The crisis between Qatar and Bahrain traces its roots back to the precolonial period and the relations between the two ruling families.
On the sidelines of the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, the Qatari Amir Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and the Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa met for the first time since Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain terminated their blockade of Qatar in January 2021. As a result of their meeting, Bahrain removed Qatar from its banned list as diplomatic relations improved. However, Bahrain was the last Gulf country to open its airspace to Qatar following the end of the diplomatic crisis. Amid signs that the two countries could move toward normalizing relations, it is quite interesting to note that despite the official end of the Gulf Crisis, which lasted from May 2017 to January 2021, Bahrain had kept its airspace closed to Qatar until this meeting. How does the meeting fit into the ongoing efforts to bridge the divides within the GCC? What does it mean for the remaining GCC states and the security situation in the Gulf? Finally, after speculation and concerns over the future of the GCC itself during the two most recent Gulf Crises (2013-2014 and 2017-2021), what can this meeting tell observers about the future of the organization?
History Leaves its Mark
There is a significant difference between the tensions between Bahrain and Qatar and the contention between other GCC states and Qatar that came to the fore in 2014 and 2017. During the Gulf Crisis of 2017-2021, most analyses of the situation described the web of complex relations between Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. However, Bahrain-Qatar relations are similarly complicated and require special attention to understand why Bahrain became the last country to open its airspace to Qatar. Arguably, the specific crisis between Qatar and Bahrain traces its roots back to the precolonial period and the relations between the two ruling families, the al-Khalifa of Bahrain and al-Thani of Qatar.
Qatar was initially viewed as ‘Bahrain’s little sister’, as Qatar’s modern history emerged from the late eighteenth century when the al-Khalifa family, with other families, migrated from Kuwait to Qatar’s west coast, near Zubara. At the time, Doha, Fuwayrat, and Huwaylah were small fishing villages on the east coast. It was only after settling in Qatar in 1783 that the al-Khalifas conquered Bahrain and established a new ruling dynasty there. The Al-Khalifa family continued to control Zubara and small settlements in the west of the country, even though they were based in Bahrain until they were defeated in a bloody but brief war in 1867 when al-Khalifa supported by the al-Nahyan from Abu Dhabi, invaded Qatar. Conflicting Qatari and Bahraini claims continued over the Zubara region in the Qatar Peninsula and the Hawar Islands until resolved by the International Court of Justice in 2001 awarded Hawar to Bahrain and confirmed Qatar’s ownership of Zubara. This history complicates modern relations between the two states until today.
Relations have further deteriorated because of conflict over attracting the loyalty of tribesmen. In 2014, Bahrain accused Qatar of offering certain Bahraini families Qatari citizenship in exchange for their renouncing Bahraini citizenship. Middle East Eye reported that Bahrain’s foreign minister openly accused Qatar of engaging in “sectarian naturalization” of the country’s citizens. The Qatari government facilitated the naturalization of Bahraini tribes by easing the legal procedures by which they could acquire Qatari citizenship. The same process that once required the renunciation of Bahraini citizenship and a three-year residence in Qatar was replaced by “decisions…being made in just 24 hours,” a statement that the Middle East Eye described as indicative of Qatari policy.
The Bahrainis suspect that Qatar’s naturalization policy targets well-respected Bahraini Sunni tribes that occupy important roles within the Bahraini government and security forces, despite the existence of prominent Shi’a families from Bahrain, who also have strong roots within the region. Among the more recent examples of this phenomenon is one reported in 2019 by the official spokesman of the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) concerning Yasser Athbi al-Jalahma, who fled to Qatar and obtained Qatari citizenship. Bahrain’s attention was drawn to this after he appeared on the al-Jazeera program “What is Hidden is More Immense.” The BDF spokesman commented that the claims by Yasser al-Jalahma were “utterly false and a twist of the facts on the ground,” calling accusations made by al-Jalahma as “series of conspiracies against the Kingdom of Bahrain within it attempt to undermine the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and stir up strife among its members.” As a result, the al-Jalahma family (who sided with al-Thani in their war with Al-Khalifa in the 18th century) disowned Yasser Athbi al-Jalahma and reiterated their support for the Bahraini leadership. Previously, Saudi-controlled al-Arabiya news channel reported that Qatar also offered citizenship to other members of al-Jalahma tribe who worked for the Bahrain Defence Force, including Salah Mohammed Ali al-Jalahma, Yasser Atthbi Shamlan al-Jalahma, and Ali Rashed Ali Rashed al-Jalahma. The offer of citizenship to al-Jalahma tribe members relates to their positions in Bahrain, as well as the importance of the tribe and its history as a competitor of the al-Khalifa. In conjunction with the settlement of boundary disputes, the tribal aspect of the bilateral dispute, these concerns contribute to the complex factors underpinning Bahrain-Qatar tensions.
