Qatar vs Saudi Arabia: Story of Middle East tensions, information warfare


In a dramatic development that sent shockwaves through the Middle East this week, Saudi Arabia, United Arab of Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain, followed by Libya, Yemen and the Maldives, cut off all diplomatic ties with Qatar – a lil’ emirate that borders Saudi Arabia.

The coordinated stir was led by Saudi Arabia, which accused Qatar, the largest exporter of liquid gas and the country with the highest per capita income, of supporting terrorists and sectarian groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.

In a statement released by Saudi-run news agency SPA, the Gulf nations also claimed Qatar helped spread radical messages through its media, an apparent reference to Al Jazeera, the Doha-based state-funded broadcaster that prides itself on being an independent news network.

The accusations against Qatar aren’t particularly fresh. In fact in 2014, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain recalled their respective ambassadors from Qatar. Even then, the Gulf countries accused Qatar of backing the Muslim Brotherhood, which in two thousand thirteen lost power in Egypt following a military coup, and indirectly targeted Al Jazeera for spreading propaganda.

The latest diplomatic standoff goes one up over the two thousand fourteen crisis, with Saudi Arabia and others cutting off land, sea and air access to Qatar, a stir that wasn’t made three years ago. In fact, the row has coerced Qatar Airways to literally fall in line after Qatar’s neighbouring countries closed their airspaces for the emirate’s national carrier.

Photo Credits – Twitter/@spectatorindex

While tensions inbetween Riyadh and Doha have been simmering for a while, the spark that ignited the fresh Middle East diplomatic row seems to a supposed hack and what Qatar claims is fake news.

On May 24, the Qatar News Agency published a report on its website that quoted the Qatari Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, talking negatively about the Donald Trump administration in the United States and speaking positively about Qatar’s relations with Iran.

It should be noted that the Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia are staunch rivals and so, unsurprisingly, Al-Thani’s statements were carried prominently by official media in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya carried a report titled ‘Qatari Emir: Doha has ‘tensions’ with the Donald Trump administration’ that quoted Al-Thani as telling, “There is no wisdom in harboring hostility toward Iran” and that Qatar’s relations with Israel are “good”.

Qatar instantaneously denied that its Emir had made any such statements and claimed that the website of the Qatar News Agency, as well as its Twitter account, were hacked. (A tweet from the QNA account had quoted Qatar’s foreign minister as telling the country was recalling its ambassadors from neighbouring countries, including Saudi Arabia).

On the same day, the Saudi-run Al Arabiya carried a report titled ‘Proof that Qatar News Agency was not hacked ‘ and listed four supposed reasons the Qatari claim was false. One of the reasons listed was that Facebook (QNA’s Instagram account had carried the Qatai Emir’s controversial comments) “is very difficult to hack.”

On May 26, the ‘independent’ Al Jazeera carried a brief lump on how the QNA hack had highlighted the problem of fake news . “‘Fake news’, decried by everyone from Donald Trump to Theresa May to Vladimir Putin, has now shown up in the broadcasts of Sky News Arabia and Al Arabiya news channels,” the report began.

“Despite Qatari denials, Sky News Arabia and Al Arabiya kept running the discredited story, prompting complaints of questionable journalism at the channels,” Al Jazeera said in its report, ending with, “Al Jazeera approached Sky News Arabia’s joint holder, Sky PLC in the UK, to ask what media standards their Gulf affiliate adheres to, but they have yet to comment.”

Foreign policy analysts and publications have been quick to note that the Qatari Amir’s purported statement was among the factors that prompted Saudi Arabia to cut off diplomatic ties with Qatar.

Meantime, American news media today claimed that United States intelligence believes Russian hackers were responsible for the Qatar News Agency hack. US news channel CNN reported that hackers of Russian nationality were believed to have breach QNA’s network and planted a ‘fake story’ about the Qatari Amir’s statements.

British publication The Guardian carried a similar report, telling a probe by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (Al Jazeera had earlier reported that the FBI had been roped in to investigate the alleged QNA hack) had found Russian hackers – not necessarily Russian government – to be responsible.

Interestingly, US President Donald Trump, who just ended a journey to Saudi Arabia, seemingly took credit for the embargo on Qatar. Trump said on Twitter, “So good to see the Saudi Arabia visit with the King and fifty countries already paying off. They said they would take a hard line on funding extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”

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