Early in May a Qatari naval vessel shot at Bahraini fishing boats which entered Qatari territorial waters. One fisherman was seriously injured and over one hundred were arrested. This occurred less than a year after a Qatari coastguard vessel rammed a fishing boat leading to the drowning of one Bahraini. This latest saga dragged on until 14th June when the Qatari Emir decreed that all those remaining in Qatari custody be freed. This is but one incident in the Gulf which explodes the myth of Arab brotherly unity, rendering impossible America’s notion of creating a united front to contain Iran.
Qatar and Bahrain’s maritime border has long been contentious. Historically, Bahrain’s ruling family, the Al Khalifah, hail from Zubarah, a small village on Qatar’s western coast. Both this village and notably the Hawar Islands, just off the coast of Qatar, were the subject of the International Court of Justice’s longest ever mediation. In 2001 the court awarded Zubarah to Qatar and the Islands to Bahrain. Both agreed to abide by the decision, though resentment and some confusion as to the exact delineation of the maritime borders remains.
Bahrain’s Information Minister at the time of this court case was Mohammed Al Mutawa who developed a reputation for forthrightly defending Bahrain’s claims to both areas in question. Earlier this year it was Bahrain’s turn to appoint the Secretary General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and they nominated Al Mutawa. This vexed Qatar for they could not countenance someone who had so publically and stridently derided their claims represent them in their most important regional organisation. Therefore, even though Al Mutawa had been confirmed by other GCC States, Qatar refused to acquiesce to his nomination.
This particular episode of Bahraini fishing boats entering Qatari territory was used as a way to up the pressure on Manama. The shooting of the sailor was roundly condemned in Bahrain as an overreaction by Qatar who also refused to let any Bahraini medical team visit him in hospital in Doha. Clearly, Qatar was taking a hard-line stance on the matter. In the biannual International Refining and Petrochemicals Conference and exhibition held in Manama, Qatar downgraded its representation and threatened to fully prosecute the fishermen.
Concurrently, Bahraini authorities banned Doha-based Al Jazeera from operating in the Kingdom though this is thought to be more to do with a documentary on poverty in Bahrain than the fisherman dispute. Also, towards the end of the dispute it was announced that the planned Bahrain-Qatar road and rail bridge was going to be put back yet further. Again, whilst the primary reason for this is thought to be purely economic, nevertheless, it, along with the Al Jazeera closing, highlights that the Qatar Bahrain relationship is struggling in many areas.
As the weeks passed, Qatar allowed a few prisoners to buy their release though it still insisted that the majority would face trial. It took the intervention of Saudi Arabia to persuade Bahrain to back down and drop Al Mutawa as their nominee. Qatar reciprocated several days later and the Emir decreed that all fishermen be released in name of their “deep-rooted and cordial relations.”
Much of this incident was highly predictable: from the aggressive statements of both sides to the Saudi intervention to the backing down of Bahrain and especially the bland and meaningless rhetoric about ‘deep-rooted and fraternal’ relations. The problem is that similar incidents with analogous results and exactly the same kind of empty rhetoric crop up frequently.
In addition to Al Jazeera, which constantly causes diplomatic spats (including precipitating the removal of Saudi’s Ambassador from Doha for four years), in March this year there was a minor naval altercation between Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia. Gunfire was exchanged, one Saudi sailor was injured and others were taken into custody in Abu Dhabi only to be released some days later.
Whilst one incident must not be given too much weight, that fact that two close allies such as Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia would enter into a fire-fight over — at most — a minor territorial incursion, hints that deep issues among GCC members remain.
Moreover, even in the face of Iran and its purported nuclear weapon programme, something that Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi are wholly aligned against with America; still this does not stay the hand of those involved. Whilst this incident could clearly have been down to injudicious and impetuous captains in the boats, they nevertheless operate in a climate set by their government. It is practically impossible, for example, to imagine a British and French naval skirmish in the English Channel because, aside from borders being properly delineated, the tenor of the relationship is friendly in practice, rhetoric and reality.
The idea of America forging a containing Arab anti-Iranian coalition is, therefore, based on questionable foundations. Even if America could coral together some kind of GCC unity or at least iron-out their local issues, Qatar and to a lesser degree Dubai have their very own Iran policies.
Qatar emphatically does not want to see Iran isolated. It shares the world’s largest gas field with Iran and fears what a cornered and angry Iran looking for retribution might do. Indeed, disrupting Qatar’s exploitation of the field or claiming that its borders are wrongly apportioned would be easy and cost free for Iran but potentially massively costly for Qatar. Despite underlying concerns and even antipathy in Qatar towards Iran, they continually maintain publically ‘excellent fraternal relations’ based on ‘long historical understanding’ including numerous agreements and frequent top-level visits to ‘establish stability and lasting regional security’.
Dubai is Iran’s major local trading partner. The Iranian Business Council estimates that there are around 8,000 Iranian businesses and some 1,200 trading companies in Dubai whilst Bloomberg estimates that Dubai-Iran bilateral trade rose to some $12 billion in 2009.
In addition to replacing Iran’s $12 billion, it will take considerable pressure domestically and internationally for Dubai to relinquish its Iran trade. Forcing Qatar to do likewise is near impossible for the kinds of guarantees that Qatar would demand are not possible to give.
In short, frequent incidents and the persistent retreat by Gulf leaders to simple, appealing but wholly meaningless rhetorical compliments and odes to purported deep neighbourly relations are, in reality, a sign of the deeper divisions.
David B. Roberts is a researcher at Durham University, UK focusing on Persian Gulf international relations. His blog can be found at www.thegulfblog.com.