Is the UAE capitalising on anti-Qatar media coverage despite benefiting from the World Cup?

Despite the UAE being the “single most” greatest economic benefactor from this year’s World Cup, its funelling of anti-Qatar slander seems to have gained drastic momentum over the past few weeks.

A number of prominent figures close to the United Arab Emirates government have been seen painting Qatar in a negative light amid global efforts to undermine Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup as it inches closer by the day.

With precisely two weeks away, the World Cup in Qatar has been a target of multiple smear campaigns, with recent comments by prominent Emirati figures posing questions on whether the UAE is backing such campaigns.

Hamad Al Mazrouei wrote in a tweet on Saturday: “15 days separate us from failure and inexperience,” while referring to the days leading up to the Middle East’s first ever FIFA World Cup.

Responding to tweet, journalist Anes Mansoor wrote: “We have seen vulgarity campaigns targeting Doha, and this is one of Abu Dhabi’s toilets vomiting signs of chaos. We continue campaign #انا_عربي_وادعم_قطر [I am an Arab and I support Qatar]”.

Another such response from a Twitter user read: “Hints from Mohammed bin Zayed’s advisor regarding sabotaging the World Cup in Qatar!”

Foreign policy analyst Rula Jebreal wrote as a response: “Welcome to the new Freedom To Intimidate on Twitter. This is a threat, issued by those attempting to frame the narrative, before implementing their plot.”

Speaking to Doha News, a political analyst said the comments are concerning particularly because Al Mazrouei is in charge of social media activities and information operations in the neighbouring UAE. He also serves as an advisor to Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s national security advisor.

“Therefore whatever he tweets about, somewhat is representative of the sort of activities that he’s engaged in,” Dr Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London told Doha News:

Offering an analysis into the strings pulled behind the anti-Qatar tweets from al Mazrouei, Krieg said: “Everything he’s tweeting obviously is unofficially also green lighted from above. So he seems to have the permission to speak on behalf of the government as well. So whatever he tweets will be read and has to be read as indirectly coming from Abu Dhabi and from the government.”

Europe, especially the United Kingdom, serves as an ideal indicator of some of the “weaponised narratives” against the Gulf nation which have been likely “ripened, spread, sharpened, and exacerbated by Emirati link networks,” Dr Krieg added.

With the World Cup looming on the horizon, the past few weeks have seen numerous campaigns targeting Qatar. This comes as an Arab League summit in Algeria earlier this month that declared an “absolute rejection” of slander targeting the Gulf state’s hosting of the World Cup.

“The declaration, issued this evening, stressed its absolute rejection of the malicious distortion and skepticism campaigns against Qatar,” read the final communique of the latest Arab League summit in Algiers.

Dr Krieg told Doha News: “For the past eight years or so the Emiratis have been using the World Cup as a means to attack Qatar because every success that Qatar has in the World Cup is seen in the UAE as a zero-sum loss for them.”

Many have interrogated the motives behind the escalating climb of anti-Qatar campaigns voiced from UAE just less than 20 days away from the World cup, despite the benefits it will be reaping during the major tournament as a neighbouring country.

One Twitter user wrote: “What do you conclude from Hamad Al Mazrouei’s tweet and what is hidden behind it?” which begs the follow-up and inevitable question: Is the UAE capitalising on anti-Qatar media coverage?

‘Free loader’

The Qatar slander comes against the backdrop of multiple entry ways for UAE’s economic benefits, whether through daily flights or accommodation during the World Cup 2022.

The World Cup in the Middle East is seen as means of further generating regional tourism as approximately 1.5 million fans are expected to visit Qatar.

A million World Cup supporters are also expected to visit Dubai, according to the Dubai Sports Council.

Due to the tournament, fans will flood the UAE, particularly Dubai, causing an unparalleled boom in tourism, especially since the country is less than two hours away by a plane ride.

Commenting on UAE’s major role in spreading anti-Qatar narratives, Dr Krieg said: “They make sure that the World Cup is not a success […] despite the fact that they’re actually gaining from this,” adding that Dubai is probably the greatest “free loader” from this year’s World Cup.

“Dubai is probably the single most greatest benefactor from this World Cup.”

In May, Qatar Airways along with other Gulf airlines agreed to launch match day shuttle flights between Doha and several regional cities. This came following the signing of a new memorandum of understanding between carriers of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

This means football fans within the region will not have to stay in Qatar to attend football matches as daily flights will allow for easy on-the-day transport. There will also be a no check-in baggage policy to ease journeys.

