The context of the islands dispute
However small (the largest island, Hawar, is 11 miles long and two miles wide), the Hawar Islands were suspected to have offshore oil reserves and made up almost a third of Bahraini territory, making them strategically valuable (Cordes-man 1997,49). Their importance for Qatar is derived mainly from proximity - the Hawar Islands are located 1-7 km from the Qatari coast, but 20 km from Bahrain. Zubarah lies on the northwestern coast of Qatar (Lotfian 2002, 119; Wiegand 2012, 81).
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Bahrain under the Al Khalifa was the dominant part of the dyad and even ruled over the Qatari peninsula until the Al Thani established their authority there. Bahram used tribal relationships to extend their territory into Qatar: the Khalifa and Jalahma branches of the Utub tribe migrated from Kuwait to Zubarah on the northwestern corner of the Qatari peninsula in 1766 to set up fort in al-Murair. The Khalifa family became wealthy merchants there. After their relocation in 1786 (after they had evicted the Persian governor of Bahrain who had frequently attacked Zubarah, along with other tribes) and a power struggle, they became rulers of Bahrain and remain so until today (Wright 2012,299). The Al Thani that would come to rule Qatar established themselves in the peninsula around the 1860s, later than most shaikhdom dynasties (cf. Peterson 2011, 31).
A short war with the Al Khalifa in Bahrain in 1867 ultimately led to the sack of eastern towns in Qatar by a united force from Bahrain and Abu Dhabi but also brought on the first agreement of the Al Thani with the British in 1868 (not yet a treaty of protection but a recognition of the Al Thani as the chiefs of Qatar). The Ottoman military presence since 1871 shielded the Al Thani from Bahraini challengers and the Al Saud (Wright 2012, 299). In 1872, Qatar recognized Turkish sovereignty and stopped paying tribute to the Al Khalifa. Struggles over territory followed (Cordesman 1997,46). When the Ottomans were made to withdraw from the region amid the First World War, the Al Thani signed a treaty with the British to become a protected state in 1916, following in the footsteps of their neighboring shaikhdoms (Wright 2012, 300).
With the discovery of oil and the distribution of oil concessions, the question of territorial demarcation emerged with a greater urgency. In 1936. Bahrain angered Qatar by putting their flags on Hawar, Fasht al-Dibal, and Fasht al-Jaradah, which Qatar claimed as their territory (Wiegand 2012, 81-82). Britain then sided with Balirain (Cordesman 1997,46). Qatar claimed that the decision was biased because it did not have the chance to present its case on the same basis as Balirain. While the latter had more developed administrative and legal institutions and could present its case in modern terms commonly used by the British arbitrators, the Qataris relied on traditional terms, which failed to impress (cf. Peterson 2011, 31).
After the initial settlement, numerous other variants were attempted under British mediation but did not lead to a final solution. Although the Zubarah fort had been destroyed in 1878, the Naim tribe of that region retained allegiance ties to the Al Khalifa, forming the basis for their claims of authority over Zubarah. They were defeated by Qatari Shaikh Abdallah bin Jassim Al Thani’s armed forces in 1937, even though the British warned the Bahraini ruler Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa not to step in (Cordesman 1997. 47). Charles Belgrave, the British chief advisor of the Shaikh of Bahrain, describes this incident in his memoirs. The Bedouin guard of Shaikh Abdallah attacked Naim tribespeople loyal to the Al Khalifa during a visit from a negotiation delegation from Bahrain, which resulted in about two dozen casualties. Belgrave asserts that this "incident exacerbated the feeling between Bahrain and Qatar and put an end to any hope of negotiating a settlement for many years to come” (Belgrave 1972, 156).
As these and other clashes before independence show, the norm against using violence was markedly absent, as were claims to authority and territory that were detached from tribal allegiance. The imperial expansionary logic still trumped the national-state territorial one, but it began to erode with the solidification of borders and states.
Following the states' independence in 1971, the dispute went through numerous ups and downs, accompanied by numerous attempts at GCC and Saudi Arabian mediation. The ebb was reached in April 1986, when the two countries clashed in the only instance of a recorded militarized interaction, and again in the second half of the 1990s, when diplomatic spats dominated the bilateral relations (cf. Wiegand 2012). Despite these tensions, the relations were marked by strong political restraint and a clear preference for cooperation over escalation at all tunes.
The ICJ finally ruled on March 16, 2001, according the Hawar Islands and al-Jaradah (now declared an island) to Bahrain and Zubarah, the Janan Islands, and al-Dibal (still considered a shoal) to Qatar. Each country received about half of the disputed territory (Wiegand 2012, 79).