Blockades, Bots, and the Future of Gulf Unity

The Gulf blockade of Qatar was both a diplomatic and technological crisis. To that end, an analysis of state-engineered tech campaigns, i.e. bots, throughout the blockade is critical to understanding the impetus for the crisis, the tactics used throughout the conflict, and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) projection of “Gulf unity” post-blockade. Using the 2017-2021 Qatar blockade as a historical backdrop, we will analyze the extent to which Gulf states’ increased technological capacity to monitor and control public dissent shaped, and are shaping, public discourse around Gulf unity in the post-blockade landscape. From this study, we will infer how bots affected public discourse online during key moments throughout the diplomatic crisis to either disrupt social cohesion and/or project a sense of Gulf unity. 


Six months after the end of the blockade, GCC leaders are working to project an image of Gulf unity. Very little research has been conducted on the subject, and thus, our research may play a seminal role in understanding the political and technological nuances of the region, and in answering the  question of just how “united” GCC citizens really feel and how much of this unity, or lack thereof, is influenced by state engineered tech campaigns. 

Research Question: 

  1. What is the relationship between traditional media and social media in framing intra-Gulf state dynamics throughout the blockade and to this day? 
  1. What is the scale and scope of state-driven bot activity in Qatar and the UAE today? And what are the threats of this activity on the public discourse surrounding Gulf unity?  

Background on the Crisis: 

In his piece, “Legacies and Lessons of the Blockade”, Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an expert in the history, context, and complex intra-Gulf dynamics of the 2017 blockade, explores the roots of the 2017 Gulf Crisis and subsequent blockade of Qatar led by the Gulf Quartet (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt). While tensions were brought to a boiling point in spring 2017, the rivalry between Doha and Abu Dhabi and Riyadh had been long standing, with various points of conflict arising over the past few decades. The crisis commenced after the Qatar News Agency was hacked, and hackers published a story attributing controversial remarks regarding Iran to the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. The hack, widely understood to have been undertaken by the UAE, triggered a Saudi and Emirati media onslaught against Qatar, accusing the state of supporting terrorism in the region. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt cut diplomatic relations with Doha, imposed an economic blockade of the country, and Saudi Arabia, specifically, closed its airspaces and land borders with Qatar. The Quartet also announced a list of 13 demands that Qatar was required to comply with in order to end the blockade. Ulrichsen argues that the real cost of the crisis is its implications for the future of Gulf Unity. The Quartet’s meddling into the internal tribal affairs of Qatar was a significant intervention into the social fabric of the Gulf, and has potentially long-term consequences. Additionally, the blockade inflamed Qatari nationalism and called into question how a rise in nationalist sentiment can co-exist with a preexisting Gulf identity, and whether or not a regional collective identity is worth maintaining. Our research will investigate the possibility of inter-tribal fragmentation that Ulrichsen underscores in his research by tracking shifts in the expression of tribal versus national identity in the online space.

Final Paper Coming Winter 2021.