GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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From border dispute to bridge: The Bahrain-Qatar territorial conflict in postcolonial perspective
Paper Proposal Text :
In 1937, Sir Charles Belgrave, British adviser to the Emir of Bahrain, convened a meeting between both parties in the Bahrain-Qatar border dispute, in his living room. The meeting included a member of the Al-Thani royal family of Qatar, a prominent Qatari gentleman, and two members of the Bahraini royal family. The cozy living room summit kicked off a slew of negotiations between the two parties, involving British political agents and residents, royal consultants, and others, as documented in Belgrave’s personal diary and published memoir (Belgrave 1925-1957; 1960). Contextualizing Belgrave’s commentary with other political reports of the day reveals the lived experience of a particular group of local policymakers and notables as they attempted to make sense of the rapidly changing political, cultural and social meanings of boundaries and territorial control in the era of British protectorates in the Gulf.

During the border negotiations in the late 1930s, on the one hand, the parties wrestled with tribal claims, historical territorial control and abandonment, uses of particular lands and waters, and the symbolic meaning of particular places to local people. These indigenous and more enduring considerations seemed thwarted, on the other hand, by the directives from London which, although not ruling directly on the dispute from the metropole, mandated a modernizing political framework that privileged more recent colonial patterns of power and control in territorial claims-making, such as the presence or absence of tax and customs collection in a territory. Although ultimately the conversations of the 1930s failed to result in a resolution of the conflict, the later judgment by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in Bahrain v. Qatar (2001) interprets and relies on the events of the 1930s in a way that privileged the logic of the British colonial project over the historical, social and political patterns that preceded it-- patterns one court commentator dubbed “dynastic and emotional attachments” (Dunn, no page number). As such, the ICJ judgment can be read as evidence of the post-colonial reification of western notions of territory and control in the contemporary age of globalization and rapidly expanding international law.

This paper employs sociologist George Steinmetz’s (2007; 2008) notion of the local colony (or protectorate) as a semi-autonomous field with its own unique form of symbolic capital grounded in political representatives’ ability to understand and manipulate local knowledge and customs, or “ethnographic sagacity” (Steinmetz, 2008, p. 598). Through performing such knowledge, Belgrave documented, from an albeit subjective and partisan position, the intimacies of a border dispute as a lived experience not captured in official documents relied upon in the 2001 judgment. Further, reading the judgment from a post-colonial perspective suggests that the events of the 1930s, as interpreted by the judgment in 2001, suggests the legal cementing of the colonial rupture in the meaning of territorial contests, ultimately making the symbolic landscape of territorial disputes in the contemporary age very different than it was a hundred years earlier.

To make the argument about the significance of the 1930s, the paper will also draw on sociologist William Sewell’s notion of key events as theoretical categories. Sewell (1996) argues that structure shapes social practice, yet it is the latter than also constitutes and reproduces that structure. As a network of cultural schemas, modes of power, and distribution of resources, within social structure events sometimes occur which are ultimately transforming of it. In a general sense, the notion of a colonial encounter as an event which indelibly ruptures local historical patterns also finds support in the work of post-colonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1999), among other post-colonial scholars.

Overall, this research aims to contribute to understanding the local politics and personalities which drove a critical historical moment in the border dispute between Bahrain and Qatar and how these events were interpreted by the International Court of Justice in Bahrain v. Qatar (2001). It takes up the project proposed by geographer Richard Schofield (2013) to engage in studies which “ not just accurately recall... treaty histories but to engage with the thinking and assumptions behind their creation and the way in which disputes were subsequently characterised as operating” (p. 21). Similar to his study of boundary disputes in the Shatt Al-Arab, the paper describes a hanging-on of colonial imaginaries in more contemporary Gulf boundary disputes. The research also suggests that the colonial territorialization of the Gulf and its subsequent ramifications are game-changers that cannot be easily undone or smoothed over. At the same time, new patterns have emerged which offer interesting possibilities for cooperation among states in the region going forward in the post-colonial milieu. The paper will conclude with a brief analysis of the events surrounding the planning of the Qatar-Bahrain causeway in light of the prior dispute and suggest it as a meaningful contemporary event through which to sense the again-evolving meaning of territorial borders for policymakers in the Gulf region today.


Bahrain v. Qatar (2001). The International Court of Justice, The Hague, Netherlands. Retrieved from

Belgrave, C. (1926-1957). Papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave 1926-1957. Retrieved from

Belgrave, C. (1960). Personal column. London: Hutchinson & Co.

Dunn, M.C. (2001, March 23). The Bahrain-Qatar border dispute: The world court decision, part I. The Estimate. Retrieved from

Schofield, R. (2013). Back to 1975 and all that: Linking the technicalities and underlying dynamics of international boundary disputes in the northern Persian Gulf. Environment, Politics and Development Working Paper Series. Department of Geography, King’s College London. Retrieved from

Sewell, W.H. (1996). Historical events as transformations of structures: Inventing revolution at the Bastille. Theory and Society, 25: 841-881.

Spivak, G.C. (1999). A critique of postcolonial reason: Toward a history of the vanishing present. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Steinmetz, G. (2007). The devil's handwriting: Precoloniality and the German colonial state in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Steinmetz, G. (2008). The colonial state as a social field: Ethnographic capital and native policy in the German Overseas Empire before 1914. American Sociological Review, 589-612.