FlyDubai will operate 30 daily return flights between Dubai and Doha.

Meanwhile, the neighbouring emirate has designated fan zones at parks, beaches, and the financial district in preparation for the rush. Hotels are also promoting special deals.

As for accommodation during the tournament, property owners in Dubai are reportedly shifting to short-term rentals rather than the usual annual leases in preparation for fans flocking to the region for the World Cup.

A number of properties have been placed under short-stay listings in Dubai, according to Gulf News. Industry experts believe the demand for such units is expected to rise due to regional tourism fostered by the major sporting event.

Market sources told the news outlet that this year’s increase will range between 15%-to-25% by December, in comparison to current rates.

Residential rents in Dubai have already witnessed an increase of more than 20% throughout the fiscal year ending in July.

Beyond Dubai, Sharjah amended its policies on short-stay rentals to cater to fans wanting to stay in the UAE until the end of the year, after the World Cup ends.

Separately, English football fans in Dubai are booking up private jets for the World Cup, in hopes of taking it home, The National reported.

There are bookings for a 64-seat business-class passenger VIP jet at the cost of AED 6,500 on 18 December, the day of the World Cup final.

Superyachts are also offered in Dubai that cost $20,000 per night to watch the much-anticipated World Cup matches on enormous screens while sailing through the Persian Gulf.

UAE’s anti-Qatar project?

The UAE has long engaged with or carried out smear campaigns against Qatar to ensure that “that positive reputation that Qatar has built over the last five years still has some stains on it,” Dr Krieg told Doha News.

“I think what the Emirati are most worried about is that in London and in Washington, the countries are probably at their very best standing with the political establishment [Qatar government led by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani] than probably as good as it has ever been,” he said.

Qatar is seen as a significant Western partner and for the UAE the World Cup serves as an opportunity to “rally people on the right, and especially on the left against Qatar,” therefore the discussions marked against Qatar regarding human rights as well as specifically the rights of the LGBTQ community are some of the agendas the UAE is pursuing to try and pit the people that are traditionally with Qatar, the left, against the Gulf nation.

Regarding some of the alleged individual stories stemming out of Qatar centred around arbitrary arrests and being banned from displaying public affection, Dr Krieg offered his own analysis saying “there were Emirati funded PR companies behind it to kind of synchronise and orchestrate all these different operations that are ongoing.”

Last month, a new investigation by Orient XXI found that the UAE has been “discreetly” lobbying a key partner in France in an effort to shed negative light on Qatar.

According to its findings, the probe found indirect lobbying was carried out through various entities, including the French subsidiary of the British Project Associates, media outlets, as well as think tanks.

The investigation also outlined the UAE’s push to promote Qatar’s alleged links to the Muslim Brotherhood, regularly accusing it of financing the group and also associating the movement “with terrorism” as part of its “cognitive war.”

“Regardless of the facts, it is no longer merely a matter of advocating a narrative,” Pierre Gastineau, editor in chief of Intelligence Online, was cited in the report as saying.

“We are dealing with a vast offensive aimed at creating a media environment which will place the public in a position where it will lend a favourable ear to a certain type of rhetoric. Asserting systematically that Qatar finances the Muslim Brotherhood and automatically associating the Brotherhood with terrorism belongs to that strategy of cognitive warfare,” he added.

While the 2017 GCC crisis, which saw the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt impose an illegal air, land and sea blockade on Qatar, appeared to be resolved in 2021 with the signing of the Al-Ula Declaration, remnants of the feud have lingered, particularly in relations between Doha and Abu Dhabi.

This was seen in various online campaigns that have been traced back to the UAE. 

One of the most notorious campaigns included QLeaks, which was exposed by Eekad in July. The investigation found that its operational headquarters were in the Emirates.

An ongoing Gulf crisis?

“The Gulf crisis has been maintained for the last three, four years before Al-Ula was actually maintained entirely through information operations,” Dr Krieg said, adding that “this is going to continue and it has continued ever since.”

“So despite the fact that they’re shaking hands, under the table, the Emiratis have been putting the pressure on Qatar in the information domain, particularly in the West, but also in the Arab world.”

“That hasn’t changed and it will not change and people like Hamad Al Mazrouei are very much an important part of these information networks that the Emiratis maintain,” Dr Krieg said.

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