Saudi Arabia and Iran: The Tale of Two Media Covering Conflict in Yemen
This image of martyrdom and the appeals to solidarity help give spiritual life to a sacred community (the Shia) that transcends space and time. It is perceived as a symbol of the struggle against injustice, tyranny and oppression - a symbol that was used during the Islamic revolution, the Lebanese Civil War, in the 1990s unrest in Bahrain, in the uprising in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and now in the portrayal of the Houthis.
The conservative leaders of Iran are deeply attached to the core values of Shia Islam and those values are ingrained in the country’s political discourse. Their Arabic-speaking media allow them to a certain extent to promote Iran’s status as a regional power through discourses that focus on the United States and Israel to divert attention from the sectarian divide. While they appeal to the sympathy of Muslims and their Shia brothers, Iranian media never mention “Sunni fighters” and the attacks on Saudi Arabia are made in an indirect manner by associating the country with the United States and Israel.
The Houthi spokesman also said that the Saudi attacks on the Houthis prove that “the Saudi regime is, similar to Israel, a bloodthirsty regime committing crimes against thousands of people in northern Yemen thanks to the silence of the international media”33. Again, the message clearly aims to discredit Saudi Arabia by likening it to Israel. Among Arab audiences, rejection of and hatred for Israel are powerful tools to rally masses, regardless of whether they have the same aim.
By the end of January, Arabsat had suspended Al-Alam’s broadcasting for the second time in three months, therefore containing the Iranian propaganda apparatus. The suspension reflected not only Saudi Arabia’s fear that the conflict could damage its interests, but also its awareness that the Iranian media infringe upon the strategically construed Saudi discourse.
While the war of words heats up between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Arabic media over the conflict in northern Yemen between Shia Houthi rebels and Yemeni security forces, Saudi Arabia and Iran have highjacked the conflict to further spread their influence. In the meantime, both sides apply policies of containment against each other through propaganda and sponsorship of schools, groups, and programs. In the process, however, as both countries promote their competing religio-political ideologies, they represent a destabilizing force in an already unstable country by inciting sectarian warfare.
At the regional level, Saudi Arabia's overt intervention in the Sa'dah war may end up turning the accusation of Iranian support of the Houthis into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Saudi intervention may well create more shared interests between the Houthis and Iran. Influential Yemeni elites, some of whom are close to the Islamists, have not helped matters by stigmatizing the Zaydi identity and alleging an Iranian role in Sa'dah. This creates powerful incentives for Shi'ite groups to embrace transnational solidarity, Iranian news agencies to engage in biased reporting, and the Houthi rebels to seek money and know-how. The Saudi military intervention is bound to encourage all those trends, making a sustainable peace harder to build.
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.