Persian Gulf

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Persian Gulf

The Persian Gulf, known to Arabs as the Arabian Gulf, is a crescent-shaped stretch of water forming an extension of the Indian Ocean. The entrance from the Arabian Sea is via the Straits of Hormuz, which at their narrowest are only about 55 kilometers wide. At its top end, at Kuwait or Basra, navigation is often difficult because of dangerous currents and silting from the Tigris-Euphrates river system. For most of history cargoes were transferred to smaller craft at Bahrain, or even as far away as Hormuz, for onward passage to Basra. The total length of this waterway is nearly 1,000 kilometers, and its total area is about 250,000 square kilometers. Most of its waters are less than 100 meters deep. Today it is bordered by Iran on the north, northeast, and east, on the southeast and south by Oman and the United Arab Emirates, on the southwest and west by Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, and on the northwest by Kuwait and Iraq.

Trade in the Gulf goes back some 5,000 years. Indeed, the first regular trade in the world of which we have any knowledge was that between the Indus Valley civilization in South Asia and Mesopotamia at the head of the Gulf. In the fifteenth century trade in the Gulf, along with that via the Red Sea, connected Asia and the Mediterranean. Asian goods, especially spices—pepper, nutmeg, mace, cloves, and cinnamon—from the Spice Islands in Indonesia and from Sri Lanka were carried around India and then through the Gulf to be transshipped in Basra. From there camel caravans were used to get the goods to the eastern Mediterranean, where Aleppo was the greatest mart. In return, gold and silver went south to the Indian Ocean region. The only important local product was fine Arabian horses. At the entrance to the Gulf the port city of Hormuz was one of the most prosperous and cosmopolitan in the world with a population of about 50,000 in 1500. There goods were unpacked, redistributed, and then taken on to their destinations.

The Portuguese arrived in the Indian Ocean in 1498 and moved quickly to seize several major port cities. In 1515 the sultan of Hormuz was reduced to puppet status under Portuguese control. During the sixteenth century much of the large customs revenue of Hormuz was taken to the Portuguese capital of Goa. However, trade continued up the Gulf to Basra, and Portuguese attempts to monopolize trade in spices and horses were generally ineffective.

In 1622 the shah of Iran joined with the English East India Company to take Hormuz from the Portuguese. The shah then moved to alter the focus of trade in the Gulf from Hormuz to his new port city of Bandar Abbas, located on the Iranian mainland. Silk from Iran became an important trade product at that time, and Europeans participated eagerly in the trade. They also brought in large amounts of cotton cloths from India. Nevertheless, trade through the Gulf became less significant as the Europeans used the route around the Cape of Good Hope to connect the Indian Ocean with Europe. Political instability in the areas around the Gulf also hindered peaceful trade. Iran, the Ottoman Empire (which controlled Basra), and the various petty states along the northern and western shores of the Gulf were all relatively weak in the eighteenth century.

Early in the nineteenth century the British, by then dominant in the Indian Ocean area, asserted control over the Gulf. They acquired suzerainty over the minor states along the western coast, the so-called Trucial States. Before the advent of steamships all shipping trade was dependent on monsoon winds. Around the middle of the century steamships began to enter the Gulf. In the 1860s the British India Steam Navigation Company (BI) began a regular service from Bombay to Basra. The close government-commercial nexus was obvious in that BI's agent in Basra was also the official British government representative there. In Basra BI ships linked with those of another British-owned concern, the Euphrates and Tigris Steam Navigation Company, which went upriver from Basra to Baghdad. Sea trade became more regular and predictable, with the monsoon system no longer determining when ships could sail. However, during this century the Gulf played a very minor role in world trade. Up to the 1860s the cape route connected Asia and Europe, but after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 the Red Sea became a major thoroughfare. In the Gulf it was only local products such as horses and dates that were traded, often still carried in traditional sailing ships called dhows. The most valuable local product was pearl; at its height early in the twentieth century its trade was worth over £1 million. This trade centered on Kuwait and Bah-rain, but it declined drastically in the 1930s after the introduction of Japanese cultivated pearls.

The importance of the Gulf in world trade rose dramatically in the twentieth century thanks to the discovery of huge oil fields in the lands around the Gulf, and to the increasing demand of the industrialized world for this product. Exports from Iran began in the early part of the century. Substantial development of the vast reserves of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states—Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates—occurred only after World War II. Today about one-quarter of the world's oil production comes from countries around the Gulf, and these countries also have close to 60 percent of the world's proven oil reserves. Perhaps even more important, the Gulf oil states have as much as 90 percent of the world's excess oil-production capacity—that is, oil that could be quickly produced if supplies were disrupted in some other producing area. There are also vast reserves of natural gas, about 36 percent of the world's total proven reserves. As oil supplies diminish in coming decades, more and more gas will be produced to make up the shortfall.

