian Gulf' during operations, and their naval charts reflect this. The area is nominally divided into three areas: Northern Arabian Gulf (NAG, with principal focus around the Kwahr Al Amaya and Al Basra Oil Terminals), Central Arabian Gulf (CAG, around Saudi Arabia and Bahrain) and Southern Arabian Gulf (SAG, around Abu Dhabi and Dubai).[15]

United Kingdom
The United Kingdom government's Permanent Committee on Geographical Names for Official British Use (PCGN) endorses 'The Persian Gulf' as the correct name for this body of water [16].


Atlases and other media
In 2004, the National Geographic Society published a new edition of its National Geographic Atlas of the World using the term "Arabian Gulf" as an alternative name (in smaller type and in parentheses) for "Persian Gulf". This resulted in heavy protests by many Persians, especially the Internet user community, which led to the Iranian government acting on the issue and banning the distribution of the society's publications in Iran. On December 30, 2004, the society reversed its decision and published an Atlas Update, removing the parenthetical reference and adding a note: "Historically and most commonly known as the Persian Gulf, this body of water is referred to by some as the Arabian Gulf." It also removed the alternative Arabic names for certain islands and/or replaced them with Persian ones [17]

The 2000 Associated Press manual on usage elaborates: Persian Gulf is the “long-established name” and the best choice. “Some Arab nations call it the Arabian Gulf. Use Arabian Gulf only in direct quotations and explain in the text that the body of water is more commonly known as the Persian Gulf.”

Some atlases and media outlets have taken to referring to "The Gulf" without any adjectival qualification. This usage is followed by The Times Atlas of the World.

Iran does not consider this an impartial usage and views it as an active contribution to abandonment of the historical name. In June 15, 2006 Iran banned the sale of The Economist for the above reason. A major map in an issue labeled the Persian Gulf as 'The Gulf'. As of the December 22, 2007 issue the magazine has continued to use "The Gulf".


[1] Abedin, M., All at sea over 'the Gulf', Asia Time Online,  December 09, 2004.

[2] For more information, see the United Nations paper: "Historical, Geographical and Legal Validity of the name 'Persian Gulf'" (April 2006).




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"History is the Light on the Path to Future"


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