There’s a whole new layer of drama in the Mideast crisis.
The United Arab Emirates was behind the hack of a Qatar news agency that helped spark one of the biggest diplomatic crises in the Middle East in decades, according to a bombshell Washington Post report citing unnamed US intelligence officials on Sunday.
According to the report, the UAE’s government orchestrated the publication of false quotations attributed to Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, about Iran, Hamas, and Israel in May on Qatari government news and social media sites. Though Qatar immediately took down the quotes and insisted they were the result of a hack, the comments nevertheless incensed the country’s neighbors and ended up serving as a pretext for their decision to sever diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar weeks later.
If true, it’s a big, big deal. (So far, the UAE is denying it.)
It would be a huge blow to the credibility of the region’s isolation campaign against Qatar. The UAE is one of the countries that banded together with Saudi Arabia against Qatar in June; if the claims in the Post article are true, that would mean that the UAE manufactured one of the pretexts for its own boycott. That is, the UAE — and perhaps its allies — was actively looking for a reason to fight with Qatar, and was willing to go as far as planting false information in order to do it.
The countries that boycotted Qatar did so on the basis of its renegade foreign policy in the region, and they saw the emir’s alleged quotes as the final straw after years of offenses.
Among other things, they’ve long been irate over Qatar’s ties to militant and terrorist Islamist groups in the Mideast and its friendly relations with Iran — Saudi Arabia’s chief rival in the region. When Qatar’s news agency and social media accounts published quotes from the emir praising Hamas and legitimizing Iran as an “Islamic power” despite the fact that it represents a rival faction of Islam (Shia Islam), they were furious. It helped cement the logic of taking extraordinary action against Qatar in order to rein it in.
But if the UAE really planted the quotes, then that pretext makes it the provocateur, not Qatar.
“The Emiratis and the Saudis have been so firm against Qatar, and now the ground has been cut from beneath their feet,” Simon Henderson, director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute, told me, while noting that he’s waiting for more articles to corroborate the Washington Post report.
It’s not only the substance of the report that’s striking — it’s also who is behind the report
The US intelligence officials who leaked the claims to the Washington Post knew that they were adding a new layer of drama into what is already an acute crisis in a region that’s vital to US military and economic interests. Henderson believes that it could be an attempt by some operators in the Trump administration to diminish the strength of the Saudi/UAE position in negotiations with Qatar over ending the boycott.
“I conclude at this stage it was because they’re frustrated with the UAE and Saudi position on trying to sort out the Qatar thing, so they want to make it clear that it’s not a story of Qatar all to blame — there’s blame all around, and indeed there’s mischief all around as well,” Henderson said.
So far the UAE is doing its best to prevent that story from taking hold. The country’s ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, said in a statement that “the Post article is false,” and the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told the BBC on Monday that the Post’s report was “untrue.”
So far, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who just wrapped up a tour of Gulf capitals last week, is doing his best to encourage a swift resolution by calling on all parties to be more willing to compromise. The State Department has sought to manage the sticky situation by not explicitly taking sides, given that the US really has an interest in maintaining strong ties with every one of the countries involved — including Qatar, which hosts over 10,000 US military personnel and a base that’s crucial to the US-led war against ISIS.
But if the claims in the article do end up gaining currency, it could change the shape of negotiations. It would diminish the Saudi/UAE bloc and could end up giving Qatar some more leverage, as it could credibly claim to be the victim of an act intended to deceive the international community.