Taking the Geopolitical Fight Over Google Maps to the Street

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Advocates for the Persian Gulf have taken their fight about Google’s refusal to name the gulf between Iran and the Arab Gulf states on Google Maps to the streets of Los Angeles.  NPR’s Which Way, LA? blog has noticed the proliferation of pro-Persian Gulf billboards around Los Angeles, proclaiming “It is not the Gulf.  It is the Persian Gulf”.  The tagline refers to the use by some media and cartographic entities to use the label “The Gulf” to refer to the area instead of the Persian Gulf.

The latest controversy was triggered when Iran launched an international protest in May of 2012, complaining about Google’s lack of a name for the gulf. Justifying the lack of a label, an anonymous Google spokesman has stated, “It’s just simply the case that we don’t have a label for every body of water.

Los Angeles, which boasts the largest Persian population outside of Iran, has seen numerous billboards around the city arguing for the name of the Persian Gulf.  While the post on Which Way, LA? states that the billboard advertising company Van Wagner has said that the purchaser of the Persian Gulf billboards wishes to remain anonymous.  A thread on the Iran Sports Press forum discussed a rumor that the sponsor was a fashion designer by the name of Amir Bahador who is the proprietor of Amir Fashion based in Beverly Hills with a shop in the famed Beverly Hills Hotel.  . Judging by the signature “Amir” in the lower left corner of the billboard, this would seem to be true.

What action these billboards are aiming for is unclear.  Beyond the saying and the flag of Iran, no additional message or web site is shown.

Billboards have been seen in Downtown Los Angeles, Atwater Village, and near Larchmont Village.

Pro Persian Gulf Billboard near the corner of Melrose and Cahuenga in Los Angeles.
Pro Persian Gulf Billboard near the corner of Melrose and Cahuenga in Los Angeles.
Via Larchmont Buzz.

The battle over the name is not a recent one, dating back over 70 years.

Cartographic History of the Persian Gulf Label

The body of water has historically been known as the Persian Gulf.  Prior to World War II, most maps and documents recognized the name of this gulf as the Persian Gulf.  As Encyclopædia Iranica explains in the chapter “Geography iv. Cartography of Persia”, the middle ground of referring to the location as the “Gulf” started long before Google Maps:

After World War II, some circles decided to change the name of the Persian Gulf to Arabian Gulf. Although the government of Persia opposed the move vehemently, in some editions of a few maps and atlases the term Persian was omitted, leaving only “The Gulf” (e.g., The TimesAtlas, p. 39), while the historical term Persian Gulf mostly remained intact, as in the National Geographic Atlas (p. 77; fig. 7).

In the 1960s, the campaign to rename the waters the Arab Gulf gained traction as Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser lead an effort to rename the gulf.

In 2006, the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names released a working paper entitled “Historical, Geographical and Legal Validity of the Name: PERSIAN GULF” which provided a short study on the historical background of the name “Persian Gulf”, found overwhelming historical evidence of the use of the name:

As of 1507 to 1960, at least in 10 contracts concluded among the countries such as Kuwait, Arabia, Ottoman, Oman, United Emirates, compiled in English and Arabic, the name of PERSIAN GULF has been used.

[T]hat from among 6000 existing historical maps published up to 1890, there are only three maps mentioning the names of Basreh Gulf, Ghatif Gulf, and Arabic Gulf.

In the Arabic Dictionary Almonjamed, Library of American Congress, Britain National Library (London), deeds at Ministry of India’s Affairs (London), Library of Faculty of Orientalist Studies of London, there are more than 300 maps, containing the name PERSIAN GULF.

Furthermore, about 30 valid Atlas have registered the name of PERSIAN GULF within the past 30 years, such as: Atlas of Thomas Herbert (1628), Atlas of Pars, Lousaj University (1863), Atlas of Germany (1861), Pars Envile Atlas (1760), Atlas of Modern Geography (1890), Atlas of London (1873), Atlas of Ernest Embrosius (1922), Atlas of Bilefild (1899), Atlas of Harmsorth (19th Century, London),….

Cartographic Policies on the Persian Gulf / Arabian Gulf Controversy

Google Maps isn’t the only organization to default to using the label “Gulf”.  The BBC has noted in articles about the gulf naming controversy that its policy is to refer to the area as “the Gulf”.

National Geographic uses “Persian Gulf” as explained in the National Geographic Style manual:

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.

Iran and Persian Gulf Map Labeling

This is also not the first time that Iran has reacted strongly to cartographic decisions about this region.  Iran has taken a hard line towards those entities that refer to the gulf as anything other than the Persian Gulf by either banning them from its country, or leveling complaints.

In 2004, the 8th edition of National Geographic’s atlas was published which labeled in parenthesis the name Arabian Gulf next to the label Persian Gulf which lead to the banning of the atlas and National Geographic journalists in Iran until National Geographic retracted on its position of using both labels.

In February of 2010, Iran threatened to ban airlines that refused to label the gulf as the Persian Gulf on its inflight monitors.  The Iranian Transport Minister, Hamid Behbahani, declared:

“The airlines of the southern Persian Gulf countries flying to Iran are warned to use the term Persian Gulf on their electronic display boards,” he said.

“Otherwise they will be banned from Iranian airspace for a month the first time and upon repetition their aircraft will be grounded in Iran and flight permits to Iran will be revoked.”

In June of 2006, Iran banned the Economist magazine for an article showing a map with the label “The Gulf.”    In December of 2009, Iran protested to move by the French museum, The Louvre, which removed the word “Persian” from its guides describing the Gulf.


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