Yemen’s war has had a direct impact on tensions within Lebanon’s already fractured society, as rival political camps and their regional allies have attempted to dominate the media narrative to serve their own political agendas. While this competition unfolded primarily in the media, its consequences have been felt off camera as well.
The media war, which has taken place between outlets favoring Hezbollah/Iran and those aligned with Lebanon’s pro-Saudi March 14th movement, is another chapter in the ongoing battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia over political narratives in the tiny Mediterranean country. Even before the Yemen war began, both sides were using the Lebanese media to promote their competing interests in the Syrian conflict, inflaming divisions and tensions across the country.
But, it was not until the war in Yemen that the rhetoric on both sides rose several notches, signaling a sharp break from the existing rules of engagement. Local factions fought to dominate and shape the media narrative on Yemen, in an effort to push their political agendas. In doing so, they staked out maximalist positions, manipulating anti-Zionist and sectarian feelings to obfuscate the real nature of what was happening inside the Gulf state.
Hezbollah and Its Allies Up the Ante
While pro-Hezbollah publications, like Al Akhbar, were attacking Saudi Arabia long before the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, Hezbollah has been careful not to directly and publicly confront the Saudi royal family. Since the Yemen war began, however, Hezbollah has bluntly criticized Saudi Arabia for wreaking havoc on the country.
Why this sudden change in tactics? After achieving success against Israel in 2006, as well as in the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, Hezbollah has gained confidence in its rising regional power and the concomitant decline of its enemies. Hezbollah believes that the Saudi project in the region has reached a tipping point and that Yemen will be its downfall, as well as the undoing of the royal family.
By speaking out so publicly against the kingdom, Hezbollah has demonstrated that previous red lines are now irrelevant and that there is a new status quo – one in which the non-state actor has little to fear from Saudi Arabia.
This confidence is clearly evident in the rhetoric and media campaigns launched by the group and its friends. Hezbollah and its allies have, for example, issued multiple statements accusing Saudi Arabia of making a “historic mistake,” “killing innocent civilians,” “committing genocide” in Yemen, as well as stating that Iran “cannot be compared to the backward, ignorant, murderous regime” of Saudi Arabia.
On the second day of the Saudi-led operation, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, railed against the kingdom. “The real reason [behind the military operation] is that Saudi Arabia has lost its hegemony and bets in Yemen and lost hope in its takfiri groups. It has sensed that Yemen is now for its people and this war aims to regain hegemony over Yemen,” he said. “We condemn the oppressive Saudi aggression against Yemen.”
In a speech given earlier this year, Nasrallah harkened back to that March 2015 statement, claiming, “The most honorable thing I did in my life was the speech I delivered on the second day of the Saudi war against Yemen.” He added that, for many years, Hezbollah had remained silent about Saudi aggression towards it, while also accusing the kingdom of masterminding some of the suicide operations that had taken place in Lebanon over the last few years.
Together with its media supporters, Hezbollah has cultivated an anti-Saudi narrative that focuses on the civilian casualties caused by Saudi airstrikes, as well as the success of Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia. There has also been substantial discussion of the U.S.-Saudi partnership, including headlines and articles describing “Saudi-US airstrikes” on civilian targets. Countless graphic images, videos, and articles have been published to highlight the level of destruction and humanitarian devastation caused by the Saudi intervention, and to underscore that the kingdom is attacking a sovereign state and its people.
Hezbollah TV station, Al Manar, for example, has focused quite a bit on the advances made in Yemen by the Houthi movement, never missing an opportunity to publicize Saudi military failures. Headlines, such as “Saudi-led invading mercenaries suffer major losses in Yemen’s Taiz” and “Saudi-US aggression targets wedding ceremony in Taiz, killing more than 130 people,” highlight the specific narrative Hezbollah and its allies aim to promote.
Through its media channels, rallies, and official speeches, Hezbollah has spent considerable time formulating the idea that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and ‘takfirism’, whereby one Muslim accuses another Muslim of apostasy, are branches of the same tree. Pro-Hezbollah media have compared Saudi aggression in Yemen to Israel’s aggression against Lebanon in the 2006 war. The media has also compared ISIS’s ideology with Saudi Wahhabism. In a speech delivered in April 2015, Nasrallah said, “Where did the ideology of these groups that are destroying societies and countries come from? … From whose culture and fatwas? Who is spreading this ideology across the world? Who is building schools all over the world to teach Muslim youth this destructive, takfiri ideology? Very clearly it is Saudi Arabia.”
