Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have been locked in a territorial dispute over three small islands in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran claims the islands “have always been an inseparable part” of the country while the UAE says the Tunbs and Abu Musa belong to them. In 1971, Iran invaded and seized the Tunbs and Abu Musa. Since then, the dispute has remained a sore spot in UAE—Iran relations. Before Iran’s current-day claims, the question of who controls Tunbs and Abu Musa surfaced in the 12th century, when Ibn Balkhi’s work—the Fars-nama, a local history of the Fars province in Iran—described them as Persian islands.
Tunbs and Abu Musa belonged to the King of Hormuz until he surrendered to the Portuguese in 1507. The Portuguese were later expelled, and the Tunbs and Abu Musa were the property of the Fars province and the various tribes that controlled it. In 1804, a German map showed the islands as being under the rule of the Bani Hule. The Bani Hule or Bani Gul were a “loosely defined group of peoples” of either Arab or Persian origin, with a “longstanding residence on the Persian coast,” where the islands are located. One of the Bani Gul’s clans were the Qasemis. By the mid-18th century, The Qasemis established their rule over the islands off the coast of Langa and were in constant competition with the Bani Yas tribe from Dubai. Since the Qasemis proclaimed themselves to be a Persian force, Persians dominated the islands in the Persian Gulf, including the Tunbs and Abu Musa, without dispute.
However, that dominance came into question in the 19th century, when the Sheikhdom of Ras al-Khayma started to assert its ownership over the Tunbs and Abu Musa. Ras-al-Khayma was a British protectorate at the time and Britain, not wanting to get involved in what was clearly a local dispute, chose to leave possession of the islands unresolved. In 1971, one day before the British protectorate over Ras-al-Khayma was set to expire and form a union with the other Sheikhdoms, Iran, feeling vulnerable, invaded and seized the Tunbs and Abu Musa.
Control of the Tunbs and Abu Musa effectively ensures control of the Strait of Hormuz, through which twenty percent of the world’s oil passes. Clearly there is an economic incentive to control the Strait of Hormuz. Iran’s perceived occupation of the islands is another flashpoint in the already tense relationship between Iran and the Sunni gulf kingdoms, in addition to Iran’s nuclear program. The Sunni gulf states are already worried about Iran’s influence in the region, which can be seen through Iran’s alleged funding of the Houthis in Yemen to its support of the Assad regime in Syria. Developing a compromise that may include shared ownership of the Tunbs and Abu Musa may well mitigate the effects of the already strained relationship between Iran and the gulf states.