Qatar crisis spills onto social media

DOHA (AFP) - 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.

Beyond the vitriol, the online conflict has had its lighter moments.

An online survey by a former political advisor to the Abu Dhabi government asked if it was right to cut ties with Qatar, but was deleted after 65 per cent of respondents decided it was not.

And Twitter users had great fun at the expense of Jamil al-Ziabi, the editor of a Saudi newspaper, who said he was concerned about Qataris having to get used to food shipped from Iran and Turkey, after Saudi Arabia cut exports.

"I am really worried because I don't believe Qatari stomachs can get used to such products so quickly," Ziabi said.

This sparked another trending hashtag in Arabic - #Qataristomach.

The hostilities have spilled beyond social media battles into more traditional forms of media - all the way back to billboards.

Doha-based broadcast giants Al-Jazeera and beIN Sports are now blocked in various countries across the region, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

And in Doha, perhaps the most powerful slogan has been the ubiquitous "We are all Tamim", complete with a profile drawing of Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.

The message has been spotted everywhere in the past week - on huge billboards in Doha, on cars and even on T-shirts.

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.

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