2021 Panorama: Bahrain, Al-Ula Agreement's Biggest Loser after Qatari Indifference

2023-10-06 - 1:37 p

Bahrain Mirror (2021 Panorama): The aftermath of the Al-Ula summit in early 2021, signaling the end of the Gulf dispute with Qatar, did not bring about the expected reconciliation between Bahrain and Qatar. Despite the diplomatic breakthrough, Qatar's approach to restoring relations with the boycotting countries showcased a prioritization of its own interests, and indifference towards Bahrain.

Qatar's continued disregard for Bahrain manifested in its media coverage, which persisted in highlighting protests and engaging with Bahraini opponents without a change in tone. In response, Bahrain initiated a pitiful campaign questioning the demarcation of its border with Qatar and claiming ownership of Zubara, despite the resolution of this dispute by the International Court of Justice nearly two decades ago.

On January 5, 2021, Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa commissioned his son Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa to attend the Gulf summit in the Saudi Al-Ula city amid reports of a breakthrough in the dispute with Qatar. Indeed, it was announced the following day that the Gulf dispute would end at the summit attended by the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

On January 8, the UAE announced opening all borders with Qatar, and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al-Zayani said on the same day that relations with Qatar would return to the way they were before the boycott in June 2017, noting that bilateral committees had been formed and that ending the outstanding issues would not take more than two weeks.

The following day (January 9, 2021), international news agencies and local media documented the crossing of Qatari cars to Saudi Arabia through the land border for the first time since relations were severed, amid a Saudi welcome to Qatari visitors. Bahrain; however, only invited Qatar on January 11 to send a delegation to Bahrain to resolve the outstanding issues, a request that Qatar ignored and didn't respond to.

On January 12, Saudi Arabia and Qatar resumed direct flights between the two countries, and Bahrain only announced the opening of its airspace with Qatar unilaterally without a Qatari comment.

Qatar's disregard angered Bahrain, which began to create problems with Doha, and said it was holding Bahraini bodybuilder Sami Haddad and two others who were on a fishing trip, but later (January 14) announced their release and arrival in the Omani capital, Muscat.  

On January 16, Saudi Arabia officially announced the imminent opening of its embassy in Doha, as a new step to normalize relations between the two countries. 

On January 18, Bahrain took a more assertive stance towards Qatar, and published in the Official Gazette a decision by Minister of Municipalities Essam Khalaf to seize 130 properties owned by the maternal uncle of Qatari Emir, Khalid bin Nasser, for the public interest.

On February 25, Bahrain sent a foreign ministry undersecretary to Qatar, carrying a written letter from Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al-Zayani to invite Qatari authorities to "start bilateral talks on mechanisms of implementing reconciliation".

The Qatari authorities did not only ignore Bahrain's dialogue requests, but continued their media policy against Bahrain in broadcasting political programs on the political and human rights situation, which led Bahrain to send an official protest note to Qatar on March 11. In a March 20 report, Reuters quoted diplomats denying any progress in relations between Bahrain and Qatar. 

As with Bahrain's calls, Qatar completely ignored the Bahraini protest note and continued its media policies related to Bahrain without any change, which led the Bahraini Interior Ministry to issue, in late April, two statements accusing Al Jazeera and the Qatari government of "coordinating a hostile campaign against Bahrain".

On May 8, the Qatari authorities informed their Bahraini counterpart that they had arrested five sailors, after they entered Qatari territorial waters, in a remarkable Qatari escalation. A Reuters report on June 1 confirmed that reconciliation between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Egypt was progressing rapidly, but has not begun yet with Bahrain.

On June 22, Bahrain sent a second official invitation to Qatar's foreign minister to send a delegation to Bahrain for the purpose of resolving the outstanding issues, according to an official statement by Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani. This was met with a concerning response from Qatar, which worked with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to challenge Bahrain's sovereignty over its airspace.

By July 13, Qatar regained control of its airspace through an ICAO decision, prompting Bahrain's threat to involve the Cooperation Council "because Qatar did not comply with the Al-Ula Summit statement". A few days after the ICAO decision, Bahrain stated that it was working with the international organization on "technical arrangements for regional air traffic safety". 

By the end of July, Bahrain began a new campaign against Qatar, in which it said in the words of the king's advisor and former Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa that the ownership of Zubara belongs to Bahrain and "has rights that will not be lost". In early August, the High Committee for the Bahraini Calendar announced, on behalf of its Vice President Abdullatif Al-Mahmoud, the issuance of a new Bahraini calendar for the Hijri year 1443 aligning with the "Zubara-Bahrain Calendar". However, the following day (August 2), the King of Bahrain called on his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad, to bring social media outlets under control out of respect for the Al-Ula Agreement.

Meanwhile, the UAE took serious steps towards normalizing relations with Qatar. The Emirati National Security Advisor Tahnon bin Zayed visited Doha on August 26 and met with the Emir of Qatar, in the first high-level meeting between the two countries since the ties were severed.

However, the development of Qatari-UAE relations was not reflected in Doha's relationship with Bahrain. On September 27, Al-Jazeera broadcast a program on children's rights violations in Bahraini prisons. Bahrain responded to the Qatari program by accusing Doha of espionage attempts. 

Qatar-UAE relations developed and this manifested by the visit of Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman to Abu Dhabi, as well as the meeting of the crown prince and the de facto ruler of the UAE Mohammed bin Zayed. Days after the meeting, Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif Al Zayani said that Manama is studying documents indicating inaccuracy of maritime border demarcation with Qatar.

On November 22, the King of Bahrain hinted that he wishes to hold dialogue with Qatar to address outstanding issues. However, Qatar, which once again ignored Bahrain, strengthened its relationship with Saudi Arabia, culminating in Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to Doha in December 2021. 

In June 2017, Bahrain was the first to announce the severing of diplomatic relations with Qatar, followed by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. At that time, everyone knew that Bahrain was not the one to decide, but was ordered to take such a move. Since the boycott was declared, Bahrain has always been at the forefront of inciting actions against Qatar politically and in the media. Doha seems to hold all of this over Manama following the Al-Ula agreement, reflecting its complete disregard for Bahrain and indifference to normalizing relations with the Gulf island.

One year after the Al-Ula agreement, Qatar seems to be the biggest winner of the boycott, emerging from that crisis stronger and not having to make any concessions to the four boycotting countries, while Bahrain undoubtedly looks the weakest and biggest loser among Qatar's former adversaries.

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