On April 12, 2023, Bahrain and Qatar officially restored diplomatic relations almost six years after Bahrain became the first Arab country to sever ties with Qatar at the outset of the 2017-2021 Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis.
Start of unity in the region?
The reconciliation between Manama and Doha is significant, given ongoing efforts to strengthen Gulf Arab unity following the historic Al-Ula Summit of January 2021, but it should be understood within a wider geopolitical context that has seen Arab states, Turkey, and Iran all adopt more pragmatic and diplomatic approaches to their regional rivals since 2020/21.
A variety of factors have pushed countries in the Middle East toward more diplomacy and less aggressive conduct. States in the region are more focused on economic integration, investment deals, and trade between each other than they were, particularly in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. For example, the UAE moved toward reconciling with Qatar months later, resulting in numerous high-profile visits between Emirati and Qatari officials beginning in August 2021 and culminating most recently in the announcement that the two countries plan to reopen their embassies.
The foreign ministries of Qatar and Bahrain confirmed their restoration of diplomatic relations “according to the principles of the United Nations Charter and the provisions of the Vienna Treaty on Diplomatic relations of 1961” while affirming their desire to “enhance Gulf unity and integration according to the GCC charter.”
This reconciliation between Manama and Doha opens the door for the six GCC states to better coordinate on a host of multilateral issues.
The Bahraini-Qatari rapprochement should be understood within a broader historical context. Territorial disputes over the Hawar and Janan islands, the town of Zubarah on the Qatari peninsula, and various reefs and shoals in the Gulf predated Bahrain and Qatar’s independence in 1971.
Although “resolved” by the International Court of Justice in 2001, Bahrain reopened these disputes at an early stage of the GCC crisis in 2017. Also, unrelated to the ICJ case, in the mid-1980s, the two GCC states almost fought a war over a Bahrain-built artificial island near Qatar before the two countries agreed to destroy it. At that time, Saudi mediation helped prevent an armed conflict.
In 2015, bilateral tensions heated up over issues pertaining to citizenship. Bahrain’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah al-Khalifa warned that Manama might “take action” against Doha in response to the “unfriendly policies by Qatar and the attempts to entice Bahrainis to give away their nationality.” Qatar’s overall pragmatic relationship with Shi’a-led Iran has fanned the fears of the Sunni Al Khalifa royal family, which rules over a restive Shi’a majority.
Following the Al-Ula Summit, friction between the two countries worsened when Bahraini authorities seized Qatari-owned real estate in Bahrain, officials in Manama lashed out at Al Jazeera, and Bahraini fishing vessels and their crews were seized after entering Qatar’s territorial waters without permission.
Today, Bahrain joining Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt in reconciling with Qatar marks the beginning of a new chapter in their complex historical relationship, one characterized by both competition and mistrust, as well as pragmatism and cooperation. It sets the stage for greater engagement in collaborative multilateral initiatives under Saudi Arabia’s leadership. Bahrain almost certainly came under significant pressure from fellow GCC states to restore ties with Qatar. For Riyadh, stable relations between GCC members bode well for the region’s economic integration, which is critical to the achievement of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 agenda.
Despite the long-standing tensions between Bahrain and Qatar, there are potential opportunities for both countries to benefit from restored diplomatic relations. For Bahrain, the restoration of ties with Qatar could bring economic benefits, particularly in terms of increased trade and investment opportunities. This is particularly important for Bahrain, which has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and is seeking to diversify its economy away from oil.
For Qatar, the reconciliation with Bahrain is a positive step in its efforts to rebuild relationships with its Gulf neighbors and improve its standing in the region. Qatar has been subject to a blockade by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt since 2017, and has been working to overcome this isolation through increased engagement with other regional powers.
The restoration of diplomatic relations between Bahrain and Qatar is a positive development for the Gulf region, and reflects a broader trend towards greater diplomacy and engagement between Middle Eastern states. While longstanding tensions and disagreements will likely persist, the fact that countries are seeking to resolve their differences through diplomatic channels rather than resorting to more aggressive measures is a welcome development.
As the region continues to face numerous challenges, including ongoing conflicts, economic instability, and the impact of COVID-19, greater cooperation and collaboration will be essential to securing a more stable and prosperous future for all countries in the Middle East.