x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Bahraini fishermen blame development for forcing them into gunsights of Qatar

Bahrainis blame land reclamation projects and the resultant depletion of fish stocks for forcing them farther out to sea, and into violent conflicts with neighbouring Qatar.

Abdullah Ali Maki, a fisherman, points to a reclamation project at what is left of his Dair village to make way for a housing project.
Abdullah Ali Maki, a fisherman, points to a reclamation project at what is left of his Dair village to make way for a housing project.

The shooting of a fisherman in Qatari waters at the weekend has underscored the pressure Bahrain's massive land reclamation projects have placed on the fishing industry and its relationship with its GCC neighbour.

Adel Ali Mohammed, 37, a Bahraini fisherman, was shot and seriously injured by the Qatari Coast and Borders Security forces on Saturday after he was caught fishing in Qatari waters. The shooting came less than a year after another Bahraini fisherman drowned when his boat was rammed by a Qatari coastguard vessel. It took three days for his body to be recovered. In both instances, the Qatari authorities said they used force because the fishermen failed to comply with their orders to stop.

However, Bahraini politicians blame government policies regarding sea reclamation for the troubles facing fishermen, and question their legality and necessity. Their claims are supported by environmentalists, who point to the detrimental effects of reclamation on the marine environment and livelihood of those who depend on the sea. "Had the government not embarked on the reclamation which violates the law, the citizens would not have had to sail far from the mainland," said Abdulhussain al Metqawie, the deputy chairman of the parliament's foreign affairs, defence, and security committee.

"This tragic situation is brought about by the influential greedy and the state officials who turn a blind eye to the violations as if it is a green light to take away from the poor and disadvantaged." In March, a report by a parliamentary committee said public lands covering an area of 65 square kilometres, including land reclaimed from the sea, had been sold or rented to private investors in recent years at an estimated loss of 15 billion dinars (Dh146bn) to the national treasury. The report found major irregularities in the government's management and leasing of state-owned properties and caused one of the biggest rifts between the government and the legislature since parliament was restored eight years ago.

Mr al Metqawie's fellow MP from the Al Wefaq party, Sheikh Hamza al Dairi, described the shooting as a "source of concern" and troubling sign of the state of relations between the two "brotherly" countries. Both MPs called for a quick resolution of the border issue to ensure the safety of the fishermen. Members of the Public Commission for Protection of Marine Resources, Environment and Wildlife said last month they were considering commissioning a study and imposing a fishing ban in certain areas to save some species from extinction. They said land reclamation and overfishing were the two main threats, according to local news reports.

In 2001, Bahrain and Qatar resolved their five-decade-long maritime border dispute after turning to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. At the height of the dispute in 1986, Qatari gunboats opened fire on construction workers on one of the contested islands and took a few Bahrainis prisoner. The ICJ ruling awarded Bahrain the largest of the disputed Hewar islands while most of the areas rich in marine life were awarded to Qatar. Since the ruling, the two countries have embarked on building a causeway to link Bahrain and Qatar, planned an adjacent railway track as part of a GCC network, and are in talks to have Doha supply Manama with its ever-increasing gas needs.

During the same time, dozens of fishing communities that use to line the Bahraini shore have disappeared after being cut off from the sea because of reclamation. The fishermen said they are forced to venture farther out and in many instances into Qatari and Saudi waters. Saturday's shooting has brought reclamation once more to the forefront of local debate. It has also brought about criticism of Qatar's treatment of Bahraini citizens.

Initial reports by the local media, quoting sources from the Bahraini coastguard, said that the Bahraini boat had threatened the CBS vessel and that six other fishing boats had fled the scene. However, his family said Mr Mohammed was shot in the back after he stopped and raised his hands upon hearing the warning shot that was fired in the air. He was airlifted to Hamad Hospital in Qatar, while two Indian fishermen who were on board his boat and two more Bahraini fishermen in separate boats were arrested.

On Tuesday, a Qatari court cleared all five fishermen of any wrongdoing and released their boats. Mr Mohammed, a father-of-four, remained in hospital yesterday. Last night, his condition was described as stable and he was able to walk a short distance with assistance, his family said. Adelah, Mr Mohammed's sister, said in an interview at their home in Dair village: "He did not do anything wrong. He was trying to provide for his family and even if he did something wrong, it doesn't merit taking his life away.

"My brother will not be able to work for months, he will require more medical care, and we are struggling as it is and this will only make it harder to make ends meet. He is supporting his family and our family and this is his only source of income." Mr Mohammed's wife, who wished to be identified only as Umm (Mother of) Ali, said she could not comprehend how Qataris can shoot at Bahrainis. "How can a neighbouring and brotherly country shoot at the citizens of the other? These fishermen are not animals," she said, adding that the family would pursue legal action.

Abdullah Ali Maki, 41, who fishes alongside Mr Mohammed, insisted that land reclamation and the depleting fish stocks are the reason behind Bahraini fishermen taking more and more risks. "I've been fishing since I was in fifth grade. Fishing is my life, but if I get the chance and I was properly compensated, I will not do it anymore," said Mr Maki, who has five children. He spoke inside his small boat in a fenced-off marina surrounded by machinery, filling in the sea to make land for a new private housing project. "With the limited fishing area ? we are forced to fish close to the border."

@Email:mmahdi@thenational.ae