The maritime boundaries of the Arab Gulf states

Summary: Iraq and the six GCC states share the Gulf with Iran and with each other. In many cases, maritime boundaries between them have been agreed; in other cases, disputes remain. Where offshore oil and gas deposits do not fall neatly under the sovereignty of one state, cooperative arrangements have often been instituted.

We are again grateful to Greg Shapland for this posting. He is a writer on politics, security and resources in the MENA region. He was Head of Research Analysts in the FCO from 2010-13 and is now an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.

In our post of 25 July, we looked at the maritime boundaries of the Arab states in the Mediterranean. In this post, we consider the maritime boundaries of the Arab states with coastlines on the Persian Gulf.

The Arab states of the Gulf (the six GCC states and Iraq) have maritime boundaries with Iran, on the other side of the Gulf. They also have maritime boundaries with one another. The existence of numerous islands, reefs and shoals makes for complications, especially when sovereignty is disputed.

The Gulf is a much smaller body of water than the Mediterranean, being less than a tenth of the size of the latter. It is also shallower, with the whole sea-bed being continental shelf. (A useful diagram and an explanation of the technical terms relating to the various forms of jurisdiction over the sea and sea-bed can be found here.) Moreover, the oil and gas reserves beneath the Gulf are much larger and more accessible than those in the Mediterranean and were discovered decades earlier. (The first offshore oil-field to be found in the Gulf, Safaniya, was discovered in Saudi waters in 1951. It is also the largest offshore field in the world.)

Maritime boundaries between Iran and the Arab states

Iran’s maritime boundaries with four of the Arab states on the other side of the Gulf were agreed many years ago, before the Islamic Revolution of 1979 (and also before the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed in 1982). Under the Shah, Iran signed agreements with Saudi Arabia in 1968, with Qatar in 1969, with Bahrain in 1971, and with Oman in 1974. Not all of the boundary between Iran and Oman was covered by the 1974 agreement but the remaining section was agreed in 2015 , although the UAE objected to one portion of it .

Iran and Iraq have an established boundary in the Shatt al-Arab, down to the point at which that estuary joins the sea. However, Iran and Iraq have not yet agreed on a line to divide their respective claims to offshore areas. The possible consequences of such a lack of a settled boundary were illustrated by the incident in 2007 in which Iranian forces captured 15 British sailors who believed they were operating in Iraqi territorial waters. There are also implications for the location of offshore oil facilities, whether export terminals or drilling rigs. (Last November, Iraq invited bids for an oilfield located in its territorial waters.)

Similarly, Iran has no agreed maritime boundary with either Kuwait or the UAE. In the case of Kuwait, the delimitation of the boundary depends on a resolution of the Iraq/Kuwait dispute (see below). In the case of the UAE, a settlement of the dispute over the status of the three islands (the Greater and Lesser Tunbs, and Abu Musa) which both Iran and the UAE claim is a necessary condition of the delimitation of their maritime boundary. (Iran occupied the islands in 1971, the day before the UAE became independent from the UK.) Last month, UAE Minister of State Dr Sultan al-Jaber, called on Iran to negotiate bilaterally over the islands or to resolve the issue at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), as other Emirati officials have done before.

Maritime boundaries between the Arab states

Most of the maritime boundaries between the Arab states, including sovereignty over islands, were delimited by bilateral agreements. In several cases, these agreements were reached with the involvement of British representatives who, because of the UK’s treaty arrangements with the Gulf sheikhdoms, were able to help them settle their disputes or settled them on their behalf.

In 1991, Qatar which asserted sovereignty over islands and shoals also claimed by Bahrain, resorted to the ICJ, which (in 2001) divided the islands and shoals between the two states. The judgement relied in part on a British decision in 1939 which allocated the Hawar Islands to Bahrain.

An initial and very vague attempt to delimit the maritime boundary between Iraq and Kuwait was made by the UK in diplomatic correspondence in 1932, while the UK was still responsible for the foreign policy of both countries. Although the correspondence allocated the islands of Warba and Bubiyan to Kuwait, the location of the boundary was otherwise not described. Following the expulsion of Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, the UN-mandated Iraq-Kuwait Boundary Commission produced a precise delimitation of the boundary, based on existing understandings (including the 1932 correspondence). The Commission’s line was accepted by the Security Council in Resolution 833 of May 1993.

Drawing the boundary in this way represented an imposed decision by the UN rather than a mediation between the two countries. Kuwait accepted the decision. For its part, Iraq protested that the boundary threatened Iraq’s access to the sea (the Khawr – or Khor – Abdullah, in which the boundary was drawn, is a narrow waterway and represents the only means by which shipping can enter and exit Iraq), even though the decision included an assurance that Iraq would have such access as a right, under the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In 2013, Iraq and Kuwait signed an agreement affirming the UN line and regulating navigation in the Khawr Abdullah. However, some sections of Iraqi opinion continue to believe that Iraq got a raw deal and remain sensitive to any move that looks to them like a further encroachment on Iraqi rights .

Cross-border cooperation over offshore oil and gas

There was an early realization among Gulf states that oil and gas deposits that were divided between them by maritime boundaries would be most efficiently exploited by cooperation of various kinds. Joint development agreements, an arrangement whereby two states agree to develop and share in agreed proportions the oil or gas found within an area the sovereignty of which is disputed, have been used in the Gulf since 1958. And the 1960s saw the introduction of an arrangement known as “unitisation”, which involves the treatment of an oil or gas deposit as a single resource (which of course it is). The first agreements containing clauses of this nature were signed by Gulf states shortly after they appeared in North Sea agreements. Generally speaking, this sort of cross-border cooperation for the development of oil and gas deposits has proven efficient in the Gulf, just as it has in the North Sea.

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