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Blood runs deep: the Arabian Gulf's long prelude to the Qatar crisis

The Qatar crisis was a surprise for some, but the countries of the GCC hold grudges that date back centuries

When Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt cut relations with Qatar last year, many perceived the move as an isolated incident coming seemingly out of nowhere. But a look back at the history of the five countries reveals that some grudges date back decades, if not centuries.

The Qatar crisis, which began on June 5 last year, marks the worst diplomatic spat in the Gulf Cooperation Council’s 37-year history. The severing of diplomatic links with Qatar may have disrupted the image of the bloc as a beacon of security in an increasingly unstable region, but the decision was not unprecedented.

The immediate animosity between the four countries dates back to the early 1990s. Like most Gulf nations spats, it started with a territorial dispute.

Every country in the GCC has made conflicting claims to land against at least one of its neighbours. Mostly these have been mediated through diplomatic channels.

But between 1991 and 1996, Qatar filed several complaints with the International Court of Justice, making claims to land controlled by Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. In 1992, a clash between Bedouins along the Saudi-Qatari border over the dispute resulted in several deaths and threatened to spark a full scale war between the royal families of the two countries.

Coming less than a year after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the international community was eager to maintain the peace in the Arabian Gulf and urged restraint. The issue was quietly resolved through closed-door arbitration.

But relations took a turn for the worse in 1995, after a bloodless coup in Qatar saw Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad toppled by his son Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa. The newly crowned emir, the father of the current Emir Tamim, ruled the country along with his right-hand-man Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, himself a key player in the overthrow of the former emir.

Outside of Qatar, many citizens and lower ranked officials in the GCC questioned the new emir's legitimacy, straining relations ever since.

The establishment of Al Jazeera in 1996 further aggravated the situation, as the network often criticised Qatar’s neighbours and was sometimes seen to glorify dissident groups.
In 2002, Saudi Arabia pulled their ambassador from Qatar after Al Jazeera ran interviews critical of Saudi’s ruling family. Relations remained turbulent throughout the decade, with several of the Gulf’s countries suspending or closing Al Jazeera.

Tensions flared again in 2006, when a pipeline deal between Qatar and Kuwait was blocked by Saudi Arabia. Although the pipeline was never approved, Saudi Arabia later agreed to a settlement of the territorial disputes brought up by Qatar in the early 1990s.

In 2011, Riyadh and Doha found themselves on opposing sides of the Arab Spring, entrenching themselves in affiliations that remain until today. Riyadh said that Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, who the Saudi royal family staunchly opposed, was an attempt to undermine stability in the region, and that Al Jazeera served as the organisation’s platform for dissent.

That rift reached another impasse in 2014, when the Gulf found itself in a situation similar to the one it faces today. Saudi Arabia, along with the UAE and Bahrain, withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar, claiming that Doha was not adhering to a GCC agreement on preserving security in the region.

Saudi Arabia also closed the local office of the Qatari-owned news network.

By supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, the three countries said, Doha was stoking the potential for a coup in neighbouring countries spurred by the Qatari-based Yousef Al Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the organisation.

Relations were restored between the countries in November 16, 2014, in what is known as the Riyadh Agreement. The accord, which was signed by the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar, committed the countries to non-interference in the affairs of others.

The Riyadh Agreement is often cited as the last chance the quartet gave Qatar before cutting relations and isolating Doha in the boycott in 2017.

While recent events have catalysed conflict with Qatar, the historical roots of discord in the Gulf date back much further.

In 1867, Bahrain – along with the Al Nahyan family of Abu Dhabi – actually invaded Qatar.

In the late 1700s, the Al Khalifas of Bahrain left Kuwait to settle in Zubarah, a city on the western coast of modern day Qatar. By the end of the 18th century, the Al Khalifas – a branch of the Al Utab family, who are the current leaders of Bahrain – had established supremacy in the Qatar Peninsula, according to correspondence held in the British Library's India Office Records and Private Papers.

Then in 1867 a series of coastal skirmishes broke out between the Al Khalifas and local Qatari tribes. These culminated in the Al Khalifas capturing a Qatari Bedouin and sending him to Bahrain for trial.

The local Qatari tribes retaliated, driving the Al Khalifas themselves back to Bahrain.

A few months later, the Al Khalifas returned reinforced by the Al Nahyans of Abu Dhabi and raided the Qatari cities of Al Wakra and Doha.

In the aftermath, the British forced a truce on Bahrain, leading to peace in Qatar and the emergence of the Al Thani tribe as the ruler of the peninsula for the first time.

While in the centuries leading up to the creation of the modern Gulf Arab nation states the region was rife with conflict even today historical grudges can run deep in public consciousness.

The incident between Bahrain and Qatar resurfaced more than 150 years later last year to became a source of contention again. As Saudi, the UAE and Bahrain withdrew its ambassadors from Qatar, Twitter skirmishes broke out between supporters from both side as they fought to present their own revisions of the historical accounts.

Whatever the current issues facing the GCC, it's worth remembering that the roots of the conflict long predate the proximate cause.

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