THE tiny Gulf states of Bahrain and Qatar have agreed to mediation to try to settle a long-standing border dispute that erupted three years ago into artillery fire. According to diplomatic and other sources, the ruler of Bahrain, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al-Khalifah, proposed a six-month mediation period over ownership of the chain of islands, reefs, and sand bars that both states claim.
The proposal was made in back-room meetings at the Gulf summit held in Manama in December and was accepted by Qatar's Sheikh Khalifah bin Hamad Al-Thani. Saudi Arabia's King Fahd has agreed to serve as mediator.
The agreement postpones an earlier decision by Qatar and Bahrain to take the sovereignty dispute to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Some analysts had warned that to take the issue to The Hague would be an admission of defeat for the six-state Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which groups Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman.
``Taking it to the World Court would only weaken the very basis of the GCC,'' says a Bahrain-based diplomat.
An Arab analyst adds, ``Nobody in the Gulf wants the problem to go to the International Court [of Justice]. If the problem goes to the International Court, it means there is a crack in the GCC which no one wants to take responsibility for.''
In addition, as the dispute drags on it could exacerbate other unresolved Gulf border issues. ``There are other disputes [in the Gulf], and if this problem between Bahrain and Qatar can not be solved, other similar problems may explode,'' the Arab analyst says.
The territorial dispute, which has been in phases of negotiation for more than 25 years, initially centered on sovereignty over the Hawar Islands, an archipelago of 12 deserted islands near the western coast of Qatar. But the dispute has since broadened, including claims along the entire Qatari-Bahraini border.
OF particular concern is the possibility that beneath the disputed territories lie vast undetected reservoirs of crude oil or natural gas. Both states have relatively small reserves, though they are only a short distance from Saudi Arabia's oil fields - the world's largest. Bahrain's oil reserves are projected to run dry in 15 years. Qatar is endowed with vast natural gas reserves, but its oil could run out in 25 years.
At the heart of the dispute are a series of decisions taken by the British, who ruled the region 50 years ago. In an attempt to mediate between the Al-Khalifahs and the Al-Thanis, the British are said to have granted the Hawar Islands to the Al-Khalifahs. Other lands were granted to the Al-Thani family. But the settlement was considered neither comprehensive nor satisfactory by the two ruling families.
In April 1986, in the most dangerous escalation in the historic feud, Qatari troops opened fire with artillery and stormed a Bahrain coast guard station on Fasht Al-Dibal, a tiny sand bar and reef off Qatar's northern coast. The military action came after contract workers for Bahrain set up a drilling rig on the island, which sits on the edge of Qatar's huge North Field gas reserves.
Tension has been high between the two Gulf neighbors ever since.
Within the past year, Bahraini leaders have dug in their heels and - citing historic documents - broadened their claims to include Zabara, a deserted town on the Qatari mainland, which 200 years ago was the primary settlement of Bahrain's ruling Al-Khalifah family. It was from Zabara in 1782 that the Al-Khalifahs launched their successful campaign to conquer Bahrain.