Saudi Arabia is posing as an intermediary between the two countries to re-establish bilateral talks and adhere to the Al-Ula Declaration

Bahrain and Qatar, the weakest link in Gulf reconciliation

PHOTO/BAHRAIN NEWS AGENCY via REUTERS - Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani hold a meeting at the GCC General Secretariat headquarters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 7 February 2023

It has been two years since the Gulf countries ended the most important crisis in their relations. In 2017 Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt imposed an air, land and sea blockade on Qatar over claims of supporting terrorism in a charge Doha dismissed as unfounded. Five years later, the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ended this blockade with the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration. But while Doha gradually recovered its relations with its neighbours, this was not the case with Bahrain, whose embassies are still closed. The two countries are in a period of stagnation in their relations, but only for a short time. Both Bahrain and Qatar want to resume their friendship. 

Perhaps the first step was taken when Bahrain's Crown Prince Hamad Al Khalifa and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani called each other. Both recognised the relations that unite the two countries and peoples and expressed "the importance of working to resolve all outstanding issues and problems in a manner that achieves the common aspirations of the citizens of the two countries, preserving the cohesion of the GCC, security and stability in the region".


The call soon had repercussions. Bahrain's own King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa told a Cabinet meeting of the importance of resolving outstanding issues with Qatar. Noting this, Transport Minister Mohamed Al Kaabi said he hoped to see the resumption of direct flights between Qatar and Bahrain, something that had not been on the agenda since the blockade. "We will do our utmost to activate these agreements," Al Kaabi said. 

And these words have certainly been taken to heart. A few days later, the Qatari and Bahraini Foreign Ministers, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani and Mohamed bin Abdularhman Al-Thani, respectively, met in Riyadh to formally establish the processes for bilateral talks. At the meeting in the Saudi capital, the two diplomats established "the necessary mechanisms and procedures to initiate discussions at the level of bilateral committees". 

These discussions would be framed within the framework of the Al Ula Declaration to end the dispute with Qatar and, according to the GCC, bring the Gulf states together to address the region's challenges and achieve security and prosperity. These objectives even begin with the place chosen by the ministers: the headquarters of the GCC General Secretariat, where Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is the main intermediary.


For analysts, the resumption of relations between Doha and Manama could be mainly due to economic reasons. "Officials in Manama seem to be realising that Arab efforts to isolate Qatar and put pressure on the gas-rich country are not pragmatic," Giorgio Cafiero, founder of Gulf State Analytics, told Doha News. 

There are, however, certain demands that are conditional on the resumption of relations. Manama demands that the Qatari media stop putting pressure on Bahrain, especially regarding the case of spying on dissidents. The other issue is borders.  

The maritime borders between the two countries were the scene of repeated incidents in December 2020 and January 2021, especially following the interception of Bahraini vessels by the Qatari Coast Guard, which Doha interpreted as "a systematic attack on the lives and livelihoods of Bahraini seafarers". The climax was reached when fighter jets from Manama flew into Qatari territorial waters. Despite Bahrain's denials, the issue reached the UN Security Council. 

These issues will be crucial for the normalisation of relations under the Al-Ula Declaration and could finally bring unity to the Gulf Arab states.