'Fake-news' hack: pre-emptive strike on Qatar's independent foreign policy?
The fabricated remarks were cunningly mixed with things the emir of Qatar could have actually said to give them a measure of credibility.
In the fake statement, the emir appeared to defend Iran, Hamas and Hizballah only days after a US-Saudi summit, attended by Donald Trump and King Salman -- and the emir himself -- declared them to be public enemy number one.
To embarrass Qatar even more, the authors of the remarks put words in the emir's mouth defending relations with Israel, severed since the Israeli war on Gaza in 2012, and the presence of a US military base, which the discredited statement said was meant to defend Qatar from the "greeds of neighbouring countries" (this may be understood as Iran, but possibly Saudi Arabia as well, given that the two countries have had border disputes in the past).
According to official Qatari denials, not only were the remarks fabricated, but the emir did not even deliver a speech at the event in question, the graduation of Qatari national service cadets.
The emir had attended the graduation ceremony for Qataris doing national service, "however, he did not make any speech or give any statements," a government spokesman told Reuters on Wednesday.
|Well into Wednesday, Saudi and Emirati outlets, including the Dubai-based franchise of Sky News, ignored the official denial and continued to ramp up the false outrage, hosting commentators to take turns to attack Qatar's 'betrayal' of Gulf unity.|
Making matters worse, however, Qatari official media outlets had already fallen for the remarks, running them in televised news tickers.
But while that appears mostly to be an innocent mistake, the response coming from media controlled by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have had tense relations with Qatar, suggests a different story.
Well into Wednesday, Saudi and Emirati outlets, including the Dubai-based franchise of Sky News, ignored the official denial and continued to ramp up the false outrage, hosting commentators to take turns to attack Qatar's 'betrayal' of Gulf unity.
Later, more fake news were attributed to the Qatari government.
The hackers had taken over the news agency’s Twitter feed and posted alleged quotes from Qatar’s foreign minister about a purpoted plot against the country by other Arab nations. It falsely claimed Qatar had ordered its ambassadors from Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates withdrawn over the plot. The tweets were later deleted, and the claims denied.
Saudi print newspapers all came out to attack Qatar, and Saudi Arabia's twitter army went into overdrive to promote the fake news and anti-Qatari outrage.
"Qatar splits the rank, sides with the enemies of the nation," thundered Saudi Arabia's Okaz daily.
Strikingly, sources in the Gulf who asked not to be named say high-level officials and public figures have been asked not to go into Qatar.
|They should have verified the false remarks and stopped circulating them, especially after the government made an official statement
-Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs
In light of this overreaction and lack of professional second guessing, commentators say the whole episode and its timing may well be orchestrated.
Attempts to contact Sky News Arabia for comment were met without response by the time of publication, but insider sources in another UAE-based media outlet told The New Arab that the UAE authorities routinely interfere with editorial decisions.
A Wednesday statement by the Qatari foreign ministry criticised “some media outlets” for continuing to publish the false remarks despite the government denying them, suggesting there were sinister goals behind the attack.
“They should have verified the false remarks and stopped circulating them, especially after the government made an official statement,” the ministry’s statement read.
“They violated professional and ethical rules,” it added.
Qatar said it was the target of "an orchestrated barrage" of criticism by unknown parties in the run-up to Trump's visit alleging the Gulf state supported militant groups in the Middle East. Although it did not point fingers at any particular country, previous press reports suggest UAE-funded public relations firms are implicated.In the past few years, Qatar made amends with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, following a period of tensions mainly over Doha's independent foreign policy that diverges from those of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Indeed, Qatar continues to host leaders of Palestinian Islamist resistance group Hamas, to which the UAE and Saudi Arabia are hostile. Qatar has come out against the military coup in Egypt led by the ally of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
|It is clear that the Gulf region is witnessing a return to pre-Arab Spring media wars, unless attempts to contain the crisis succeed|
From Syria to Tunisia via Libya, Doha toes a different line from those of its two Gulf neighbours, which also accuse Qatar of backing Muslim Brotherhood groups including in their territories, despite its denials.
Yet despite the rapprochement, Qatar's more conciliatory tone on Iran at least outside of Syria, Yemen and Iraq; its opposition to full normalisation with Israel without a solution acceptable to all Palestinians including Hamas; and its stubborn quest to chart out an independent foreign policy and soft power, seems to be a continued source of concern for its Gulf neighbours.
To some Gulf commentators, especially those critical of Saudi Arabia like Madawi al-Rasheed on Twitter, the QNA hacking episode is a pre-emptive strike to bring Qatar into the fold by putting it on the defensive.
As some in the Gulf tout a possible deal with Israel, involving normalisation of ties in return for concessions for the Palestinians, and as the region embarks on a major collision course with Iran and its proxies and allies, the staged embarrassment of Qatar may be meant to head off any resistance to the emerging new Arab order, they suggest.
Other Gulf commentators, including Saudis like Mohammad Al-Yahya, are rushing to urge calm and an appeal to avoid media war "that only serves Iran", placing the blame squarely on some media outlets and whoever controls them in the Saudi and Emirati governments (some media outlets in the Gulf are controlled by competing wings).
Either way, it is clear that the Gulf region is witnessing a return to pre-Arab Spring media wars, unless attempts to contain the crisis succeed.