Dirhams, Dinars, Fils and Riyals: The Currencies of the Middle East

The drachma is the Greek word for a unit of weight that was the currency of the Byzantine Empire. It was used not just in Byzantine territories of Egypt, Anatolia and the Levant, but through commerce, across the greater Middle East, where it was called the dirham. The dirham was widely used at the time of Mohammed’s conquests of the Middle East, and despite the engraved images that appeared on the coin (prohibited by the iconoclastic Muslims), it continued to be used in the first Caliphate, with some places copying the style and form of the currency to issue their own coins. In Arabic, the word dirham was used for the actual Greek currency used in circulation, whereas money issued locally based on the drachma was called a dinar, based on the the Latin word denarius, which ultimately had the same linguistic root as the drachma.

Today, that distinction is historical trivia, but currencies in many Middle Eastern countries are still called dinars and dirhams, often together with Fils, an Arabic word that historically meant coin or a small unit of weight; and the Rial (or Riyal), a currency that emerged in the last few centuries.

Currencies used today.

In North Africa, the Moroccan dirham is subdivided into 100 santimat, a subdivided currency unheard of anywhere else in the world, the Algerian dinar is subdivided into 100 santeem, the Libyan dinar is subdivided into 1000 dirhams, and the Tunisian Dinar is subdivided into 1000 milim. Both Morocco and Tunisia used the Rial during Ottoman times, which was locally issued by the local governors.

Jordan and Iraq use Dinars, Dirhams and Fils. In Iraq, 1 dinar is equal to 100 dirhams and 1,000 fils (although there are more than 1,000 dinars to the dollar, so its unclear if the subdivided currencies are needed anymore). Jordan is slightly different — 1 dinar is equal to 10 dirhams (not 100) and 1,000 fils (same as Iraq).

The rial (or riyal) was probably based on the Spanish Real, and first emerged as the currency issued by some governors in Ottoman possessions. Today, it is most commonly used in the Arabian peninsula. The Iranian rial is subdivided into 100 dinar, and was first introduced in 1798 as a coin worth 1250 dinar. The Riyal is the currency of Saudi Arabia and is subdivided into 20 Ghirsh or 100 Halalas, and in Qatar the Riyal is the currency. The Yemeni Rial is subdivided into 100 fils, but before unification, North Yemen used the Rial and South Yemen used the Dinar. The Omani Rial is subdivided into 1000 baisa.

Arab countries excluded from this map include Egypt, Sudan, and Syria, which call their local currency pounds, based on the British sterling. Lebanon uses Francs.

Confused? This is actually a condensed and very summarised overview. If you want to read more, check out the wikipedia article on the historical use of British currency in the Middle East, where you can try and wrap your head around all the intertwined narratives of what currency was used when, and why. Every country in the Middle East used several forms of currency in the last century, from pounds to rupees to shillings to dinars to rials. Fun trivia includes: Qatar and Dubai once had their own currency union; Omani Riyals and Jordanian Dinars are currencies that descended from the pound sterling, despite their different names, and the value of one Omani Rial and one Jordanian Dinar is similar to one British Pound even today; the currency units in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE remain very similar in value today because they descend from units the Maria Theresa thaler, a currency from the Austrian Empire.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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12 Responses to Dirhams, Dinars, Fils and Riyals: The Currencies of the Middle East

  1. rc says:

    You skipped Bahrain which has Dinars, subdivited into 1000 fils. And 1 Dinar is always equal to 10 Saudi Rials.

  2. Curzon says:

    Bahrain is on my map, in both the Dinar and Fils section. I did not know that it was linked to the KSA Riyal.

  3. I used to have a large collection of foreign coinage. Some of those were from the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Syria, Israel, and Iraq. I remember as a kid that every time I got a coin from somewhere new, I’d get out our National Geographic Atlas, open it to the world map and find the place that coin was from. It was a pretty damn neat way to learn geography! :)

    Sadly, I lost my collection many years ago. I’ve tried to rebuild it, but the thrill isn’t as strong as it was. I still have fond memories, though.

  4. Bob Harrison says:

    So when are we going to get an “Arabo?”
    OK I doubt that would ever happen. But the name amuses me.
    I thought the GCC was flirting with the idea of a common currency.

  5. Curzon says:

    The GCC currency was to come out this year, but it’s a long way from becoming a reality, and current projections have it coming into being between 2013 and 2020. It was to be called the Khaleeji, but that name has been rejected.

  6. Roy says:

    I’d hazard a guess that the Moroccan “santimat” and Algerian “santeem” both come from the French “centime”.

  7. Curzon says:

    Intriguing! Yet one uses dirhams, the other dinars…

  8. Vejadu says:

    Bottom line is I drive my accounts department crazy with my currencies reported on the expense reports – ecspecially since the rate a 3 AM on site isn’t the published bank rate!

  9. Garcia says:

    Certainly, the word “santimat” is not strange for a Spaniard, as the Euro is divided in “cents”, which are called “céntimos” in Spanish (as formerly were called the subdivisions of the Peseta).

    Interesting article.

  10. Markopasha says:

    This is the first time that I have heard the Lebanese currency called the franc. Maybe it was in some distant time. Nowadays, it is called the lira in Arabic, the livres in French and the pound in English, and the same goes for the Syrian pound, also known affectionately as the “SYP” after its currency code.
    Of course, stranger still is how the Egyptian pound is called a guinea in Arabic, though is still divided into 100 ‘ursh, or kuruş in Turkish.

  11. Yehudit says:

    You also skipped the Shekel, which I think predates the drachma….. of course there was a hiatus of several thousand years…..Right now the New Israeli Shekel is about 3.7 to the dollar.

    This isn’t one of those Arabophile blogs which tries to pretend Israel doesn’t exist…is it?

  12. Curzon says:

    Yehudit, clearly you’re a new reader:

    This post is about currency in the Arab world (with Iran thrown in) — Israel just wasn’t part of the topic.