Reopening Bahrain and Qatar’s territorial dispute

 18 Nov 2017 - 11:30

As the five-month-old Gulf dispute prolongs, Bahraini-Qatari relations are growing significantly more tense. In recent weeks, Bahrain’s public prosecutor has charged two Shi’ite opposition leaders with spying for Doha, Manama has called for freezing Qatar’s Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) membership, and authorities in the island kingdom have announced that they will not allow Qatar’s nationals and residents to enter Bahrain without obtaining a visa. On top of such allegations and announcements, Bahrain’s reignition of a 19th century-rooted territorial dispute with Qatar earlier this month marked yet another escalation of tension in Manama and Doha’s inimical relationship. 

On November 4, Bahrain made a sovereign claim to the Hawar Islands (which it owns) and the coastal town of Zubara, situated in the Qatari peninsula’s northwestern corner and internationally recognized as Qatari territory. Bahrain’s Al Khalifa and Qatar’s Al Thani rulers have disputed these territories throughout history, dating back to the latter’s ascension in the Qatari peninsula during the mid-19th century. Prior to the signing of the Agreement of 1868, in which the British recognized the Al Thani family’s representation of the tribes of the Qatari peninsula, Bahrain’s Al Khalifa royals had settled throughout land that belongs to Qatar. 

By 1986, Bahrain and Qatar nearly went to war over their disputed territories rich with gas and oil deposits, yet Saudi mediatory efforts averted such a conflict. In 1991, Doha referred the sovereign dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). In March 2001, the ICJ awarded Zubura and the Janan Islands to Qatar and the Hawar Islands to Bahrain. The ICJ also ruled on the territorial status of two reefs in dispute: Al Dibal (awarded to Qatar) and Al Jaradah (awarded to Bahrain). This 2001 ruling was the most complicated case brought before the ICJ and its resolution marked the only time that two Arab states resolved a sovereign dispute through the international court. 

Despite the ICJ’s verdict, there is a clear view in Manama of the Doha’ control of Zubara as a violation of Bahrain’s sovereignty. On November 4, the Arabian island state issued a press release (“Sovereignty and legitimate rights: Historical facts”), which declared that Zubura was “cut off forcibly” from the Bahrainis who have “every right” to claim this land and to “dispute the legitimacy of the Qatari rule on the northern territory”. The statement said that “Bahrain has endured the intolerable and conceded many of its internationally documented historic rights in order to distance the GCC from bilateral differences”. In a reference to the GCC’s establishment in 1981, the statement affirmed that the leadership in Manama “agreed to postpone the claim of its rights, accepted the losses and gave up what is rightfully hers in order to ensure the unity of the Gulf”.
Although unclear how or if Bahrain will act vis-à-vis Zubara, Manama’s reopening of this territorial dispute highlights the Qatar crisis’ historical and tribal dimensions. Seemingly, all of Bahrain’s grievances against Qatar are now being aired. Bahraini condemnation of Qatar is not new, yet the GCC’s unravelling is creating a new regional environment in the Arabian Gulf whereby Bahrain is now challenging the ICJ’s 2001 ruling on the island kingdom’s territorial dispute with Qatar, whereas Manama had been silent on the issue over the past 16 years in the interest of the six-member Council that somewhat united Bahrain with Qatar, at least symbolically and in principle.
Since the Gulf dispute broke out, Bahrain’s longstanding grievances with Qatar have manifested in harsh condemnations of the leadership in Doha on a routine basis. Bahraini officials have accused their Qatari counterparts of plotting subversive activities in the island kingdom and sponsoring Iranian-backed terrorism in the archipelago, while Bahraini media outlets now routinely referred to the “regime” (not “State”) of Qatar, as if describing the Islamic Republic. The reignition of this territorial dispute came shortly after Bahrain’s Foreign Minister declared that Bahrain will not attend the GCC summit, planned for next month, if Qatar attends without complying with the blockading countries’ demands for reestablishing diplomatic and economic relations.
When analyzing Manama’s approach to the Gulf dispute, one must consider the extent to which Bahraini foreign policy is under Saudi Arabia’s thumb. Since 2011, Bahrain has relinquished substantial amounts of autonomy in exchange for financial and security support from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi which have brought all Arabian Gulf states into closer alignment on regional issues, from the Qatar crisis to Yemen’s civil war and from containing Iran to weakening Lebanese Hezbollah while backing the Egyptian regime. Although Bahrain was the first country to announce severing ties with Qatar on the morning of June 5—followed minutes later by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Riyadh issued the orders. The reignition of this territorial dispute between Manama and Doha is ultimately about the Quartet applying more pressure on Doha with Bahrain using its historic claims to territory on mainland Qatar as a lever.
If Bahrain were to make moves to challenge Qatar’s sovereignty over Zubura, a likely outcome would be Manama receiving strong condemnation throughout the international community. Consistent with other aspects of Qatar’s response to the five-month-old blockade, officials in Doha are pointing to international law and international institutions such as the ICJ in favor of their positions on various issues stemming from the Gulf dispute from trade to academia and human rights to aviation. Unless the ICJ reopens the dispute, Qatar will have the ICJ’s ruling from 16 years ago as a solid basis for its legitimate sovereign claim to Zubura despite Bahraini grievances.
Regardless of what the Bahraini leadership seeks to achieve in making sovereign claims to Zubura, Manama is contributing to a sense of hostility in Bahraini-Qatari relations. The reignition of this territorial dispute threatens to further eliminate the potential benefits that both Bahrain and Qatar could have continued to capitalize on following the ICJ’s 2001 ruling while heightening the risks of the Gulf dispute escalating further. 

Dr Khalid Al-Jaber is Director, Gulf International Forum and Giorgio Cafiero is CEO, Founder, Gulf State Analytics.