Campaign for Twitter to move office out of Dubai under scrutiny for Qatar links

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A campaign for Twitter to move its regional headquarters from Dubai to another country in the region was dismissed by media experts on Sunday, who stated that Qatar would have “something to gain” from it.

The online campaign started after the former director of Qatar-owned media outlet Al Jazeera Yasser Abu Hilalah, wrote an article suggesting that Twitter move its regional headquarters from the UAE’s Dubai to Tunisia.

A similar campaign to move Twitter’s headquarters emerged in June 2019, days after Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani signed a decree to establish Qatar Media City. The project was set to host “the world’s leading media companies,” according to an interview with Qatar Media City’s CEO Bader al-Sada, conducted by Russian news outlet Sputnik. Qatar Media City has yet to be constructed.

Dubai is home to over 4,000 media organizations and hosts regional headquarters for many prominent international news outlets including Reuters, The Associated Press, Facebook, Twitter, CNN, MBC Group, Al Arabiya, and many others.

Twitter has called Dubai “a regional hub for many brands and advertising agencies” and the city was named the “Capital of Arab Media 2020” by the Arab Information Ministers Council.

Twitter is a "vital platform of dialogue, of freedom of expression and of progressive futurist expressions," according to Middle East expert Walid Phares.

"In the present circumstances, Dubai seems to the most ideal location for such platform in the entire Arab world," said Phares, a former Donald Trump foreign policy advisor, in an interview with Al Arabiya English.

This July 9, 2019, file photo shows a sign outside of the Twitter office building in San Francisco. (AP)
This July 9, 2019, file photo shows a sign outside of the Twitter office building in San Francisco. (AP)

While Twitter did not want to comment on the status of its regional presence, a source knowledgeable of international media company operations told Al Arabiya that “we cannot say with absolute certainty that Qatar is behind the campaign.”

“However, Qatar definitely has something to gain if any of the major media companies decide to leave Dubai,” said the source, who requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Due to numerous logistical and operational requirements Tunisia is not a realistic choice to host Twitter’s regional headquarters, according to the source.

But “Qatar has been trying to approach international media companies since the initial announcement of Qatar Media City in 2017 and more aggressively since the decree announcing the structure of Qatar Media City in 2019,” said the source.

“I doubt any media company would consider moving out of Dubai now or in the foreseeable future since the infrastructure is there, all operational requirements are satisfied, and a complete media ecosystem exists,” he said.

“As for Qatar Media City, we do not even know where it will be located as it has not been officially announced,” he added.

The Qatari flag is seen at a park near Doha Corniche, in Doha, Qatar February 17, 2018. (Reuters)
The Qatari flag is seen at a park near Doha Corniche, in Doha, Qatar February 17, 2018. (Reuters)

And while Tunisia has a "vibrant civil has also a large extremist movement," according to Phares, referencing the Ennahda political party, which is the party with the most seats in Tunisia's parliament.

"A Twitter headquarter based in current Tunisia would be to the detriment of liberal, secular, and democratic values," he said.

Social Media Analytics

Al Arabiya conducted a social media analysis about the hashtag used by the campaign - #Change_Office_Twitter_Dubai - which found users from Qatar were the second highest group to interact with the hashtag after users from Saudi Arabia.

Qatar had an estimated 708,000 active users on Twitter in 2019 compared to 11.27 million in Saudi Arabia, according to statistics published by social media platform Hootsuite.

Four of the top five Twitter users identified by the report included Qatari-owned media channels Al Jazeera Mubasher and Al Arabi Al Yoam, a media personality working for Al Jazeera, and a Qatari businessman.

Kuwaiti media personality and YouTuber Shuaib Rashed whose show is hosted on Al Jazeera's digital platform "O2 Al Jazeera" also participated in the campaign with an online survey asking which is the best city to host Twitter’s MENA offices.

"The Qatari strategy has been to gradually exert message control over social media worldwide, either by using other political entities such as Ennahda in Tunisia, or by suggesting international boards to control the narrative of civil societies, particularly the youth in the Middle East," said Phares.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar over its support for extremist groups and organizations that they have classified as terrorist such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Iranian proxy groups, which Doha contests.

Despite the boycott, Doha has refused to halt its activities and relations have not been restored.

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