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The fragile, renewed ties between Qatar and Bahrain

While the US welcomes the rapprochement, Doha and Manama's checkered past and diverging views on Iran and Israel pose roadblocks.

Analysis | Middle East

Tensions between Bahrain and Qatar are deeply rooted in history. But on April 12, Manama and Doha agreed to officially restore diplomatic relations almost six years after Bahrain became the first Arab country to sever ties with Qatar at the outset of the 2017-21 Gulf Cooperation Council crisis.

The foreign ministries of Qatar and Bahrain confirmed their restoration of diplomatic relations “according to the principles of the United Nations Charter and the provisions of the Vienna Treaty on Diplomatic relations of 1961” while affirming their desire to “enhance Gulf unity and integration according to the GCC charter.” 

Reconciliation between Manama and Doha should be understood within a wider geopolitical context that has seen Arab states, Turkey, and Iran all adopt more pragmatic and diplomatic approaches to their regional rivals since 2020/21. A variety of factors, from COVID-19 to the end of the Trump presidency and the realization of the limits of what hawkish foreign policies achieved for regional actors, have pushed countries in the Middle East toward more diplomacy and less aggressive conduct. States in the region are more focused on economic integration, investment deals, and trade between each other than they were, particularly in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

The Bahraini-Qatari rapprochement is significant given ongoing efforts to strengthen Gulf Arab unity following the historic al-Ula Summit of January 2021. Despite that summit’s decision to lift the blockade of Qatar, relations between Manama and Doha remained very negative until they began thawing last year. 

“Bahrain and Qatar, the GCC odd couple par excellence, have had their share of disputes and disagreements over the years, mostly motivated by traditional competition for relevance among larger and more powerful neighbors,” Joseph A. Kechichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Centre in Riyadh, told Responsible Statecraft.

Had it been up to Bahrain and the UAE, the blockade may not have been lifted in early 2021. Abu Dhabi and Manama felt some degree of betrayal after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who convened the al-Ula summit, decided to restore relations with Qatar. Nonetheless, the UAE moved toward reconciling with Qatar months later, resulting in numerous high-profile visits between Emirati and Qatari officials beginning in August 2021 and culminating most recently in the announcement earlier this month that the two countries plan to reopen their embassies. 

A Complicated History

Until recently, Bahrain found itself on the wrong side of shifting dynamics across the Gulf during the post-al-Ula period. The remarkable absence of Bahrain’s leadership, in contrast to the attendance of other Gulf leaders at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, underlined how Manama and Doha remained estranged. But one must understand Bahrain’s resentments toward Qatar within a broader historical context.

Territorial disputes over the Hawar and Janan islands, the town of Zubarah on the Qatari peninsula, and various reefs and shoals in the Gulf predated Bahrain and Qatar’s independence in 1971. Although “resolved” by the International Court of Justice in 2001, Bahrain reopened these disputes at an early stage of the GCC crisis in 2017. Also, unrelated to the ICJ case, in the mid-1980s, the two GCC states almost fought a war over a Bahrain-built artificial island near Qatar before the two countries agreed to destroy it. At that time, Saudi mediation helped prevent an armed conflict.

In 2015, bilateral tensions heated up over issues pertaining to citizenship. Bahrain’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa warned that Manama might “take action” against Doha in response to the “unfriendly policies by Qatar and the attempts to entice Bahrainis to give away their nationality.” Earlier on, an Al Jazeera documentary about Bahrain’s Arab Spring (“Bahrain: Shouting in the Dark”) appeared to heighten Manama’s perception that Doha poised a serious threat despite Qatar’s support for GCC forces that led the crackdown against the Shi’a-dominated, pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011.

In addition, Qatar’s overall pragmatic relationship with Shi’a-led Iran has fanned the fears of the Sunni Al Khalifa royal family, which rules over a restive Shi’a majority.

Following the al-Ula summit, friction between the two countries worsened when Bahraini authorities seized Qatari-owned real estate in Bahrain, officials in Manama lashed out at Al Jazeera, and Bahraini fishing vessels and their crews were seized after entering Qatar’s territorial waters without permission.

A New Chapter

Today, Bahrain joining Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt in reconciling with Qatar opens the door for the six GCC states to better coordinate on a host of multilateral issues. “The Bahraini-Qatari rapprochement marks the beginning of a new chapter in their complex historical relationship, one characterized by both competition and mistrust, as well as pragmatism and cooperation,” Steven Wright, who teaches international relations at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, told Responsible Statecraft. 

“In the coming year and beyond, this reconciliation is expected to spur bilateral cooperation and confidence-building measures, including increased trade, investment, and joint efforts to address maritime boundary disputes,” Wright said in an email exchange. “Additionally, it sets the stage for greater engagement in collaborative multilateral initiatives under Saudi Arabia's leadership.”

Bahrain almost certainly came under significant pressure from fellow GCC states to restore ties with Qatar. For Riyadh, stable relations between GCC members bodes well for the region’s economic integration, which is critical to the achievement of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 agenda.

With its own economic challenges, Bahrain stands to benefit from energy, investment, trade, and tourism ties to Qatar, which is much wealthier. For their part, the Qataris will be relieved to put the 2017-21 blockade behind it, even if underlying tensions are not fully resolved. 

“By overcoming the blockade without sacrificing its sovereignty, Qatar has demonstrated the futility and counterproductive nature of intra-GCC disputes. This reconciliation not only bolsters Qatar's stance on the importance of regional cooperation, but also advances its national interest in shaping a more resilient and unified Gulf, where sovereignty is both respected and upheld,” Wright added.

Challenges Ahead

Although there is much optimism among Gulf Arab officials regarding the future of Bahraini-Qatari relations, and GCC unity more broadly, Manama and Doha’s checkered past will still require hard work to overcome.

In addition to the bilateral territorial and other issues that remain unresolved, Doha continues to enjoy good relations with Tehran, while Manama considers the Islamic Republic its greatest external threat. Similarly, the two states hold very different positions on normalization with both Syria and Israel, with Bahrain going along with reestablishing ties to Damascus and drawing ever closer to the Jewish state.          

“This latest reconciliation will need to address several hurdles,” Kechichian told Responsible Statecraft. “First, perceptions of Iran, which differ for the Al Khalifah and the Al Thani [Qatar’s royal family]. The former [is] wary of Tehran while the latter consider Persia a business partner. Second, while both house Western military facilities, Bahrain coordinates its accords with Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent with the UAE and Kuwait. Qatar views its military agreements with the United States to be a purely bilateral issue. How Manama and Doha will gel these and a variety of similar matters will determine the reconciliation direction.”

With both Gulf states holding the status of Major Non-NATO Allies, Washington welcomes better relationships between all its allies and partners in the region, especially given the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is headquartered in Bahrain while U.S. CENTCOM’s forward headquarters have been at the Qatari airbase in al-Udeid since the early 2000s. The 2017-21 GCC crisis was a major headache for U.S. policymakers who saw the crisis as mostly fabricated, counterproductive, and harmful to U.S. national interests.

Image: Elif Bayraktar via shutterstock.com
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