Alwaght- Tensions between Bahrain and Qatar are escalating and presenting an essential challenge to the efforts done during the past few months to end the three-year crisis within the body of the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council while the six-member bloc is nearing its leaders-level summit in Riyadh. The disputes between the two tiny states have historical backgrounds, as they are at the same time fueled by territorial and political factors.
Historical record of their dispute
Bahraini leaders argue that Qatar is historically a separated part of Bahrain that was split from the island state in 1870 when the Ottoman Empire subjugated the Arabian Peninsula. Bahrain’s Al Khalifa ruling family suggests that its roots return to Al-Zubara, a historical town northwest of Qatar.
When the anti-Ottoman uprisings began by the Saudi tribes, instead of sending a large number of forces to quell the rebellion also in Qatar and prevent British assaults on the seized territories, the Ottomans decided to pick a tribe close to them for the rule. They selected Jasem Al Thani, a leader of a prominent trade tribal from Doha, to rule over the Ottoman-controlled emirate.
Although in 1913, Qatar and Bahrain became two independent states following a treaty between the British and the Turks, throughout the 20th century Bahrain struggled to regain the territory it left behind in Qatar. The deal did not draw precise borders between the two Arab nations. Even after the Ottoman breakup, Bahraini-Qatari relations remained disputed. In 1937, Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani repressed tribes in the country that claimed affiliations with Bahrain.
Territorial disputes are mainly on sea border demarcation, Al-Zubara region, and also Hawar archipelago that includes Hawar, Eastern and Western Rabdh, Al-Hajiat, Northern and Southern Sawad, Al-Mahzoura, Al-Wakra, Um-Toyour, Bu-Sadad.
One of the main reasons behind the territorial dispute between Doha and Manama, as above mentioned, is a failure by the British-Ottoman deal to draw their borders. As oil and gas later were discovered, the two stepped up their claims over the disputed territories. In 1971, Qatar challenged Bahrain over the Hawar islands, and periodical sea confrontations followed. They moved close to a real war in 1985. In that year, when Bahrain started construct sea reinforcements in Fasht Island, Qatar complained that the constructions violated the 1978 agreement. In early 1986, Qatari forces were deployed to the islands airborne. They called the island a closed zone. They arrested several Bahraini officials and 29 Dutch contractors and workers hired by the Bahraini government.
Finally, in the 1990s and as the other Arab countries failed to strike a deal following mediations, the two counties took their case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
In 2001, the ICJ issued its ruling. It drew a sea border and also made a decision on the contested Islands. It ruled that Al-Zubara, Janan, and Fasht Dibal were Qatar’s and Hawar, Jaradah were Bahrain’s.
Cooperation Council’s crisis made old disputes resurface
In the years that followed the ICJ ruling, the relations between Bahrain and Qatar did not grow as worse as before but the crisis was ready to flare up like fire under the ashes. Although during the Arab uprisings Qatar differed with the other Council’s states on the way of dealing with the popular movement and approaching them, Qatar’s powerful media wing Aljazeera did not reflect the Bahraini uprising just unlike the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and Syrian developments as the Qatari leaders feared waves of the uprisings could sweep the Persian Gulf Arab monarchies.
But the old wound of territorial and political disputes between the two countries showed itself in 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and imposed a blockade on it. It can be said that Al Khalifa rulers seized the opportunity of the Saudi decision to sanction Doha for the latter’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood to reopen the dispute with Qatar.
This issue is quite clear in Bahrain’s accusation against the opposition of spying for Qatar and also renewed border tensions with Doha. On December 24, Alya Ahmed bin Saif Al Thani, Qatar’s permanent envoy to the UN, in a letter complained about Bahraini warplanes violation of her country’s airspace, territorial integrity, and security on December 9. In mid-December, Qatar said it seized a Bahraini fishing boat for intrusion into its territorial waters.
Reports say that assisted by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is heightening the dispute with Qatar by reopening the old sea border cases which were closed forever after the ICJ verdict. Manama was not fully satisfied with them, however.