Qatar versus Bahrain: A Storm in an Oil-Rich Teacup
By Nigel Thorpe
Senior English Editor
Albawaba.com -- Amman
The final judgement in the case of Qatar versus Bahrain, the longest legal bout in the history of the Internal Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague, was delived on Friday afternoon. The two Lilliputian Gulf states have been exchanging diplomatic and legal blows over Hawar Islands, the Fasht al-Dibel rocks, and the Zubara strip on Qatar’s west coast for the past decade. Had it not been for Saudi Arabia’s King Fahad acting as a referee in 1986, the two pugilistic “brotherly” Arab nations may have gone to war over the disputed territories.
GEOGRAPHY OF THE TWO GULF STATES
Although the territories of Bahrain and Qatar are, by international standards both extremely small, Qatar is 16 times larger than Bahrain, the area of whose island domain totals 620 square kilometers. Although much smaller, Bahrain’s population (634,137)
is double that of Qatar’s. In terms of territory, and population density, Bahrain has therefore more to lose than Qatar and this may well explain avowed intent not to “cede an in inch of its land.”
The loss or gain or territory is, however, according to sources in the Gulf states, only the tip of the sovereignty dispute. The coastal water around Qatar are believed by geologists to be potentially amongst the richest oil and gas-bearing areas in the Gulf. The stakes are therefore potentially very high especially in view of the fact that, as highlighted in a previous Al Bawaba article, many of Bahrain’s existing oil wells are beginning to run dry.
On a more positive note, Reuters reports that two Gulf states have recently agreed on a series of economic and political steps to improve bilateral ties. The measures include the exchanging of ambassadors, the easing of travel restrictions, and conducting a feasibility study on a proposal to build a causeway across the channel that separates the two small countries. In early March, Qatar's emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani arrived in Manama ahead of the World Court ruling in an attempt to ease tensions between the two nations.
In its presentation to the International Court of Justice, Bahrain lays claim to the Zubara strip on Qatar’s west coast and insists on retaining its sovereignty over the Hawar Islands which it has controlled since the 1930s.
The main platform of Bahrain’s case is that its legal claims to the islands dates back over seventy years to the time it was awarded territorial control over the islands by the British. Bahrain’s lawyers argue that the fishing and pearling licenses it was awarded at that time prove the exercise of its sovereignty over the islands. An often quoted principle of the British legal system is that “possession is nine tenths of the law” and Bahrain is clearly hoping that international lawyers will agree with this legal sentiment.
Bahrain contemptuously refers to the documents submitted to the court by Qatar in defense of its own historical claims to the islands as “fakes.” The Bahrain lawyers quote the opinion of numerous British experts as to the dubious authenticity of the disputed documents.
In an attempt to overcome its geographical separation from the Hawar Islands, the Bahraini government announced its intention in 1998 of building a 22.5 km long bridge linking Bahrain to the Hawar Islands. A government spokesman also outlined plans to build a small airport on the main Hawar island, less than two kilometers northwest of Qatar. The announcements naturally added fresh high-octane fuel to the sovereignty dispute between the two governments.
The Gulf Daily reports that Bahrain’s Emir Sheikh Hamad Al Khalifa will comment on the future of relations between Bahrain and Qatar after the court’s ruling is announced.
Qatar’s counter territorial claims involve the Bahraini-held Hawar Islands and the Fasht al-Dibel rocks. If historical documentation and precedence is Bahrain’s legal joker, simple geography must be Qatar’s “ace in the hand.” Qatar’s lawyers stressed that, lying a few kilometers off the Qatar coastline, “part of the islands fall within its boundaries.” The Bahraini view, however, is that “international law does not accept proximity for a title claim.” The weight given to geographical proximity by the World Court remains to be seen.
According to AFP sources, the emir of Qatar will deliver a speech on Friday after the verdict is delivered.
The two Gulf states clearly have two opposite views as to the court’s verdict with Bahrain insisting that it would not give up an inch of its territory, while Qatar has repeatedly said that it would accept any judgement handed down by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Bahrain, favoring local mediation, only accepted arbitration by the World Court in 1996, five years after Qatar sought the court’s involvement.
Three main judgements were possible: first, a complete win for Bahrain in which it retains its sovereignty over the Hawar Islands in addition to gaining control of the
Zubara strip on Qatar’s west coast; secondly, an out and out win for Qatar in which it keeps its Zubara strip and wrestles the Hawar Islands from Bahrain control; and thirdly, “the judgement of Solomon” in which neither side is the clear winner because both score some territorial gains. Prior to the verdict being announced sources close to the Gulf News Agency believed that the “smart money” was a face-saving formula in the third category.
As news of the verdict broke on satellite channels and state television on Friday evening, these early predictions proved to be close to the mark. As detailed in a current Al Bawaba report, both Bahrain and Qatar claim victory as the world court divided up the territorial spoils between the two Gulf states. The International Court of Justice endorsed Bahrain's sovereignity over the Hawar islands and in addition awarded it Qitat Jarada island. Qatar retained its control over the Zubara strip and in addition, gained the Fasht al-Dibel rocks and Jinan islands.
With both sides claiming a satisfactory victory, it now seems that Friday saw the end to the storm in the potentially oil-rich tea cup. Bahrain's Emir Sheikh Hamad al-Khalifa declared that the verdict ushered in a "new era of understanding" between Bahrain and Qatar.
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