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Mapping the Persian Gulf Naming Dispute.

How we label or categorize depends upon our purpose, our projections, A Aand our evaluations; yet the thing labeled does not change just because we change the label or category. (1)

Words do not have "one true meaning." Words mean different things to different people; words mean different things at different times; words mean different things in different contexts. (2)

Mapping the Persian Gulf Naming Dispute

On nearly all maps published before 1960, and in most modern-day international treaties, proceedings, and maps, the roughly 600-mile-long body of water located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula is identified by the name Persian Gulf. This mirrors conventional practice dating back to first-century ancient Greek geographers. But with the rise of Arab nationalism in the 1960s, a number of Arab countries adopted widespread use of the term Arab Gulf or Arabian Gulf to refer to this inland sea. Other entities have followed this usage, some of them coming up with additional names, and the result has been a highly contentious dispute over nomenclature involving individuals, nations, global agencies, corporations, universities, and mapmakers.

Some Historical Background on the Persian Gulf Naming Dispute

The phrase "Arabian Gulf" (Sinus Arabicus) was once used to refer to what is now called the Red Sea. European mapmakers, following the ancient Greek geographers Strabo and Ptolemy among others, went along this usage. Strabo and Ptolemy also utilized the expression Sinus Persicus to specify the body of water between the Arabian Peninsula and the Iranian Plateaus. Early Roman historians, in keeping with the traditions of the ancient Greeks, called the waterway "Aquarius Persico."

Persian Muslim geographers, in the early Islamic era and employing Arabic, likewise used the term Persian Sea or Persian Gulf. Most European cartographers, utilizing languages spoken in European countries, have also made use of the name Persian Gulf on their maps.

In 1534, Baghdad was seized by the Ottoman Empire, which gave Turkey access to the port of Basra at the head of the gulf. This event overlapped the early mapmaking efforts of Gerardus Mercator, whose 1541 world globe named the gulf Sinus Persicus, nunc Mare de Balsera ("Persian Gulf, now Sea of Basra"). (3) On his terrestrial map of 1569, the name was changed to Mare di Mesendin (after the Ra's Musandam "the mountaintops," in modern-day Oman) (4)

Mercator's counterpart, the Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius, chose the label Mare El Catif, olim Sinus Persicus (after the Arabian port of Al Qatif) for his world atlas of 1570. (5) Ortelius also designated the entrance to the gulf Basora Fretum (Strait of Basra). Turkey continues to use the term "Gulf of Basra" today.

In 1840, the London-based Times Journal, responding to Iranian objections that England was meddling into Iranian affairs in the Persian Gulf, renamed that body of water the "Britain Sea." The moniker never caught on.

In the 1950s, following the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry, the expulsion of English companies from Iran, and the severing of relations between Iran and England, Roderic Owen, an employee of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company and an M16 British government officer, published a book titled The Golden Bubble: Arabian Gulf Documentary. This book constituted the first literary work of any significance to popularize the term "Arabian Gulf." The tag had originally, and unsuccessfully, been proposed in the 1930s to the British government by Sir Charles Belgrave, a British citizen and an advisor to the government of Bahrain. (6)

The Iranian View

Iran employs the term "Persian Gulf" exclusively and does not recognize alternate forms such as the "Arabian Gulf" or "The Gulf." It does not consider the latter term a neutral designation, but sees it as a rebuff to the historical name. Foreign airlines that do not use the phrase "Persian Gulf" on their in-flight monitors are banned from Iran's airspace. (7) The Bushehr province of Iran is the home of Persian Gulf University.

In 2005, Iran proclaimed April 30th as "National Persian Gulf Day" (April 30th corresponds with the anniversary of Shah Abbas' successful seventeenth-century military campaign, which drove Portugal's navy from the Strait of Hormuz, the narrowest point in the Persian Gulf). This decision was implemented by the High Council of Cultural Revolution to "counter the attempts of some international institutes and Arabian countries to alter the name of the 'Persian Gulf.'" (8) The Iranian postal service has issued a series of stamps honoring "the national day of Persian Gulf."

