'Zionist' TV jibe intensifies Gulf dispute

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A long-running dispute between the small Gulf states of Bahrain and Qatar has taken an unprecedented turn after Qatar's state television broadcast interviews with radical Islamic opponents of the Bahraini ruling dynasty.

Such a move is unheard of among monarchies of the Gulf, who normally overcome disagreements to co-operate in the suppression of religious dissent. Bahrain and Qatar are members of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

The rulers of Bahrain and Qatar have long been at odds over the ownership of the Hawar islands, small islets between their territories thought to be rich in resources. Bahrain has very little oil, while Qatar possesses enormous reserves of natural gas. A few Ruritanian skirmishes have taken place over the years to little consequence. But civil disorder in Bahrain and dynastic upheaval in Qatar mean that the latest conflict is drawing close attention from Saudi Arabia and from Western powers who base air and naval forces in the area.

There has been serious unrest among the Shia Muslim majority population of Bahrain, a small archipelago of 600,000 people off the coast of Saudi Arabia. The government said at least 550 suspects had been rounded up recently after riots around the capital, Manama.

The leaders of Bahrain's Shias attack the ruling al-Khalifa family, members of the dominant Sunni strand in Islam. The opposition strongly denies claims by the government that Iran is behind the trouble.

Last year the Bahraini authorities exiled several Shia clergymen to London, including a charismatic preacher trained in Iran, Sheikh Ali Salman, who addressed public meetings to denounce Ian Henderson, a British veteran who runs Bahrain's security services.

To general astonishment in the Gulf, Sheikh Salman next appeared on Qatari television, whose broadcasts from the capital, Doha, can be seen in Bahrain, on 13 January. He was interviewed sympathetically on a discussion programme with Dr Mansur al-Jamri, a member of a prominent family opposed to the al-Khalifas. The programme was hardly inflammatory, but Sheikh Salman said that those who tried to link Islamic activists to terrorism - as the Bahraini government does - were agents of "the internationalist Zionist movement". The sheikh added that "dialogue between the religious movement and Arab governments and intellectuals is the only way out for the Islamic world from any future bloodbath".

Although Sheikh Salman and Dr al-Jamri were careful to stress their commitment to dialogue, the fact that the programme was broadcast signified that relations between Qatar and Bahrain had virtually broken down.