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The Meaning Behind Arab Country Names

posted on: Oct 5, 2022

Photo: Arab Countries Map / Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By: Mariam Alyakoob / Arab America Contributing Writer

Have you ever wondered where country names come from and what they mean? In the case of Arab countries, many of their names are deeply rooted in their history, and in this article we are going to explore the meaning behind different Arab country names to understand more about their past.


Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The word ‘Lebanon‘ is believed to come from the Hebrew word ‘laban’ or ‘lbn’, which translates to meaning ‘white’ in English, which some believe was in reference to the snow capped mountains. Some even believe that the word ‘Lebanon’ is directly referencing Mount Lebanon, stated multiple times in the Bible.  


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Kuwait is a small Gulf country neighboring Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In history, Kuwait had been a transitional home for many nomads passing through the region, and also a road for trade. From around 1520 – 1622, Portugal had conquered the area that made up Kuwait and had built a fort near where modern day Kuwait City is located.

According to the Embassy of the State of Kuwait, the name Kuwait comes from the word ‘Kut’ or ‘Kout’, which in the dialect of southern Iraq, translates to a ‘fort near water’. Eventually the name ‘Kut’ transformed into the name for modern day ‘Kuwait’.


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Morocco, which is referred to as ‘Al-Mamlaka al-Maghribiya’ or ‘Al Maghrib’ in Arabic, is an ethnically diverse North African country.  ‘Al Maghrib’ in Arabic means ‘far west’ or ‘where the sun sets’, due to it being geographically the most westword point of the region when the Arabs invaded. 

‘Morocco’ in English is believed to have been derived from the name of the city of Marrakech. Although still heavily debated, some believe that the word ‘Marrakech’ comes from the Amazigh (indigenous people of Morocco) word ‘mur(n)akush’, which means the ‘Land of God’. The city of Marrakech is still a modern day city in Morocco, being one of the largest after cities like Casablanca and the capital, Rabat.

Another debate of the origins of Marrakech is that it is actually derived from the Arabic words ‘Mour’ and  ‘kouch’, meaning ‘to pass’ and ‘escape/stay silent’, in reference to avoiding the thieves and brigands who were present in the region. 


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There are a couple of theories behind the name of the country ‘Syria’.

Some scholars believe that ‘Syria’ or “Sooriya” in Arabic is derived from Mesopatemia sometimes being referred to as ‘Assyria’. They believe that when the Assyrian empire fell in 612 BCE, that the western part of the fallen empire was still referred to as ‘Assyria’, until the region became controlled by the Seleucid empire around 300 BCE, when the region began being called ‘Syria’. 

Others believe that the name comes from the Hebrew word ‘Siryon’, meaning armor, given that the soldiers at that time were heavily armed with metal armor. 

A third theory suggests that the name came from the Sumerian and Siddonian names given to Mount Hermon, which is currently located on the Lebanese Syrian border. Sumerians called Mount Hermon ‘Saria’, while the Siddonians called it ‘Siryon’. It is believed that the name ‘Syria’ could have been derived from these two names for Mount Hermon. 


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The name ‘Egypt’ is derived from the Greek work ‘Aegyptos’, which was the Greek pronunciation of the Ancient Egyptian name for the country ‘Hwt-Ka-Ptah’ or ‘Mansion of the Spirit of Ptah’. Ptah, in Egyptian mythology, was a creator-god that was known for his craftsmanship and sculpting, and who was said to be the creator of all things, including other creator-gods. 

‘Misr’ is the Arabic word to describe the country, and many believe the word simply translates to meaning a ‘country’.


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Bahrain’ in Arabic means ‘two seas’, which is believed to be referencing both the fresh water springs in the northern part of the country as well as the salty sea water of the Persian Gulf surrounding the island country.  


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Algeria is a North African country that is bordered by Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Libya and Tunisia, and is actually the biggest country in Africa by land mass. 

The name ‘Algeria‘ is derived from the world ‘Al-Djazair (الجزائر)’, which translates to ‘the islands’ in Arabic. The name was given by Bologhine ibn Ziri, the first ruler of the Berber Zirid dynasty, and was in reference to the four islands that were off the coast of the country in the Mediterranean sea. Those four islands actually became part of Algeria’s mainland in around 1525, but naming the country ‘the islands’ may still be a suitable name given that modern day Algeria has over 30 islands. 


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The word ‘Libya‘ is in reference to the ancient indigenous Libu tribes who inhabited the region that makes up modern day Libya. It is believed that the Libu people had lived in the area as far back as 1500 B.C. through evidence supported by ancient Egyptian texts, where they referred to their Western neighbors, given that Libya is located to the West of Egypt,  as ‘Meshwesh’, ‘Ribu’, or ‘Libu’.