In 2006, the top rank of the Iranian soccer league was named the Persian Gulf Cup to advance the Persian label. A few years later, a planned second Islamic Solidarity Games in Iran, originally scheduled to take place in October 2009 and later rescheduled for April 2010, was canceled when the Arab World and Iran could not agree on the use of the term "Persian Gulf" in logos and medals for the Games. Iran's national soccer team does not participate in the Gulf Cup of Nations tournament, which is open to teams from countries that surround gulf waters, due to that competition's name.

(NB: In 1935, Persia's king, Reza Shah, ordered that the name Persia be changed to Iran on all official government offices and embassies. Iran means "land of the Aryans," tribes of whom moved into Iran, India, and Southeast Asia three thousand years ago from Europe. In switching Persia's name to Iran, the king was trying to signal to the world that the population of his country had a different lineage than the populace of Persia's Arab neighbors and a greater affinity with the modern emerging European nations. His plan didn't pan out very well because most people nowadays do not connect the word Iran and Aryan. To make matters worse, people sometimes confuse Iran with Iraq because the names are so similar.)

Arab Views

The following are some arguments that have been made by Arab supporters for the use of the term "Arabian Gulf":

* The name "Persian Gulf is linked to the Persian Empire that does not exist any more. The Mediterranean Sea used to be called the Roman Sea and had the Roman Empire lasted that's what we would call it today.

* The people who live around the gulf are mostly Arabs so by virtue of demography it should be called the Arabian Gulf.

* Likewise by virtue of geography: six Arabian countries surround the gulf (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates) compared to one Iran and they encompass 70% of the coastline.

Members of the Arab League, a regional organization of 22 member states that have a general goal of promoting the affairs and interests of Arab countries, use the term Arabian Gulf rather than Persian Gulf or The Gulf. There is an Arabian Gulf University in Al-Manamah, Bahrain, and an Arabian Gulf Rugby team in Dubai.

The United Nation's View

The United Nations Secretariat on many occasions has directed its staff to use "Persian Gulf" as the sole geographical label for this inland sea. (9) A working paper submitted to the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names in 2006 stated: "If we were to presume that the sea did not have a name during history, and ... geographers and specialists were to select a name for this gulf, doubtlessly, they would find no better name than Persian Gulf because Iran [Persia] is the largest country adjacent to this water body which possesses the longest coast." (10)

The American View

"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. (11) The NGA GEOnet Names Server, which is maintained by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (the official repository of standard spellings of all foreign place names sanctioned by the Board of Geographical Names), lists "Persian Gulf as the only "conventional" name, along with 14 unofficial "variants" in different languages, such as "Gulf of Iran," "Gulf of Ajam," "Gulf of Basra," "Arabian Gulf," "Persian-Arabian Gulf," "Gulf of Fars," and "The Gulf." (12)

In recent years, due to increased cooperation with the Arab Persian Gulf states, various branches of the U.S. armed forces have issued orders to their personnel to use the expression "Arabian Gulf" when working in the vicinity, in part to abide by local conventions or simply to follow local laws, like those in the United Arab Emirates that prohibit the use of term "Persian Gulf." For similar reasons, branches of American universities in the area have excised references to "Persian Gulf" in their teaching materials.

