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Old Battles on New Stages: Hashtag Blockade in the Gulf

Fri, August 30, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Hilton, Embassy

Abstract

The Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf have some of the highest rates of internet penetration and social media use in the Middle East (Dennis, Martin, and Wood 2016). Nonetheless, the online public sphere remains an understudied aspect of politics and culture in the Gulf. The need to better understand patterns of online media use in the region has become even more crucial with the onset of the Gulf diplomatic crisis. In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt broke diplomatic relations with Qatar and closed their land, sea, and air borders, resulting in a stalemate or a “long estrangement” (Lynch 2017) between the countries. Within this context, the online public sphere has become a crucial tool of both diplomacy and disruption, used to promote competing political agendas to both internal and external audiences (Akdenizli 2018).

This paper reports on the findings of an interdisciplinary, mixed-method research project that investigates the use of online media in the region during this diplomatic crisis, particularly their origins and diffusion patterns. Digital media provides a space for rhetoric that utilizes political, cultural, and especially religious “cues” to engage and coopt the general public sentiment around important issues and thereby influence conversations, deliberations, and attitudes, a crucial area of research that is understudied in the non-Western world (Penney 2017). Looking both top-down and bottom-up, this paper analyzes how Gulf government entities are using digital tools for image-building, reputation, and crisis management, and how society—both influential Twitter users and ordinary people—exert implicit or explicit pressure on each other to think and act in a certain way.

Using content and discourse analysis of a large Twitter data set, collected from the start of the diplomatic crisis, this paper demonstrates that some of the most propagated hashtags are echoes of long-standing issues and previous grievances between the countries, such as the proper place and role of women in the region, territorial disputes between Qatar and its neighbors, and intra-Gulf competition over hosting rights for prestigious sporting events. The hashtags and tweets surrounding the FIFA World Cup 2022 provide a salient example of the intersection between sports and national legitimacy (Hobsbawm 1992; Roche 2000). The states of the Gulf—particularly Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE (Abu Dhabi and Dubai)—have seized recent opportunities to host elite sporting events in order to, as Koch (2018) argues, “broadcast an image of Gulf cities as ‘cosmopolitan,’ ‘modern, and ‘globalised.’” But understudied in the extant literature is the recognition of the competitive—often zero-sum—nature of this strategy. Similar to an individual game between two teams, the procurement of hosting rights is itself another form of competition between Gulf countries, and the benefits of being the successful bidder may be outweighed by the unintended downsides.

Using evidence from both news media and social media, this paper analyzes the messages conveyed by Qatar and its regional neighbors about the upcoming World Cup, demonstrating that the communication battles over the 2022 World Cup are using new media tools to advance old agendas over hosting rights that have existed between the Gulf states for decades. Bringing insights from the fields of political science, communication, and digital media studies, this paper contributes to a deeper understanding of the changing patterns of communication in the region and their implications for digital authoritarianism and the online public sphere.

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