Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Gulf Reconciliation Efforts Threatened by Border Disputes

The Gulf reconciliation has been threatened by border disputes for decades, and peaceful resolutions are for these longstanding disagreements.

Gulf Reconciliation Efforts Threatened by Border Disputes
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (R) shakes hands with his Saudi counterpart Faisal bin Farhan in Tehran. Atta KENARE / AFP

This article was translated from Arabic to English 

Ali Noureddine

Since 2022, the Gulf region has witnessed significant developments leading to the end of Iran‘s diplomatic boycott by some of its Arab neighbors, in a process that has come to be known as “Iranian-Gulf Arab” reconciliation.

Following the return of ambassadors from the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait to Tehran in August 2022, Iran successfully negotiated the resumption of diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia in March 2023.

Subsequently, Bahrain also initiated discreet talks with Tehran, with the aim of normalizing bilateral relations and addressing long-standing differences.

This series of events has fostered a positive atmosphere in the Gulf region, indicating a shift toward enhanced political and security stability.

Notably, other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, specifically Qatar and Oman, have maintained amicable relations with Tehran.

The broader implications of these reconciliations on political dynamics within the Arab region were also underscored, especially as Egypt embarked on efforts to restore its relationship with Iran in June 2023, influenced by the successful reconciliations between Iran and the Arab Gulf states.

However, the momentum of these positive developments has been disrupted in the latter half of 2023 due to events linked to Iran’s border disputes with its neighboring Arab Gulf countries which have begun to strain the newfound peace.

The disputes encompass various issues, including the contested Dorra gas field, subject to disagreements between Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Another set of conflicts stems from the historical contention surrounding the three islands of Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa, which are subjects of dispute between Iran and the UAE.

While these border disputes have roots dating back several decades, they have recently witnessed a marked escalation, heightening the risk of hostilities. This casts a shadow over the future of the “Iranian-Gulf Arab” reconciliation process unless peaceful resolutions can be attained for these longstanding disagreements.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column]

Dorra field: The renewal of the historic conflict

The dispute regarding the Dorra natural gas field dates back to the 1960s, when Iran and Kuwait granted concessions to foreign companies to invest in the field.

The Dorra field is situated in the Gulf waters between the two countries and contains estimated gas reserves of over 220 billion cubic meters (about 7 trillion cubic feet), roughly equivalent to 11 per cent of Kuwait’s original gas discovery. This substantial reserve explains Kuwait’s firm stance on claiming ownership of the contested area from Iran.

Over the years, attempts at investment in the field have faltered due to disagreements about ownership and the reluctance of international companies to operate in disputed territories.

In 2000, an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to define maritime borders acknowledged joint ownership of the Dorra field, but this delineation did not include any shared area with Iran, further contributing to the ongoing historical dispute.

At certain stages, Kuwait raised objections to Iranian military maneuvers, through which Tehran sought to establish a new reality and assert its control over a portion of the maritime field.

Since mid-2023, disputes over the field have rekindled, escalating sharply between Iran on one side, and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on the other

In July 2023, Reuters leaked Kuwaiti government documents indicating the country’s readiness to prepare the required infrastructure for field investment. The investment plan suggests that the project is set to commence within a few months, in partnership with Saudi Arabia.

Shortly thereafter, Kuwait’s oil minister, Saad Al-Barrak, confirmed this news, emphasizing that his country will not wait for the demarcation of maritime boundaries with Iran before initiating the investment process.

Iran’s oil minister, Javad Oji, responded sharply in late July 2023, stating that Iran would prioritize securing its rights and interests and would not accept any encroachment on those rights. Iran countered Kuwait’s move by declaring its own imminent plans to invest in the field, disregarding the need for a border demarcation with Kuwait. This stance even included a threat to forcefully engage in gas extraction from the disputed region without prior agreement.

Currently, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait assert their joint ownership of the field and demand joint participation as a single negotiating entity in talks with Iran to establish permanent maritime borders. Their intention is to impose existing demarcation outcomes and shared understandings on Iran, rather than start negotiations anew among the three nations.

Simultaneously, Kuwait emphasizes the application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to delineate borders, considering the impact of its islands on the demarcation process, thus claiming rights to the entire field.

On the other side, Iran has not widely disclosed its negotiation priorities regarding this matter. However, in March 2023, it tried to enter bilateral negotiations with Kuwait, attempting to evade joint negotiations with both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, as the latter two countries demand. It appears that Iran is simultaneously trying to prevent the use of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in this demarcation process to avoid factoring in the influence of Kuwaiti islands.