Osama Bin Laden's View

Following the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there were calls by Ayatollah Khomenei and a number of Islamic groups to use the expression "Islamic Gulf." However, the idea was quickly discarded after Iran was invaded by Mapping the Persian Gulf Naming Dispute its mainly Arab and Muslim neighbor, Iraq. The most well-known person who has used the term "Islamic Gulf in recent times has been Osama bin Laden, who employed the label in a statement he issued on August 22, 1996: "The presence of the USA Crusader military forces on land, sea, and air of the states of the Islamic Gulf (italics mine) is the greatest danger threatening the largest oil reserve in the world." (13)

Some Atlas and Media Views

The 2009 Associated Press stylebook declares: "(Persian Gulf is the) long-established name for the body of water off the southern coast of Iran. Some Arab nations call it the Arabian Gulf Use Arabian Gulf only in direct quotations and explain in the text that the body of water is more commonly known as the Persian Gulf." (14)

The National Geographic Society uses the name Persian Gulf in their maps. In 2004, the society published a new edition of its National Geographic Atlas of the World using the term "Arabian Gulf as an alternate name (in smaller type and in parentheses) for "Persian Gulf." This resulted in protests by many Iranians, particularly those in the Internet user community, and led to an Iranian government ban on 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." (15) The June 2010 National Geographic Style Manual states: The internationally accepted name is Persian Gulf, although Arab countries call the body of water the Arabian Gulf. Where scale permits, National Geographic maps include a map note about the Arabian Gulf. If Arabian Gulf is used in text, it should be explained. (16)

Some atlases and media outlets refer to "The Gulf" without any adjectival qualification. This usage is followed by the British Broadcasting Corporation, which adopted the practice in the mid 1970s, and The Times Atlas of the World. Iran does not consider this an impartial usage but views it as an active contribution to the abandonment of the historical name. In June 2006, Iran banned the sale of The Economist after a map in the magazine omitted "Persian" labeling it just "The Gulf." (17)

The International Hydrographic Organization's View

The International Hydrographic Organization, an international body of 80 member states that provides hydrographic information for worldwide marine navigation and other purposes, uses the name "Gulf of Iran (Persian Gulf)" for this body of water. (18)

Google's View

In early 2008, Google Earth (a virtual globe, map, and geographic information program that was originally called EarthViewer 3D) displayed the names "Persian Gulf" and "Arabian Gulf" next to each other. A subsequent Iranian online petition, hearkening back to the conventions of pre-1960s mapmakers and the authority of the United Nations, whose official endorsement of the name "Persian Gulf" is based on a small library's worth of archival maps, literary references, and other historical source material, criticized Google for being "unscientific" and unaware of "international standards." (19)

Two months after the "Immediate and Unconditional Deletion" petition went live, Google posted a statement explaining its protocol for naming bodies of water. The statement, which made no direct mention of the Gulf or the Iranian petition, explained that Google decides what to call various geographical features solely by determining what names are in use today. Google Earth "displays the primary, common, local name(s) given to a body of water by the sovereign nations that border it," wrote Andrew McLaughlin, Google's then director of public policy. "If different countries dispute the proper name for a body of water, our policy is to display both names." (20)

The Google statement also dealt with the idea of the democratization of information. "One of the great features of Google Earth is that it enables us to provide significantly greater amounts of information than flat paper maps," McLaughlin wrote. "It is our fervent hope that different communities will use Google Earth as an open platform to create content that accurately reflects their views." (21)

Four Petitioner Views from the Online Petition Calling for the "Immediate and Unconditional Deletion of 'Arabian Gulf from Google Earth" (22)

The following are comments from four signatories to the "Immediate and Unconditional Deletion" petition, listed by their rank in the appeal:
  17. How many Jew hating, Christian hating and Iranian hating
  Sheikhs does it take to pay off these people. The Persian Gulf
  Arab governments are getting more dangerous by the day and the
  U.S., Iran, and Israel must stop them! They are the new Nazis of
  our day and if it was up to them, they would turn all of us into
  lampshades and bars of soap! Wake up people!

  5,636. This is absurd. The whole world knows there is no place called
  Arabian Gulf! Google must be so ignorant or malicious to try to pull
  off such a stunt.

