Whenever the Arab World is discussed, forgotten are the five million Arabs struggling to survive under the Persian yoke in an Arab region bordering Iraq and the Arabian Gulf, rich with oil and gas. Once an autonomous area, separated from Persia by the Zagros mountain range, under the governance of Sheikh Khazaal bin Jabber whose family had ruled for over a century, it was grabbed by Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1925 with a nod and a wink from Britain eager to preserve its relationship with Iran due to its oil interests.
Formerly known as Arabistan, the Iranian occupiers wasted no time in changing the name of this new Iranian province to Khuzestan, rejected by its Arab residents even today. Arabs and Persians have little in common and as Sir Arnold Wilson, a British colonial administrator, once said, Arabistan is “a country as different from Persia as is Spain from Germany.”
Although Arabistan provides Iran with 80 per cent of its oil requirements as well as half of its gas, its sons are exploited and oppressed; their human rights tramped upon, their very identity in danger of being obliterated. Iran’s policy of ethnic discrimination combined with its Persian resettlement endeavours has resulted in turning the Ahwazi Arabs into an economic and social underclass.
Numerous Arab villages are without schools and those ‘lucky’ enough to attend school are educated in Farsi. Some 80 per cent of Ahwazi Arab women are illiterate as opposed to 50 per cent of Ahwazi men. Over 30 per cent of the under-30's are unemployed in this heavily industrialized region, primarily because Persians receive priority and jobs often advertised outside the governorate.
Thousands are without access to drinking water, because rivers have been diverted to arid Persian provinces. Their streets open sewers; and many are deprived of electricity and gas. In 2013, Arabistan’s capital, Ahwaz, was classed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the most polluted city on earth partly due to desertification and industrial smog. Arab farmers are regularly stripped of agricultural land and although there has been loud international condemnation of Israel’s separation walls, there have been no media headlines about the segregation walls hiding squalid Arab ghettoes from wealthier Persian settlements and glossy new towns.
It’s no wonder that Ahwazi Arabs are now driven to protest against such blatant discrimination. According to the Ahwaz Studies Center, “increasing joblessness and rising poverty is creating a humanitarian crisis among Ahwazi Arabs that threatens to lead to widespread unrest…” The authorities use a heavy hand against demonstrators and rights activists.
However, one of the central reasons behind the Ahwazis’ discontent is their evaporating sense of who they are; the erosion of their roots, their language, their Arab identity. That was brought home to me a few days ago as I watched a video of Iranian security forces attacking Ahwazi football fans for wearing traditional Arab dress while celebrating the triumph of the visiting Saudi Al-Hilal team against the local Foolad Khuzestan side. In truth, the video touched an emotional chord in me.
The authorities were alerted when Ahwazis referred to the Saudi players as “their Arab Brothers” and welcomed them to “Arab lands”. The forces attempted to move the Arabs away from the cameras, provoking resistance. The crowd responded by destroying posters of Iran’s Supreme Guide, Ali Khamenei, in the face of Iranian Revolutionary Guards and threw stones at police. This resulted in arbitrary arrests when peaceful protesters were also swept-up. “Iran will never be able to smother our voice and our Arab identity,” say the demonstrators.
For me, this was emotional because despite all Iran’s measures to choke the Ahwazi’s inner being and stifle all dissent over the past 90 years - even to the extent of forcing them to give their babies Persian names - they remain proud to be Arab.
It also saddens me when I remember that those Arabs, our own people, have been abandoned to fend for themselves. Why isn’t the United Nations taking up their cause? Why are those western countries, endlessly trumpeting human rights to the Middle East, not only turning a blind eye but actively wooing Iran’s ayatollahs? Most importantly, we can no longer stay silent when five million Ahwazi Arabs equates to a population three times bigger than that of Gaza? Here I would call on Arab countries - especially GCC states and their allies - to stand tall with our Ahwazi brothers so as to empower them on their journey to freedom. Apart from the fact that this is our moral duty, it could also be off strategic benefits at a time when Iranian officials boast of a new Persian empire that includes four Arab capitals.
Help Arabistan gain its independence and Tehran can kiss goodbye to its oil exports and the revenue it uses to fund its terror proxies. Iran’s meddling in Arab countries is rife and unrestrained. Yemen is just one example and I’m gratified that Saudi, partnered with GCC states, Egypt, Sudan, Jordan and Pakistan, has launched a military intervention to free this historic Arab heartland from Iranian-backed Shiite militias; this action is one that I’ve long called for. Iran deserves to be treated in kind.
The first step towards freeing the people of Ahwaz is a vigorous and determined campaign by GCC leaderships to undermine the Iranian fist on this dear Arab land involving billions of dollars in direct financial aid to support the development of Al Ahwaz.
Secondly, the Arab League and/or the GCC should bring the forgotten truth that Al Ahwaz is, indeed, Arab territory to the international spotlight so as to raise awareness.
Thirdly, the file should be lodged with the United Nations Security Council for investigation with the aim of procuring a resolution to the effect that Ahwaz has been and is under illegal occupation and, thus, has a right to self-determination. Such applications have been lodged by Ahwazis previously but haven’t been taken with the seriousness they deserve. The GCC should use its power to ensure the Ahwazi cause can no longer be swept under the carpet.
Just a year ago, I would have had little hope that this appeal would be heard. But, thankfully, GCC states and its Arab friends have at last resolved to be proactive in defending Arab peoples and lands. Operation ‘Decisive Stormʼ in Yemen is just the beginning, signalling Iran’s hitherto clear path towards regional domination is now strewn with roadblocks.
I still bristle when I recall a conversation I had, many years ago, with former US ambassador Richard W. Murphy, who informed me that America was now responsible for Gulf security. When I asked him on what authority, he answered without flinching, saying, the Brits handed the region to us? What are we, sheep, I remember thinking? Today, we are emerging as lions. We are standing with our Yemeni brothers in distress and proving to the Islamic Republic of Iran, its militias and proxies that we will never be parcelled-off to any country’s hegemonic ambitions ever again.