‘You say Persian, I say Arabian…’
Which term do you use for the Gulf waterway? Sometimes, it all depends on how much money is at stake, says Jay Akasie.
April 11, 2010 4:26 by Jay Akasie
“You say tomato, I say to-mah-to/You say Persian Gulf, I say Arabian Gulf / Tomato, to-mah-to. Persian Gulf, Arabian Gulf/Let’s call the whole thing off!”
With sincere apologies to Cole Porter for butchering the lyrics to his song, the point we’re attempting to make with this little number is that the once friendly disagreement over what to call the body of water between Saudi Arabia and Iran has become a lot more serious.
Indeed, the ongoing debate has put paid to a number of events, not the least of which was the 2009 Islamic Solidarity Games. It seems that the host country of the Olympics-style games, Iran, placed the name “Persian Gulf” on promotional materials and even medals to be awarded to participants. Some of the Arab countries set to send athletes to the games objected to the name, insisting that the body of water is called the “Arabian Gulf.” Ultimately, the Islamic Solidarity Games were cancelled.
Then, just weeks ago, Iran announced that airlines flying to the country – especially from the Arab states on the other side of the Gulf – must use the name Persian Gulf on their instrument panel display screens and during on-board announcements. A stewardess working for an Iranian airline was reportedly fired for arguing about the Persian/Arabian name discrepancy with a passenger.
“Iran’s latest move is steeped in Persian nationalism,” an associate professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the American University in Dubai, Feras Hamza, D.Phil., said. “It’s telling the Arab world that there is a Persian presence that has to be dealt with.”
The brouhaha has also left businessmen wondering which side to take. The emirate of Dubai, for instance, has long enjoyed close commercial ties to Iran. In fact, some of Dubai’s oldest and most distinguished families are of Iranian origin.
“In geopolitics, it’s good to know which side is right. But in business, it’s good to know why each side calls it the name it does,” a colleague of Hamza’s at the university, William Gueraiche, Ph.D., said. “When it comes to commerce, it’s not about who’s right and who’s wrong, it’s about which name makes the best business sense.”
What the professors are saying is that, as career diplomats argue over technicalities as to what the Gulf should be called, the private sector is quietly going about its business and using whichever term helps grease the wheels of commerce.
Might an Arab be found calling it the Persian Gulf and vice versa? It all depends on how much money is at stake.