Published daily by the Lowy Institute

What’s in a (street) name?

A stroll down the petty side of Middle East conflicts.

Photo: Michael Coghlan/Flickr
Photo: Michael Coghlan/Flickr
Published 2 Mar 2018   Follow @RodgerShanahan

Bilateral disputes can often have a semi-amusing side when grown adults, who should know better, throw playground insults seeking some form of populist electoral response. Then New Zealand prime minister Robert “Piggy” Muldoon’s reaction to cricket’s famous 1981 underarm bowling incident was to gratuitously announce, “I consider it appropriate that the Australian team were wearing yellow”.

But it is hard to go past the Middle East for pettiness when it comes to airing bilateral dirty laundry. There is a long-standing dispute between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia over the marking of the UAE’s western border, based on a 1974 agreement. In the past, the argument has flared-up when Riyadh felt that Emirati maps failed to display the border appropriately. And there was a bit of a to-do when a map in the new Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum left out Qatar altogether (although local media sought to play down the matter).

Names are sensitive. Only this week, the Bahraini Government had to destroy 17,000 school textbooks that included a map referring to the internationally recognised name Persian Gulf, rather than the Arabian Gulf, which is what Arab states prefer to call it.

Recently, the renaming of street signs has been used to give voice to bilateral disputes on the streets on several Middle Eastern countries. A move by the governor of Cairo to rename a street in the city’s east from Selim I Street, after the Ottoman Sultan and conqueror of Egypt, is seen by some as a sign of greater tension in the Egyptian–Turkish relationship. There are even reports of a move to further expunge Ottoman place names from the Cairo streetscape.

For its part, Turkey has been particularly active in trying to teach people their place using names. First, there was a spat with the UAE after the Emirati foreign minister criticised the Turkish Ottoman governor of Medina. Ankara responded by renaming the street occupied by the UAE embassy to Fahreddin Pasha Road, in honour of the very governor the Emiratis had criticised.

Ankara then renamed the street outside the US Embassy in Ankara as Olive Branch Street, the operational name for its military incursion into Syria targeting the same Kurdish forces that Washington has allied itself in Syria’s north-east. Subtlety is not Ankara’s strong suit.

Finally, Istanbul council has voted to change 192 names of streets that may have connections to the Gülen movement that Ankara blames for the failed July 2016 coup attempt.

But the Saudi–Emirati dispute with Qatar has also posed challenges for urban cartographers. As people aligned to both parties “disappear”, so do previous street names in favour of new ones in line with current government thinking. 

Hence, pro-Saudi Egyptians saw to it that al-Hamad Al-Thani Street (named after Qatar’s emir from 1995–2013) was renamed after a local Muslim cleric by the Giza Municipal Council. The Turkish authorities had already named a Qatar Street in 2015, which is unlikely to change given Ankara’s staunch support for Doha during the current crisis.

Naming complications abound. The move by the Trump administration to formally recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital reportedly had councils in Amman and Cairo facing calls to rename some streets. The Iranians also have form using street names in the game of global cat and mouse. In 1981 they renamed Churchill Street, where the British Embassy is located, to Bobby Sands Street, in honour of the IRA hunger striker who died in HM Maze Prison. There is also a street in Tehran named after Khalid Istambouli, the assassin of Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat.

Conflict over place names in the Middle East is not likely to stop anytime soon. But given the propensity with which regional countries try to resolve disputes with force, perhaps a little pettiness isn’t such a bad approach after all.

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