Code RS13
Author Colin Young

Relations between Gulf neighbours Bahrain and Qatar could hardly be worse - short of actual armed conflict - after two sensational incidents, which occurred within weeks of each other at the end of 1996 and beginning of 1997.

Firstly, a high profile spy trial involving two Qatari agents was heard by Bahrain's State Security Court. This was followed by an even more amazing and somewhat bizarre event, when a member of Bahrain's ruling family - a trainee pilot in the Amiri Air Force - defected to Qatar by flying his military helicopter to Doha and claiming political asylum.

Both episodes seriously soured the already strained relations between the two states and were reminiscent of the tribal rivalries of old.

In a part of the world where disagreements tend to be swept under the carpet and disguised among platitudes, diplomatic double-speak and superficial friendliness, it was clear that the gloves were well and truly off this time.

Only weeks earlier, the tension between the two countries of the last few years, over the disputed Hawar Islands, had escalated when Bahrain announced it would not be attending the annual Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) summit in Doha in December.

Despite frantic behind-the-scenes diplomacy, orchestrated by Saudi Arabia, in an attempt to paper over the ever-widening rift between the Gulf neighbours in the interests of GCC unity, Bahrain would not be swayed from its boycott decision - much to the annoyance of host Qatar.

Bahraini Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Sulman Al Khalifa issued a statement, in which even the familiar diplomatic language could not disguise the bitterness between the countries.

Shaikh Khalifa regretted that Qatar had "not favourably responded to calls and initiatives aimed at solving the outstanding issues between the two brotherly states, in the spirit of the one Gulf family." The Bahraini Prime Minister added that it was impossible for Bahrain to take part in the GCC summit in Qatar, while the host country was "instituting legal proceedings against Bahrain at the International Court of Justice."

Qatar's position "infringed on Bahrain's sovereignty and threatened its national security," charged Shaikh Khalifa. He went on to accuse Qatar of exploiting the 1990 GCC summit in Doha, by insisting on discussing the Hawar Islands dispute, while the GCC leaders were pre-occupied with Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

On December 2, it was reported that two Qatari citizens had been arrested for spying. The pair, Fahad Hamad Abdulla Al Baker, 28, and a woman accomplice, Salwa Jassim Mohammed Fakhri, 33, admitted repeatedly entering Bahrain to gather military secrets on behalf of the Qatari intelligence service.

In an almost unprecedented move, the English-language Gulf Daily News (GDN) attacked Qatar in a strongly-worded editorial, under the heading 'Wolf in sheep's clothing'. In a country where the Ministry of Information keeps a tight rein on the press, it is clear that such strong language could not have been published without the Government's approval.

Extracts from the vitriolic editorial included: " Gulf country ever lowered itself to the pathetic level you (Qatar) have now reached"; "We in Bahrain have always known that Qatar cannot be trusted".

No detail was spared in the press reports of the trial. The two defendants were said to have confessed to passing military secrets and other sensitive information to their paymasters in Doha, "aimed at undermining the security of Bahrain."

Fakhri said she had been recruited by Al Baker in 1993 to gather defence secrets and information on the Hawar Islands, for which she received a monthly 'retainer' from the Qatari intelligence service.

It was said that the pair had met Qatar's (unnamed) security chief in London in the summer of that same year. It appears Fakhri sought out Bahrainis in senior positions, who unwittingly passed on information to her.

This included the location of defence installations, weapons and military equipment. In the course of the trial, it was also revealed that a similar Qatari spying operation had been uncovered by the Bahraini security forces in January 1987.

Fakhri had also been instructed to check whether Qatar's deposed Amir, Shaikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, had made a secret visit to Bahrain in 1995.

Shaikh Khalifa's son, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was rumoured to be furious that his father had been feted by the rulers of Qatar's Gulf neighbours and suspected an attempt to reinstate the former Amir.

It was even suggested that Bahrain may have struck a deal with the ex-Amir of Qatar, whereby his country's claims to the Hawar Islands would be dropped in return for his reinstatement. Just how this might have been achieved, however, is debatable.

One can only speculate whether Qatar set up the intelligence operation in Bahrain with a view to mounting a military operation to occupy the Hawar Islands.

It may have been designed simply to gather a dossier of 'incriminating' evidence against Bahrain to use in its legal battle at the International Court of Justice.

Certainly, Bahrain has been stepping up activity on the disputed islands, by holding sporting events, including an autocross meeting (which doesn't seem to square with its contention that the islands are a wildlife sanctuary and, as such, are of environmental importance !).

On New Year's Day 1997, newspapers reported the defection of First Lieutenant Nasser Majid Nasser Al Khalifa of Bahrain's Amiri Air Force, who flew his military helicopter to Doha, where he requested - and was granted - political asylum. It was a major coup for Qatar in its cold war with Bahrain.

The fact that a member of Bahrain's ruling family - albeit a fairly minor one - chose to make such a public and provocative gesture was deeply embarrassing to the Al Khalifas, particularly in the light of the events of the previous few weeks.

Although a statement on the incident was released by Bahrain's Information Ministry, it neglected to name the pilot concerned, even though it called on Qatar to return him and his helicopter 'as soon as possible'.

Almost descending into farce, the stern statement pointed out that First Lt Al Khalifa could have simply caught a scheduled flight and lived in Qatar without any fuss. Clearly, his aim was to gain the maximum publicity.

The reason for his defection is unclear, although it was suggested that he was disgruntled with his lot in the military and had some grudge against his superiors. It is worth noting that Bahrain's heir apparent, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

It is difficult to see how the present rift between Bahrain and Qatar can be resolved, without one side or the other losing face - the most dreaded condition that can afflict an Arab.

The situation also has potentially dire consequences for the GCC, which is not exactly renowned for its unity at the best of times. It is possible that Qatar, whose present Amir is regarded as something of a 'loose cannon', might pull out, which could signal the disintegration of the six-member grouping.

Much depends on Saudi Arabia, under the ailing King Fahad, as the largest and most influential member state, in bringing the two feuding 'brothers' back into the family.

© Colin Young (March, 1997)