By Deccan Walsh
January 22 2018
Fake News Widens the Gulf
The crisis that set off the Gulf’s biggest confrontation in decades started with a series of random, seemingly unrelated events. And in vintage 2017 fashion, they involved fake news and the new American president, Donald J. Trump.
In March, a sulphurous dispute erupted over the fate of Alaa Alsiddiq, an Emirati dissident who has been living in Doha since 2013. After she published an article on Al Jazeera’s website about women’s rights in the Gulf, the Emiratis, who had cancelled her passport, renewed longstanding demands that Tamim send her home.
The emir refused, telling one Western ambassador that he feared she could be tortured or killed. Emirati fury grew.
A second instance involved a huge ransom payment. In April, a private Qatari jet carrying $300 million landed in Iraq to free a party of 26 Qatari falcon hunters, including nine royals, who had been kidnapped by a pro-Iranian militia. Although who ultimately benefited remains shrouded in mystery, Tamim’s critics pointed to the episode as proof of his willingness to recklessly indulge extremists.
It Also Offered A Powerful Talking Point With The New American President.
Even before Mr. Trump landed in Saudi Arabia in May, on the first foreign trip of his presidency, he appeared to be firmly in the Saudi camp. For months, the Saudi and Emirati leadership had cultivated a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president’s adviser and son-in-law.
Mr. Kushner, a foreign policy neophyte, absorbed the princes’ views on the region, including their hostility to Qatar, a senior State Department official said, describing the relationships as very close.
In Riyadh, Mr. Trump signalled his burgeoning relationship by posing alongside 81-year-old King Salman with their hands on a glowing orb — an image that was meant to project solidarity but which gave them the appearance of movie villains and inspired a rash of internet memes.
Mr. Trump also met with Tamim, and the Qatari leader thought it went well. But two days later, back in Doha, the emir was shaken from his sleep with disturbing news: Someone had hacked the state-run Qatar News Agency and posted on its website a report of the emir calling Iran a “superpower,” lauding Hamas and speculating that Mr. Trump might not last long in power.
The report was pure fiction, but Qatar’s neighbours pounced on it as the real thing. Within minutes, pundits at Emirati and Saudi television stations were expounding on the perfidy of Qatar and issuing heated denunciations. Tamim frantically called his ministers and had the article taken down.
Thinking the problem solved, he settled in to watch a big National Basketball Association game, the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. In fact, his troubles had just started.
Over the following weeks, Emirati and Saudi news outlets accelerated their attacks on Qatar, accusing it of threatening Gulf stability. Several conservative think tanks in Washington joined the chorus. Then on June 5, without warning, the four-country boycott crashed onto Qatar.
Mr. Trump Was Eager To Take Credit.
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” he wrote in a tweet the next day. “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
American intelligence officials determined that the planting of the fake news story had been orchestrated by the Emirates, which had been quietly pushing for a boycott of Qatar since 2016, a United States official, told The New York Times.
“The smoking gun leads to Abu Dhabi,” the seat of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, he said, citing briefings from intelligence officials. “There is no ambiguity.” Moreover, the official said, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had prior knowledge of the ruse and had signalled his approval.
Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirates’ ambassador to Washington, said his country “categorically denied” any involvement in the hack. The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment.
One afternoon last August, I drove to Aqua Park, a water park in the desert 20 minutes outside Doha, to see how Qatar was surviving the boycott. Inside the park, where midday temperatures reached 120 degrees, men and women wearing swimsuits mingled freely, although bikinis were discouraged. Screaming children barrelled down the Boomerango, the park’s largest ride. American warplanes rumbled overhead, bound for battle zones in Iraq and Syria.
Aqua Park is a few hundred yards from Al Udeid, the American air base whose runway lights glitter in the distance. The base, with 10,000 American service personnel, has been Qatar’s strategic jewel for over a decade, one major reason it could defy its neighbours. Now the Emirates was pressuring the United States to close it.
The park is a typical Qatari business in that no Qataris work there: The Park’s manager, Mohammed Firdous Raj, is Malaysian, the lifeguards are Kenyan and other employees are Lebanese and Egyptian. Before the boycott, one quarter of its business came from Saudi tourists, who made the 25-minute drive from the border. But now the desert highway was half-empty, as were many hotels in Doha.
“We’d like them to come back,” Mr. Raj said of the Saudis. But the park’s owner, a former Qatari government minister, had allowed him to discount ticket prices, so business was about the same. “It’s a pity about the Saudis,” he said with a shrug. “Either way, we will manage.”
The boycott has inflicted some pain on Qatar. With its only land border closed, its ships blocked from passing through Emirati ports and its planes restricted from flying over neighbouring airspace, import costs have soared. The stock exchange lost one-fifth of its value last year. Foreign workers, unable to party in Dubai on weekends, grumble about the claustrophobia of buttoned-up Doha. And the travel bans have torn apart families, whose relatives have straddled borders for centuries.
But for the most part, daily life in Doha is largely unchanged. Pricey wine flows in five-star hotels, work continues on a new metro system, and a striking National Museum, shaped as a series of giant intersecting discs, is set to become the city’s latest architectural marvel.
On weekends, young Qatari men go “dune bashing” — riding tricked-out four-wheel drive vehicles at high speed along mountainous dunes, sometimes flipping over. Qatar’s central bank says it has a $340 billion war chest to help weather the crisis.
