Thursday, 30th November 2017

Bahrain could reopen old wounds with Qatar territorial dispute

A 4 November announcement by the state Bahrain News Agency (BNA) has thrown into doubt the kingdom’s continued acceptance of its boundaries with Qatar. The neighbour’s long-standing territorial dispute that had marred their mutual relations for much of the 20th century had seemingly been resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in March 2001. Its ruling divided disputed territories between the two countries – awarding the Hawar Islands to Bahrain, while Qatar got the neighbouring Janan Island and the fort and ruined town of Zubara – and set out a maritime boundary (GSN 658/3).

Qatar had referred the dispute to the court but the ruling was seen at the time as a victory for Bahrain, while both sides called it a springboard for a new phase of co-operation and joint economic development. However, with Doha-Manama relations now at a particularly low point, the ICJ settlement has now been thrown into doubt and BNA’s Sovereignty and legitimate rights: Historical facts dispatch threatens to formally reopen the row. Without citing any officials, anonymous or otherwise, the article stated: “Bahrain has every right to claim what was cut off forcibly from its land and to dispute the legitimacy of the Qatari rule on the northern territory.”

Qatar’s official reaction seems to be silence but there have been some signs of a pushback. An opinion piece by executives at two Washington-based consultancies, Gulf International Forum director Khalid Al-Jaber (a Qatari) and Gulf State Analytics chief executive Giorgio Cafiero, published in Doha-based daily The Peninsula on 1 November argued that the ICJ verdict provided Doha with “a solid basis for its legitimate sovereign claim to Zubura despite Bahraini grievances”.

Indeed, ICJ decisions are generally binding and can only be reopened when decisive new facts are uncovered. As there is no suggestion of any new evidence in the BNA statement, it seems unlikely that Manama has any grounds to seek to overturn the ICJ judgement or any reasonable excuse to threaten territorial peace at the moment. However, frequent low-level incidents of the past, such as the arrest of fishermen in disputed waters, could become a more regular feature of their relationship. In September, three Bahraini boats with 16 fishermen on board were detailed by Qatari security forces in the space of three days (GSN 1,044/9); in the past shots have been fired (GSN 877/1).

Historically, the vehemence of Bahraini claims to disputed territories have often been an indicator for the general state of Bahraini-Qatari relations – as well as allowing Bahrain’s ruling Al-Khalifa family to strengthen its nationalist credentials and express the genuine emotional connection that some of them hold for their ancestral seat of Zubara. Given the political crisis that erupted in early June between the GCC-3 (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE) and Qatar, it is not altogether surprising that Manama has chosen this moment to revive its long-standing grievance as another way of increasing pressure on Doha.

There is a risk that Bahrain’s actions could, in turn, encourage other Gulf countries to reassert their own claims to disputed territories, at least rhetorically. There is no shortage of grounds for an argument. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have historical territorial grievances against Qatar; these claims are partially overlapping, have been resolved with much less legal finality than the ICJ provides and have at times led to violent confrontations. A Saudi-Qatari border clash at Al-Khafus in 1992 left three people dead (GSN 447/2). The land border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia was only finally agreed in 2001, in the wake of the ICJ ruling in a move which was interpreted at the time as a way of helping Doha cope with the disappointment of the court’s verdict. The the two countries’ maritime border was only finalised in 2008, but that agreement was protested by Abu Dhabi in June 2009 as being incompatible with its own maritime settlement with Qatar, which dated back to 1969 – which Saudi Arabia said it didn’t recognise (GSN 874/3). Halul Island – which has been claimed in the past by Abu Dhabi – is mentioned in the BNA statement as one of the areas unjustly acquired by Qatar.

While there are currently no indications that such claims might be raised again, it is worth remembering that during the previous diplomatic crisis with Doha in 2014, controversial Dubai police chief General Dahi Khalfan said Qatar ought to be considered the UAE’s eighth emirate. All this is a reminder that there is abundant ammunition in the war of words over territory in the Gulf, contained in something of a Pandora’s Box. Whichever state chooses to open it up could easily find itself becoming a target for unwanted claims against it’s own territory.

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