Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Bahrain, Qatar, and the Hawar Islands: Resolution of a Gulf Territorial Dispute

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Bahrain, Qatar, and the Hawar Islands: Resolution of a Gulf Territorial Dispute

Article excerpt

The Hawar Islands dispute, resolved in 2001, is the only territorial dispute between two Arab states that has been resolved by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Several factors played a role in influencing Qatar and Bahrain to resolve their dispute at the ICJ: 1) the inability of Arab states and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to mediate the dispute, 2) incentives for significant oil and natural gas reserves, and 3) incentives for bilateral and regional cooperation on salient issues between the two states. Both states have benefited significantly since the resolution of the dispute.

For 65 years, from 1936-2001, Qatar and Bahrain disputed sovereignty of the Hawar Islands, the fashts (shoals) of al-Dibal and al-Jaradah, territorial waters of the Persian Gulf, and Zubarah, a district on the Qatari peninsula. The territorial dispute was peacefully resolved when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) announced a final and binding ruling on the case on March 16, 2001.1 The case had been the longest, most protracted, and most complex case ever brought to the Court.2 The ruling awarded Bahrain with the Hawar Islands and al-Jaradah and rewarded Qatar with Zubarah, the Janan Islands, and al-Dibal. The division of disputed territory involved each state receiving approximately half of the islands and shoals. Both Qatar and Bahrain accepted the ruling so that the dispute was settled in finality, and both states immediately began exploitation of oil and natural gas resources. The case was expected to receive much scrutiny from other states in the region involved in territorial disputes, making it a significant case.3

The Hawar Islands dispute is the only territorial dispute between two Arab states that has been brought to and successfully resolved by the ICJ.4 Typically, Arab states have avoided international institutions using universal international law. Rather, they have historically used non-binding third party resolution mechanisms, particularly me- diation by another Arab state or regional organization to settle conflicts. These states have preferred to appoint a third party mediator who will be able to act as "an unbiased insider" with strong connections to the Arab community. In a study of territorial dispute resolution in the latter part of the 20th century, 78% of states with legal codes based on or influenced by Islamic law submitted their disputes to an Islamic third party for resolution. Typical mediators have included presidents, kings, or envoys from Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, as well as mediation by the Arab League, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This unique feature of dispute resolution among Arab states makes it all the more puzzling that Qatar and Bahrain would be willing to turn to an outside international institution based primarily on civil law, to resolve their territorial dispute.

This article attempts to explain the reasons why Qatar and Bahrain were willing to adjudicate the dispute at the ICJ, accept the ruling, and most importantly, enforce the findings of the court. I argue that three primary factors promoted resolution of the dispute using the ICJ as a resolution method: 1) the inability of other regional states and the GCC to mediate the dispute, 2) incentives for significant oil and natural gas reserves, and 3) incentives for bilateral and regional cooperation on salient issues between the two states. Not only did the ongoing territorial dispute prevent secure access for each state to what was expected to be significant oil and gas resources, but both states came to realize that, without resolution of the territorial dispute, they could not benefit from cooperation on several other salient issues, both bilateral and regional. It is these combined incentives that motivated Bahrain and Qatar to turn the dispute over to the ICJ for a final and peaceful resolution after their inability to resolve the dispute through previous bilateral negotiations and mediation attempts. …

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