Resolving the militarised territorial dispute between Bahrain and Qatar


The longstanding militarised territorial dispute between Bahrain and Qatar regarding the Hawar Islands was prevented by the diplomatic intervention of the Government of Saudi Arabia and resolved by the International Court of Justice in 2001.

The Hawar Islands, an archipelago in the Persian Gulf, have been the subject of a territorial dispute between the ruling families of Bahrain and Qatar since the eighteenth century. The British formally awarded the territory to Bahrain in the 1930s, however the islands remained contested after independence. Following the British withdrawal from the region, Saudi Arabia led efforts to mediate the dispute, eventually convincing both sides to take the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).1 However, before the case made it to The Hague, the dispute almost sparked an interstate conflict. In 1986, the Government of Bahrain began constructing a coastguard station on the Hawar Islands, prompting the Government of Qatar government to dispatch helicopter gunships and soldiers to the area and arrest the construction workers. Bahrain responded by deploying its own troops to the Islands, and the two countries were on the cusp of war until the Saudi government intervened once again.2

Saudi-led efforts continued until 1991, and although they succeeded in defusing the immediate crisis, little progress was made in finding a resolution to the dispute. The Qatari government submitted its case to the ICJ in July 1991, although it took until November 1995 and some preliminary judgements from the ICJ for both parties to agree to the terms by which the case would be judged.3 While the case was assessed in The Hague, the Saudi government continued its efforts to reconcile the Bahraini and Qatari administrations, mediating talks between both governments until diplomatic relations between them were re-established in 1997.4 In 2001, the ICJ declared that the Hawar Islands were indeed the territory of Bahrain due to previous treaties with the British, although a smaller dispute over the town of Zubarah was settled in favour of Qatar.5 Both states endorsed the ruling, closing the longest and most complex case in the history of the ICJ.6 The concerted, two-decade mediation effort of the Saudi Arabian government helped to contain a major crisis and prevent a war between Bahrain and Qatar, however the territorial dispute between the two countries remained a potential source of armed conflict until the adjudication of the ICJ provided a permanent resolution to the conflict.

1 Krista Wiegand. “Bahrain, Qatar, and the Hawar Islands: Resolution of a Gulf Territorial Dispute.” The Middle East Journal, Vol. 66, No. 1. (2012)

2 Ramin Seddiq. “Border Disputes on the Arabian Peninsula.” The Washington Institute Policy Watch, No. 525. (2001) Available at: (Accessed 26/11/2020)

3 ICJ. Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions between Qatar and Bahrain (Qatar v. Bahrain). (ICJ, 2020) Available at: (Accessed 26/11/2020)

4 Wiegand. “Bahrain, Qatar, and the Hawar Islands.” p.14

5 ICJ. Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions between Qatar and Bahrain (Qatar v. Bahrain).

6 BBC. “Gulf islands row settled.” BBC News. (2001) Available at: (Accessed 26/11/2020)

Start Year


End Year



The Hawar Islands, Bahrain

UN Regional Group


Type of Conflict

Risk of an interstate conflict

Type of Initiative

Diplomacy, Mediation of a peace agreement, Resolution of a militarised territorial dispute

Main Implementing Organisation(s)

The Government of Saudi Arabia and the International Court of Justice




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