Al-Jazeera’s critical coverage of human rights situation in Bahrain also precipitated the crisis between Bahrain and Qatar. For example, the documentary Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark, produced by al-Jazeera English, was widely distributed on Qatar Airways. According to a Gulf security expert, this struck Bahrainis—who largely expected Qatar to behave like a “brotherly state”—like rubbing “salt in the wound.” Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Bahrain, not limited to this example, was seen as extremely damaging and unprecedented, from Bahrain’s perspective, and contributed to the Gulf Crises of 2014 and 2017. Indeed, such programs led to the 2017 coalition’s demands that Qatar shut down Al-Jazeera and other state-affiliated news organizations. Despite the progress demonstrated by the Al-Ula summit in January 2021, relations between Manama and Doha remained tense. Qatar went as far as to accuse Bahrain of violating its airspace and territorial waters several times in December 2021. All these factors have slowed the reconciliation process, but the recent high-level exchange between the two states may bode well for future progress.
Toward a “Real” End to the 2017 Gulf Crisis
Though sticking points remain, the process of normalizing relations between parties to the 2017 Gulf Crisis have gained momentum. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited Doha on 8 December 2021, while Shaykh Tamim met with Shaykh Mohammed bin Zayed, the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, at the Beijing Winter Olympics and later on May 2022 in Abu Dhabi as Emir Tamim visited the UAE to offer condolences on the passing of former Emirati President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Despite Saudi Arabia’s improved relations with Qatar, which Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan called ‘very good’ on August 4, 2021, relations between the UAE and Qatar remained complex. Abu Dhabi and Doha exhibit little trust in one another and promote radically different visions for the region. Similarly, the disagreements between Qatar and Bahrain (given the complex history between them) cannot be resolved in the course of one high-level meeting. However, due to changing regional and global geopolitical dynamics, collaboration may prove a more beneficial course of action for both states.
Both Bahrain and Qatar stand to gain from cooperation over energy policy—especially exports to Western states. Although individual GCC states do not possess the capacity to single-handedly solve the energy crisis resulting from the Russia-Ukraine conflict, standing together they form a more powerful and influential bloc.
Both states also share security interests, though their divergent framing of security threats inhibits cooperation for the time being. Recent discussions have taken place that could see the establishment of a Middle Eastern equivalent to NATO. However, Qatar and Bahrain differ in how they characterize the threat posed by Iran. On the one hand, Bahrain takes a hardline view of Iran, which it sees as an increasing security threat. On the other hand, Qatar views Tehran with less suspicion and distrust than many of the other GCC states. Whether Qatar can be convinced to partner with the GCC states—including Bahrain—to address Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region remains to be seen.
These areas for potential cooperation are largely contained to the Middle East, and inter-GCC politics. However, they take place within a changing environment in international relations. It is clear that the primary stage for geopolitical rivalry between great powers (the United States, European Union, and Russia chief among them) is moving from the Middle East to Europe. Consequently, the states of the Middle East recognize that they must rely on neighboring states to deal with other traditional and non-traditional security concerns—rather than relying on the assistance of external powers. In this regard, the opening of Bahraini airspace to Qatari flights will further assist in developing linkages between the two states that will facilitate cooperation on a host of issues. The shifting arena of geopolitical competition also encourages the region, and especially the Gulf states, to work in collaboration to emerge as an “energy bloc” to help address the concerns of external powers. In other words, the national interests of the GCC actors, given the changes in the region, suggest the possibility for further reconciliation, and a final accord to end the Gulf Crisis—if only to increase their bargaining power on the world stage.
Today, the failure of certain states to recognize the role of shared identities in international relations has led to an escalation of violence in Europe. The six GCC states share a unique “Gulf identity.” They share a common religion, a common language, similar social structures, closely comparable standards of economic growth, similar systems of government, a shared geography, and a collective culture. The Qatar case study has demonstrated that even in the often tense state of affairs between the GCC states, national identity served, and will continue to serve, a key role in normalizing relations. In the case of the GCC states, despite the role of external powers—principally that of the U.S. administration to end the Gulf rift in 2021—shared identities will continue to play a central role in reducing tensions among the GCC states. The economic and diplomatic opportunities created by the Russia-Ukraine war and the energy crisis in Europe, require that the GCC states band together to safeguard their national interests. To do so will necessitate normalizing relations and a final resolution of the 2017 Gulf Crisis.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.