The UAE’s threat to imprison Qatari supporters for up to 15 years is a grand self-inflicted wound to its international soft power as a “modern” Arab state and wouldn’t have been enacted unless Abu Dhabi was preparing for a prolonged crisis which “justifies” such a totalitarian move. The country has spent years building up its global reputation as a relatively (operative word) “progressive” country in the region which respects a much wider free speech spectrum than its fellow monarchic counterparts in the GCC.

This narrative was actively promoted in order to court foreign (mostly Western) investment by making wealthy outsiders feel somewhat “at home”, but all of the UAE’s hard-fought work at pioneering its national brand might ultimately come to naught now that the government decreed a draconian anti-Qatari censorship policy. Reuters cited the UAE-based newspaper Gulf News and pan-Arab channel Al-Arabiya as quoting the Emirates’ Attorney-General Hamad Saif al-Shamsi who reportedly said about the new regulation that:

“Strict and firm action will be taken against anyone who shows sympathy or any form of bias toward Qatar, or against anyone who objects to the position of the United Arab Emirates, whether it be through the means of social media, or any type of written, visual or verbal form.”

For all practical intents and purpose, any individual who expresses opposition for the government’s policies and/or some sort of implied sympathy for Qatar’s in their speech, online musings, or shared memes and videos risks facing nearly a fifth of the average UAE male’s life expectancy in jail, and there’s no indication that this is limited solely to the country’s national citizens. Therefore, it should reasonably be presumed that foreign guest workers and expats are forced to abide by this totalitarian measure, though what’s most interesting about this whole affair is that no influential Western voices or national governments are publicly objecting to it. This is probably attributable to the “dog whistle” that Trump blew when he tweeted his support for the GCC’s actions of Qatar, so it’s natural that the US’ vassals will fall in line with their hegemon’s rhetoric (or lack thereof).

Nevertheless, it’s impossible for average citizens and especially businessmen from the West to avoid the fact that the UAE just implemented the most dictatorial piece of anti-free speech legislation in recent memory which incidentally happens to be three times harsher than Saudi Arabia’s likeminded move in this regard. This totally jars with the country’s international reputation and is a gaping wound in its soft power, one which many people likely won’t forget any time soon.

Naturally, one must ask why the UAE would self-inflict such massive damage its global brand, and the only logical reason is that it expects the Gulf Crisis to be a protracted one and is legitimately concerned about Qatar’s influence in the country. It’s not for nothing that most of the GCC shut down Al Jazeera’s offices in their countries, and for the Emirates in particular they might fear that Muslim Brotherhood-sympathetic locals or foreign (mostly South Asian) workers might fall under Doha’s spell and cause trouble as an asymmetrical response to the de-facto blockade being imposed against the peninsular country.

The UAE wouldn’t be taking such informational precautions if it expected for the Gulf Crisis to be resolved sometime soon, nor would it take the dramatic step of publicly enacting such a draconian piece of legislation threatening the imprisonment of individuals for up to 15 years just for disagreeing with the government’s policy though not necessarily supporting Doha’s. While events might change at a moment’s notice and the situation is still very fluid, there’s reason to believe that the UAE doesn’t anticipate the resolution of the feud for some time. Qatar, unlike what the Saudis might have initially expected, is holding firm in the face of pressure and even seeking humanitarian support from its Turkish and Iranian partners to ease the pain of the de-facto embargo. This development throws a wrench in the Saudis’ plans and might have played a key role in the UAE’s censorship decision.

Originally, the Saudis probably thought that they’d succeed in scaring Qatari Emir al-Thani enough that he’d completely back down and submit to Riyadh’s will, thereby neutering the LNG-rich neighboring state whose comparatively independent policies towards the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran were beginning to discomfit the Kingdom. The UAE, however, as I argued in my comprehensive analysis on this topic for 21st Century Wire about “The Machiavellian Plot to Provoke Saudi Arabia and Qatar into a “Blood Border” War”, likely envisioned that this campaign will take longer than expected but deliberately pushed the Saudis into commencing it in order to cynically lead to their long-term ruin and the UAE’s replacement as the regional leader. The reader should reference the abovementioned article for more details if they’re eager to learn more about this deeper analysis, but the point in bringing it up in this piece is to highlight that the UAE might have also gotten a bit too far ahead of itself with this Machiavellian plot.

The Emirates probably expected that there will be a large-scale exodus of investment capital from Qatar to their country the longer that the embargo is in place, and that this would help to ultimately transfer wealth between the two rival states. If the crisis was resolved quickly, even if there was a successful Color Revolution or royalist regime change, then this process would be halted, Qatar would recover, and the UAE wouldn’t displace its chief economic competitor.

While Abu Dhabi and its allies evidently anticipated that Doha could “strike back” through its indoctrinated supporters within their countries and therefore shut down the Qatari-run Al Jazeera as a preventative hard security measure, they sloppily appear to have not considered its soft counterpart in terms of the consequences that the totalitarian censorship measures would have on their international reputation and consequent investment flows. It’s no surprise that the Saudis would jail people for expressing their opinion, but it took a lot of people off guard that the Emiratis would implement a policy threatening triple the amount of jail time for the same offense.

One must remember that this is a major self-inflicted wound to the UAE’s carefully crafted global brand which they’ve spent decades building, and that it was most likely enacted as a hasty response to the government’s realization that Qatar might be able to realistically leverage more soft power within their borders during this expectedly protracted conflict than they initially thought. The conclusion to be reached is that the UAE is both willing to sacrifice some of its own soft power in order to combat Qatar’s, which comparatively puts Doha on much more solid and powerful footing regionally than any of its former Gulf allies who can’t do the same within Qatar’s borders. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the others would like for the socio-economic pressures that they’re putting on Qatar to lead to a full-out strategic surrender or a pro-GCC royalist coup, but the targeted country’s enlistment of Turkish and Iranian humanitarian support unexpectedly mitigated the chances that this would happen in the near future.

Therefore, as the UAE prepares to dig its heels in for the long haul, its paranoid leadership feels compelled to take extreme censorship measures that are even more radical than Saudi Arabia’s, an extraordinary move which is singlehandedly dismantling the country’s international reputation. Moreover, this decision is also leading foreign observers to question whether it’s indeed Qatar which actually has the asymmetrical upper hand against its Gulf rivals and not the reverse, seeing as how it’s the UAE and others which are so scared of Doha that they’re threatening their citizens with unprecedented prison sentences for the “crime” of disagreeing with the government in this spat.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.
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Andrew Korybko is Moscow-based political analyst, journalist and a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. His other areas of focus include tactics of regime change, color revolutions and unconventional warfare used across the world.