Even soccer can’t escape the never-ending Persian/Arabian Gulf spat

What’s in a name? When it comes to the body of water nestled between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula: a whole lot. For years, the Persian (to some) or Arabian (to others) Gulf has been a source of tension between Iran and its Arab neighbors. In 2010, for instance, Iran threatened to ban airlines that ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

What's in a name? When it comes to the body of water nestled between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula: a whole lot. For years, the Persian (to some) or Arabian (to others) Gulf has been a source of tension between Iran and its Arab neighbors. In 2010, for instance, Iran threatened to ban airlines that didn't use "Persian Gulf" from flying in its airspace. And just last year, Google received a warning from Tehran that it would face "serious damages" if it didn't definitively label the space "Persian" on its Maps. Now the conflict has spilled into the world of sports.

On Tuesday, Iran's Fars News Agency reported that Iran's Football Federation will file a complaint against the United Arab Emirates "for using a fake name for Persian Gulf in the title of its soccer league."

The "fake name" Fars is referring to: the Arabian Gulf League. Mohammed Thani Murshed Al Romaithi, the chairman of the UAE's Pro League Committee, has announced that the country's professional soccer league will operate under the new name beginning in the 2013-2014 season.

What’s in a name? When it comes to the body of water nestled between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula: a whole lot. For years, the Persian (to some) or Arabian (to others) Gulf has been a source of tension between Iran and its Arab neighbors. In 2010, for instance, Iran threatened to ban airlines that didn’t use "Persian Gulf" from flying in its airspace. And just last year, Google received a warning from Tehran that it would face "serious damages" if it didn’t definitively label the space "Persian" on its Maps. Now the conflict has spilled into the world of sports.

On Tuesday, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported that Iran’s Football Federation will file a complaint against the United Arab Emirates "for using a fake name for Persian Gulf in the title of its soccer league."

The "fake name" Fars is referring to: the Arabian Gulf League. Mohammed Thani Murshed Al Romaithi, the chairman of the UAE’s Pro League Committee, has announced that the country’s professional soccer league will operate under the new name beginning in the 2013-2014 season.

"Football in the UAE is moving into a new phase, and with it we adopt a new name to take us forward from next season," he told a crowd at the Etisalat Pro League Awards in Dubai on Sunday. And while the remarks began innocuously enough, he left no doubt about the political undertones of the gesture, going on to say, "We pledge our allegiance to the Arabian Gulf as the heart of the Arabic origin and heritage. Announcing this new name is a letter of love from the UAE to the Gulf; we name our League after the Arabian Gulf as a gesture to show our appreciation for the bounteous resources and opportunities it has afforded us."

Not surprisingly, the Iranians were not amused. Fars quotes Houshang Nasirzadeh, the head of the legal committee for the country’s football federation, as saying the organization "will object to the fake naming in the next two days. It will send a letter to the FIFA ethics committee. It regards the UAE’s behavior as politically-tainted and racist."

While his anger may seem extreme, disputes over the Gulf’s nomenclature have much deeper and more political roots than the controversies over Google Maps and airline designations might suggest. According to some sources, the rivalry began in the 1960s with the rise of Arab nationalism. (A fun fact for all you geography nerds: Back in the days of Ptolemy, maps did depict an Arabian Gulf, though the name referred to the Red Sea.) 

According to Al Jazeera correspondent Teymoor Nabil, who wrote an article on the dispute after the U.S. Navy faced criticism for using the term Arabian Gulf on its Facebook page in 2010, "ironically, among the major drivers of the movement for change were Arab perceptions that Iran, driven by Washington, had supported Israel during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973."

Fars is quick to point out that the United Nations has officially weighed in on Iran’s side:

The UN sent a circular to all 186 countries of the world in 1995, stressing that they must use the term "Persian Gulf" when referring to the waterway….

However, some regional and hostile western countries continue to distort historical facts by misnaming the "Persian Gulf", in an organized attempt to steal the true identity of the Persian Gulf, but to no avail.

The debate may not be going away anytime soon, but look on the bright side: At least the name "Britain Sea," which was used for the Gulf in London’s Times Journal in 1840, never caught on.

Marya Hannun is a Ph.D. student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter at: @mrhannun.

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