‘Disinformation campaign’ spins Al Arabiya Biden article to target US-Saudi relations

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An Al Jazeera journalist has falsely suggested that an Al Arabiya article about Joe Biden’s dogs returning to the White House insulted Biden, in what one Al Arabiya editor described as a “disinformation campaign.”

Following Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential elections, worldwide media including Saudi-owned Al Arabiya reported on the light-hearted story that Biden would be bringing his pets – two German shepherds called Champ and Major – into the White House when he takes office.

Al Arabiya ran the headline in Arabic: “The dogs have returned to the White House,” along with a photograph of Biden and one of his dogs. The headline referred to Biden’s campaign ad “Let’s put dogs back in the White House,” which featured the same image of Biden and a single dog.

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Al Arabiya later deleted a tweet of the article, but said that it stood by the story, which was clearly referring to Biden’s pets rather than himself.

“We fully stand by this story and no tweet should have been removed. A member of the social media team deleted a tweet referring to it, fearing that it may be misunderstood. The headline and subject of the story are clear as daylight and are not up for debate,” said Al Arabiya’s Social Media Manager Amjad Samhan.

But on Sunday, Qatari journalist Reem al-Harmi presented the headline as a slur against Biden and linked the article to US-Saudi relations.

“Saudi owned Al Arabiya TV and Al-Sharq Al-Awasat newspaper, have hit a new low for their lack of professionalism. They ran a story on Joe #Biden under the headline, “The dogs are back to the White House”, in an obvious insult to the new president-elect,” tweeted al-Harmi on Sunday.

Jamal Elshayyal, a journalist with the Qatari news channel Al Jazeera, also suggested the title was aimed at insulting Biden, citing its deletion as apparently supporting the idea.

New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof retweeted the allegations, but then subsequently deleted his tweet, while social media users pointed out how the claims misrepresented the original article.

Read more: Saudi Arabia’s King and Crown Prince congratulate Joe Biden on US election win

Pro-Iran figures spread story

These claims were then retweeted by Trita Parsi, the founder of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), which has been accused of working with the Iranian government.

In a tweet on Sunday, Parsi stated that “The Saudis take the first step of reaching out to Biden... by insulting him and calling him a dog,” adding that Biden should “treat the Saudi gov (sic) as the pariahs they are.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, the former director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, also repeated the story in a tweet in which she insulted Saudi Arabians as “feeble.”

“These ‘dogs’ have US troops on the ground protecting Saudi Arabia cuz their own countrymen are unable – too weak, too undisciplined, too untrained, too feeble – to do it. Keep that in mind yakhwan #Saudi,” said Whitson.

Shortly after, Whitson tweeted three “rules” she wants the Biden administration to follow, including her recommendation to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

However, her tweet had been deleted by Monday afternoon.

Al Arabiya English reached out to Whitson for comment on Monday but had not received a reply at time of publication.

Read more: Sarah Leah Whitson sparks outrage after calling Saudis ‘weak, undisciplined, feeble’

Disinformation campaign

In response to Parsi and Whitson, Al Arabiya English’s Editor-in-Chief Mohammed Alyahya clarified the story was not an insult against Biden and called out the “crude and vacuous” disinformation campaign.

“This disinformation is particularly crude & vacuous. The articles are about the White House having pets again because President-elect Biden’s family – unlike Trump’s – has a dog. The fact that this disinformation is certifiably, on its face, dumb shouldn’t make us any less vigilant,” Alyahya tweeted.

Alyahya also said that Whitson’s attack on Saudi Arabia revealed the “hatred” and “bigotry” that influences some criticism of the Kingdom, and highlighted the role of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft think tank – which Parsi co-founded and where Leah Whitson was until recently Managing Director for Research and Policy.

“This shows how hatred, deep-seated racism, & loathing of all Saudis is at the core of some anti-Saudi rhetoric among Iran defenders. This bigotry by the Quincy Institute echoes its founder spreading lies by a Qatari analyst. This might be dumb disinformation, but it’s also racist,” said Alyahya on Twitter.

After deleting her tweet, Whitson admitted responded with an apology on Twitter: “You’re right. It was wrongly worded. I took your point and deleted it. I’m sorry! Will try to revise the point.”

Previous Al Arabiya English analysis of Whitson’s coverage of Saudi Arabia during her time at Human Rights Watch found lopsided coverage of the Kingdom in comparison to other countries.

The analysis found Whitson had tweeted far more often about Saudi Arabia than Iran, and her tweets on the Kingdom were exclusively negative, whereas her mentions of Iran and Iranians were more mixed in tone despite Iran’s dismal human rights record.

Read more: Human Rights Watch analysis shows lopsided coverage of Iran versus Saudi Arabia

Past examples

The incident is not the first case of false claims about Saudi Arabia being shared online.

In 2015, Addiyar, a Lebanon-based newspaper that is traditionally pro-Syrian regime and pro-Hezbollah, ran a story that said Saudi Arabia pledged to build 200 mosques for Syrian refugees in Germany.

According to Addiyar, Saudi Arabian King Salman allegedly made the offer through diplomatic channels.

But the story wasn’t true, and no mosques were built.

Despite this, mainstream Western outlets, including the UK-based The Independent, and other regional outlets such as Arabian Business picked up the story. The German outlet Frankfurter Allgemeine published a scathing article about the Gulf’s handling of the refugee crisis that mentioned the fake Addiyar article.

Qatari media outlets have also been accused of deliberately spreading misleading or false stories meant to undermine Saudi Arabia.

In 2018, Qatari outlets reported that Egyptian football fans had blamed Saudi Arabia for Sergio Ramos injuring Egyptian star Mohammed Salah ahead of the FIFA World Cup. Al Jazeera reported the story in Arabic, citing the Middle East Eye, which in turn cited a report by al- Quds al-Arabi – a reportedly Qatari-funded site, which carried the report that was itself written by Al Jazeera journalist Faisal al Qassem.

“It’s a coordinated network of manipulation and misinformation,” tweeted Dr Jaber Alsiwat at the time.

Read more: Iranians, using #NIACLobbies4mullahs, express anger toward US-based lobby group

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