Why Gulf Standard Time is far from standard: the fascinating story behind the time zone's invention

This is how the time zone GMT+4, which is used in the UAE, came to get its name

A native overlooking the city of Manama from his balcony.  (Photo by Dmitri Kessel/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
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Gulf Standard Time, in reference to the time zone adopted by the UAE and Oman, is far from standard.

Of the six Arab states that make up the GCC, only two fall under this time zone. The rest use Arabia Standard Time, which is an hour behind.

What can I say, it was probably late at night in the early 1990s and I was
tired ... so I invented

So why do we call it Gulf Standard Time (GST), even though four of the GCC countries do not use it? And why did the UAE and Oman take on a different time zone to their neighbours?

It is a topic that has for years irked Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, founder of Sharjah’s Barjeel Art Foundation and a UAE academic.

Recently on Twitter, Al Qassemi called for the moniker to be abolished completely.

"I keep getting invitations to events at Gulf Standard Time, and I end up having to Google it and figure out what that is," he tells The National.

“It’s a false reality, it does not exist, there is no such thing. Someone needs to put an end to this.”

So, The National took a deep dive into more than a century of timekeeping in the Arabian Gulf to explain the concept and tracked down the man who believes he invented the name.

A history of time in the Arabian Gulf: how Bahrain set the agenda

It is Bahrain that set the wheels in motion for the standardisation of time zones across the region in 1940.

At the time, Manama was the centre of Britain's Gulf empire and where many regional decisions were made.

It would be another two years before Sharjah, then part of the Trucial States, would become an outpost for Britain’s Royal Air Force operations in the region.

According to historical correspondence from the time, held by the British Library, there were two time zones commonly in use in Bahrain: Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) +3.5 and, extraordinarily, GMT +3 and 23 minutes (a seven minute difference). Companies were split on which time zone to use, meaning many operated according to different schedules.

Bedouins with their donkeys at a water well, Original caption reads:- 'Beduins with their donkeys at a water well in the desert in the Trucial States, between Sharjah and Manama, where the Trucial Oman Scouts have a depot. These two old men made no objection to our photographing the women; but a minute later an irate Beduin on a diminutive donkey rode up and roundly scolded them for being so shameless'. Barbara Wace (1907-2003) was a British journalist, United Arab Emirates, There is no official date for this image, possibly taken in the 1950s / 1960s.  (Photo by Barbara Wace/Royal Geographical Society via Getty Images)

On November 23, 1940, a British political agent based in Manama, Reginald George Alban, set about standardising the time zone in the country. From July 20, 1941, the Bahraini time zone officially became standardised as GMT +3.5. However, that decision lasted only two years. On November 1, 1943, the British Overseas Airways Corporation wrote to Alban asking to adjust the time to GMT +4 or GMT +4.5, to gain more light at the end of the day.

With unilateral agreement reached, the time zone of GMT +4 was introduced on January 1, 1944, bringing it in line with the standard followed by Sharjah and the Trucial States.

At the time, other time zones in the Arabian Gulf included Basra (Iraq) GMT +3 and Jiwani (Oman) at GMT +6.5.

But, since then, everything has changed again. Bahrain reverted by an hour in 1972 to co-ordinate with Saudi Arabia, and in the proceeding decades, only two time zones remained. These are now known as Gulf Standard Time (GMT +4, the UAE and Oman) and Arabia Standard Time (GMT +3, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen).

But how did those names come into existence? And why does GST only apply to two Gulf countries?

How Gulf Standard Time came to be

It turns out the name for Gulf Standard Time was likely invented by an American computer scientist.

In the 1990s, the TZ database was created in the US. It partitioned and compiled information about time zones worldwide for use in computers and, up until today, it is followed by some of the biggest global software systems, including Android, Java, iOS and Microsoft.

The National spoke to the two computer scientists responsible for creating TZ – founding contributor Arthur David Olson, now at the US National Institutes of Health, and computer scientist Paul Eggert, now a senior lecturer at the University of California.

Paul Eggert is the computer scientist who gave Gulf Standard time its name. Courtesy UCLA Samueli

Information about local time in the UAE, along with several other countries, was added to the database by Eggert in 1993, says Olson. According to their data, Oman and the UAE have used the same GMT +4 time zone since 1920.

Olson explains the operating system used for the database required a “time zone name or abbreviation” to represent each country. 

