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The Gulf between Arabs and Persians 12, May 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Iran, Middle East.
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Google this Gulf does not exist

Just for a change, history is repeating itself in the Middle East. In the run-up to the 2006 Asian Olympics in Qatar, a row erupted between the Emir of Qatar, Hamad Al Thani, and President Ahmadinejad of Iran over the name of the water separating the two countries. At a press conference, Al Thani called it the Arabian Gulf to which Ahmadinejad fired back that it is and always has been the Persian Gulf. Cue an international spat with the Iranian delegation threatening to withdraw their participation from the games. Whilst Iran did eventually attend the games, rancour remained.

Today, exactly the same incident is brewing, though this time between Saudi Arabia and Iran over the Islamic Solidarity Games to be held in cities across Iran in October this year. Radio Free Europe reports that Saudi authorities reacted predictably angrily when Iran’s promotional material referred to the body of water as the Persian Gulf. After Saudi’s threat to pull out unless it was changed to the Arabian Gulf or just the Gulf, Iran has “declared the games over.”

In this case, not only is there the depressing irony that the Islamic Solidarity Games are leading to yet more intra-Islamic division, but that, for once, Iran has international law and custom on its side. Not only does the UN officially sanction the term Persian Gulf but it has been in use for quite literally thousands of years, going back to Ancient Greece. The term Arabian Gulf only emerged from the 1960s with the growth of Arab nationalism and the relative decline of Persia/Iran as a power, not to mention that fact that historically the Arabian Gulf was often used to refer to the Red Sea.

One of the ways that Iran has tried to fight its corner is by monopolizing the first place on a Google search for ‘Arabian Gulf’ which will return a page with a mock ‘broken’ webpage titled ‘The Gulf you are looking for does not exist. Please try Persian Gulf.’ Despite this levity, this issue reflects far deeper and entrenched issues to do with the mantle of leadership in the Islamic world. In recent times, Nasser’s pan-Arabism and Egypt’s profound cultural influences claimed this title until the ignominious and catastrophic 1967 defeat to the Israelis. Since then Iran and Saudi Arabia have been the principle contenders. Saudi Arabia used its financial largess post-1967 to bail out Egypt, Syria and Jordan and firmly establish its place at the top. Since then it has used the soft power of Islam’s two holiest places (Mecca and Medina) to establish, augment and propagate itself as a leader of the Islamic community.

However, Iran’s 1979 Revolution endowed it with pious revolutionary zeal, directly challenging Saudi on an Islamic front. Saudi replied to this by further expanding its funding of Wahhabi schools and teaching throughout the Arab world and beyond, most notably on Iran’s doorstep in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Additionally, Saudi funded the Mujahedeen effort do ‘defend Islam’ against the Godless Soviets in Afghanistan after the invasion in 1979. These tactics offset their traditional, conservative reputation to some degree, by placing Saudi at the vanguard of Islam’s defences, whilst also inadvertently sowing the seeds for 9/11. Since this momentous day, Saudi has come under pressure to own-up to its more radical elements and reform its arcane structures and philosophies. Neither of these things is very chic. Therefore, the Iranians, with their anti-Western stance and pursuit of nuclear weapons – the ultimate symbol of a macho-leader country – are clearly currying more favour on the Arab street than Saudi. Add to this the implosion of Iraq, taking away one of Iran’s traditional enemies and bulwarks, and Iran finds itself less constricted and able to exert more influence regionally.

The naming of the water separating these two antagonistic rivals, therefore, is a question of pride, machismo and reputation. Neither can give in. Saudi’s somewhat conciliatory and practical suggestion of just calling it ‘the Gulf’ is as near to a resolution as can hoped to be achieved. Unless Iran acquiesce to this suggestion – which does not appear likely – there is no end in sight for this perennially divisive issue.

Comments»

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