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The hacking of Al Jazeera journalists’ phones should be of great concern to Qatar 

December 22, 2020 at 4:42 pm

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt started their blockade of the State of Qatar in mid-2017. They accused their neighbour of, amongst other things, “supporting terrorism and creating instability in the region”.

More recently, Qatar has been part of reconciliation efforts led by the former Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, but Sheikh Al-Sabah passed away in September, leaving a vacuum in the process. Lifting the blockade and normalising relations with its neighbours, especially Saudi Arabia, is important for Qatar, because its citizens not only share a border with the Saudis, but also have strong family ties.

“There are two types of scarves worn by men in Qatar,” I was once told by a Qatari colleague. “The plain white scarf and the dotted red and white. The latter reflects Qataris’ Saudi heritage and ancestry.” He was trying to impress on me how close Qatari–Saudi family ties are.

Notwithstanding the frequent downplaying of the blockade by Qatari politicians, most are aware that family ties between Qatar and Saudi Arabia are more important than politics and if not well managed could cause a political disaster in Qatar. They know that if push comes to shove and Qataris are forced to choose between political preferences, foreign policy positions and the revival of relations with Saudi Arabia, the majority may well choose the latter.

Moreover, Qataris are generally religious and would like to pass on those traits to future generations, and pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites in Makkah and Madinah is essential to their religiosity. Although they can still travel to Saudi Arabia, complications due to the blockade have imposed a lot of strain on many, particularly the elderly. Whereas in the past a trip to Saudi Arabia was just under an hour, it now take anything between five hours to a full day to reach parts of Saudi Arabia by air.

READ: UAE, Saudi used Israel spyware to hack Al Jazeera journalists’ phones, report reveals

There is, therefore, a sense of mounting discontent and pressure on the government in Doha to reconcile with its neighbours, particularly Saudi Arabia. Failure to do this could add to the negativity that some Qataris have towards Al Jazeera. Some of them blame the network for the country’s current woes, a sentiment that is amplified particularly in the country’s social media platforms, especially in Arabic.

Over the past few weeks there have been rumours that reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is imminent. Sources told Al Jazeera that the two governments are close to striking a preliminary agreement to end the dispute that has pitted the Gulf neighbours against each other. This is good news for Qatar’s domestic politics, not least because it will benefit from eased trade and travel restrictions. It is believed that Qatar will reciprocate by insisting that Al Jazeera should “tone down its critical coverage of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and the country in general”.

Moreover, Qatar would rather reconcile with Saudi Arabia first whilst it pushes for certain reforms within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It wants the GCC to grant its member states more independence when it comes to foreign policy positions. The GCC has, to a certain extent, been the driver of regional foreign policy, defence and military decisions in the region. Qatar, however, would like to continue pursuing its independent foreign relations with Iran and Turkey, in particular. Both have stood with the government in Doha during the blockade instead of following the dictates of the GCC.

However reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Qatar hit a wall this week when reports emerged that the UAE and the Saudis have used spyware bought from an Israeli company to hack into the phones of a number of Al Jazeera employees. Investigative journalist Tamer Almisshal noticed some anomalies on his iPhone and discovered later that his phone was hacked by what experts say is a spyware developed by Israeli company NSO. “Based on this, we handed the phone to Citizen Lab, who found that the phone was hacked by Pegasus spyware,” he explained.

READ: Facebook under fire for using Israelis from notorious unit to spy on users 

One of the thirteen conditions presented to Qatar by the blockading countries was the closure of Al Jazeera. Qatar rejected all of the conditions. The hacking allegations are perhaps a sign of things to come and the possible targeting of Al Jazeera as an institution. In this respect, opening the border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia could be detrimental not only to Qatar but also, and particularly, Al Jazeera employees in Qatar. Whatever happens, it looks as if hacking and spying against the authorities in Qatar will be the new normal.

What is even more worrying to many, especially journalists, is what will happen to the kind of critical journalism which has thrived in Qatar over the years. There are very real concerns about the consequences, given that Saudi Arabia murdered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. It could be argued that the blockade has provided an element of comfort and protection to journalists and others in Qatar who are critical of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It is, therefore, not far-fetched to believe that there could be a rise in nefarious activities as Qatar moves ahead to normalise relations and reopen the border with its largest neighbour.

The government will have to upscale its intelligence capabilities domestically and tighten security for the sake of all its citizens and residents. Failure to implement even these basic measures could lead to a number of journalists and other professionals leaving the country. The hacking scandal should thus be of great concern to Qatar.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.