In practical terms, recent developments in this issue seem linked to the growing global demand for liquefied gas, particularly in the European Union markets due to disruptions in Russian gas supply. This context drives Kuwait and Saudi Arabia’s urgency to tap into this field, marking their return to investment after a six-decade hiatus caused by the border dispute. Kuwait’s efforts are additionally tied to its plan to achieve gas self-sufficiency by 2030, reflecting domestic demand growth.

It is evident that both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia acknowledge that commencing investments in the field necessitates reaching an agreement with Tehran on demarcation, as neither international nor local energy companies will commit substantial investments to the field while legal or security disputes exist that could jeopardize operations in the future.

However, it is apparent that both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are trying to strengthen their positions before entering border negotiations, presenting a unified front as owners of an integrated project intended for investment in the field.

Despite the escalating intensity between the two parties, culminating in a mutual threat over gas extraction without an agreement, hopes are pinned on potential mediations by key nations with close ties to all involved parties.

China, given its status as a significant energy supplier drawing resources from the Gulf region with a vested interest in mitigating the crisis, emerges as a prominent candidate. This also parallels its successful mediation in the recent “Iranian-Gulf Arab” reconciliation.

The return of the UAE-Iran dispute over the three islands

Since the UAE gained its independence in 1971, Iran has forcibly seized three islands located in the Gulf waters between the two countries. The most significant of these is Abu Musa Island, spanning 20 square kilometers, which was under the jurisdiction of the emirate of Sharjah before Iran’s takeover.

Following this is Greater Tunb Island, covering 9 square kilometers, and Lesser Tunb Island, spanning merely 2 square kilometers. It is important to note that both Greater and Lesser Tunb were previously under the authority of the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah before Iran’s control.

Iran has since been constructing tourism and military facilities in order to change the identity of the islands and solidify its sovereignty. In contrast, the UAE has expressed reservations about these endeavors, deeming the islands as “occupied” territories. Iran has also issued official deeds for the islands, integrating them administratively into the Iranian Real Estate Regulatory Registry.

Moreover, Iran has established an airport on Greater Tunb Island, aiming to facilitate Iranian tourism investments. As a result of these actions, Iran staunchly asserts its ownership of the three islands, categorically dismissing any possibility of discussion, as stated by Iranian officials.

The strategic significance of these islands becomes evident when considering their vantage point overlooking the Strait of Hormuz, a critical route through which 40 per cent of global oil production transits. These islands also command key commercial shipping lanes within the Gulf, thereby granting control over maritime traffic. Additionally, their deep surrounding waters make them suitable for hosting large military vessels and submarines.

After over five decades of Iranian occupation, the dispute between the two nations regarding the island ownership resurfaced in July 2023. Following the Sixth Ministerial Conference for Strategic Dialogue between Russia and the Gulf Cooperation Council, the UAE insisted on incorporating a statement in the final conference document.

This statement expressed support for the UAE’s pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the issue of the islands – Greater Tunb, Lesser Tunb and Abu Musa – through either bilateral negotiations or the International Court of Justice. This approach aligns with international law and the United Nations Charter, aiming to resolve the matter based on international legitimacy.

This move angered Iran, particularly since the Gulf states collaborated to include this pro-UAE stance in the conference statement, despite Iran’s earlier expectations of Russia’s backing in regional matters. The Iranian Foreign Ministry swiftly responded with a strongly worded statement affirming Iran’s perpetual ownership of the islands. The ministry also cautioned against the potential harm such statements could inflict on Iran’s diplomatic relations with neighboring countries.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry further communicated security messages to the Arab Gulf states, stressing the importance of cooperative maritime security within the Gulf region and the Sea of Oman. Iran emphasized that regional nations possess the capability to ensure security and safety without external intervention. Notably, the Foreign Ministry alluded to the historical role of the Revolutionary Guard in the Gulf region, underscoring their enduring influence.

Consequently, the discussions surrounding the three islands and the Dorra gas field have cast a shadow over the positive atmosphere accompanying Iran’s recent reconciliation with Arab Gulf states. Doubts linger regarding the sustainability of these reconciliations should conflicts persist over historical disputes between Iran and the Arab Gulf states.

Conversely, some analysts speculate that Arab Gulf nations may have purposely raised contentious issues with Iran in recent months, possibly as a strategy to prompt Iran into making concessions on these matters, potentially facilitating broader regional reconciliations and agreements.

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Kawthar Metwalli
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