“To satisfy this requirement, Paul ‘invented’ some abbreviations, in particular ‘GST’ for Gulf Standard Time,” he explains.

Eggert vaguely recalls coming up with the name. “What can I say, it was probably late at night in the early 1990s and I was tired,” he says. “I had to put some alphabetic acronym into the database, so I invented GST.

“Bahrain and Qatar observed GST from 1920 to 1972, as did the Dhahran airport (Saudi Arabia) for a while, so the abbreviation was not completely outlandish.” Afghanistan also used the standard between 1890 and 1945.

In certain areas, the sun set slightly earlier in one place than even a few kilometres down the road – meaning the time behind a mountain could be different than in a nearby town

And so, GST came to be, entering the public consciousness and remaining in use ever since. These days, if you Google “UAE time zone”, the result that pops up is “Gulf Standard Time” in big, bold letters, with the smaller GMT +4 as a subhead.

Wikipedia, Lonely Planet and the UAE’s General Civil Aviation Authority still use GST.

In 2001, the TZ database removed the requirement for an alphabetic acronym, Olson says, meaning GST was dropped and “+4” was used instead. Other invented abbreviations have been replaced as well.

“As updated versions of the time zone database make their way across the World Wide Web, ‘GST’ will disappear from computers,” Olson says.

“Which is not to say that GST will disappear [completely]. It was part of the time zone database for about 25 years and appeared for that long in computer output of time in the UAE. People who have seen that output may well continue to use the abbreviation.”

Rashid Street in Baghdad, Iraq, November 1945. (Photo by J A Freakley/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But what about Arabia Standard Time, or GMT +3 – the time zone in use by the other four GCC countries? For Eggert, Saudi time was one of the quirkiest in the region to work with.

“Time in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Arabian peninsula was not standardised until 1968 or so.” he says. “Timekeeping differed depending on who you were and which part of Saudi Arabia you were in.”

When sunset was midnight in Saudi 

In 1969, journalist Elias Antar wrote a story on Saudi Arabia's fluid time zones for Saudi Aramco World magazine, to mark the country standardising its timekeeping the year before.

Before the late 1960s, the basis of telling time in the kingdom was the traditional Arabic method of matching time to the movement of the sun. Watches were adjusted each day at sunset to 12am. Yes, sunset was also midnight.

All three guests, each with a wristwatch showing a different hour, arrived within minutes of each other

“But then, unfortunately, some nameless foreigner introduced western sun time,” Antar wrote. This was when GMT +3 was introduced, and meant that every day at sunset, you set your watch to read 6pm.

This was probably introduced for expatriates to keep up with time zones in their home countries, although, Antar wrote, “local wits say it was because the British Embassy could not bear the thought of serving afternoon tea at 11 o’clock".

Unfortunately, this was not exactly fool-proof either, as no two days were ever the same length.

In certain areas, the sun set slightly earlier in one place than even a few kilometres down the road – meaning the time behind a mountain could be different than in a nearby town.

That's where the confusion grew, and several time zones came into circulation. Later, the American Military Aid Advisory Group (MAAG) also introduced "Zulu time",which was just basic GMT and Aramco decided to introduce daylight savings just at their company in summer.

Antar illustrates the discrepancies with an anecdote in the article, titled Dinner At When?, writing: "Just how complicated this could be was illustrated a couple of years back when an English lady of long residence in Jeddah sat down to write three invitations to a summer dinner party. One going to a Saudi merchant, began 'My husband and I would like you to join us for dinner at 12.30pm'. Another, going to an airline pilot, read '... for dinner at 8pm'. The third, to an American businessman, said '... dinner at 6.30pm'."

The article continues: “Yet, just after sunset on the appointed evening, all three guests, each with a wristwatch showing a different hour, arrived within minutes of each other, dined well and later spent a leisurely evening chatting beside a lighted swimming pool – thanks to the cleverness of a hostess who knew that being on time depended very much on whose watch you were watching.”

Thankfully, when Saudi Arabia standardised its time zones in 1968, it put to bed the complex task of sending multiple tea invitations set to different times, depending on where your company was coming from.

And meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain’s neighbour, the UAE, has had a consistent time zone of GMT +4 since the 1920s.

The UAE may have become known for rapid urbanisation and its ability to quickly adapt to change, but little do most people know that the country’s most enduring constant could well be time itself.