Kate Monk's Onomastikon

(Dictionary of Names)


The Arabs are a semitic people who originated in the Arabian peninsula but are now settled in many countries of North Africa and the Middle East. The term 'Arab' was first recorded in 853 BC but only came into regular use in the late C6th AD. The religion of Islam spread throughout the peninsula during the C7th. The Arab civilization was revived by Muhammad but Arabia was a subordinate state in the new militant Islamic empire with Cairo, Bagdad and Damascus holding real power although Arabic was the main language. The empire was split up by the Mongols in 1258 and came under Ottoman Turkish control.

Until the C20th, only the fringes of Arabia had been colonized by Western powers and the interior was unknown to them. After WWI and the break-up of the Ottoman empire, nationalism emerged and wealth brought by oil discoveries gave the newly formed states economic power. The Arab League was set up in Cairo to promote Arab unity, mostly in opposition to Israel with which several Arab states have fought wars since the 1940s.

Modern Arab Countries


Saudi Arabia

Capital: Riyadh (Ar Riyad)

Size: 830 000 sq m Popn: 15 922 000

The sultanate of Nejd in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula came under Ottoman Turkish rule in the C18th. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Ibn Saud fought off rival Arab rulers to establish himself as undisputed ruler of the Hejaz (western coastal area) and Sultan of Nejd by 1926. In 1932 they became the United Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

In the 1930s oil was discovered and commercial exploitation began in the 1940s, forming the base for the country's prosperity. King Ibn Saud died in 1953 and was succeeded by his eldest son, Saud, who abdicated in favour of his brother Faisal in 1964 after increasingly strained relations with Egypt. During his reign, Saudi Arabia became one of the leading oil producers but he was assassinated in 1975 and his half-brother, Khalid, became king. As his health failed, Khalid relied on his brother Fahd to help govern and Fahd came to the throne when Khalid died in 1982.

Saudi Arabia drew up proposals for the settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute in the 1990s. It supported Iraq in the war with Iran and bought advanced missiles from the USA at this period. When Iran deposed the Shah and came under the control of Islamic fundamentalists, there were demonstrations in Mecca by groups wanting a similar situation in Saudi Arabia and relations between the two countries grew worse. There were further demonstrations in 1987 and in 1989 the country was host to talks to try to settle the Lebanese civil war.

Security was threatened in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, which borders both of them and King Fahd asked the USA and UK for protection. Forces were built up in Saudi Arabia and after Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War of 1991, Fahd increased oil output to make up for the loss in Iraqi and Kuwaiti production. Later that year, religious leaders demanded that a 'consultative council' should be created to help govern the kingdom as Fahd had suggested earlier. This took place in 1992 and the country began to move towards representative government. It was also one of the main participants in the Middle East peace conference in Spain.


Capital: Muscat

Size: 82 000 sq m Popn: 1 637 000

This country occupies the south-eastern end of the Arabian peninsula. It was a Portuguese possession from 1508-1658 and then came under Persian rule until 1744. The state of Muscat and Oman was the most powerful in Arabia by the early C19th. It ruled Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) until 1861 and also controlled coastal areas of Pakistan and Persia. It became the independent sultanate of Muscat and Oman in 1951 and signed a treaty of friendship with Great Britain. Said bin Taimur, sultan since 1932, was deposed by his son, Qaboos bin Said, in 1970 and the country was renamed the Sultanate of Oman. Qaboos pursued rather more liberal policies than his father did but the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, founded in 1965, continued to campaign to overthrow the sultanate. Oman has a few oilfields which has helped boost its wealth but its strategically important position at the mouth of The Gulf puts its security at risk during conflicts between other Arab nations. It tries to remain non-aligned whilst maintaining close ties with NATO and the USA but in 1991 troops from Oman fought against Iraq in the Gulf War as part of the Gulf Co-operation Council.


