reflections

Hacking Through the Bonds of Trust in the Gulf Cooperation Council

5 MINS READJul 18, 2017 | 22:05 GMT
The peaceful view of Doha's skyline belies the turmoil that Qatar has experienced since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and economic ties with the country.
(Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

The diplomatic crisis in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has taken another turn. The Washington Post reported Sunday that the U.S. intelligence community had information suggesting the United Arab Emirates arranged a cyberattack on Qatar's state news agency in late May that set the dispute in motion. Unnamed U.S. intelligence officials claimed that Abu Dhabi orchestrated a breach of the Qatar News Agency's website and social media accounts to post erroneous statements from Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani expressing support for Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. The United Arab Emirates, along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, then used the false quotes as a pretext to sever diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar. The revelation doubtless will further complicate relations in and beyond the GCC. At the same time, however, it's hardly a surprise.

Though Emirati officials have flatly denied allegations of their involvement, Qatar's leaders have had no trouble believing Abu Dhabi could be behind what they described as a "shameful act of cyber terrorism." The United Arab Emirates, after all, has a long-standing reputation for meddling — along with Saudi Arabia — in Qatar's affairs. Early into their statehood in the 1960s and 1970s, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates quibbled over their territorial boundaries. Riyadh wound up the clear winner in the disputes, but Abu Dhabi benefited as well. Qatar accused the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia more than 30 years later of trying to instigate a countercoup against Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who had recently overthrown his father. When his son, the current emir, then usurped his father in 2014, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh tried to bring the new leader to heel. They limited their relations with Qatar, demanding that Doha change what they considered destabilizing policies. The efforts met with some success, but they also set the stage for the current crisis in the GCC.

In light of its history with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates' alleged involvement in the hacking scandal seems par for the course. Abu Dhabi's deep distrust of Islamist and opposition movements has made it wary of Doha, which it sees as a force for instability in the region. From the United Arab Emirates' perspective, Qatar's support for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Hamas and Hezbollah — as well as the leeway the country gives its media — encourage extremism and subvert order in the region. Abu Dhabi will tolerate only so much, as its past interferences in Doha's affairs have demonstrated.

Of course, pinning down a clear attribution for a cyberattack sometimes proves impossible. A media platform makes an easy target for a skilled hacker, and determining the United Arab Emirates' level of involvement in the the alleged breach will be tricky, to say the least. Though the new intelligence implicates Abu Dhabi as the coordinator of the attack, evidence has yet to surface that it carried out the hack. A third party, for instance a Russian mercenary hacker, may well have committed the intrusion. Russia's potential involvement in the incident would align with Moscow's strategy to destabilize the United States' strategic relationships, this time in the Middle East, and to pit the GCC members against one another. 

Either way, the incident will make it next to impossible for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to muster greater U.S. support for their anti-Qatar initiatives. And the irony is that the United States' apparent support for Riyadh and Abu Dhabi's anti-terrorism efforts helped catalyze the crisis in the first place. By focusing on the fight against Islamic extremism during the Riyadh summit in May — just days before the alleged hack — U.S. President Donald Trump may have inadvertently sent Saudi and Emirati leaders the message that they had his backing, no matter what. The Pentagon and the State Department, however, took a more balanced approach to the crisis in deference to the United States' delicate relationship with Qatar, home to one of the largest U.S. military bases in the Middle East. (If the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia decided to run with the White House's seemingly unwavering support despite the rest of the government's hesitation, they weren't the first U.S. allies to do so. The seemingly mixed messages coming out of Washington have created plenty of confusion on the international stage over where the United States stands on issues such as Russia and North Korea.) 

Revelations over the hack also stand to change the already shifting relationship between the U.S. intelligence community and that of the United Arab Emirates. The United States depends on its ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to ensure regional security, as well as its own national security. The details about the alleged hack won't change that. But the incident will probably damage the trust that Washington and Abu Dhabi share, even aside from the fact that U.S. officials leaked information about the hack to the press.

In the GCC, likewise, the episode has shaken the already battered bonds of trust between the bloc's members. The UAE foreign affairs minister made reference on Monday to a possible "refashioning of the GCC" and said that its annual summit, scheduled for December, is unlikely to occur if the dispute continues. The diverse bloc has endured its share of problems in the past, but the latest upset could leave more damage in its wake than previous crises have. And relations in the GCC are likely to get worse before they get any better, jeopardizing future efforts at economic and security cooperation among the Gulf states.

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