Analysts believe 2023 will witness a new chapter in the two countries’ relations.
Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani second meeting with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa since the 2017 regional crisis is more than a mere photo opportunity, analysts told Doha News.
The two leaders met on Wednesday on the sidelines of a “fraternal consultative” meeting in Abu Dhabi between officials from the Gulf Cooperation Council as well as Jordan and Egypt. Notably, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were not represented.
“Such an unusual meeting must hold some significance,” Dr. David Roberts, Associate Professor at King’s College London and Gulf expert, told Doha News on Thursday, referring to the get together between Sheikh Tamim and the Bahraini ruler.
At the time of the GCC crisis in 2017, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt imposed an illegal air, land and sea blockade on Qatar over claims that it supports terrorism. Doha dismissed those claims as baseless.
While the dispute came to an end in 2021 with the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration, prospects for rapprochement between Doha and Manama remain blurred, especially when compared to relations with other members of the quartet, name Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The first meeting between Sheikh Tamim and King Hamad took place in July last year, more than one year after the Al-Ula document brought the crisis to a halt.
“I would say that Qatar and Bahrain reconciliation have moved the slowest since the Al-Ula agreement formally ended the Gulf rift in January 2021,” Anna Jacobs, Senior Gulf Analyst at International Crisis Group, told Doha News.
Direct flights between Doha and Manama have yet to resume and embassies of both countries remain shut. While the World Cup in Qatar was widely viewed as an opportunity to unite the entire globe, particularly the region, Bahraini officials were absent from the tournament.
However, Jacobs said while previous indications showed Qatar and Bahrain’s ties were “fraught”, the recent meeting “was a powerful symbol” of regional dialogue moving forward this year.
“This meeting is more than a photo-op, it seems to suggest that Qatar bilateral’s relations with both UAE and Bahrain are moving forward[…]it seems like the leadership of both countries are open to opening a new chapter,” Jacobs added.
In August last year, months after Al Ula, Manama pointed to “pending matters” between Qatar and Bahrain that remained post GCC crisis.
The kingdom also repeatedly claimed it had sent Qatar invitations to settle the remaining issues, though accused the latter of not responding to its calls.
The GCC’s Secretary-General Nayef bin Falah Al-Hajraf said in February 2021 that Qatar opted out of responding to the invite as it was sent through the media and not directly to relevant authorities in Doha, as per protocol.
It also came amid several moves by Bahrain that analysts at the time had described as ‘provocative’.
One such move included the seizing of 130 properties reportedly belonging to relatives of Sheikh Tamim. Breaches of Qatar’s territorial waters were also reported both during the crisis and after the signing of the Al-Ula accord.
“Finding the specific animating animus for today’s sour relations—the smoking gun of something terrible that Qatar did to Bahrain—is near impossible,” Dr. Roberts, author of forthcoming book Security Politics in the Gulf Monarchies, said.
Dr. Roberts noted that any rapprochement between the countries remain “in the gift of the Bahraini leadership”.
“They presumably need cooler relations more than Qatar, not least as they, Bahrain’s leaders, look for investment or bailouts in coming years. It is not clear to me whether Qatar’s leadership cares all that much either way; nor is it clear to me why Qatar’s leaders ought to care if their relations with Bahrain are sour ever more,” he explained.
The strain in Qatar and Bahrain’s ties go back centuries.
The two countries were on the verge of war in 1986 over disputed territories, including the Zubara, and the Jinan Islands as well as Fasht Al-Dibal.
Conflicts over the areas began as early as 1937, when an intervention by British colonialists settled a dispute by demarcating the borders. At the time, the territories were said to be under “Britain’s protection”.
The two sides were then advised to raise the feud at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1990. The court requested evidence from Qatar and Bahrain to rule on ownership of the territories.
The case lasted for a decade and ended in 2001, when the court granted Qatar sovereignty over Zubara and Jinan Islands, Haddad Janan and Fasht Al Dibal. On the other hand, Bahrain was given sovereignty over the Hawar islands and Qit’at Jarada.