Why the Qatar hacking incident has revived Gulf tensions

Analysts say the incident was far more than a security breach and appears once again to have set Qatar against rival Gulf powers

Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani . (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani . (KHALIL MAZRAAWI/AFP/Getty Images)

The alleged hack on Qatar's state news agency may have lasted just four hours, but the impact on already tense ties between Gulf rivals could last a lot longer.

Doha launched an inquiry and went into damage control after accusing hackers of publishing false remarks attributed to Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani on state media.

The stories quoted him questioning US hostility towards Iran, speaking of "tensions" between Doha and Washington, commenting on Hamas and speculating that President Donald Trump might not remain in power for long.

The remarks were supposedly made at a military graduation ceremony.

Doha denied all the comments and said it was the victim of a "shameful cybercrime".

Analysts say the incident was far more than a security breach and appears once again to have set Qatar against rival Gulf powers.

Some fear it could even trigger a repeat of the situation in 2014, when several Gulf countries recalled their ambassadors from Doha, ostensibly over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

They also clashed over political influence across the region, where Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have used their vast energy revenues to shape the new political environment amid the upheaval caused by the Arab Spring.

"Much will depend on whether the issue continues to escalate or is quietly dropped," Rice University's Kristian Ulrichsen told AFP.

"The apparent blocking of Al Jazeera's website and Qatar TV in Saudi Arabia and the UAE is an indication that deeper tensions may indeed be at play," he said.

"It may be the case that the Saudis and Emiratis feel emboldened by the success of their re-set of ties with the Trump presidency to become more assertive in regional affairs."

Qatar has said it will publish the findings of its investigation into the alleged hacking. But whatever the truth, the incident may point to unresolved fault lines between the Gulf states following events in 2014.

Durham University's Dr Christopher Davidson said the incident reflected a "serious fracture between the two different camps in the Gulf".

"The divisions remain very deep about the vision for the region," he said.

And there may now be an extra layer to the divisions: Donald Trump.

On his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, where he met Gulf leaders, Trump laid out the foundations of the new American administration's vision for the Middle East.

Trump emphasised US hopes, shared by Saudi Arabia and Israel, to push back against Iranian "aggression" while targeting Islamist groups to defeat terrorism.

Such a vision could push Qatar, which provides a home to the exiled former leadership of Hamas, hosts a Taliban embassy in Doha and is regularly slammed for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the margins.

Doha's rivals "are trying to portray Qatar on the wrong side of the Trump-endorsed, Saudi-led alliance in the region," added Davidson.

It is "Saudi Arabia, Israel rapprochement versus Hamas," adds Davidson.

Beyond the gilded corridors of power, this week's dispute has played out on social media.

Supporters of both sides took to Twitter, with Qataris using hashtags such as #Tamimtheglory and comparing those responsible for the alleged hack to Nazi propagandists.

Even the country's biggest football star, Spain-based Akrim Afif, posted a picture of the Emir to show his support.

On Thursday, Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani tried to downplay the political ramifications.

"We are not looking at it as a big deal," he said.

But Trump's outreach to Qatar's regional rivals may yet cause a headache for Doha.

"It appears that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will enjoy special security privileges under the Trump administration and will function as the regional spearhead of US policy priorities," Ulrichsen said.

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