GCC rifts revisited: Understanding the Qatar-Bahrain relationship
For Bahrainis, news in early March that their country was pulling out its ambassador from Qatar evoked a disquieting sense of déjà vu. The two neighbouring countries share a wide spectrum of common features — perhaps more than any other two Gulf countries, including robust family ties. Despite the commonalities, there has been a dramatic seesaw in relations over the last three decades. Since the early years of the 20th century, the two countries had deep divergences over who owned the island of Huwar that lies between them as well as a group of smaller islets that the two capitals insisted on them being an integral part of their territories.
“The Huwar archipelago has always been a part of Bahrain, and Britain, the former colonial power, in 1939 said that it officially belonged to Bahrain,” Jaber Mohammad, a political analyst in Manama, said.
“However, Qatar had disputed the Bahraini ownership to the point that in 1986 an armed conflict was about to erupt. Thank God, other GCC countries stepped in and cordially pushed for a diplomatic settlement of the issue. This was not to happen until 2001 when the International Court of Justice at The Hague ruled that Huwar belonged to Bahrain. It also awarded smaller islands to Qatar,” he said.
The much-anticipated verdict that could not be challenged by either country meant the two neighbours could move beyond their border dispute and start a new chapter in their relations. Both capitals made public pledges to empower the joint high commission co-chaired by the crown princes in order to enhance bilateral ties and cooperation. A major breakthrough agreement was the construction of a 42-kilometre causeway linking the two countries. Although not much was achieved on the ground, relations remained steady even though punctured at times by issues of Bahraini fishermen apprehended by Qatari authorities for reportedly illegally fishing in Qatari waters.
The incidents, however, did not have a grave impact on bilateral ties. Yet, the dramatic events that unfolded in Bahrain in February and March 2011 were to ominously dent the relations after Al Jazeera channel in English was seen as openly supporting the opposition. The Bahraini criticism culminated after the station broadcast a 50-minute documentary about the events in Bahrain. Bahraini officials and media promptly criticised it, saying that it was totally biased and unfairly prejudiced against Bahrain.
Even though the documentary was not shown on the main Al Jazeera channel in Arabic, Manama, which has insisted the demonstrations were sectarian and often commanded by Iran, said that it had been betrayed by Qatar for siding with the protesters. Bahraini officials said they were bewildered the documentary was translated into several languages. Bahrainis also blamed Qatar for hosting seminars to which the opposition was regularly invited often by “suspicious think tanks.”
In their grievances against fellow GCC member Qatar, Bahrainis evoked older memories of local tribal families being lured to move to Qatar through offers of positions and funds. Qataris have expectedly rejected the grievances submitted by Bahrain, insisting that they never interfered in its domestic affairs or tried to lure away families. When in March, foreign ministers from the GCC blamed Qatar for failing to uphold an agreement it signed in November, Bahrain decided, alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to move into action and pull out its ambassador.