On 23 July, a London casting agency advertised for extras to ‘protest’ outside Downing Street. This coincided with a visit from the Qatari emir to visit Theresa May. Since then, the plot has thickened over who ordered the actors. And the whole matter could mark a sinister new trend for the UK.
Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, was due to visit No. 10 on 24 July. An email, sent by casting agency ‘Extra People’, emerged on social media to book actors for an ‘anti-Qatar event’:
This is jaw dropping. Who is paying for a fake protest against Qatar president at 10 Downing Street tomorrow? @extrapeopleltd can you fill us in please?
— Carole Cadwalladr (@carolecadwalla) July 23, 2018
Extra People has since distanced itself from the booking:
A statement regarding events today. pic.twitter.com/Umq61xMIHp
— Extra People Ltd (@extrapeopleltd) July 23, 2018
But things didn’t stop there.
According to Extra People, a company called ‘Neptune PR Ltd’ made the booking. But Neptune called this an “outrageous claim”:
A screengrab of the person asking to hire people via EP, giving Neptune PR Ltd, as the company details for invoicing. We withdrew our involvement shortly after. Full email chain is with our lawyers. pic.twitter.com/uED32Mzx9u
— Extra People Ltd (@extrapeopleltd) July 24, 2018
But the funny thing is, Neptune doesn’t seem to operate like a ‘normal’ PR company:
You are a PR company but you had no twitter account until yesterday.
Your website was only registered in April and has no content or SEO.
Who are you really? pic.twitter.com/NSf7WFrPQN
— Train to Trainwreck Town (@JerryStillman) July 24, 2018
Neptune PR is interesting. Incorporated in late April. Lone director. No contact details. Registered office is a service address. https://t.co/LOe5nkk2Fx
— Arieh Kovler (@ariehkovler) July 24, 2018
So who was behind the booking of ‘protest’ extras?
As Qatar-owned Al Jazeera noted on Twitter, it has been “more than a year” since “Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt launched a blockade against Qatar”.
The blockade – in place since June 2017 – pushed Qatar to accept demands which included “shutting down Al Jazeera” and ending “support for various regional Islamist groups”. Qatar was also accused of “treacherous support for the Houthis” in the ongoing war in Yemen. Although Qatar was initially part of the Saudi-led coalition bombing Yemen, this participation stopped in June 2017.
As The Canary‘s Ed Sykes has reported, the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Qatar is complex, especially in relation to the rise of terrorist groups:
Saudi Arabia has spread its state ideology of Wahhabism around the world for decades, using billions of petrodollars to do so. And while the ideology isn’t the only driving force behind terrorism, both al-Qaeda and Daesh [Isis/Isil] subscribe to it. One senior Qatari official has actually claimed the latter began as “a Saudi project“ (Qatar’s ‘project’ was allegedly al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra). High-level US leaks published by WikiLeaks, meanwhile, have described: Saudi Arabia and Qatar as providing “clandestine financial and logistic support” to Daesh; and “donors in Saudi Arabia” constituting “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.
And it wasn’t just the fake protests in London that drew attention. According to the New Arab, “thousands” of tweets in protest against al-Thani’s visit have also allegedly been generated by bots to #OpposeQatarVisit and “spread fake news about Qatar and build traffic and visibility for the hashtag”.
Friends and allies? And some are more allies than others…
Qatar’s record on human rights abuses is alarming. So there are valid reasons to oppose this visit. But Saudi Arabia‘s human rights record is also shameful. And Saudi Arabia is a key ally of both the UK and the US (much like Qatar was before 2017 and continues to be today).
Since 2015, the UK has licensed at least £4.6bn of arms to the authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia. And despite mixed messages, Donald Trump has backed Saudi Arabia and supported the action against Qatar.
As the Guardian reported, the fake protest in London tried to “create the impression of an upswell of British support against [Qatar]”. But that doesn’t seem to be the impression Theresa May wishes to create. According to the Mirror, May and the emir discussed “mutual trade defence and security matters as part of the two nations’ “historic and close friendship””.
There’s no hard evidence to pinpoint who booked the anti-Qatar ‘protesters’. But it looks as though the complexities of Middle Eastern conflicts are creeping toward the UK in new ways. And while our government remains intent on chasing trade and arms deals, there is no telling what manufactured political reactions will appear in the coming months and years.