Much production comes from offshore fields dotted around the shores of the Gulf. The three greatest oil-exporting countries—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran—all send most of their oil via the Gulf. In 2003 90 percent of oil exported from the Gulf went by tanker through the Straits of Hormuz. This trade accounts for about 40 percent of all world-traded oil. Secure trade in the Gulf is now vital for the West. Huge tankers move from terminals at Khark Island in Iran, Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other locations through the narrow Straits of Hormuz and onwards to Europe, Japan, and increasingly to the United States. In 2003 Japan got about 75 percent of its total oil imports from the Gulf region, the United States about 22 percent, and Western Europe 30 percent. Other significant importers of Gulf oil are India and China. These vast ships, the biggest of which are called Ultra Large Crude Carriers, maneuver uneasily through the 3-kilometer-wide passage to which they are restricted in the Straits. Thus huge trade has required vast construction and dredging work to enable the tankers to moor and load their cargoes. Pollution is a major threat for all the Gulf states. Tankers deballasting as they enter the Gulf often cause it.

So vital is the oil trade that various political factors have often impinged. The Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988, when the United States even allowed Kuwaiti tankers to fly the U.S. flag so Iran would not be able to attack them, threatened the continuance of the trade. Territorial disputes over areas that contain oil, or provide access to the sea, are common. Best known is Saddam Hussein's conquest of Kuwait in 1990, which both improved Iraq's access to the Gulf and brought important new oil reserves under Hussein's control. The West could not tolerate this, and Iraq was expelled from Kuwait early in 1991. Other disputes center on three small strategic islands in the Straits of Hormuz. Iran occupied them in 1992, despite protests from the United Arab Emirates.

SEE ALSO Albuquerque, Afonso de; ARAMCO; Arms, Armaments; Caravan Trade; East India Company, British; East India Company, Dutch; Empire, British; Empire, Ottoman; Empire, Portuguese; Ethnic Groups, Armenians; Ethnic Groups, Gujarati; Ethnic Groups, Jews; Factories; Gama, Vasco da; Gulbenkian, Calouste; Imperialism; Iran; Levant Company; Mercantilism; Millets and Capitulations; OPEC; Petroleum; Piracy; Privateering; Saʿud Family; Ship Types; United Kingdom; United States.


Bahgat, Gawdat. The Persian Gulf at the Dawn of the New Millennium. Commack, NY: Nova Science Publishers, 1999.

Lombard, Denys, and Aubin, Jean, eds. Asian Merchants and Businessmen in the Indian Ocean and the China Sea. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Risso, Patricia. Oman and Muscat: An Early Modern History. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Sick, Gary G., and Potter, Lawrence G., eds. The Persian Gulf at the Millennium: Essays in Politics, Economy, Security, and Religion. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.


Energy Information Administration. "Persian Gulf Oil and Gas Exports Fact Sheet." Available from

Michael N. Pearson

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arm of the gulf of oman and indian ocean.

The Persian Gulf is a shallow body of water between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran; it is more than 500 miles long and as wide as 200 miles. Fed on the northwestern end by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (called the Shatt al-Arab), the gulf drains to the southeast through the Strait of Hormuz into the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Its maximum depth is only 328 feet. There are numerous islands in the gulf, Bahrain and Qeshm being the largest ones.

Since antiquity the gulf has been a major trade and marine route between East Africa and South Asia. In the nineteenth century British commercial interests supported British military intervention in the gulf. Consequently, all the Arabian Peninsula coastal principalities were forced to conclude protectorate treaties with Britain, while British commercial and naval influence progressively increased in the ports along the Iranian coast of the gulf. In addition to the gulf's economic significance derived from trade and pearling, the British perceived the waterway as having strategic importance as a gateway to their imperial possessions in India. The early-twentieth-century discovery of petroleum deposits throughout the coastal region and even in the seabed of the gulf further enhanced its increasingly intertwined economic and strategic values. By the 1970s and into the twenty-first century, more than 80 percent of Middle East oil exports passed through the gulf. Inevitably, its waters became polluted by oil spills that harmed the local fishing industry and threatened rare sea mammals and other aquatic life.

see also bahrain; petroleum, oil, and natural gas; shatt al-arab.


Schofield, Richard, ed. Territorial Foundations of the Gulf States. London: UCL Press, 1994.

Sick, Gary, and Potter, Lawrence, eds. The Persian Gulf at the Millennium. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

elizabeth thompson
updated by eric hooglund

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Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) Arm of the Arabian Sea between Arabia and the Asian mainland, and connected to it by the Strait of Hormuz and the Gulf of Oman. European powers began to move into the region in the 17th century. Britain had achieved supremacy in the Gulf by the mid-19th century. The discovery of oil in the 1930s increased its importance and, especially after the British withdrawal in the 1960s, both the USA and the Soviet Union sought to increase their influence in the region. Tension was heightened by the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, and the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991. The Gulf remains a major shipping and oil supply route. Area: c.240,000sq km (93,000sq mi).