Rights activists have pointed towards those imprisoned in Bahrain for expressing their support to Qatar during the regional feud.
Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani met with his Bahraini counterpart King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa on Saturday, the first such meeting since the 2017 GCC crisis.
According to Bahrain’s news agency (BNA), the two leaders met in Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the Jeddah Security and Development Summit, which was attended by leaders of the GCC+3—Jordan, Iraq and Egypt—as well as US President Joe Biden.
Neither BNA nor Qatar News Agency released further information on the meeting between the Bahraini king and Qatari amir.
However, the meeting comes more than a year after the signing of the historic Al Ula Declaration by the GCC and Egypt in January last year, resolving the region’s worst diplomatic rift in decades.
The 2017 diplomatic crisis was triggered when Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, imposing an illegal land, air and sea blockade on the country.
The quartet claimed the blockade was in response to Qatar’s alleged support for terrorism, though Doha repeatedly and vehemently rejected those claims as baseless.
While ties have since resumed between Qatar and some members of the quarter—Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE—its relations with Bahrain had appeared to be unchanged.
Several moves that analysts had described as ‘provocative’ were carried out by Bahrain shortly after Al Ula. One such move included seizing 130 properties reportedly belonging to relatives of Sheikh Tamim.
However, the latest get-together between the Bahraini king and Qatari amir has appeared to change a perceived stalemate between the two Gulf states.
Dr. Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, told Doha News the meeting is “a step in the right direction”.
“For the Qataris, the reconciliation and the rapprochement with the Bahrainis as part of the Al Ula process never had the same priority as it did with the Saudis and the Emiratis, also because the Bahrainis were kind of vicious in the way they attacked Qatar although they did not take a leading role in it,” said Dr. Krieg.
The analyst added that although the two countries signed the Al Ula Declaration, it “never translated into a rapprochement between Qatar and Bahrain”.
Notably, Qatar and Bahrain embassies have yet to resume operations in both countries.
“It will obviously take a lot more of an actual bilateral meeting between both sides, I would say most likely in Doha to actually start the process,” said Dr. Krieg, noting that a high-ranking Bahraini delegation’s visit to Qatar would further cement the two countries’ ties.
In February last year, Bahrain’s Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for Regional and GCC Affairs Ambassador Waheed Mubarak Sayyar visited Qatar.
During his visit, Sayyar delivered a message from Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani to Qatar’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the State of Qatar Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.
While there were claims over a possible trip by Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman Al Khalifa to Qatar late last year, no such visit took place.
Bahrain has always claimed that Qatar has not responded to its invitations to resolve outstanding issues. In January last year, Bahrain said it sent Qatar an invitation to discuss their pending issues.
The GCC’s Secretary-General Nayef bin Falah Al-Hajraf then 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.
A more positive statement came out in March from Bahrain’s Undersecretary for Land Transportation and Post at the Ministry of Transportation and Telecommunications Sami Buhaza’a.
The Bahraini official announced the return of the Qatar-Bahrain bridge project that connects the two neighbouring countries. Buhaza’a also outlined Bahrain’s willingness to hold talks with Qatar on the matter and resurfaced the previous two invitations.
Entry to Bahrain
The high-profile meeting between the Qatari and Bahraini leaders came just hours after Manama abolished a visa requirement for Qataris wishing to enter its lands, and ahead of the GCC summit in Jeddah.
Under the update, announced by Bahraini authorities on Friday, “all” GCC nationals can enter the country with their ID’s, though it failed to make mention of a U-turn on restrictions targeting Qataris.
Before the latest entry policy change, all citizens of the bloc except Qatar were exempt from applying for a visa, per the Bahraini government’s portal—last updated in January.
While Bahrain’s civil aviation authority announced that it will open its airspace to Qatar in January last year, there are currently no updates regarding the resumption of direct flights between the two countries.
“It seems there is a lot of good will from the Bahraini side to allow Qataris to return,” said Dr. Krieg.
The diplomatic rift took a toll on Qatari citizens as well as those from the quartet, ripping families apart while disrupting the studies of students in higher education.
During the GCC crisis in 2018, Bahrain had ordered to halt processing visas for Qatari nationals due to what it described as “the irresponsible Qatari authorities’ persistence in their hostile behaviour against the Kingdom of Bahrain”.
Prisoners of conscience
Meanwhile, rights activists have pointed towards those imprisoned in Bahrain for expressing their support to Qatar during the regional feud.
“The self-proclaimed king of Bahrain is chilling with the [amir] of Qatar while there are prisoners of conscience in Bahrain imprisoned on charges of communicating with Qatar,” tweeted Maryam Alkhawaja, Bahraini Human Rights Defender.
Maryam’s father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has been imprisoned in Bahrain since 2011 following pro-democracy protests during the country’s uprising. On 22 June 2011, a Bahrain military court sentenced Al-Khawaja to life imprisonment and has been suffering from abuse at the hands of Bahraini authorities.
Maryam herself, as well as her sister -both key figures in the 2011 revolution – were also imprisoned before being forced into exile.
“I think we should not forget to what length the regime in Bahrain went to punish or ostracise Bahrainis who were still in contact with their family,” said Dr. Krieg.
Shortly after imposing the blockade on Qatar, Bahrain criminalised any form of sympathy for Doha, declaring it a crime that is punishable by imprisonment of up to five years and a fine.
The UAE also issued the same policy, saying that those caught sympathising with Qatar could face a possible 15-year sentence.
Bahraini authorities had charged opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman in 2017 on charges related to holding a phone call with Qatari diplomats.
While he was initially sentenced to four years in 2015 for supporting the 2011 protests, his sentence was extended for the Qatar-related accusations.
Despite being acquitted of all charges in 2018, the prosecutor’s office appealed the ruling, giving him a life sentence instead.
“This verdict is a travesty of justice that demonstrates the Bahraini authorities’ relentless and unlawful efforts to silence any form of dissent.
Sheikh Ali Salman is a prisoner of conscience who is being held solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director in 2018.
Last year, an Al Jazeera investigation revealed human rights abuses by Bahraini authorities at the Dry Dock Detention Centre, where hundreds of minors are imprisoned. It also showed disturbing tactics used by police officers during interrogations.
The show found that at least 607 children in Bahrain have suffered from abuse and harsh interrogation carried out without the presence of their parents or lawyers.
A Bahraini Prosecution source said there are more than 150 children in prisons across the kingdom – a claim refuted by the MOI statement which said detainees, aged 15-to-18 years, are serving their sentences in a “special correctional centre” under the supervision of the General Directorate of Women Police.
Despite the disturbing evidence, Bahrain accused the Qatar-based network of launching an “aggressive defamation campaign” for airing the episode. Manama’s interior ministry (MOI) responded to the “Distance Zero” episode with a statement denying allegations of human rights abuses.