Capital: Sana

Size: 204 000 sq m Popn: 11 282 000

North Yemen was a kingdom from the 2nd millenium BC and at later different periods was ruled by Egypt, Rome and Ethiopia. It converted to Islam in 628 and was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1538 to 1630. It was occupied by Turkey again in the C19th. The last king, Imam Muhammad, was killed in the military coup of 1962 and the Yemen Arab Republic was declared, provoking civil war between the royalists and the republicans. By 1967, the Egyptian-backed republicans were victorious under Marshall Abdullah al Sallal but he was deposed later in the year whilst abroad and a Republican Council took control.

South Yemen was founded in 1967 with the union of Aden and the Federation of South Arabia which had both been under British rule or protection. In November 1970, it was renamed the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen and a provisional Supreme People's Council was set up in 1971. The National Front had triumphed over the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen before the British left, causing vast numbers of refugees to flee to the more liberal North Yemen and resulting clashes led to the outbreak of war in 1971. After a cease-fire in 1972, the two countries signed an agreement to merge but did not honour it.

In 1974, pro-Saudi Colonel Ibrahim al-Hamadi seized power in North Yemen. There were rumours of an attempt to restore the monarch in 1975 but in 1977 al-Hamadi was assassinated and Colonel Ahmed bin Hussein al-Ghashmi, a member of his Military Command Council, took over. In 1978, the Constituent People's Assembly was appointed and the MCC was dissolved. The country began to move towards constitutional government and al-Ghashmi became president but he was assassinated by a bomb carried by a South Yemen envoy in 1978 and Colonel Ali Abdullah Saleh replaced him. The killing led to the deposition and execution of the president of South Yemen, Rubayi Ali, and the merger of the three main political parties to form the Yemen Socialist Party, described as a 'Marxist-Leninist vanguard', with Abdul Fattah Ismail as secretary general. He became head of state in December 1978 but soon resigned going into exile in the USSR, and was succeeded by Ali Nasser Muhammad.

War broke out between the two countries again after Ghashmi's death but the Arab League arranged a cease-fire in 1979 and they again agreed to unite. By 1983, a joint Yemen council met every six months and in 1984, a joint committee for foreign policy had its first meeting in Aden. In North Yemen, President Saleh was re-elected in 1983 and 1988 and in South Yemen, Ali Nasser Muhammad was re-elected as secretary-general in 1985. He was removed during a short civil war due to his removal of his opponents and the murder of three of them by his personal guard. The new government under Haydar Abu Bakr al-Attas committed itself to the union with North Yemen.

A draft for the constitution of a unified state was published in December 1989 and the border was opened in January 1990. Unification was proclaimed on May 22nd with Ali Abdullah Saleh as the leader of the new Republic of Yemen. The new constitution was approved and elections were planned.





United Arab Emirates

Capital: Abu Dhabi

Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras al Khaimah, Sharjah, Umm al Qaiwain

Size: 32 300 sq m Popn: 1 629 000

In 1952, these seven sheikdoms set up the Trucial Council on British advice. During the 1960s, the Trucial States became very rich due to their large oil deposits but the area remained under British protection. In 1968, Britain announced the withdrawal of all troops within three years and the seven states, along with Bahrain and Qatar, joined the Federation of Arab Emirates which was intended to become a federal state. Bahrain and Qatar seceded to become independent nations in 1971 but six of the Trucial States combined to form the United Arab Emirates and Ras al Khaimah joined in 1972.

The first president was Sheik Sultan Zayed bin al-Nahayan, ruler of Abu Dhabi. He was disappointed by the slow progress towards centralized government but was persuaded to accept another term as president with promises that the federal government would have more control over defence and internal security. The UAE began to play an increasingly important role in Middle East affairs, and established relations with the USSR and China. It opposed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and sent troops to join the UN coalition that defeated it in the Gulf War. There were fears that the country would suffer after the collapse of the Bank of Commerce and Credit International (BCCI) in 1991 as the ruler of Abu Dhabi held a controlling interest in the bank.