Saudi Arabia

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The name ‘Saudi Arabia‘ is in relation to the Al Saud family, who is still the ruling family of modern day Saudi Arabia. The Saud family lineage can be traced back to the 1700s, when Saud bin Mohammad ruled as a sheik. In the 1800s, Saud’s son, Mohammed, joined forces with the cleric Mohamad bin Abdul Wahab, spreading purist islamic doctrine throughout the region.

The Saud family temporarily lost control of the region to Ottoman forces before gaining back control of the region a couple of years later. In the early 1900s, Saud’s descendent Abdul Aziz bin Saud, took control of most of modern day Saudi Arabia through a series of tribal wars. And in 1932, Saud unified the different territories and created what we know to be modern day Saudi Arabia, becoming an official state under Saud, who proclaimed himself the king. The name ‘Saudi Arabia’ refers to the country’s ruling family, the ‘House of Saud’.


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Scholars believe that the word ‘Palestine’ or “Falasteen” references the historical ‘Philistines’, who had occupied the region since around 12th century B.C. ‘Philistia’ or the land of the ‘Philistines’, had been mentioned in many texts, some notable being 12 century B.C. Ancient Greek texts describing the region.


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There are some theories behind the meaning of the name ‘Qatar’ and why the small Gulf country was given this name. 

‘Qatrah’ in Arabic means droplet and it is believed that the country is named after the plural which would be its current name ‘Qatar’. 

It is also believed that the name could have come from the Hindi word ‘gwadar’ which means ‘windy place’.

Although the origins of the name is not definite, we know that the name has existed for quite a long time given that the name ‘Catara’ appears on a Ptolemy map dating back to the 1400s.

United Arab Emirates (U.A.E)

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It is a little bit easier to understand the meaning behind the name of the U.A.E given that it is defined in the name itself. 

Prior to its independence from British colonial power in 1971, The ‘U.A.E’ was referred to as the ‘Trucial States‘, given that multiple sheikhdoms joined together to control the region, having signed a treaty in the 1800s with the British to become a protectorate. 

Following the British leaving the region, an agreement was made amongst the rulers and they established the United Arab Emirates, becoming a federation of seven emirates by 1972. The seven emirates include Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al-Quwain, Fujairah, and Ras Al Khaimah, with each emirate ruler serving in the country’s supreme court, and each emirate being governed by their ruler and having their own local government.

The Arab word for UAE is ‘Al Imarat’ and is referencing all these rulers or ’emirs’ controlling the region.


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There are some theories as to the origin of the name ‘Iraq’, with one theory dating back to a city from 3000 B.C. It is believed that the word ‘Iraq’ comes from the word ‘Uruk’. ‘Uruk’ is known to be one of the most important cities that existed within ancient Mesopotamia, which modern day Iraq encompasses, with the famous Gilgamesh having been the king of this Sumerian city. It is believed that the Arabic version ‘Iraq’ is derived from the Aramaic term for the city which was called ‘Erech’.


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Some critics think that the word ‘Yemen’ means ‘the country facing the south’, which they believe comes from the word ‘Yaman’ in Arabic meaning ‘right’. So the country of Yemen would be on the south side if someone were to be facing East (or right). 

Others say that the word ‘Yemen’ is derived from the Arabic word ‘Yumn’, which can be translated to mean ‘good fortune’ or ‘success’, given that Yemen has some of the most fertile land in the Arabian Peninsula, where the region is typically arid and water stressed. The modern name could have also been derived by ‘Yumn’ given that ancient Yemen states and societies were deemed to be quite prosperous, having been referred to as ‘Arabia Felix’ or ‘Happy Arabia’ in Latin, prior to the 1st century BCE.


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‘Tunisia’ is derived from ‘Tunis’, which is also the name of its largest city as well as its name in Arabic and Tamazight, the language of the indigenous Amazigh. The word ‘Tunis’ is believed to come from the Berber/Tamazight language to mean ‘to lay down’ or ‘encampment’.


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The word Jordan’, or “Urdunn” dates back to 1000 BC, is believed to have been inherited from the name of its river ‘The Jordan River’. 

In Hebrew, the word ‘Jordan’ translates to ‘yarad’, meaning ‘to flow down’ or ‘descend’, which some believe could be in relation to ‘flowing down’ the Jordan River itself. 


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‘Sudan’ or ‘Bilad-al-Sudan’, translates to the ‘Land of the Blacks’, which was the term used by Arabic scholars and geographers who were the first to write about the region upon visiting the area. The word ‘Sudan’ is thought to be derived from the word ‘sud’, the plural of the word ‘Aswad’, which means ‘black’ in Arabic. 

Northern Sudan, as well as the Southern part of Egypt, also resides in ancient Nubia, which has existed since at least 300,000 BC, and was home to one of the earliest civilizations in the world.