Marc Owen Jones
The Gulf’s post-truth ‘moment’
With the above in mind, this book makes the case for a Gulf post-truth “moment”, a period of time characterised by the strengthening of digital authoritarianism and led primarily by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The book seeks to explain both why this moment has emerged and its various modalities – i.e. what are the tactics and methods of deception?
One of the overarching arguments is that the techno optimism characterised by the Arab Uprisings that began in 2010 has given way to the rise of digital authoritarianism, a central tenet of which is deception.
Social media and digital technology, which helped fuel the Arab Uprisings, is now being used as a tool of counter-revolutionary repression, particularly by certain Gulf states, to protect the authoritarian status quo across the MENA region, especially from perceived “Islamist” threats and Iranian expansionism.
Although this book explores the chains of information operations across multiple states and actors, it focuses on the biggest players – in line with the normative tendency to focus on dominant actors. In particular, it argues that Saudi Arabia, and to some extent the United Arab Emirates, are the main projectors of digital media power in the Arabic-speaking Middle East.
It is worth noting that it is somewhat facile to assume that all countries or entities are engaging in such behaviors equally. Certainly, almost all countries will engage in information operations, but it is more fruitful to base such analyses about bad actors and their use of disinformation on the known sources of disinformation rather than seeking to generate false parity by overstating cases.
To do so would just be to reify the concept of equality of disinformation based on an arbitrary state-centric parity between vastly different actors, whether in the MENA or otherwise.
Indeed, there is a reason why disinformation scholars often focus on the large powers such as Russia, China and Iran. Not all countries are equally powerful, populous, authoritarian and, as we shall see, deceptive.
Indeed, a useful question that derives from this is: who are the deception superpowers in the MENA region?
By empirically documenting known disinformation campaigns, and the different and evolving forms of deception, this book lays out the case that Saudi Arabia in particular should be seen as a new digital superpower, at least in the realms of deception via social media, specifically Twitter.
Here being a digital superpower involves using human resources and digital technology to launch influence operations on three fronts – domestically, regionally and internationally – in a sustained and evolving manner.
The impetus for this moment can be seen as the unsurprising evolution and “upgrading” of authoritarianism. That is, the tendency for authoritarian regimes to upgrade their capacity to resist dissent and adapt to new challenges (such as social media).
The Gulf’s post-truth moment can be characterised by the advent of a new era of Gulf politics, largely forged as an alliance between the Trump administration and the states of the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The Trump administration’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran and its drive to encourage normalisation between the Gulf and Israel have bred a fertile ground for disinformation and deception synergies.
This has overlapped with a new vision for the Middle East led chiefly by the rulers of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ).
These two emerging autocrats have sought to place their respective nations at the helm of a new Gulf moment, one that seeks normalisation with Israel and increasing hostility towards Iran and political Islam.
The Gulf’s post-truth moment can also be defined by disinformation synergies, complementary disinformation narratives in which right wing American policy and the foreign policy goals of the Saudi and UAE feed off each other in mutually reinforcing tropes.
A striking aspect of the Gulf’s post-truth moment is the emergence of tyrannical and totalitarian tendencies.
In order to create a “permanent state of mobilisation” where citizens advocate and defend their new “messianic” leader, totalitarian leaders often invoke external enemies in order to deflect from internal domestic criticism.
In the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular have created an “axis of evil” consisting of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, Turkey and Iran. Expressions of sympathy for these entities, as well as criticism of the Saudi and UAE governments, is firmly suppressed.
As part of attempting to legitimise the re-orientation of Gulf politics, disinformation and propaganda efforts have focused around attempting to construct this axis of evil as a regional bogeyman threatening the GCC.
Crucially, this book highlights how the digital space in the Arab world is not a level or horizontal playing field in which individuals or states are competing equally: just as with more conventional military might, certain states pour more resources into their digital deception apparatus, which feed their varying strategic objectives.
Similarly, as with any autocratic or totalitarian regime, personality of leaders matters when it comes to how those informational control strategies play out.
Marc Owen Jones is an Associate Professor of Middle East Studies at HBKU, and a Senior Non Resident Fellow at Democracy for the Arab World Now and the Middle East Council for Global Affairs.