Viva la UAE!
It's the Arabian Gulf - and that's that
By Khalaf Al Habtoor, Special to Gulf News
Published: August 25, 2009, 23:03
The gentle water that laps off the shores of the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq and Iran has become a source of contention. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet but it certainly irks most people in this part of the world when outsiders invariably refer to the Arabian Gulf as the Persian Gulf. Those of us who grew up here swam in the Arabian Gulf as children and were told that the big ships we could see in the distance were sailing through the Arabian Gulf to the Arabian Sea. And, today, most tourists who flock here from every corner of the globe do not consider themselves visitors to the Persian Gulf.
It may be true that pre-1960s maps and treaties made reference to this body of water as the Persian Gulf in the same way that many ancient European maps referred to the Red Sea as Sinus Arabicus or Arabian Gulf. But let's fast forward to the 21st century. Today, there are several reasons why the international community and its cartographers should officially recognise 'Arabian Gulf'.
The first is obvious. Persia hasn't existed since 1935 and, therefore, does not appear on modern maps. So, by saying Persian Gulf we are implicitly attributing domination of this 24,000 square kilometre body of water to a long gone era.
Secondly, the modern-day Islamic Republic of Iran is just one of eight countries that share this waterway, with all the rest being Arab. Moreover, many Iranians who live near Iran's southern coastline are ethnically Arab or Arabic speakers.
Thirdly, we are living during a time when countries in the Gulf have attained unprecedented geopolitical and economic clout, which should be recognised.
Fourthly, history notwithstanding, there are numerous examples of countries, cities and seas undergoing a name change to reflect the contemporary status quo. For instance, Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, the Gold Coast became Ghana, Burma changed its name to Myanmar and Bombay is now known as Mumbai.
You may be interested to know that the Romans called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum or 'Our Sea', while the ancient Greeks called the Atlantic Ocean Oceanus, but you don't find present-day Italians and Greeks up in arms about the name change.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our good friends the Iranians. They are hanging on to the 'Persian Gulf' like a mother lion defending her cubs. In 2004, hundreds of organised Iranian bloggers and webmasters launched what is called a 'Google bomb' and were successful in manipulating the Google search engine so that each time anyone searched for 'Arabian Gulf', up popped a spoofed web page that read 'The Gulf you are looking for does not exist. Try Persian Gulf'. Iranian hackers have also been busy hacking into Arab websites and replacing maps of the Gulf with their own.
In 2005, the Iranian government was incensed when Qatar used 'Arabian Gulf' in its official documents relating to the 2006 Asian Games and threatened to boycott them. In the same vein, Tehran has threatened to cancel the 2009 Islamic Solidarity Games planned for October because GCC member countries, led by Saudi Arabia, have asked that references to the 'Persian Gulf' be dropped from the event's promotional materials and medals. However, negotiations are ongoing and the Games may yet be salvaged. In the past, Iran has banned National Geographic publications because its World Atlas had 'Arabian Gulf' in parentheses, as well as The Economist, which used 'Gulf' on a map published in the magazine.
Frankly speaking, if Iranian sensitivities are that delicate then I have no problem with any name they care to give this shared body of water as long as they do not impose their terminology on anyone else. In a spirit of live and let live there should be no reason why they can't continue with 'Persian Gulf' while we Arabs hold to 'Arabian Gulf' or, simply, 'Gulf' in the same way the British say 'English Channel' and the French La Manche (the Sleeve) when speaking of the Atlantic waters that separate the UK from France.
Just as the labels English Channel and La Manche are legally interchangeable, 'Arabian Gulf' and 'Persian Gulf' should be likewise in the eyes of the international community. Despite appeals from Gulf nations, as things stand, UN directives stipulate that 'Persian Gulf' should be used in official documents, while the US and the UK have both endorsed 'Persian Gulf' as the official term of reference. Given the close relationship that GCC countries enjoy with Washington and London, this entrenched stance on their part is uncooperative at best, offensive at worst.
Lastly, our predicament is shared by North and South Korea, which have asked the UN Conference on the Standardisation of Geographical names to change the 'Sea of Japan' to the 'East Sea'. Unlike its support for 'Persian Gulf', in this case, the UN has ruled that such issues should be settled by the countries concerned.
We are just as proud of our history and geopolitical status as the Iranians are and we deserve just as much respect from our friends, especially when we host so many throughout the Gulf region. I would, therefore, ask our leaders to vigorously pursue this issue at the UN and, further, I would request our allies to look favourably upon any such request.
Until now, Arab nations have been treating this issue with kid gloves. It's about time that we made ourselves heard. The warm waters of the Gulf will be around long after we're gone but as Theodore Roosevelt once said, "The one thing I want to leave my children is an honourable name".
Khalaf Al Habtoor is a businessman and the Chairman of Al Habtoor Group.