Fake News Gulf Crisis Style: No, Al Arabiya, Qataris Are Not Begging Their Emir to Step Down

Published August 22nd, 2017 - 11:15 GMT
A visitor takes a selfie during an exhibition of artworks depicting Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani titled "Glorious Tamim: in celebration of national unity " at the garden of the Islamic Museum in Doha on August 20, 2017 (AFP)
A visitor takes a selfie during an exhibition of artworks depicting Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani titled "Glorious Tamim: in celebration of national unity " at the garden of the Islamic Museum in Doha on August 20, 2017 (AFP)

by Rosie Alfatlawi

Saudi-owned, Dubai-based Al Arabiya, declared in a bold headline on Tuesday: “Qataris flood Twitter with hashtags demanding [the Qatari Emir] Sheikh Tamim ‘step down’”.

The article claims that Qataris had taken to social media to protest “what they described as his persistent politicization of the Hajj pilgrimage.” This, after Saudia airlines accused Qatar of refusing to allow flights to take Qatari pilgrims to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj.

Two tweets embedded in the piece use the hashtag “leave Tamim”, with one proclaiming that “this is what the honorable Qatari people want” and the other praising “Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani the wise, ‘the light at the end of the tunnel’.” The report also said that Qataris had launched a hashtag “Abdullah is Qatar’s future”.

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al-Thani is a little-known member of the Qatari royal family who has suddenly been embraced by the Saudis, ostensibly as a figure to promote regional reconciliation. He reportedly negotiated a compromise over Qatari Hajj pilgrims with the Saudi leadership last weekend, although the Qatari authorities distanced themselves from the talks.

He has been framed in the Saudi and Emirati media as a popular figure among Qataris. 

Dubai-owned Al Bayan described Sheikh Abdullah as “the voice of reason to whom the hearts of Qataris have opened.” It added that he is “widely accepted within the Al Thani family in particular, and Qataris in general.”

Coinciding with his emergence as a Saudi-backed “mediator”, Sheikh Abdullah launched a Twitter account on August 18, which already has 287,000 followers.

It is not clear whether this is the beginning of an attempt to impose regime change in Qatar, however it is undoubtedly a move aimed at placing further pressure on Sheikh Tamim.

This all sounds like a pretty dramatic turn of events in the two-and-a-half month Gulf diplomatic crisis. But, have the Qatari people really turned against their own leader?

On closer inspection the embedded tweets in the Al Arabiya appear to come from Saudi accounts. While neither give locations, the first describes himself in his bio as “a member of the ‘Saudi armor”. The second has the Saudi king as his profile picture.

In fact, a quick search of the “leave Tamim” hashtag quickly reveals Qataris flooding Twitter instead with derision towards the hashtag, and support for their Emir.

@trmbah_qtr wrote: “Go, Tamim, and dwell in the hearts of your people. I swear we do not want another leader after you. Either we live under your rule or we die in an unjust time.”

Most Qataris seemed to think that the tag had been launched elsewhere, by individuals in one of the “boycotting” countries.

@althaxni tweeted: “The people of Qatar love their Emir Tamim so enough of your lies and nonsense, truly you have made yourselves a joke by launching such hashtags.”

@oshaqtr added: “I swear, if you put out a million hashtags like this, we will not abandon Tamim and he will remain our Emir and brother.”

It is likely that Al Arabiya picked up on the hashtag from a tweet by Saudi minister Saud al-Qahtani.

The number one trend in Qatar right now is #LeaveTamim (slogan of the Arab spring!). The second trend is #Abdallah_is_the_future_of_Qatar (a reference to his highness Sheikh Abdallah bin Ali)

Al-Qahtani, an advisor to the Saudi royal court, has been at the forefront of stirring Qatari-Saudi tensions online. His provocative comments implying Saudi Arabia could invade its tiny neighbor sparked an angry social media comeback from Qataris. Meanwhile, his call for Saudis to use the hashtag “blacklist” to inform on any Qatar sympathizers saw an online backlash from those demanding freedom of expression.

This is not to say that there are not Qataris who oppose their leader. Qatar is, after all, a hereditary monarchy, in which citizens do not have the right to change the leadership government through election. In this context, and given that rights groups have previously raised concerns about freedom of expression in the country, it is unlikely that critics would be outspoken online.

Still, in this case to describe Qataris as “flooding Twitter with hashtags demanding Sheikh Tamim to ‘step down’” is a gross misrepresentation of the reality.

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