Persian Gulf and Role of Arabs in History

Monday, June 2, 2008

Shoaib Bahman 

Several decades have passed since the orchestrated efforts of Arabs to change the historical name of Persian Gulf. The waterway that separates Iran from the Saudi Peninsula is called Persian Gulf according to all historical – geographical documents, maps available from ancient Greece up to the contemporary era as well as statements issued by the United Nations. Even in Arab writings and maps before the 1960s, the phrase "Khalij al-Fars" (Persian Gulf) or "Bahr al-Fars" (Persian Sea) have been used. A proof to this claim can be traced in part of the old national anthem of Egypt which cites "Persian Gulf" and draws Arab borders from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea. The idea of changing the name of Persian Gulf began in the third decade of the 20th century following the policy of de-persianization by the British in the Persian Gulf region. The main goal behind the said policy was Britain's territorial expansion in the Persian Gulf region and the main hurdle in the way was the Iranian identity which had spread over the Persian Gulf region for long years.

The expression "Arabian Gulf" was first cited by a British diplomat in the Persian Gulf. Sir Charles Belgerio who was the political envoy of Great Britain in the Persian Gulf for three decades, after returning to London in 1946, wrote a book on the southern coasts of the Persian Gulf which cited the new and distorted phrase "Arabian Gulf" for the first time. In his book titled "Coast of Pirates" – a name used earlier for the southern coasts of the Persian Gulf – Belgerio claimed that Arabs were eager to call the Persian Gulf the "Arabian Gulf".

In this way, immediately after publication of the book, the regional press began using the distorted expression of Arabian Gulf. After some time, the phrase Arabian Gulf replaced Persian Gulf in official correspondence among the Persian Gulf littoral states. Although the Iranian government showed immediate reaction and refused to receive shipments containing the phrase "Arabian Gulf" yet the British diplomat had done his job in line with the old "divide and rule" policy and had introduced the Arabs to a new phrase which more than anything else sparked a war of words between Arabs and Persians. In this manner, the Persian Gulf littoral governments concentrated their political propaganda, diplomatic correspondence and pivot of their curricula on "Arabian Gulf".

Yet in another action by the British, the London-based Times newspaper used "Arabian Gulf" instead of "Persian Gulf" in one of its articles in 1962. From then on, certain Arab sheikhs and governments paid exorbitant amounts of money to foreign journalists to publish maps using "Arabian Gulf" instead of "Persian Gulf".

This line of policy was pursued by such figures as Abdulkarim Ghassem in Iraq and then by Jamal Abdul Nasser, leader of the national movement of the Arab world in Egypt.

Colonel Abdulkarim Ghassem came to power through a coup d'etat in Iraq in 1958 and soon claimed leadership of the Arab world. Overwhelmed by such a feeling, he took advantage of the tactic of "creating enemy" to provoke the national sentiments of the people and for the first time used "Arabian Gulf" instead of the Persian Gulf. By portraying Iran as the main enemy of Arabs, Ghassem intended to divert the attention of the Arab world from Egypt to Baghdad and claim leadership of the Arab world but he failed. Based on documents printed and published in Iraq and even by the University of Baghdad at that time, Ghassem even failed to draw the attention of the Iraqi academics.

Colonel Jamal Adel Nasser, leader of the national movement of the Arab world in Egypt who believed in the theory of Arab unity "from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf", also used the distorted phrase "Arabian Gulf" in the wake of escalation of pan-Arabism uproar and in a bid to cover up the defeats of Arabs against Israel. By bringing up this policy, Abdel Nasser followed two main goals: First to revive Arabs' racial prejudices and secondly to counter the shah of Iran who maintained good relations with Israel.

The nationalist government of Egypt who was trying to strengthen the Arab League by resorting to such issues, also urged the sheikhdoms of Bahrain, Qatar, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and the Sultanate of Oman to cooperate with the united Arab republic for the cause of common ideals of the Arab nation and public welfare. As a result, the Arab League Commission in the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms, for the first time registered the distorted phrase "Arabian Gulf" in one official document in August 1963. After this, the Arab League decided to use the distorted phrase in the curricula of all the member states and in their official correspondence. Nevertheless, the aim of the Arabs behind the change of name of Persian Gulf was higher and included changing the name of the oil rich province of Khuzestan calling it "Arabistan". The Arabs considered Khuzestan part of the Arab land which they said Reza Shah had taken from them by force under the support of Britain.

Consequently, at a conference of Arab jurists on December 11, 1964, Khuzestan was declared an inseparable part of the Arab land and on November 10, 1965 the Baathist regime in Syria supported the claim. In fact, behind the phrase Arabian Gulf lied Arab islands, Arab Khuzestan (Arabistan), domination over the Strait of Hormuz and turning Iran into appendix of the Arab world. Although Abdel Nasser's efforts drew the support of certain Arab statesmen but they did not produce a desirable outcome because the Arab renaissance as imagined by Nasser was far from the reality. The main reason for this was lack of cohesion and solidarity of the Arab governments. In fact, the nation Nasser claimed was nothing but a dream.

Anyway, the efforts of Ghassem and Nasser in the Arab world continued with the coming to power of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Saddam who in the first stage spent hundreds of millions of dollars to change the name of Persian Gulf with the aid of groups of journalists, academics, publishers and cartographers, invaded Iran after the outbreak of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the fall of the former regime. The 8-year war which started with unfounded claims by Saddam on Iraq's sovereignty over Arvand Rud and calling Khuzestan and other Iranian cities Arab lands, ended with the defeat of the Baghdad regime. One useful outcome of this aggression was increasing sensitivity of Iranians towards the name of Persian Gulf so that after the war, Iranians regarded the use of Arabian Gulf instead of Persian Gulf a kind of challenge against Iranism and violation of the Iranian history.  

After the second Persian Gulf war and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1991, the military influence of the United States over the region increased. Before long, the Americans provoked the Arab states in southern coasts of the Persian Gulf against Iran in an attempt to contain the Islamic Republic of Iran. Consequently, the sheikhdoms of Sharjah and Abu Dhabi stood against Iran and raised empty claims over ownership of the three islands (Abu Mousa, the Greater and Lesser Tonbs). Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan of the UAE spent hundreds of millions to change the name of Persian Gulf and to cast doubt over Iran's absolute ownership over the three islands. But the lapse of time showed to him he would not gain much success in this futile attempt.

Although members of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council in their 25th summit conference in Bahrain changed the name of the council to "Arabian Gulf Cooperation Council" but in view of the fact that more than half of the Persian Gulf and its most sensitive strategic and geopolitical points belong to Iran the anti-Iran and anti-Persian policy of the Arabs are doomed to failure. In fact, as efforts to exclude Iran from the security arrangements of the region are doomed, the change of name of Persian Gulf too would be impossible.

However, one has to remember that Arabs have launched extensive propaganda to change the name of Persian Gulf over the recent years and decades. They have changed the names of airlines, newspapers, magazines, companies, etc. to "Gulf" or "Arabian Gulf" under conditions that the name "Persian Gulf" carries with it thousands of years of history and refusal to use the original and proper name is tantamount to disrespect for the civilizations which have boasted it.

Distortion of "Persian Gulf" into "Arabian Gulf", "Lavan Island" into "Sheikh Shoaib", "Kish" into "Qais" and "Arvand Roud" into "Shatt al-Arab" are among examples which spark ethnic and identity disputes among the countries of the region despite their being Muslims, because obviously changing old geographical names means distortion of historical facts and existing identities.


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