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 the ancient Greeks who originally named the body of water separating the
Iranian plateaus from the Arabian Peninsula "Persious Sinus". This reflected
both an appreciation of Persian civilization 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 Arab, Iranian and Turkish
empires that held sway in the region for the next 1,200 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
neighbors. The first announcement was made pursuant to the document UNAD
311/Gen on March 5, 1971, 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.
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, Gamal Abdel
Nasser. 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 Sir Charles Belgrave, the British adviser to the rulers of
Bahrain in the early 1930s. 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 Roderick 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 popularize 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.
There is no doubt, however, that Nasser was the man - and the militant Arab
nationalism that he represented was the ideology - that popularized 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
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 centers 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 new name.
This campaign had such a marked impact that in the mid-1970s 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 unrivaled
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 institutionalization 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 civilizations
that grew around this strategic waterway. Second, the name "Persian Gulf" has
been legitimized 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; or the Iranians calling the Gulf of Oman the "Gulf
of Iran". 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 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 politicization 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.
Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by
the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research
and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed are