Hackings, piracy, economy: How Qatar was undermined in GCC crisis

Efforts to end a three-and-a-half-year long blockade on Qatar seem to have been stepped up.

In June 2017, the blockading countries – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt – accused Qatar, among other things, of supporting terrorism and being too close to Iran, and severed economic and diplomatic ties.

A blockade was also imposed by the four countries by land, sea and air.

Qatar has repeatedly denied the allegations and said there was “no legitimate justification” for the severance of relations.

The blockading quartet issued a list of 13 demands, including the closure of the Al Jazeera Media Network as well as a Turkish military base, which Qatar promptly rejected.

In the last two months, negotiations over finding a resolution have taken place, with Qatar stressing that political dialogue is the only way to end the blockade.

Earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said a resolution was in sight, with the four governments behind the blockade “on board” and a final agreement expected soon.

Egypt and the UAE have since given their public support to the negotiations, although diplomatic sources said the UAE has been reluctant to compromise.

Role of banks in the economic instability

According to a lawsuit Qatar filed in London and New York in 2019, it said three banks – the UAE’s First Abu Dhabi Bank, Saudi Arabia’s Samba Bank and Luxembourg-based Banque Havilland – sought to sow economic instability by undermining confidence in Qatar’s currency and bonds.

The scheme that most recently came to light has been the role Banque Havilland played, as reported by Bloomberg News.

The report said that in 2017, the bank offered a proposal to allegedly destabilise Qatar’s economy on behalf of one of its largest clients, Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the UAE.

In a statement announcing the lawsuit, Qatar claimed the banks had tried to weaken the Qatari riyal by “submitting fraudulent quotes to foreign exchange platforms based in New York, to manipulate New York-based indices, and disrupt financial markets in New York, where significant Qatari assets are held and many investors in Qatar are located”.

As a result, Qatar spent billions shoring up its currency peg and economy, and “while the financial market manipulation failed in its efforts to undermine confidence in the Qatari riyal and Qatar, it nonetheless caused economic losses”, the government said.

According to a report from the International Monetary Fund released earlier this month, Qatar is expected to grow its GDP by 2.5 percent in 2021, the second-highest rate in the GCC.

Weeks before the blockade was imposed, Qatar’s state media agency was hacked and false stories attributed to the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani were published on its website.

Qatar’s interior ministry said the cyberattacks originated from the UAE and had “state resources” behind it.

Concentrated cyberattacks on Qatar also came via Twitter bots, spreading and amplifying fake news, as well as manipulating hashtags.

According to Marc Owen Jones, assistant professor of Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Qatar, these Twitter bots “create propaganda messages that can distort the reality of the discussions going on in the world” and that Arabic-language Twitter bots have been instrumental in promoting government narratives.

This year, at least 36 Al Jazeera journalists were targeted by advanced spyware sold by an Israeli firm in an attack linked to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab said.

“They have used some of the content they stole from the phones to blackmail journalists, by posting private photos on the internet,” Al Jazeera’s Tamer Almisshal, who was one of the journalists hacked, said.

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