A gulf by any other name

A gulf by any other name

January 2010

In the year in which I’ve been away from the UAE, the fervor for the use of “Arabian Gulf” instead of “Persian Gulf” has certainly heated up here. This map showing the travels of Ibn Battuta in Dubai’s Ibn Battuta Mall identified the gulf as “Persian” when I took the first picture in January 2010. By December 2010, when I took the second picture an unsightly white piece of paper had been used to cover up the “Persian Gulf” name. I suppose the official internationally recognized name “Persian Gulf” became unspeakable (or rather unshowable) in this Dubai mall in the wake of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deliberate flouting of international conventions when she used “Arabian Gulf” in October this year.

Before I came to live in the UAE, I’m not even sure I was aware that you could call this particular waterway anything other than “Persian Gulf.”

A gulf by any other name

December 2010

However, I have since learnt that the name “Arabian Gulf” has been a bone of contention and an efficient way to stir ethnic tensions and passions for about half a century. In the Huffington Post Jamal Abdi offers the following history of the term “Arabian Gulf:”

The term “Arabian Gulf” first appeared fifty years ago as Pan-Arabism propaganda aimed at unifying Arabs against Iranians, Israelis, and other non-Arabs in the Middle East. Saddam Hussein later co-opted the term to exploit ethnic rivalries in support of his regional claims and territorial ambitions, including his invasion of Iran and his campaigns against Iraqi Kurds. Later, Osama Bin Laden adopted the term in an attempt to stir ethnic rivalries to bolster his appeal among Arab populations.

The name war around “Persian Gulf” vs. “Arabian Gulf” is an age-old strategy of empire: Divide et impera! Still, the fervor with which people fight over nothing more than a name is sad and shocking to see whenever it happens.

One of history’s indictments against our generation will doubtlessly include that we fought over names while the referent of the name was dying. No matter what you want to call it, the Persian Gulf is on the brink of environmental collapse as Waterlink International explains:

The Persian Gulf’s contained environment makes it a natural repository for pollutants. Now the Gulf’s marine ecosystem is under stress from the impacts of unprecedented coastal reclamation, oil exploration and tanker movement, industrial developments and desalination projects.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a gulf by any other name is dying from pollution.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Khan

    Surprisingly new symbolic development , I think, it has always been named Persian Gulf both in maps of The Near East in Late Antiquity and also The Medieval Islamic Near East. But the key point is that the health of referent is not anyones concern!

    By the way Sasanian Empire has become the target of Islamic hegemony rising from its neighbours. The change of name is symbolic.

    Thanks very much indeed for the post.


  • Just here to thank you for this great post which I heard about in your first speech in UI…

  • David Palfreyman

    I’ve experimented with the phrase “The Arab Gulf”, by which I mean not the body of water, but the ethnically Arab region bordering that body of water…