Persian Gulf Cosmopolitans & Emirati Fences: The Life and Times of the Iranian Souk

As the standoff between Iran and the United States enters into a new, more aggressive phase of crippling sanctions punctuated by threats of war, the Arab oil sheikhdoms to Iran’s south have increasingly collaborated with US efforts to isolate Tehran. Increasingly, the Persian Gulf has been represented as a geopolitical powder keg with distinct cultural and ideological divisions separating the northern and the southern shores. This strategic body of water, which serves a locus for the global energy trade, has been politicized and militarized by the littoral states and by a U.S. naval presence. The current socio-political environment has promoted a set of dichotomies between the two coasts. The Northern shore has been identified as Iranian, Shi’a, and fundamentalist, the Southern shore as Arab, Sunni, and a bastion of U.S. strength.

While these divisions seem to be built along straightforward cultural lines, a closer look reveals that Iran and the Gulf Arab states have a much more complex and interconnected historical relationship. the United Arab Emirates, for example, has deep economic and cultural ties with Iran due to hundreds of years of mutual naval trade and settlement. While the upper echelons and political elites of Iranian and Emirati society tend to view issues pertaining to the Gulf through a nationalist lens, merchant communities and fishermen have traversed these arbitrary demarcations for centuries, creating extensive familial and business networks that transcend ethnic, linguistic, and national barriers.

The processes of modernization in Iran and UAE have dramatically shaped the socio-economic landscape of each country, but the wharf and the market have remained as testaments to Iranian and Arab cross-cultural exchange and economic trade. For nearly half a millennium, merchants from Iran and the Arabian Peninsula have frequently crossed the Persian Gulf carrying carpets, pottery, pearls, drinking water, and foodstuffs on sailing vessels called dhows. Over the centuries, creolized merchant communities emerged along the northern and southern shores through the assimilations of Persian and Arabic-speakers at developing trading centers such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bandar Lengeh, and Bandar Abbas.

Today, the vestiges of this traditional trade circuit can be seen in the dhow wharves and souks of Abu Dhabi. Located in the district of Al-Meena, the “Iranian souk” is situated next to the wharf and continues to sell goods crafted in Iran. Every morning at four, merchant sailors prepare to undertake the 150km journey to the Iranian coast. The clip below is a photo slideshow of dhow sailors and merchants from Abu Dhabi; many have extended family in Iran and speak Persian and Arabic, often blurring the two together.

While modern shopping malls and construction projects have diminished the visibility of the souk-dhow trade circuit, the markets and wharves are still used to bring consumer goods from across the gulf albeit with different cargo like manufactured household products and construction materials. However, there are now newer avenues for Iranian-UAE economic exchange. Following the 1979 revolution, the devastation of the Iran-Iraq War, and the implementation of U.S.-led embargoes meant to isolate Iran, new generations of Iranians have flocked to the UAE for business and for pleasure. Currently there are 8,000 Iranian businesses in Dubai alone, and Iranian trade with the city is estimated to be about $10 billion a year. The UAE is also home to 2nd largest Iranian diaspora community and the destination of over 200 weekly flights from Iran.

With such a large percentage of Iranian residents and expatriates visiting and living in the UAE, cities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai have entered the urban Iranian imagination as a utopian alternative. For residents of Iran, Dubai has been romanticized as a golden coast that serves as the week-end retreat for Tehran’s upper strata and a major source of wealth and investment; for the diaspora, it offers a version of Las Vegas geographically close enough to Iran so as to be convenient for friends and family still resident. Both perspectives see the UAE as a world away from Iran, ignoring the interconnected history and the current lives of the dhow sailors and merchants. These notions of separateness are humorously represented in the music video below, Afshin’s Dokhtare Shirazi (Shirazi Girl).

During the prelude, Afshin is seen talking to his friend in Dubai and lamenting the physical separation from his lover back in Shiraz. His friend urges Afshin to “Give [his] heart to the sea,” while Afshin responds “My fear is from the other side of the water.” Reaching Kish Island by boat, Afshin then heads to Shiraz to marry his fiancé and bring her back to Dubai. At the end of the video, Afshin’s worst fears are realized when he is caught by the Iranian coast guard and sentenced to a year in prison. While the theme of the story is to emphasize that Afshin’s love has no bounds, it represents a cosmological division created within the Iranian psyche between a “free” and “global” UAE and a “suffocated” and “closed” Iran. The video represents the spatial barriers seen by elite urban Iranians, while the wharf– an example of openness in the Gulf– is depicted as a secretive portal leading back to Iran.

Today, due to domestic and global political circumstances, the gulf between both shores seems to be getting wider. Modernization, militarization, and the outdated belief in 19th-century ethnic nationalisms continue to exacerbate the artificial divisions of the Gulf. The souk and dhow wharf are places where dichotomies were minimal. Recently however, the UAE authorities have shut down the Al-Meena Iranian market on several occasions and have built a fence, cutting it off from the sea. In a time of political volatility and uncertainty where lines are being drawn through the Gulf, it is important to remember that there are still people who see no lines at all. Perhaps one day soon, the rest of us will lose sight of them as well.

For more information, check out:

Abu Dhabi: Reaching Through the Fence

The Battle of Dubai: The United Arab Emirates and the U.S-Iran Cold War

Sanctions impact: Stuck on the Docks

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