The normally taciturn politics of the Gulf Arab states have taken a bizarre turn this week after an apparent hack of Qatar News Agency (QNA) has thrown the region into a political crisis. As Bloomberg reports:
A United Arab Emirates minister said Gulf Arab monarchies are going through a “severe” crisis, an apparent reference to a spat between a Saudi-led alliance and Qatar over ties with Iran. […]
Tension has flared within the six-member bloc since state-run Qatar News Agency carried remarks criticizing efforts to isolate Iran after U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman took turns to attack the Islamic Republic at an American-Muslim summit in Riyadh last week. Qatari officials said the statements, which have since been removed, were the work of hackers. The denial didn’t stop U.A.E. and Saudi media from accusing Qatar of breaking away from the GCC’s position against Iran.
The supposedly hacked statement from Emir Tamim was widely publicized in regional media before it was taken down. It was followed by an announcement on QNA’s twitter feed that Qatar was withdrawing its ambassadors from Saudi, Egypt, Kuwait, Bahrain and the UAE— likewise apparently faked and subsequently deleted.
The consequences, however, seem quite real. The Qatar-backed Al Jazeera network has now been blocked by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Egypt, ever the opportunist when it comes to Gulf politics, blocked Al Jazeera while also using the incident as cover to crackdown on domestic media.
Meanwhile the war of words has only escalated. It’s an unwritten rule of the GCC that their media outlets, even the nominally independent ones, will refrain from criticism of member countries. Since the QNA hack, regional media have published a flurry of scathing articles directed at Qatar. In recent days the UAE-based Saudi-funded Al Arabiya, for example, has published as “analysis” articles with titles like “How Qatar and Iran’s hardliners are very much alike politically,” and “Hezbollah and Qatar – a story of forbidden love?” While English language reports have linked Qatar to Iran and terrorism, in Arabic the Saudi religious establishment have disowned the Qatari royal family as insufficiently Wahhabist and for claiming a false descent from Wahhabism’s founder.
This is not quite the first time a serious rift has emerged between Qatar and the Saudi-led bloc. In 2014 Saudi, the UAE, and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors over Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood following the 2013 military coup against the Brotherhood-led government in Egypt. While open criticism from the Gulf has been muted, Qatar has made a point of offering safe-haven to Islamist groups across the region including Hamas and the Taliban.
Even if these divisions are not new, they’re worth keeping track of, especially in light of Trump-backed anti-Iranian “Arab NATO” proposal at the recent summit in Riyadh.