Territorial disputes: The Persian Gulf (Part 1) [Post 161]

The Persian or Arabian Gulf: Introduction

The differences between Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the other states in Middle East will demonstrate that most of the territorial disputes in the Arabian or Persian Gulf date back to colonial times and the way in which the former colonial powers divided the “territory” that was once sociologically integrated. These differences show too that although the claiming parties achieve a settlement, domestic, regional and international issues at stake may still turn the situation volatile and regional guarantors are key in peacekeeping.

Similar to the cased in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, former colonial powers left behind “artificially” created divisions in what used to be a “territory” sociologically defined. The assessment aims to show how European understanding in legal and political sciences is not appropriate to comprehend the complexity of these realities. 

The following posts will assess territorial disputes in the Persian Gulf. The analysis will centre on the evaluation of domestic, regional and international issues at stake with particular focus on religion, geopolitical importance and leaders’ prestige.


The Persian Gulf is a relatively constricted geographic area of great existing or potential volatility. The smaller states of the gulf are particularly vulnerable, having limited indigenous populations and, in most cases, armed forces with little more than symbolic value to defend their countries against aggression. All of them lack strategic depth, and their economies and oil industries depend on access to the sea. Conflicts involving the air forces and navies of the larger gulf powers inevitably endanger their critical transportation links.

Before the oil era, the gulf states made little effort to delineate their territories. Members of Arab tribes felt loyalty to their tribe or shaykh and tended to roam across the peninsula’s desert areas according to the needs of their flocks.

Official boundaries meant little, and the concept of allegiance to a distinct political unit was absent. Organized authority was confined to ports and oases.The delineation of borders began with the signing of the first oil concessions in the 1930s. The national boundaries had been defined by the British, but many of these borders were never properly demarcated, leaving opportunities for contention, especially in areas of the most valuable oil deposits.

Until 1971 British-led forces maintained peace and order in the gulf, and British officials arbitrated local quarrels. After the withdrawal of these forces and officials, old territorial claims and suppressed tribal animosities rose to the surface. The concept of the modern state—introduced into the gulf region by the European powers—and the sudden importance of boundaries to define ownership of oil deposits kindled acute territorial disputes.

Persian Gulf States: Country Studies (Library of the Congress)

Link to the complete publication


This post is based on Jorge Emilio Núñez, Territorial Disputes and State Sovereignty. International Law and Politics (Routledge 2020).Previous published research monograph about territorial disputes and sovereignty by the author, Jorge Emilio Núñez, Sovereignty Conflicts and International Law and Politics: A Distributive Justice Issue London and New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2017.


Arabs and Persians Beyond the Geopolitics of the Gulf.

Monday 23rd November 2020

Dr Jorge Emilio Núñez

Twitter: @DrJorge_World


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s