reflections

Saudi Arabia and Qatar Go Tit for Tat on Twitter

4 MINS READAug 23, 2017 | 19:36 GMT
Twitter has become a primary theater in the war of words between Doha and Riyadh.
(HARVEPINO/iStock)

Doha and Riyadh have breathed new life into their feud through social media, turning Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, along with state-backed media outlets, into minefields of often dubious information.

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have taken their diplomatic dispute to Mecca. Riyadh announced on Aug. 17 that it would reopen a border crossing — and even charter flights — to allow Qatari pilgrims into the kingdom after a round of negotiations with a member of Qatar's royal family. But the gesture, at first glance a sign of warming ties between the two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, has only added fuel to the fire. Both countries are now using the pilgrimage as a weapon in their monthslong dispute. The tactic is nothing new for feuding governments in the Middle East; Iran accused Saudi Arabia of politicizing the hajj during their quarrel last year. Doha and Riyadh, however, have breathed new life into the strategy through social media, turning Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, along with state-backed media outlets, into minefields of often dubious information. The crisis in the GCC is deepening 140 characters at a time, and the information war that sparked the conflict will continue long after its eventual resolution.  

Although Saudi Arabia eased its blockade on Qatar by opening its borders to the country's pilgrims, it did so with ulterior motives. The kingdom made the gesture partly to save face as custodian of Islam's holiest sites and partly to keep revenues from the hajj flowing. The move, moreover, enabled Riyadh to portray Doha as selfish and petty for denying Qatari citizens passage to hajj just to turn down the Saudis' generous offer. And by selecting Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani, a relatively obscure member of Qatar's royal family, to broker the hajj deal, Saudi Arabia undercut Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani's legitimacy as the country's leader.

Doha, meanwhile, has emphasized that it has yet to accept Saudi Arabia's offer simply because Riyadh failed to go through the proper channels. Travel to the Hajj is the purview of Qatar's Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, which authorized about 1,200 Qataris to make the pilgrimage in 2015. But instead of observing protocol, Doha maintains, Saudi Arabia bypassed the ministry and struck an agreement Qatar can't honor with an unofficial ambassador it didn't choose. The ministry also has complained that only Saudi airlines can transport Qatari hajjis since Riyadh banned Qatar Airways from flying in the kingdom's airspace.

To level their accusations, Saudi Arabia and Qatar alike have gone back to where the conflict started: the internet. Accusations and evidence of cyberattacks have begun surfacing more frequently on both sides of the conflict. The United Arab Emirates' national news agency, for example, reported Tuesday that a copycat website had emerged to spread fake news under its name. In addition, Twitter has become a primary theater in the war of words between Doha and Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has used the social media site to propagate information about Sheikh Abdullah, a resident of the kingdom. The details circulating on Twitter, largely aimed at embarrassing Doha, have added to the confusion surrounding the little-known member of the al-Thani family. Saudi media outlets have corroborated the stories by running various infographics and articles on Sheikh Abdullah, including a report from state-owned news network Al-Arabiya on Saturday that he had joined Twitter. Sheikh Abdullah's alleged account quickly made waves online and drew scrutiny for amassing nearly 300,000 followers within a matter of days. Qatari Twitter users have tried to debunk it, citing the incredible following as well as tweets apparently made from London. Emirati accounts entered the fray, too, typically to show solidarity with Saudi Arabia. All the while, hashtags have spread like wildfire on both sides of the conflict, expressing support for or opposition to the Qatari government.

It's possible that real Saudi Twitter users buoyed Sheikh Abdullah's purported account. The social media site, after all, is wildly popular in the kingdom: One-third of the Saudi population used Twitter in 2014, the highest per-capita adoption rate in the world. Regardless, the controversy illustrates not only how rapidly information (and misinformation) can spread on social media but also how adeptly Saudi Arabia has used the technology to advance its interests. And separating fact from fiction in the Twitter war between Riyadh and Doha is less important than the effects their media battle will have on the GCC conflict. Among the demands Saudi Arabia made of Qatar as a condition for resolving the dispute was that the country shut down its media outlets, which Riyadh criticized for spreading sensational and specious stories to interfere in other nations' domestic affairs. Today, Saudi Arabia is moving toward the very tactics it decried in an effort to coerce Qatar into cooperating.

Social media is a relatively new weapon of diplomacy, and a powerful one at that. Harnessing the tool and controlling the fallout are proving a greater challenge than Saudi Arabia and Qatar may have bargained for.

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