Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took the extraordinary step on Tuesday of blocking the websites of fellow Gulf state Qatar – including al-Jazeera – over incendiary statements about Iran and Israel posted on Qatar’s state-run news agency.
Qatar claimed its official websites had been hacked after reports appeared in which the Qatari emir criticised Donald Trump, described Iran as a force for stability in the region and threatened to withdraw ambassadors from a range of Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia.
However, a number of Arab news agencies pointed out the some of the emir’s remarks had already appeared on Qatar state broadcasting before they were disowned, raising questions whether they were genuine, but should not have been reported.
The row is important partly because the Trump administration is coming under pressure to review its alliance with Qatar in view of its support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
This week the US president demanded that Gulf states do more to combat the export of extremist teaching into Europe and a former US defence secretary, Robert Gates, said he did not know of any instance in which Qatar aggressively “went after the terrorist financing of Hamas, Taliban and al-Qaida”.
An embarrassed Qatar government claimed it had begun an inquiry into the source of the “attack” on its website, saying it would hold those responsible accountable.
The hack allegedly hit Qatar’s official news agency website, its Instagram and Twitter accounts, with some of the controversial postings going up on the sites early in the morning.
The stories included reports that the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, speaking at a military ceremony, called Iran a “ big power” and described Qatar’s relations with Israel as “good”. He reportedly said there were tensions with Trump, adding the US president was facing legal issues in his home country as claims over his Russia links continue.
The Qatari state television’s nightly newscast on Tuesday showed clips of Sheikh Tamim at the same ceremony. The news anchor did not report the comments but a scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen ran the remarks.
The emir was quoted as saying: “Iran represents a regional and Islamic power that cannot be ignored and it is unwise to face up against it,” the ticker read at one point. “It is a big power in the stabilisation of the region.”
In his speech in Riyadh this week, Trump singled Iran out for criticism, saying it was fuelling terrorism.
In addition, the state news agency’s Twitter account contained a story in Arabic apparently from the country’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, about Qatar withdrawing its ambassadors from several nearby countries including Egypt, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s communications office rushed out an explanation saying the stories were completely untrue and had “no basis whatsoever”.
Qatar has been at odds with Gulf states for sometime over the extent of its support for the Muslim Brotherhood, an issue that has been brought into sharper relief by Trump’s demand for Gulf states to do more to fight extremism. There has also been tensions over the role of Doha-based al-Jazeera.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates responded to the episode by blocking all Qatari media, including al-Jazeera.