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Dispute over the name of the Persian Gulf

There is a dispute over the name of the Persian Gulf and whether it should be called "Arabian Gulf" or "Persian Gulf".

In possibly every map 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 (today 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, started to use the Arabic term "الخليج العربي" (al-Khaleej al-Arabee; Arab Gulf or Arabian Gulf) to refer to this waterway. This coupled with the decreasing influence of Iran on the political and economic priorities of the English speaking Western World led to increasing acceptance, in regional polictics and the mostly petroleum-related business, of the new alternative naming convention "Arabian Gulf".

Until the end of the 19th century, "Arabian Gulf" has been used to refer to what is now known as the Red Sea. This usage was adopted into Europeans maps from, among others, Strabo and Ptolemy who called the Red Sea, Sinus Arabicus (Arabian Gulf). Both of these Greek geographers reserved "Persian Gulf" to refer to the body of water between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. In early Islamic era, Muslim geographers did the same, calling the body "بحر فریس" (Bahr Farees; Persian Sea) or "خلیج فریس" (Khalij Faris; Persian Gulf). Later, most European maps from the early Modern Times onwards used similiar terms (Sinus Persicus, Persischer Golf, Golfo di Persia and the like 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 Basra, an important trading port of the time.

The matter remains very contentious, in particular as the competing naming conventions are supported by respective governments, in internal literature, but also in dealings with other states and international organizations. Some parties try avoiding discussion by using terms like "The Gulf" or the "Arabo-Persian Gulf". After the Iranian Revolution of 1979 some people within Islamic groups suggested the use of "Islamic Gulf" (the originator of the term 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), but the idea was quickly abandoned after Iran was invaded by its predominately 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.

The United Nations on many occasions has requested that only "Persian Gulf" be used 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 this organization on this matter.

In the United States, "Persian Gulf" has been the label sanctioned for U.S. government use since a decision by the State Department's Board of Geographical Names in 1917. This decision is still valid [1]. 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, to avoid upset 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.

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 Iranians, most specially 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 [2] (see also National Geographic Society).

See also

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Last updated: 06-02-2005 23:10:52
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46