Ties between Doha and Manama have yet to pick up since the region’s worst diplomatic rift.
Qatar’s Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman Al Khalifa discussed “outstanding issues” between both countries on Wednesday in the first high-level phone call since the 2017 Gulf crisis.
According to the Bahraini Court of the Crown Prince, the Manama royal “highlighted the brotherly relations that unite both countries and their peoples”.
The Bahraini crown prince also “emphasised the importance of joint efforts to resolve all outstanding issues to achieve the common aspirations shared between the citizens of both countries”.
“It was also agreed that officials from both countries will continue to communicate to achieve common goals,” the statement added.
The phone call came just days after Sheikh Tamim’s second meeting with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa since the region’s worst diplomatic rift. The two met with other Arab leaders in Abu Dhabi.
At the time of the GCC crisis in 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, 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 have largely remained unclear, especially when compared to progress in relations between Qatar and other former blockading states.
“It is good to see a period of rapprochement. It has been a long time coming. It is a very straightforward choice – leaders can decide to turn up or down historical grievances depending on whether they want cordial and prosperous relations or not,” Dr. David Roberts, Associate Professor at King’s College London and Gulf expert, told Doha News on Thursday.
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, the amir’s meeting with the Bahraini king in Abu Dhabi last week spiked hopes for rapprochement, especially after the two were seen smiling and shaking hands.
Speaking to Doha News last week, analysts said the “symbolic” meeting in Abu Dhabi seemed to break the ice between the two countries.
“The fact that it occurred as part of a larger meeting of six regional heads of state, rather than bilaterally, may have been a way to offset any awkwardness in meeting bilaterally if issues between the two countries remain unresolved, as they appear to be,” Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, told Doha News.
“It will be instructive to see whether the meeting [in UAE] leads to any progress on issues such as direct flights between Qatar and Bahrain, or other signs of such as business or commercial initiatives designed to support closer economic cooperation,” Dr. Ulrichsen added.
In August last year, months after Al Ula, Manama pointed to what it described as “pending matters” with Qatar 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.
Pointing out obstacles in the rapprochement, analysts cited old territorial disputes between both countries as well as moves by “provocative” Bahrain that occurred both during the crisis and post Al-Ula.
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, though there have been no comments from Doha on any of the incidents.
“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.