Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Tale of Two Media Covering Conflict in Yemen
Issue 10, Spring 2010
Mazraq camp for people displaced by fighting in northern Yemen
Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Tale of Two Media
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have a long history of difficult relations with Tehran and are increasingly concerned about Iran’s expanding regional influence. The most prominent of those countries is Saudi Arabia, the leading regional Sunni power, an economic and political rival of Shia Iran and, as the birthplace of Islam, a country with a claim to worldwide Muslim leadership. As the conflict raged between the Shi'ites and Sunnis in Iraq over the past few years, relations have unraveled between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Iranian-Saudi relations help define broader Arab-Iranian ties and are pivotal to the security of the Gulf region. Throughout the numerous regional crises that have occurred in the region over the past decades, these two powers have used the media as a platform to win the hearts and minds of the Arab populations, to reshape their discourse and legitimize their actions.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia use the media to portray their own distorted reality through the prism of their own agendas; and to compete with each other, they exaggerate this distortion. The media have also been instrumental in stirring up fitna (discord) between Sunnis and Shi'ites, which has been exacerbated by the last war in Iraq, by the sectarian divisions in Lebanon, and by the desire of Saudi Arabia and Western allies to counter Iran’s expanding influence in the Middle East and what certain commentators and politicians have called the “Shia crescent.”
Both countries use the media to propagate their message, exert influence in Middle Eastern politics, and develop power relations by using the media's ability to shape their relationships with other nations and with ethno-sectarian populations. Through these channels they also construct their own political discourse and indirectly communicate with one another.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are now key players in the Arabic-language media market, transforming it into an arena for confrontation and quests for popularity. Every conflict or crisis in the region becomes an opportunity for them to exert their influence and the media provides them with the ability to legitimize their actions while trying to win the hearts and minds of the Arab world through their own propaganda.
1 Term attributed to Arthur Conolly to describe rivalry and strategic conflict between the British Empire and Tsarist Russian Empire for supremacy in Central Asia.
4 The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape The Future. Vali Nasr
5 The insurgency was in fact a civil war that began in June 2004 when Hussein Al-Houthi launched an uprising against the government of Yemen and ended in February 2010 with a truce and a ceasefire. Although most of the fighting occurred in the Sa'dah governorate, it spread to neighboring governorates and the Saudi province of Najran.
11 Expression borrowed from Rami Khoury
12 Andrew Hammond. “Saudi media empire tries to counter opposition,” Reuters, 9 August 2007
15 Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar, Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East (Boulder CO, 2002), pp27,54.
25 Meaning the “government of the expert” which s a concept enunciated in a book of the same title written by Iranian Shia cleric and revolutionary Ayatollah Khomeini. According to the book, the principle is that the government should be run in accordance with the Shari’a, and for this to happen a leading Islamic jurist (faqih), must provide political "guardianship" (wilayat or velayat) over the people.
26 It will for example often feature high profile Iraqi politicians who praise Iran’s “positive influence in maintaining the security in Iraq, such as in this article: http://www.alalam.ir/detail.aspx?id=97116.