This is not the first time relations among the Persian Gulf neighbors have chilled, and indeed the Saudi-led bloc has made past calls for the Qatar-based Al Jazeera, a news network often critical of their foreign policies, to be taken down. This summer, states blocked their citizens from accessing the news site outright and, in a rare move, authorities in each state publically announced their information campaign against Qatar, admitting to a practice that might have once left them named and shamed.
The campaign against Qatar is not the only context in which Middle Eastern blocs filter information based on geopolitical fault lines, either. For example, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all block websites affiliated with Iran and Hezbollah, and Oman joins Saudi Arabia and the UAE in blocking sites connected to both Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood. The researchers also found that “tensions have led to increased filtering in the past year” as geopolitical conflicts—including civil wars in Syria and Yemen—have exacerbated regional rivalries.
Unlike the publicly-recognized Qatar campaign, much of the filtering efforts in the region are not justified on a political basis or as part of a larger foreign policy. Instead they are rationalized on social or faith-based grounds; however, these motivations often coincide with political motivations for censorship. This is especially true in regions where conflicts are largely religious or sectarian in nature—for example, several Arab states block Shiite content, and Iran blocks Sunni content. Political censorship is therefore shrouded in religious or cultural explanations.