Capital: Doha

Size: 4200 sq m Popn: 453 000

This country, a peninsula in the Persian Gulf, used to be under the control of Bahrain. In 1868, it signed a treaty with Britain and in 1872 became part of the Ottoman Empire. After WWI, Britain government formally recognised Sheik Abdullah al-Thani as the ruler of Qatar and guaranteed to protect the country in return for influence over its external affairs. In 1968, Britain announced the withdrawal of all troops from the Persian Gulf by 1981. Qatar joined the Federation of Arab Emirates but left to become fully independent in September 1971. The protectorate was replaced by a new treaty of friendship with Britain.

In 1972, whilst he was out of the country, the emir, Sheik Ahmad, was deposed by his cousin, Crown Prince Sheik Khalifa who had also been prime minister. He declared himself emir and began a programme of social and economic reform, including reducing the extravagances of the royal family. Qatar became one of the more stable and moderate Arab states and has good relations with most of its neighbours. There are few skilled workers so development has not been rapid. Qatar's troops fought with the UN coalition in the Gulf War of 1991.


Capital: Manama

Size: 260 sq m Popn: 533 000

This country is comprised of a group of islands in the Persian Gulf. It was traditionally an Arab monarchy but was ruled by Portugal during the C16th and dominated by Persia from 1602. In 1783, it became a sheikdom under the Khalifa family, and asked for British help against Persia and Ottoman Turkey who both claimed sovereignty. In 1861, it became a British protectorate with a government shared by the sheik and a British advisor. When Britain announced the withdrawal of its forces from the Gulf in 1968, Bahrain joined the Federation of Arab Emirates but left in 1971 to become an independent state. In 1972, Iran accepted a UN report stating that the islands preferred to be independent and gave up its claim to sovereignty. In 1973, the new constitution provided for an electoral assembly but the prime minister. Sheik al-Khalifa, complained that it was obstructing him and dissolved it in 1975 and he and his family now hold absolute power. Bahrain has now become an important area of the Gulf, with an airport, university and causeway linking it with Saudi Arabia. Relations with Iran have been unstable since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and there are fears that it may try to disturb the stability of Bahrain. The country opposed Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991.


Capital: Kuwait City

Size: 6900 sq m Popn: 1 970 000

This region at the head of the Persian Gulf was part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire from the C16th. In 1756, the ruling family founded the sheikdom of Kuwait. Under a treaty with Britain in 1899, it became a self-governing protectorate. In oil 1938, oil was discovered and became a large-scale industry after WWII with Kuwait City, formerly a small fishing port, becoming a commercial centre and revenues providing funding for public works and education.

In 1961, Sheik Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah assumed full executive powers and took the title of 'Emir'. He died in 1965 and was succeeded by his brother, Sheik Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah who died in 1977. He was succeeded by his son, Crown Prince Jabir, who became Sheik Saad al-Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah. During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-8), Kuwait was a target for destabilising efforts by the Iranian revolutionary government. In 1987 it asked for US protection for its oil tankers in the Gulf after attacks on shipping. Iran also bombed Kuwaiti installations and fears grew that the conflict would expand.

President Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded in August 1990. Most of the royal family escaped and set up a government in exile which controlled large assets outside Kuwait and could provide financial support to those willing to help it regain its country. A US-led coalition force based in Saudi Arabia liberated Kuwait in February 1991 and peace negotiations began in March. An operation to clear up the oil-well fires lit by the retreating Iraqis took until November. There was criticism from pro-democracy campaigners who did not think that the royal family should have remained in power, and the decision to execute 21 collaborators met with such a degree of international disapproval that it was commuted to life imprisonment. Many Palestinian workers in Kuwait were accused of helping the Iraqis and only 80 000 of around 350 000 remain there. In October 1992 the first national assembly elections since 1985 took place.

This collection of names was compiled by Kate Monk and is ©1997, Kate Monk.

Copies may be made for personal use only.

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