Qatar's freedoms put Bahrain on the spot

Robert Fisk, continuing his series on the repressive Gulf island state, explains its feud with its nearest neighbour, and the shadowy role of the Saudis
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The Independent Online
Across the night-time bay, a Ramadan moon was rising, an orb of orange and red that hung like a Chinese lantern over the waters. The condensation lay thick on the plastic table tops, the glasses of scalding hot tea scarcely steaming in the moisture-heavy, rumour-thick air. In the little Doha cafe, the talk was, inevitably, of the tiny island of Bahrain across the Gulf, whose growing internal crisis evokes an odd mixture of pity and satisfaction among the people of Qatar.

The morning papers told the whole story. In the Bahrain Khaleej Times, freely on sale in Qatar, the Bahrain Prime Minister was demanding a "world- wide campaign to combat terrorism" because the unrest in his emirate "threatened the whole Gulf." In Qatar's Gulf Times - very definitely not on sale in Bahrain - a lip-smacking report announced the worst year ever for Bahrain's gold market.

"It's not between Qataris and Bahrainis," a businessman in a white thobe gown announced with immense self-confidence. "Most of our families here have relatives in Bahrain, the families are joined together, we have properties there. This is between the rulers."

And it is not hard to see why. Back in August, Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani , telephoned his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, who was in Geneva, reportedly checking on the family bank accounts. Qataris give a consistent and credible account of the brief call from son to father. "I am the ruler of Qatar from tonight," Sheikh Hamad is said to have announced. "Don't come back."

The Saudis, ever more suspicious of Qatar's growing freedoms, grudgingly accepted the new situation but the ousted Sheikh Khalifa settled into an opulent palace down the Gulf in Abu Dhabi and commenced a tour of the local emirates. Only in Bahrain, however, did the ruler, Sheikh Issa bin Salman al-Khalifa - a cousin of the al-Thanis - decide to put the knife into Qatar's young emir. Sheikh Khalifa was greeted in Bahrain as "the true emir" of the neighbouring state, an honour that did not commend itself to Sheikh Hamad.

Qatar's newspapers - no longer under censorship but very definitely keen to please the Qatari emirate's 20 leading families - launched into a series of articles on human rights abuses in Bahrain, the imprisonment of 2,000 Shias who are demanding a return to democracy on the island, and the death of 14 civilians in political violence there since 1994.

Nor is it difficult to understand why Sheikh Hamad is now the gadfly of the Gulf. He maintains good relations with Iran, hosts a large Iraqi embassy and intends to sell gas worth millions of dollars to Israel. His liberalisation is both an affront to Bahrain and an insult to the Wahabi lords of Saudi Arabia. Sheikh Hamad even wants to turn Doha into a tourist haven on a Bahraini scale and - heaven protect the news from reaching Riyadh - is allowing bars to open for the sale of alcohol in the leading hotels of a traditionally dry Qatar.

"By attacking Bahrain, the new government [of Qatar] is attacking Saudi Arabia," the businessman said slowly. "The Saudis and the Qataris had a fight at one of our land frontier posts at al-Hufus not long ago and people here are both afraid of Saudi Arabia and contemptuous of the al- Sauds. But we dare not attack the Saudis openly. So we criticise Bahrain instead. It's a proxy for the Saudis. In fact, if Sheikh Issa can't control the Shia uprising in Bahrain, the Saudis will take over the island. Their troops are already there, acting as policemen."

If the latter is true - and the Bahraini opposition gives convincing accounts of foreign Arab mercenaries working on Bahrain, many of them under the orders of Ian Henderson, the British head of security - still no one should be fooled into viewing Qatar with romantic eyes. Since only 2 per cent of Qatar's 180,000 citizens are Shia - against 60-70 per cent of Bahrain's 350,000 population - it has no internal religious divisions. And Sheikh Hamad runs the government as a family business, just like his cousin in Bahrain.

Did Sheikh Hamad do a secret deal with the United States before calling his father in Geneva? Did he gain Washington's approval for his takeover in return for a promise to do business with Israel? Is this why Sheikh Hamad seems happy to sell gas to Israel as well as Japan, Korea and countless other nations?

That, of course, is the rumour; America then told the Saudis to accept the new ruler, which they rather unwillingly agreed to do. Or so the story goes in the Doha coffee houses.

Inevitably, Qatar has become a home to Bahraini exiles along with those Bahraini families so tainted by the opposition activity of their relatives that they can no longer find employment on their own island.

Sayed Hani al-Moussawi, the son-in-law of Sheikh Abdul Amir al-Jamri, the most prominent Shia religious leader imprisoned in Bahrain, for example, lives in Doha, espousing the cause of Bahraini democracy and distributing opposition petitions and photographs of street protests on the island. First interrogated by Ian Henderson's security services in 1988 - he says he was questioned by another Briton who was called "Mr Brian" - he fled Bahrain to avoid arrest.

"Why should I have waited for them to take me?" he asks. "They claimed I was a member of the Bahraini Hizbollah which the government said was connected to the Hizbollah in Lebanon. There are no such connections and there is no organisation called Hizbollah in Bahrain now.

"I had no work and would like to go to London, or to Iran to complete my work in Islamic studies. But if I go to Iran now, you know what the Bahraini government will say - that the Iranians are helping us, that the Iranians are behind my father-in-law, which is not true."