Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
22 - 28 March 2001
Issue No.526
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Gulf emirates settle dispute

Bahrain and Qatar have turned a new leaf in their relations after settling a decades-old territorial dispute. Rasha Saad reports

A BAhraini boy kisses a map showing Hawar islands granted to Bahrain by a World Court verdict
(photo: AP)
Ending a 10-year judicial battle, the World Court on Friday ruled that the disputed Hawar islands in the Gulf belong to Bahrain, denying a decades-old Qatari claim. On the other hand, the court rejected Bahrain's historical claim to the Zubarah land strip, where Bahrain's rulers had lived 200 years ago. Manama was awarded two minor islands, Janan and Hadd Janan. The court also ruled that Qatari shipping had rights of unrestricted passage in waters separating the Hawar from other Bahraini islands. The two countries welcomed the ruling as heralding a new era of understanding and declared Saturday a public holiday to celebrate the ruling.

Though Qatari official sources stressed that the verdict granted their country 4 out of 5 demands they sought, plus two minor islands, it is widely believed that Bahrain was the real winner since it won Hawar, the island potentially rich in oil and gas deposits and the main bone of contention in the dispute. In Bahrain's capital, Manama, hundreds of people danced in the streets and waved their national flag to celebrate the ruling.

However, political analysts believe that the leaders in both countries, who succeeded their fathers in recent years, genuinely sought to overcome a dispute they believed futile, crippling and outdated.

Qatar's Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani called the decision "painful" but noted that the verdict "had many positive aspects." "Although the ruling is painful [to give up Hawar], we understand that it has ended the dispute," he said on state television.

In Manama, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Issa Al-Khalifa described the verdict as a "historic victory." "There is no more dispute. The judgment allows us to look forward to a peaceful and friendly relationship with Qatar," Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammad bin Mubarak Al-Khalifa told reporters in The Hague after the ruling.

The territorial row, which took the Gulf Arab neighbours to the brink of war in 1986, dates back to the1930s when Britain stepped into a feud between the ruling families of the two emirates and awarded the Hawar islands to Bahrain.

Qatar's argument was based on fears that Bahrain's sovereignty over Hawar creates a "security gap" as it is only a few metres away from Qatar, while Bahrain believed that losing the island creates a "national gap" as it forms about one third of Bahrain's area.

Qatar took the case to the court in 1991, angering Bahrain, which had favoured regional mediation to end the dispute.

The judges on Friday ruled that both Qatar and Bahrain had given their consent for Britain to resolve the Hawar dispute in 1939, and so it remained binding on them. The verdict by the World Court is binding and cannot be appealed.

According to diplomatic sources in the Gulf, keeping Hawar islands under Bahraini sovereignty was anticipated. The sources said the World Court was unlikely to overturn the British award, as it was almost impossible to find reliable documents, other than those available from British sources to assess the claims of the two sides.

Mohamed Abdel-Azim, an Egyptian expert on Gulf issues, pointed out that Bahrain was confident that it would keep the Hawar islands. He explained that the recent political reforms in Bahrain came to unite the home front in anticipation of the verdict. Last month Bahrain endorsed a new national charter in which parliament was restored. The Bahraini emir, who succeeded his late father in 1999, emptied jails of political prisoners and allowed non-governmental human rights organisations to operate in Bahrain.

The Hawar islands are crucial to Bahrain as a rich source for oil and tourist investment to alleviate the economic difficulties in the country whose limited prospects are believed to be among the reasons behind anti-government violence in recent years. Bahrain has been lately investing heavily in the Hawar islands, building a hotel and chalets and promoting them as a tourist attraction.

A day after the verdict Bahrain invited international oil companies to drill for oil. In an address to the nation on Friday night, Bahrain's emir invited oil majors "to start their drilling in any island and offshore areas in Bahrain," in light of the verdict. The Gulf daily newspaper called for a "push for drilling" in Hawar.

The peaceful end of the dispute had also its regional positive impact that contributes to strengthening stability and security in the Gulf area. For the Gulf Cooperation Council, in which Qatar and Bahrain are members along with Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, the end of the dispute "will reinforce the GCC and be beneficial to the two peoples," Abdel-Azim said.

The dispute between Qatar and Bahrain was the first case involving two Arab states to have come before the World Court, and was being closely watched by other Gulf states that have disputes of their own, especially the United Arab Emirates which contests Iran's possession of three tiny islands in the southern Gulf and has failed to persuade it to agree to World Court arbitration.

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