Doha’s metamorphosis into a foreign policy heavyweight over the past decade, mediating between warring factions from Beirut to Sanaa, has diverted attention from its sometimes tense relations with its GCC neighbours.

The flare-up in May of a territorial dispute involving Bahrain has, once again, highlighted the political obstacles that face the drive to increase cooperation in the GCC, at a time when the six member body could well use the Al-Thani leadership’s accomplished diplomatic skills that have been on display in theatres outside the Gulf.

Key fact

The first phase of the 40km-long Friendship Bridge linking Qatar to Bahrain is to open in 2014

Source: MEED

Barely a month after a naval skirmish between the UAE and Saudi Arabian forces, Qatar and Bahrain experienced their own maritime border clash, following an incident on 8 May, when a Bahraini fisherman was shot and wounded by coast guards for allegedly straying into Qatari territorial waters.

Saudi mediation

As the month progressed, the two states fought an intensifying war of words. Doha raised the stakes with arrests of Bahraini citizens accused of fishing in Qatar’s waters, while Bahrain’s government shut down the Manama bureau of Doha-based satellite TV station, Al-Jazeera, and barred a television crew from visiting the country to interview a UN official. As if to confirm the deteriorating relations, the latter move was reportedly linked to an Al-Jazeera broadcast highlighting poverty in Bahrain.

By the end of May, the two sides appeared to have put aside their differences, following mediation efforts by Saudi Arabia. Bahrain announced on 29 May it would nominate its public security head, Abdul Latif bin Rashid al-Zayani, as GCC secretary-general, replacing its original candidate, Mohammad al-Mutawa. Bahrain is due to assume the rotating leadership of the alliance in April 2011

The unresolved boundaries are a tool used by some of these [Gulf] states to put pressure on each other

Theodore Karasik, Inegma

Al-Mutawa was reported to be widely disliked in Doha as a result of his actions, while serving as Bahrain’s information minister during the Hawar islands dispute, when he mounted a vociferous campaign against Qatar’s territorial claim to the islands, which were subsequently awarded to Bahrain in June 2001 by International Court of Justice in the Hague.

Bahrain’s reason for nominating a figure unpopular in Qatar is unclear. Analysts say the Bahraini government would have been aware of the likely frosty reaction in Doha. “Certainly, they were aware he was someone not liked by the Qatari leadership and there is no way they were not aware of the kind of reaction it would provoke,” says Shady Hamid, deputy director of the Doha Brookings Centre.

Qatar-Bahrain tensions may have eased as a result of Manama’s decision to withdraw Al-Mutawa’s nomination, but the altercation between two countries, which had carefully sought to rebuild ties over the past 10 years, suggests an underlying fragility to some of Doha’s key regional relationships.

Qatar has made a concerted effort to repair its relations with a number of GCC states

Shady Hamid, Doha Brookings Center

“Qatar is a foreign policy powerhouse that mediates in all kinds of different disputes, but this is a conflict between historical neighbours whose boundaries are not well defined,” says Theodore Karasik, security analyst at Inegma, a Middle East think-tank. This lack of clarity on GCC boundaries, both on land and sea, is leading to misunderstandings that result in shootings and arrests of innocent bystanders. 

“The unresolved boundaries are a tool used by some of these states to put pressure on each other – and unfortunately the fishermen get caught up in that,” says Karasik.   

Resolving disputes

This is not the first incident of maritime border clashes between Qatar and Bahrain. However, the recent confrontation took place against the backdrop of a worsening regional security climate, with UAE-Saudi tensions rising over their disputed maritime boundary.

Qatar has been embroiled in another conflict as a result of the Khor al-Udeid inlet to the south of the country, a disputed maritime area separating it from Abu Dhabi. In November 2009, Riyadh announced it did not recognise a 40-year agreement between Abu Dhabi and Qatar over ownership and delineation of Khor al-Udeid.

However in January, there appeared to be some progress in resolving the issue after Doha and Riyadh appointed a French group, AGN, to complete the demarcation of the south-eastern land and maritime borders, mimicking a similar pact signed between the two countries in 2001, over the delineation of the Al-Salwa land border, which had been the site of an armed clash between Qatar and Saudi soldiers in 1992.

The award of the contract to AGN followed a series of meetings of the joint Qatari-Saudi technical committee, established in December 2008, as part of a comprehensive agreement that helped defuse the long-standing dispute between Doha and Riyadh, which had followed Emir Sheikh Hamad al-Thani’s assumption of power in 1995.

In late May, Doha made a further conciliatory gesture towards Riyadh with the release of a group of Saudi prisoners detained for 14 years for their alleged role in a failed coup against Sheikh Hamad. The men, members of the Al-Murrah tribe, had been incarcerated in Doha since February 1996, after the failed coup attempt. In 2005, 5,000 of members of the tribe were deported from Qatar for holding dual Qatar-Saudi Arabian citizenship.

