The summer of 1987, before I arrived in Doha in October of that year, the governments of Qatar and Bahrain adopted threatening postures towards one another, the result of a dispute about the Hawar islands off the coast of Qatar. Both countries claimed the islands, which can be seen from the western coast of Qatar on a clear day and are miles away from Bahrain.
The islands are uninhabited, but are in an area with rich petroleum reserves. The increased tension between the two countries led to the closing of selected air lanes in the Gulf* to international flights. The US government was concerned that the closure of the air lanes put both commercial and military flights at risk since Iran and Iraq were also battling one another at the time, and their battles involved guns, not just words.
For a short period of time Bahrain severed communications links between the two countries. This proved to be a challenge to the embassy in Qatar. Without telegraphic communications, no reporting on the war could be sent from Doha to Washington. Instead, telegrams had to be printed and carried by non-professional courier from Doha to Bahrain where they were sent from the embassy in Bahrain. The fact that all reporting about the dispute, covering both the Bahraini and the Qatari perspectives, arrived in Washington with the name of the US Ambassador to Bahrain at the bottom was a source of some embarrassment to the US Ambassador to Qatar, I was told.
I saw one small remnant of the dispute–a T-shirt ordered by the Doha Hash House Harriers that included the outline of the country of Qatar on the front where a pocket would have been. In addition to the neatly printed country boundary, an indistinct blob made by a permanent Magic Marker appeared to the left of the outline. Qatari Customs would not release the shirts to the Hashers until they added something to reflect that the islands off Qatar’s west coast were part of the country.
Hearing the story from my colleagues on my arrival reminded me of a Ziggy cartoon I had seen just before leaving the US for Doha. In the cartoon, Ziggy was watching TV as the announcer said, War broke out today between two insignificant little countries you probably haven’t heard of.
Sometimes life is just as funny as a cartoon.
FYI: The dispute between Qatar and Bahrain was settled in 2001 with Bahrain being named the owner.
*The Gulf referred to here has two names, depending on which side of it one sits. When I was in 8th grade geography, I learned its name was the Persian Gulf. On the southern side of that body of water, however, it is known as the Arabian Gulf. I saw atlases on sale in Qatar where the word “Persian” had been blacked out, again with black Magic Marker. I choose to refer to it as either “The Gulf” or “The Gulf that has two names.”