Border disputes in the Gulf region are not new, and they ebb and flow depending on local conditions and the broader geopolitical context. However, the wave of rapprochement between the Gulf states that started in 2021 marks a fundamental change to the dynamics of border disputes; although it is too early to tell, it is hoped that the trend toward diplomacy will lead to a pattern of resolving problems through discussion rather than confrontation.
Within the last two years, the GCC states have been de-escalating their longstanding tensions with Iran. The last few months alone have shown intensified efforts at reconciliation, with an agreement between Riyadh and Tehran bringing the two Gulf powers into a status of relative peace since 1979—a development likely motivated in part by the realization that an armed conflict between them would be catastrophic for all involved.
This Land is Mine
Border disputes—including both maritime and land border demarcation—remain one of the most pressing issues of contention between Iran and each of the GCC states. By now, most of the differences within the GCC states have been resolved peacefully, and the ones that have not—usually with Iran—have been temporarily sidelined. The GCC states understand that there is a need to find a common security arrangement and minimize their differences, as the sovereignty of the land and maritime borders of one sets a precedent for all. Despite their overt and covert differences, respect for national sovereignty is likely to be a concept that is important for all GCC states.
The problem of maritime demarcation is more prevalent than land ones, and it usually only becomes a problem when the maritime borders sit over resource-rich areas. This often refers to oil and gas fields, but could include other resources, including fisheries or even tourist sites. Strategic importance has also played a major role in maritime disputes between neighboring countries—something that can also be seen in the East and South China Seas between China, Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
The most significant remaining border dispute within the Gulf region is likely the contested ownership of the Al-Durra gas field, which is located between Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. While the argument is mostly centered around gas and oil, the dispute has a security aspect as well; the field is adjacent to several small islands that could be used for military purposes. Iran has always maintained that it holds a stake in the Al-Durra field, while Kuwait and Saudi Arabia consider it shared between their two countries only, and Iran has no claim to it, as it falls outside its maritime borders.
The Gulf’s collective relationship with Iran has never been static throughout the history of the region. While politics command attention, there remains a larger economic and human aspect to this relationship. Migration across the two borders has forced both sides of the Gulf to view the region’s stability and security as a mutual interest. From there, all sides agree—albeit in broad terms—to a fair division of the region’s resources. Therefore, a good policy to end the dispute over the Al-Durra field or any other dispute over the region’s wealth is to resort to international law, recognized judicial mechanisms, and neutral arbitration courts. This is the best course of action for all Gulf states, large or small, and previous attempts to gain control of disputed areas by force have never yielded any positive results for the region.
What Iran Wants
While the dispute over Al-Durra is framed largely as a contest for natural resources, there is clear tension over ideological differences and domestic factors that played a role in Iran’s decision to begin drilling in the field before resolving the dispute with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Republic is facing an increasing domestic challenge to its legitimacy, given public disillusionment at the clerical regime. Stoking nationalist sentiments in the hope of creating a “rally round the flag” effect for Iran’s leaders is one of many ways that Iran could seek to increase the popularity of the regime.
The recent agreement between Tehran and Riyadh is one of the results of the domestic challenges faced by the Iranian regime; in order to shore up its own security, Iran has committed to the principle of respecting regional state sovereignty and resolving its territorial disputes. To say the least, Iran has been selective in its interpretation of the former principle, and is likely politically posturing when selecting areas of the agreement that preserve its interests. One of the tools it has used to resolve its problems with its Arab neighbors is choosing to negotiate separately with each of them states rather than the GCC as a whole.
Tehran understands that its “relative superiority” affords it a leverage when negotiating with each of the smaller states individually, rather than engaging them as a larger bloc. A few years ago, the GCC attempted to begin collective negotiations, in a note carried by the former Kuwaiti foreign minister; however, Iran rejected this proposal, making clear its preference to bilaterally engage with the individual Gulf states. Many in the region understand that this is a practical move for Iranian diplomats.
Politics is in constant change, and it is driven by interest rather than principles. However, if the Gulf states succeed in combining principles and interests, the region will have durable stability for the first time in its modern history, rather than temporary ad hoc agreements such as the recent de-escalation agreements between Iran and its GCC neighbors. Therefore, it is in Iran’s best interest to seize the opportunity that détente brings, taking a positive step and proving that it is principally in favor of de-escalation with its neighbors. To do this, the best course of action is international arbitration over the Al-Durra field. This issue has been a point of contention between the three states; to prevent it from festering for a new generation, and breeding future cross-Gulf conflicts, it is time to resolve it once and for all.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.