The Persian Gulf and its Multiple Regionalisms:
Littoral Society, Imperial Frontier, International Region, and Global Seam
The Persian Gulf is a relatively shallow body of water measuring 250,000 square kilometers, with elevated levels of salinity and high water temperatures. While these material features are uncontested, the Gulf’s many political attributes are not. Whether it is the battle over its nomenclature – Persian or Arab Gulf – or the nineteenth century contention that it was a “British lake”, or U.S. Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger’s quip in 1981 that it is “the umbilical cord of the industrial free world”, for over a century policymakers and scholars have leveraged the Gulf to promote various local and global agendas. These projects range from justifying the British colonial presence in the Gulf until 1971, massive public and private investments by the United States since World War II, struggles for decolonization by various political movements, family strategies for upward mobility via migration, and regional rivalries between Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
What makes the Persian Gulf such a fraught space for so many decades and an object of imperial ambitions, national antagonism, and migratory hopes? By fraught I do not mean struggles over who is its rightful proprietor or disputes over a stable or true meaning of the Gulf. Instead, I contend that roots of these struggles are in the multiple and competing ways that the Gulf has been regionalized through concrete social formations and abstract representations. The larger book project which is the basis for this presentation shows how standard narratives of the region contain a common contradiction, treating the Gulf as a boundary between empires, states, Muslim sects, and alliance blocs, yet insisting that it is a regional whole and abstract object that can and should be secured or contained. It is in this manner that the Persian Gulf region has “come to take on a real existence in our consciousness”, to use Adam Hanieh’s phrase from the workshop’s position paper; but the Gulf has also continuously been treated as vulnerable, with its borders constructed, eroded, and overlain by new forms of transnationalism – oceanic, imperial, international, and global.
I examine how distinct Persian Gulf regionalisms have been articulated and reproduced over time and across geographic scales by tracing the ways in which the Gulf has been intimately connected by routes and sea-lanes to far flung places and dialogically integrated into international capitalism. With this lens, familiar depictions of the region recede—as a backwater of world history, an endemic zone of conflict, or an energy depot for expanding industrial capitalism. What comes into view is an argument that the multiple ways that the Persian Gulf has been regionalized is a spatial effect of political struggles and power emerging alongside these projects of regional space-making.
The narrative arc of this project begins in the nineteenth century when the waterway bound coastlines into a littoral society. Meanwhile, the Persian Gulf was increasingly understood as an imperial frontier for British India and centralizing reforms of Qajar and Ottoman rulers. The new forms of territorialization generated by imperial entrenchment and reform sowed the seeds for the internationalization of the Gulf as a set of independent or British-protected nation-states. This was the staging ground for US hegemony and its enclosure of “the Gulf” as a vital node – “an umbilical cord” – in its world order. Finally, as early as the 1960s discourses and plans for transforming the Gulf into a logistics seam and investment zone for global capitalism developed and matured into discourses about the Global Gulf.
Arang Keshavarzian is Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. He is the author of Bazaar and State in Iran: The Politics of the Tehran Marketplace and the co-editor with Ali Mirsepassi of Global 1979: Geographies and Histories of the Iranian Revolution. He has published articles on the political economy and history of Iran, the Persian Gulf, and the broader Middle East in journals including Politics and Society, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Geopolitics, Economy and Society, and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research.