And the boycott has backfired in some respects. The trade restrictions have forced Qatar into deeper economic ties with Iran, while Tamim has become the object of a fervent personality cult. The emir’s image adorns billboards draped off skyscrapers, and he is lionized in saccharine songs hailing his steely leadership. “He’s the embodiment of the philosopher king,” said Dana al-Fardan, one such balladeer.
His ministers, making a virtue of necessity, are developing new trade and transportation links. To make up for lost Saudi milk, they created a new dairy industry from scratch in the desert. In a surreal tableau one day in July, German cows toddled down the ramp of a Qatar Airways Airbus at the Doha airport, the first arrivals of around 4,000 cattle flown in from Europe, Australia and California.
A strident nationalism has displaced the old talk of “brotherly” ties between the countries. Qatari pilgrims claimed they had been prevented from travelling to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and showing sympathy for Qatar has become a criminal offense in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Any hopes that the Trump administration could end the crisis were scuppered by its chaotic policy. Mediation efforts by Mr. Tillerson, who had decades of experience in Qatar as an energy executive, were repeatedly undercut by Mr. Trump, who at a Washington fund-raiser mocked the way that Qatar is pronounced.
Although Mr. Trump has since stopped his attacks on Qatar, presenting himself as a mediator, some senior advisers continue the fight. Breitbart News Network, which until recently was run by Mr. Trump’s onetime ideological firebomber Stephen K. Bannon, has published dozens of articles attacking Qatar as a rogue ally.
Is Qatar soft on terrorism? Some of the charges are red herrings, American officials say. Tamim cut funding to most extremist militias in Syria and Islamist groups in Libya in 2015, at the urging of the Obama administration. His cordial ties with Iran are a matter of necessity because the two countries share the giant gas field that is the source of Qatar’s wealth.
Where Qatar does have a case to answer, officials say, is in its treatment of Qatari citizens accused of financing terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Trials of accused financiers, when they take place, occur in secret, making it hard to know what punishment, if any, is imposed.
Abd al-Rahman al-Nuaymi, a former university professor and financier who has been designated a terrorist by the United Nations and the United States, was tried secretly in 2015 and acquitted. He now lives openly in Doha, albeit with restrictions on his banking and ability to travel, said a former United States treasury official who was briefed on the case. A senior Qatari official said that prosecutors were preparing to try him again.
But similar charges can be laid at the feet of Qatar’s foes. The Saudis have long been accused of exporting radical Islam across the world through hard-line madrassas. Iran’s biggest trading partner in the region is not Qatar but Dubai. Human rights abuses and press freedom restrictions are far harsher in the Emirates.
For Qatar’s supporters, the hypocrisy reveals what they say is the boycott’s true goal: to cut down or take out Qatar’s youthful emir, the royal who refuses to go along to get along.
Cold War in the Desert
For Tamim, the ultimate aim of his neighbours is to oust him from power. In the interview with The Times, he cited as precedent the 1996 Saudi-sponsored coup attempt against his father. “This was always the warning at the back of our heads,” he said.
His fears may be justified. In the early days of the boycott, two American officials said, Saudi and Emirati leaders mulled possible military action against Qatar. The precise details were unclear, but the talk was deemed serious enough for Mr. Tillerson to personally warn the Saudi and Emirati leaders against precipitous action. Mr. Trump later repeated that advice in a call to Saudi leaders.
Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, denied in an interview that there was ever a military plan. “We never contemplated it,” he said.
But even the suggestion of military action highlighted how the old rules have been shattered in the Gulf. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional body that is supposed to resolve such disputes, has been invisible during the crisis. Instead the Saudis have promoted a string of exiled Qatari businessmen as potential political rivals to Tamim.
The Qataris appear to have returned fire on the hacking front. For months American news media outlets have received stolen emails intended to embarrass Mr. Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador. The emails appear to come from Russia, but Saudi media reports say Qatar was behind them.
Qatar denied any involvement in the hacking. “Qatar, as a matter of policy and principle, does not engage in cyber crimes or traffic in ‘fake news,’” the government said in a statement to The Times on Sunday.
Nothing suggests that the dispute will be resolved anytime soon. Although the Saudis and Emiratis may have overestimated the boycott’s ability to pressure Qatar, they may feel they have little to lose by continuing it.
“I think they are content to bleed Qatar,” said Mr. Roberts, the analyst. “There’s an indignant anger at what they see as a rich, cocooned, perfidious little state that is finally feeling the consequences of its actions.”
But as the dispute moved to the skies last week, with accusations of Qatari warplanes buzzing Emirati commercial jets, it highlighted how easily the crisis could escalate.
Both sides are bolstering their militaries. Since June, Tamim has ordered 36 F-15 warplanes from the United States, 24 Typhoon jets from Britain and 24 Rafale fighter jets from France — a sevenfold increase for an air force that currently has just 12 aircraft.
In December, his foes announced a new Saudi-Emirati military and economic alliance that further sidelines the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Qatar.
Days later, Tamim hosted a lavish banquet for President Emmanuel Macron of France at Idam, a French restaurant on the top floor of the Museum of Islamic Art that offers a shimmering panorama over the Doha skyline.
Over a sumptuous meal prepared by the celebrity chef Alain Ducasse, the two leaders toasted the deals they had signed that morning. The emir had ordered another 12 French fighter jets.