The diplomatic gestures show the improvement in ties between the Saudi and Qatar leaderships is real enough. “There is constant contact between two sides now,” says Christian Koch, director of international relations at Dubai-based Gulf Research Centre. “Sheikh Hamad met Saudi’s King Abdullah [bin Abdulaziz] again recently, which is a sign that they don’t feel this mutual antagonism as much as they used to.” 

But reports in mid-March of an exchange of fire between Saudi and UAE naval forces in the waters near the route of the Dolphin gas pipeline, which runs between Qatar and Abu Dhabi, suggest improvements in Qatar’s bilateral relations within the GCC could still get caught up in wider regional entanglements. It is the Saudi-UAE dispute, to which Doha is only tangentially related, rather than the Qatar-Bahrain maritime conflict, which has greater potential to unsettle regional relationships. 

“The Qatar-Bahrain dispute is a sign that these old elements of distrust that are part-dynastic and part territorial are still there and will periodically flare up. There will be points of friction in the future, but it’s not going to change the basic trend of improved relations,” says Gerd Nonneman, a Gulf political analyst and fellow at UK think-tank Chatham House.

This should help to calm fears that the dispute could hamper progress on the Qatar-Bahrain causeway – the planned 40-kilometre ‘friendship bridge’ linking the two states, which is a concrete example of improved ties since the resolution of the Hawar islands dispute in 2001. The Friendship Bridge, the first phase of which is due to open by 2014, could provide a focus for closer ties between the countries, although much of the detail about how it will work in practice has still to be settled. For example, a dual visa system is expected to be finalised, which would grant immediate entry to Bahrain for visitors from Qatar, and vice versa. The detention of fishermen could derail decisions on this.

More troubling would the possibility that the Bahrain-Qatar tensions reflect a wider polarisation within the GCC, with Saudi Arabia using its proxies – in this case, Bahrain – to hit at the UAE and Qatar.  “Al-Jazeera’s recent trouble in Bahrain gets to the issue of proxies and the playing of GCC games over issues such as media and maritime boundaries,” says Inegma’s Karasik.

However, there is no clear evidence the fishermen dispute forms part of a wider strategic battle for influence between the GCC’s most powerful states. Clearly, though, there are some outstanding issues between Qatar and UAE, on the one side, and Saudi Arabia on the other. 

Some of these are related to unresolved territorial issues, but others reflect Riyadh’s unease at the way in which Doha has managed to leverage itself a prominent foreign policy role that was once the preserve of the kingdom.

“Qatar has made a concerted effort to repair its relations with a number of GCC states, which is a part of its broader role in the region and internationally.  It’s a good faith effort on part of country’s leadership, but the problem is that other countries feel threatened by Qatar’s growing influence,” says Hamid.

Although Qatar’s improved relations with Saudi Arabia have held up in the two and a half years since the two countries officially ended their dispute, there remains an undercurrent of animosity towards Doha’s foreign policy initiatives.

“Saudi Arabia was the foreign policy force  in the GCC, but now you have Qatar and UAE saying and doing things regionally, that’s throwing a bit of a wrench into Saudi foreign policy,” says Karasik.

Iran ties

Qatar’s decision in February to sign a defence cooperation pact with Iran shows how far the Doha leadership is prepared to go in pursuit of its own independent foreign policy agenda, seemingly indifferent to traditional Gulf opposition towards the Islamic republic. Though focused on anti-terrorism efforts, rather than joint military manoeuvres, the Iran security pact consolidates Qatar’s reputation as an independent force on the diplomatic stage. Sheikh Hamad himself has visited Tehran on at least four occasions.

The improvement in relations with Iran is no accident, according to Hamid. “Qatar is trying to distinguish itself in being able to have good relations with the pro-US camp and anti-US camp – the Hamas-Hezbollah-Iran axis. Qatar takes that seriously and it wants to play a mediating role between the opposing factions,” he says.

Qatar’s outreach to Tehran could deliver wider benefits than a more significant regional role for itself. Iran is due to sign a tripartite maritime demarcation pact with both Qatar and Bahrain, and Doha forging closer ties with President Ahmadinejad’s government could smooth the path to such a deal. 

Qatar is unlikely to be deflected from its pursuit of an autonomous foreign policy. The local dispute with Bahrain over fishermen may seem arcane, but it also reflects the fact that Doha is still trying to assert its regional status. “They feel they are a player with regional influence and don’t want to be pushed around by their neighbours. It’s a manifestation of their desire to assert what they feel as their true stature,” says Hamid.

Flare-up: Tensions escalated after Qatar’s coast guard shot and wounded a Bahraini fisherman in May