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The coup that never was: How a disinformation campaign created the illusion of political chaos in Qatar

Three Ramadans have passed since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched their blockade of Qatar on June 5, 2017, prompting fears of a new escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf, this time between several of the United States’s closest regional security partners.

The rift among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states has defied Kuwaiti and intermittent U.S. attempts at a resolution and has taken on an aspect of permanence. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Prince Khalid bin Bandar Al Saud, went so far as to draw an analogy with the decades-long standoff between the U.S. and Cuba, in remarks he made in London in October 2019.

The 2017 rift began with the hacking of the Qatar News Agency and the implanting of a fake news story about incendiary remarks purportedly made by Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, at a military graduation ceremony. The hack took place against the backdrop of Emirati and Saudi outreach to key figures in the Trump administration during its first months in office and a chaotic blurring of the boundaries of real and fake news encapsulated in Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase “alternative facts.”

Recent days have seen fresh attempts to create a set of alternative facts in the form of unsubstantiated Twitter rumors and videos that claimed that a coup attempt was underway in the Qatari capital, Doha. An article in the English-language Saudi Gazette on May 3 carried an interview with Sheikh Mubarak bin Khalifa Al Thani, a member of Qatar’s ruling family, asked the Emir to stand down and claimed, implausibly and without providing any evidence, that “Iran and Turkey are controlling Qatar.”

Hours later, early in the morning of May 4, the hashtag “Coup in Qatar” began trending on Twitter alongside videos that appeared to show gunshots being fired and a phalanx of tweets suggesting that senior members of the Qatari ruling family had intervened to remove Sheikh Tamim from power. Analysis by Marc Owen Jones, a Doha-based professor of digital humanities, exposed the videos as having been doctored, and traced a pattern of amplification by prominent Saudi-based Twitter users.

There are similarities as well as differences between this latest round of disinformation and that of 2017. One similarity is in timing as May 3 was the tenth day of Ramadan in 2020 just as the blockade was launched on the tenth day of Ramadan in 2017. Another is the emergence of a Qatari “sheikh” (Mubarak bin Khalifa Al Thani) of whom there appears to be no public record, just as Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper interviewed a “leading opposition figure,” Sheikh Saud bin Nasser Al Thani, in June 2017. No record was found to indicate that an opposition leader named Saud bin Nasser Al Thani existed.

A difference between 2017 and 2020 is that the latest campaign appears to have been driven by Saudi Arabia rather than by the UAE, which was implicated in the hacking of the Qatar News Agency in May 2017 and whose de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, has been seen as the architect of the campaign to isolate Qatar. In addition, the fact that aside from the Saudi Gazette article, a majority of the Twitter disinformation about the supposed coup in Qatar was in Arabic suggests that it may have been intended for a domestic audience within Saudi Arabia, rather than an international one.

The latest flareup in the long-running rift may therefore reflect an effort by Saudi-based media to change the subject after a spate of negative news stories about the Kingdom, ranging from the economic impact of coronavirus to renewed tensions within the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and the death in custody of Abdullah al-Hamid, whose pioneering advocacy of civil, political, and human rights in Saudi Arabia saw him spend many of the past 27 years in prison.

While the precise reasons for the timing and motivation of this latest outbreak of disinformation may never become clear, the flareup provides added evidence that the blockade of Qatar remains stubbornly resistant to resolution despite the common challenge all regional states face from COVID-19. Signs of a thaw in relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar in late-2019 failed to bring about a reconciliation, and Qatar’s foreign minister announced that bilateral talks had broken down in January.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March, the acts of trivial point-scoring that have characterized so much of the blockade since 2017 have continued to occur, with Bahrain accusing Qatar of meddling in its internal affairs after 31 Bahraini citizens stranded in Iran flew on Qatar Airways to Doha, an act that Bahrain’s foreign minister slammed as “reprehensible and requires a clear international response.” Also in March, a prominent columnist based in the UAE claimed that Qatar had paid “billions to grow this frightening virus in China with the aim of hitting the year 2020” and thereby harming Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G-20 and Dubai’s hosting of the World Expo, now rescheduled for 2021.

The battle of competing narratives over Qatar remains firmly intact as the blockade approaches its fourth year. The resort once again to disinformation illustrates how little has changed since 2017 and how the same tactics that were tried then have been dusted down and rehashed.

Other attempts to (re)shape narratives, this time in Washington, DC may occur as the presidential election in the U.S. heats up, or if governments in the Gulf attempt to deflect attention from COVID-19 by blaming others for their ills. Meanwhile the rift continues to complicate U.S. interests in regional affairs, perhaps best exemplified by Mohammed bin Zayed’s willingness to discuss COVID-19 and express “humanitarian solidarity during trying times” — but with Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad, rather than with a fellow GCC state and U.S. partner.

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