In recent months, the Middle East and North Africa region has seen notable progress towards normalization and peace. The diplomatic activity between Saudi Arabia and Iran, facilitated by China, and the discussions regarding Syria’s return to the Arab League, which would result in improved ties between Saudi Arabia and Syria, are signs of de-escalation efforts. Resolving the longstanding rift between Bahrain and Qatar would also be a significant accomplishment for the broader GCC community. Although complex, addressing misunderstandings through a win-win approach could lead to more pragmatic relations, resolving historical grievances between the two countries, and promoting regional peace.
In July 2022, the Qatari Emir Shaykh Tamim met with Bahrain’s king Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on the sidelines of the Jeddah Security and Development Summit. It was the first high-level meeting between the two leaders after signing the al-Ula declaration in January 2021, which ended the three year and a half blockade of Qatar and restored travel, trade, and diplomatic relations between the Quartet (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahraini and Egypt) and Qatar. However, the meeting between the two leaders was the last as the Emir of Qatar met leaders of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt much earlier, and relations between Qatar and the three other states was restored earlier than relations between Qatar and Bahrain. Two years after signing the Al-Ulla accord, it became evident that restoring relations between Doha and Manama would be difficult.
The meeting of foreign ministers to make “necessary mechanisms and procedures to launch discussions at the level of bilateral committees” did not happen until February 2023, two years after the end of the blockade. On April 13, 2023 both sides announced that they had agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations, stating that “the two sides affirmed that this step stems from the mutual desire to develop bilateral relations and enhance Gulf unity and integration.” By mending relations between Bahrain and Qatar, the GCC would officially end the GCC crisis, probably the worst diplomatic crisis which struck the six Arab monarchies.
The modern-day relationship between Bahrain and Qatar is complicated and has a historical backstory. The al-Thani family, who rule Qatar today, were a relatively new ruling family when they first emerged. Initially, in the 19th century, the al-Khalifa family controlled the Qatar Peninsula. However, in 1868, a significant event marked a milestone for the emerging al-Thani as rulers of Qatar. In the eastern villages of Doha and Wakrah, the people of Qatar intermittently challenged Bahrain’s rule. In 1867, Bahraini naval forces attacked Wakrah for undermining al-Khalifa’s control. However, their actions violated British treaty regulations, so Colonel Pelly, the Political Resident, opposed combatants on both sides. He visited Bahrain and later went to Wakrah. Mohammad bin Thani, the dynasty’s founder, acted on behalf of the people of Qatar, as al-Thani was officially recognized as the Chiefs of the Ma’adhid tribe and, therefore, the Chiefs of Doha.
As a result, two documents were signed, dated 6 and 12 September 1868, by Shaykh Ali bin Khalifa, ‘Chief of Bahrain,’ and Shaykh Mohammad al-Thani, ‘Chief of Qatar,’ as well as Great Britain. The International Court of Justice at the Hague cited these historical events in the judgment of the merits of the case:
On 13 September 1868, again through the mediation of the British Political Resident, tribal chiefs residing in the province of Qatar solemnly agreed to pay to Sheikh Ali bin Khalifah, Chief of Bahrain the annual sums previously paid by them to the Chiefs of Bahrain; these sums were paid to Mohamed Al-Thani of Doha, who was in turn to transmit them, together with his own contribution, to the political Resident for delivery of the total to the agent of the Chief of Bahrain.
Interpretations of these events differ in modern Bahrain and Qatar. Qatar’s position is that the 1868 Agreement formally recognized Qatar for the first time because the agreement treated the Ruler of Bahrain and the Ruler of Qatar equally. Moreover, this was also confirmation of the British recognition that the authority of the Shaykh of Bahrain did not extend to the territory of Qatar. Rosemarie Said Zahlan accepts this interpretation, arguing that the agreement signed on September 12, 1868, by Mohammad al-Thani alone explicitly recognized Mohammad bin Thani and the people of Qatar as ‘being independent from Bahrain.’
By contrast, the Bahrain view is that the events of 1867-1868 illustrate that Qatar was not independent of Bahrain. Moreover, the ratification of the taxes payable by the dependent tribes of the Qatar Peninsula to the al-Khalifa, in the way allowed for by the Agreement of September 13, 1868, confirmed the Shaykh of Bahrain as the sovereign authority on the peninsula. Sheikh al-Thani of Doha thereby acknowledged the continuing authority of the rulers of Bahrain and their right to claim taxes from him. In Bahrain’s view, until 1916, there was thus no State of Qatar possessing attributes of sovereignty over the whole of the peninsula of Qatar.
Scholars suggest, Jamal Salim Al-Arayed, for example, while examining the second agreement signed on September 13, 1868, by all the local chiefs, considers this agreement an “undertaking to return to the practice of paying taxes and tribute to the Ruler of Bahrain, the tribal chiefs of the Qatar peninsula formally recognized the continuing authority of the Ruler.” Al-Arayed concludes that al-Thani, and other regional leaders, recognized “that they remained subject to the Al-Khalifa.” A further implication of this agreement is that al-Thani was held responsible only for the conduct of their subjects in Doha, and not for those of other chiefs.
The long-lasting complexities and historical consequences of the relationship between Bahrain and Qatar are multifaceted and significantly impact contemporary politics. From any of the different interpretations of these events, from the perspective of the development of the State of Qatar and the establishment of its ruling family, Allen J. Fromherz’s way of putting it might be useful: “a milestone of the political evolution of Qatar.” It is seen as the first recognition of Qatari independent sovereignty by the British. However, it was not a formal recognition: it would not be until 1916 that the Anglo-Qatar treaty would be signed, agreeing on British protection for a recognized Qatar. Although these events may be considered a watershed moment, the tensions in relations had their roots going back to much earlier historical relationships between Qatar and Bahrain and their ruling families. Thus, there was a palpable difference between the Bahrain-Qatar conflict, and the conflict between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar in the two GCC crises in 2014 and 2017.
Modern Day Disagreement
In modern history, complications have continued to rise, including competition to attract tribal loyalties. Additionally, Manama viewed Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the human rights violations in Bahrain and opposing views on Iran as targeting its ruling family. While Qatar differed with Iran’s regional policies, it maintained communication channels and had cordial relations, while the Bahraini royal family views Iranian policies as an existential threat and Tehran-backed non-state actors as destabilizing. However, after the al-Ula Summit in 2021, on April 13, 2023, two sides met to “enhance the Gulf unity and integration according to the GCC Charter,” as the Qatari foreign ministry stated.
Recent attempts to resolve regional disputes, which offer hope for the effectiveness of such efforts. As a result of the al-Ula summit, Bahrain’s civil aviation authority opened its airspace to Qatar in 2021 and restored visa-free travel for citizens. There are also indications that Bahrain’s view of Iran may be shifting, as the two countries have had low-profile exchanges, and an Iranian delegation exploring trade collaborations was received in March. However, some issues remain unresolved, such as al-Jazeera’s continued blockage in Bahrain, while it is no longer blocked in the UAE. Overall, there has been a shift in strategic thinking towards a “win-win” approach, which could help promote GCC unity and allow for aligned nationalist interests among Gulf countries. This positivity could extend beyond bilateral relations between Qatar and Bahrain, potentially leading to increased trade, cultural and identity exchanges, and improved geopolitical dynamics.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.