ANGRY exchanges between states in the Persian Gulf are continuing amid renewed tension over long-unresolved territorial disputes.
States in the area, home to two-thirds of the world's oil reserves, have traditionally kept quiet over their differences and maintained a show of regional solidarity. But last week one of those border disputes turned violent, with three people killed during clashes on the frontier between Qatar and its larger neighbor, Saudi Arabia.
The row came amid mediation to resolve another land dispute, this one between Iran and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) over three strategic islands in the Gulf. Like the Qatar-Saudi tension, the islands issue dates from the 1960s, when British forces administered the region. Their departure in 1971 left many of the region's borders ill-defined, and split the island of Abu Musa between Iran and the UAE.
The question being asked is why, after more than two decades of calm, have the borders suddenly become an important issue?
"The problems are surfacing now because there has been a change in the structure of security in the Gulf," says Magdi Abeid of Cairo's Center for Political and Development Studies. "The critical dimension of the change is that there is no power regulating the relations between the smaller states in the Gulf." Iraq is excluded
"The competition between Iraq and Saudi Arabia and the competition between Iran and Iraq - these competitors were very important to guarantee the security in the Gulf," adds Mr. Abeid. "Now Iraq is excluded from the balance of power, so every state ... has the freedom to assert its aims."
Last week's fighting took place at a border post called al-Khufous, located on a tiny peninsula in the Gulf, an area claimed by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The post used to straddle Qatar's border with the UAE, but in 1990, under heavy pressure from Riyadh, UAE ceded the territory to Saudi Arabia. Qataris now must cross Saudi territory to reach the UAE. There are also conflicting sovereignty claims between Saudi Arabia and Yemen and between Bahrain and Qatar.
In April, Iran made its first move to assert control over three islands in the Strait of Hormuz, including Abu Musa, at the expense of the UAE. The action revived Arab fears of Iranian expansionism. The strait, at the mouth of the Gulf, is the shipping route for 20 percent of the world's oil trade. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Iran used Abu Musa to stage attacks on oil tankers and United States navy escorts.
The small Gulf states need to maintain good ties with Iran because they rely on trade; the UAE's trade with its neighbor across the water is valued at about $1 billion a year.
"The states in the Gulf are competing with each other to have good relations with Iran," says an Arab analyst in Cairo who follows Iran. "With Iraq vanquished, Saudi Arabia seeking outside support, and the absence of an effective Egyptian role in the area, all of the Gulf countries are trying to keep good relations with Iran."
Even as the UAE was calling on the United Nations to intervene over the islands dispute, its leader, Sheikh Zayid bin Sultan al-Nuhayyan, was asking Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to lower the tone of official Egyptian press attacks on Iran.
Egypt, perhaps of all Arab states, is deeply suspicious of Iranian intentions in the region. A senior Egyptian military source says Iran's seizure of the Gulf islands was "a test balloon." Tehran, he asserts, wants to gauge the strength of neighboring states in containing Iranian influence.
If so, Iran has found that public pronouncements by Arab states contradict private actions based on economic interests. Last month the Arab League condemned what it called Iranian "aggression" over its claim to Abu Musa and the other islands. But during the same period, member states were concluding new economic agreements with Iran.
In September, several Gulf states held trade talks with Iran.
Kuwait agreed to increase trade by $100 million a year. During the same period Oman, in the southern Gulf, told Tehran it would increase economic cooperation and agreed to cut harbor fees for Iranian ships by 75 percent to promote trade. Iranian relish
Iran appears to be relishing the disarray in Gulf relations. In an editorial last weekend in the Iranian newspaper Abrar, the question was asked: "When Saudi Arabia seeks its rights from Qatar, and Qatar has similar claims on Bahrain while Yemen and Saudi Arabia have long-standing border disputes, and [Iraqi President Saddam Hussein] is still after Kuwait, who is responsible for the tension and insecurity in the Persian Gulf?"
Observers say growing ties between Qatar and Iran have fed Qatar's dispute with Saudi Arabia. Late last year, Qatar agreed to the largest package of economic projects between any Gulf state and Iran. Total cost of the projects - including port facilities, shipping, and transport - is estimated at $13 billion.
Says analyst Abeid, "Saudi Arabia wants to regulate its border with Qatar and the other smaller states now because there is no power which can oppose any restrictions upon it [Saudi Arabia].
"The smaller states are not afraid of Iran. In fact they want to consolidate their relations with Iran because they are afraid of domination by Saudi Arabia."