  995,509. Historically, what is referred to as "Red Sea" today has
  been the "Arabian Gulf" because sea voyagers would name a gulf by
  their destination. So, if I wanted to go to Arabia (which was mostly
  Jedda and populated coastal towns), I would navigate through "Arabian
  Gulf" aka "Red Sea" to get to Arabia. In the old days no one would go
  to Arabia through Persian Gulf because Arabia was really just the
  populated cities on or near what is also called "Red Sea" today. If
  sea voyagers wanted to go to Persia, they would go through "Persian
  Gulf. These are established naval naming conventions. Please don't
  politicize this by calling "Persian Gulf" by other names. This naming
  was employed by Ptolomy, the father of geographers since over 2000
  years ago. Don't politicize a name and incite millions by calling
  "Persian Gulf" by any other name. If Arabs like the name "Arabian
  Gulf" so much, why don't they call the "Red Sea" by its true name,
  "Arabian Gulf"? It is confusing to call 2 different Gulfs by the same

  1,142,294. This has always been Persian Gulf Through history and all
  maps it is indicated as Persian Gulf. There is no reason to change
  it's name now unless for a political reason.


(1.) Kenneth G. Johnson, General Semantics: An Outline Survey, 3rd ed. (Fort Worth, TX: Institute of General Semantics, 2004), 9.

(2.) Ibid, 21.

(3.) Gerardus Mercator 1541 World Map showing the Sinus Persicus, nunc Mare de Balsera ("Persian Gulf, now Sea of Basra"), (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(4.) Gerardus Mercator 1569 Terrestrial map showing the Mare di Mesendin, (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(5.) Abraham Ortelius 1570 map showing the label Mare El Catif, olim Sinus Persicus, (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(6.) Kaveh Farrokh, "IranDokht, Culture and History," (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(7.) Sam Jones and Agencies, "Airlines Must Say 'Persian Gulf or Face Iranian Airspace Ban,", February 22, 2010, (Accessed August 11,2010).

(8.) Simiak D. Ahi, "Persian Gulf,", (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(9.) See United Nations Secretariat Editorial Directive, ST/CS/SER.A/29/ Add.2, (August 18, 1994) and United Nations Secretariat Editorial Directive, ST/CS/SER.A/29/Rev.l (May 14, 1999).

(10.) CNN, "Name game stokes U.S.-Iranian tensions," (January 24, 2008), (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(11.) Gary G. Sick and Lawrence G. Potter (eds.), The Persian Gulf at the Millennium: Essays in Politics, Economy, Security, and Religion (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 8.

(12.) National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Geographic Names Index, (Accessed July 28, 2010).

(13.) Frontline, "Hunting bin Laden," (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(14.) Darrell Christian, Sally Jacobsen, and David Minthorn, eds., The Associated Press 2009 Stylebook (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 211.

(15.) Karolyn Chowning, "Google Earth Under Fire From Iranians for Renaming Persian Gulf the 'Arabian Gulf,"' Associated Content News (June, 16, 2010), (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(16.) National Geographic Style Manual, June 2010, 24c344d05ecb0d852566b200731430?OpenDocument (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(17.) Nasser Karimi and Beth Gardiner, "Iran bans The Economist over Gulf map," Foreign Affairs Committee of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(18.) International Hydrographic Organization, "Limits of Oceans and Seas, 3rd ed. 1953," (Accessed August 11, 2010). Mapping the Persian Gulf Naming Dispute

(19.) Petition for the "Immediate and unconditional deletion of 'Arabian Gulf from Google Earth," (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(20.) John Gravois, "The Agnostic Cartographer," Washington Monthly (July-August 2010), (Accessed August 11, 2010).

(21.) Ibid.

(22.) Karolyn Chowning, "Google Earth Under Fire From Iranians for Renaming Persian Gulf the 'Arabian Gulf,"' (June 16, 2010), Op.cit.

Martin H. Levinson, PhD, is the President of the Institute of General Semantics and the author of numerous articles and several books on General Semantics and other subjects. His latest book is Brooklyn Boomer: Growing Up in the Fifties (2011).
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Author:Levinson, Martin H.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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