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Hawar Islands

Strung out along the west coast of the Gulf state of Qatar, the Hawar Islands have long been the subject of disputed sovereignty with neighbouring Bahrain, which controls them. But the territorial row created some unexpected beneficiaries, as Jonathan Fryer has been discovering.

The sixteen islets of the Hawar archipelago used to be a favoured base for pearl-fishing. In the days before oil, pearls were the major source of wealth for Bahrain and its near neighbour Qatar. But the natural pearl trade collapsed in the 1930s, in the face of competition from cheaper cultured pearls from Japan. These days, the bitter life of the divers who would plunge into the sea at the height of summer, in search of pearl-bearing oysters, is just a distant memory. But Bahrain's ruler, King Hamad, likes to talk of the Hawar Islands as the "Priceless Pearls of Bahrain". That's not just because Bahrain has consistently rebuffed efforts by Qatar to gain sovereignty of the islands. Since 1996, Hawar has been Bahrain's most important nature reserve. And the archipelago offers both naturalists and eco-tourists a rich diversity of birds, animals and sea-creatures that is most unusual for the region.

Indeed, the flora and fauna of Hawar have been the main beneficiaries of the stand-off between Bahrain and Qatar over the islands' ownership. Oil and gas exploration has been kept at bay, and the wildlife has been allowed to thrive. This includes a spectacular colony of Socotra cormorants, estimated to be 200,000-strong, which cover the sea like a vast rain-cloud when they take off. Herds of dugongs or sea cows -- some of which can reach three metres long -- ply the coastal waters, grazing on sea-grass. There are even Arabian oryx, the twin-horned antelope that had become extinct in the wild, but which have been reintroduced in various sanctuaries in the Gulf region, including Hawar.

Officially, the Hawar Islands are uninhabited, so far as humans are concerned. But that's not strictly true. The Bahrain Defence Force maintains a garrison there, just to make sure that the Qataris don't suddenly get frisky. Or that some individual or group doesn't settle on the islands and declare them independent. That's not as fanciful a notion as it might sound, as one can find a putative Hawar Islands separatist flag posted on internet websites. So the soldiers run around the spectacularly barren landscape, keeping their eyes out for any intruder. And actually, there are several dozen other humans who work and sleep on the main island: the staff of a small but comfortable hotel resort that the Bahrainis have recently developed, catering for locals and foreign visitors alike.

Access to the resort is by speed-boat from the jetty at Dur, on the main island of Bahrain. It's only a 45-minute ride, yet one still gets the feeling of arriving somewhere tremendously remote. The hotel and its large swimming pool, flanked by towering water-chutes, stand out incongruously against the natural backdrop. Beyond the resort's perimeter fence, army jeeps scud by. Bahraini families predominate among the guests, especially at weekends. Some appear totally Westernised, the youngsters in particular dressed in jeans and baseball caps. But there are also more traditional groups. The young wife who sat with her husband and two children at the table next to mine at lunch the other day was completely shrouded in an enveloping black robe. And as she was wearing sunglasses, one couldn't even see her eyes. She had to lift up the long black face-veil that hung from above her nose every time she wanted to transfer a forkful of food into her mouth.

I wondered how this modest Islamic lady would react to the Filipina woman who'd come out to Hawar that morning on the same speedboat as myself. A very glamourous woman, she was accompanied by an unusually plain teenage daughter. As for the mother, age had not withered her, and designer clothes -- including massive white platform shoes -- added to her look. She had enough luggage to sink the boat. Once installed in the hotel, she kept disappearing, only to re-emerge in yet another stunning outfit. After lunch, at the pool, the Bahraini family was again sitting near me, the husband and children in swimming costumes, but the wife still completely covered. Then the Filipina arrived, swathed in a black fishnet robe, an attendant padding behind her with a pile of towels. Her hair was immaculate, and around her neck hung a splendid string of pearls. She peeled off the fishnet robe, to reveal a bathing costume that would have turned heads even in Rio de Janeiro, as it totally exposed her buttocks. I looked over to the family to watch their reaction, expecting some expression of outrage. But instead, from deep within the black shroud of the wife, a gurgle of laughter emerged that turned into a torrent of mirth, echoed by seabirds passing overhead. Undeterred, the Filipina -- still in her pearls -- stepped gracefully into the water, as the Hawar Islands welcomed another exotic species into its midst.