The diplomatic crisis surrounding Qatar and other Gulf countries has remained a peaceful one for now, but open warfare has been declared in the media – both traditional and social. Since Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and allies abruptly severed all ties with Qatar on June 5, the anger felt by ordinary citizens – in all countries – has played out online. Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat erupted in the hours after the “blockade” was imposed on Qatar, and #cuttingtieswithQatar was briefly the number one trend worldwide in the immediate aftermath of the announcement. The diplomatic crisis has also had the likely unintended consequence of reflecting both the level of connectivity among countries online and the massive popularity of social media in the region. Internet penetration in Qatar is a whopping 93 per cent, according to a 2016 study by Northwestern University in Qatar. The study reported internet penetration also at 93 per cent in Saudi Arabia and at 100 per cent in the UAE. The role of social media has continued to rise even as the dust of the crisis begins to settle.
A UAE hashtag claiming the Emirates would snatch the 2022 football World Cup from Qatar – #UAEwillhosttheWorldCup – has reached a level of popularity, notoriety and amusement far beyond the region.
The response from Qataris on Twitter? #youaredreaming. Another hashtag trending in the UAE, #Qatarfundsterrorism, mirrors accusations by the Emirates and its allies that Doha funds extremists groups in the region.
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others have said Qatar’s alleged role in extremism was behind the boycott. Doha denies the accusations. One angry Twitter user in the UAE wrote in Arabic: “A mini-state with a history of coups and treachery, what would you expect from Qatar?” In Saudi, another user tweeted cuttingly: “You have disturbed us Qatar, with your three streets, two restaurants. Even the Al-Suweidi neighbourhood is bigger than Qatar. It’s just a matter of weeks and it will become a Saudi city.”
Meanwhile in Qatar, “Oh God, keep Qatar safe” was trending in Arabic, as well as #iloveqatar among the country’s sizeable English-speaking expat community. The media are now “an integral part of the ‘war arsenal’ of many states” in the region, said Khaled Hroub, professor of Middle East politics and Arab media at Northwestern University in Qatar.
“Official and semi-official media, mostly TV broadcasting and social media, along with encouraged ‘national media volunteers’ have been deployed in phases like battalions, clearly orchestrated and seemingly under a control-and-command structure at the highest level.” The UAE and Bahrain warned last week that anyone expressing sympathy with Qatar on social media could face lengthy jail terms. The slogan and drawing even appears to have made its way to Kerala, India, from where large numbers of the huge two-million strong migrant workforce in Qatar hail, and taken on a life of its own in the Malayalam dialect.