For the left leaning, pro-Hezbollah, Al Akhbar newspaper, positioning itself against the Gulf kingdom has been a particularly organic process. Saudi Arabia, its allies, and its actions in the region, represent everything the newspaper stands against.
Al Akhbar has not shied away from calling Saudi Arabia “regressive” and “oppressive,” while at the same time legitimizing the aspirations and political demands of the Houthis. In one editorial, editor-in-chief, Ibrahim al Amin, wrote: “‘Bum’ or ‘bums’ is the popular term for lazy, but in the collective conscience of Arabs, when talking about the Princes of Al Saud the definition is expanded to ‘those who spend their time playing with their toes.’”
In another article published under the headline, “Ethnic cleansing in Aden: The coalition prepares to isolate the south,” Al Akhbar accused coalition forces of “cleansing” southern Yemen of northerners in preparation to split the country.
In yet another article, the newspaper argued, “Saudi Arabia is operating with the mindset of a loser which operates on the basis ‘play or I’ll ruin the field’. The Saudi aggression aims to destroy the foundations of a Yemeni state that will delay the birth of Yemen as a model nation for decades to come.”
The purpose of these narratives is to promote Saudi Arabia as weak and destructive, the war as costly and a huge mistake, and part and parcel of the larger U.S. imperialist agenda to destroy the axis of resistance in the region.
Lebanon’s Saudi-backed Media Outlets Lash Out
Of course, Saudi-backed political movements and media outlets are not sitting by quietly. Keen to protect Saudi Arabia’s influence in the country, the Saudi-aligned Future Movement and its allies in the March 14 group have continually lashed out against Hezbollah, calling it an Iranian agent, accusing it of jeopardizing Lebanon’s stability, and questioning its loyalty to the Arab world.
Their allies in the pro-Saudi media have largely focused on cultivating a narrative about the legitimacy and legality of the Saudi-led intervention. They have emphasized that ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who is in exile in Saudi Arabia, is the true leader of Yemen, insisted on the fact that the Arab League voted in favor of the intervention, and underscored support for the coalition from the United States and Turkey.
As far as pro-Saudi media in Lebanon is concerned, Iran’s alliance with the Houthis is further evidence of Iranian interference in Arab affairs. Making direct comparisons with Iran’s Hezbollah project in Lebanon, the pro-Saudi media has presented the Iranian-Houthi relationship as yet another attempt to spread Shiism around the region.
According to an article published in Moustaqbal, a newspaper belonging to the Future Movement, “Iran was keen in recent years to take advantage of the situation in Yemen to create a new version of Hezbollah through the Houthi movement, which was unable to perform this role because it doesn’t have the same political landscape that brought Hezbollah to Lebanon.” The article went on to claim that: “After the 1979 revolution, [Iran] wanted to export its revolution to the region where there are Shiite minorities and build up their relationship with them so that they are more loyal to Iran than their own country, and with that it built networks in these countries which allows them to destabilize them to the advantage of Iran.”
As this rhetoric demonstrates, there has been a good deal of ‘othering’ by the pro-Saudi Lebanese media when it comes to Shiites. Many articles imply that Shiites are Persian and Arab. Claims that the Houthis have been “captured by Iran” and are being used by the Iranians to establish a “wilayat fakih”” in Yemen have frequently appeared in Lebanon’s Saudi-backed media scene.
These themes are echoed repeatedly within the March 14 movement, with political figures rushing to defend Saudi Arabia, and accusing Hezbollah of placing Iran’s interest above those of Lebanon. On more than one occasion, Saudi-based former prime minister and leader of the Future Movement, Saad Hariri, took to Twitter to retaliate against comments about Saudi Arabia made by Nasrallah, accusing him of falsifying information about the Yemen conflict and serving the Iranian project. Hariri warned Nasrallah that “insulting the late [Saudi] King Abdul Aziz will put the insulters in the line of fire, from their biggest authority in Tehran to their smallest one in Dahiyeh.”
Pro-Saudi, anti-Hezbollah actors have also peddled a narrative on Arab identity that presents Saudi Arabia as committed to the Arab cause and Lebanon’s “brother” and “guardian.” This rhetoric was reflected in a statement released by the Hariri-allied, Judicial Higher Islamic Council, which is the official Sunni religious authority in Lebanon.
In its statement, the council described Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen as an effort to protect Arab identity, presenting it as: “the historic decision taken by Saudi Arabia in cooperation with its Arab brethren in launching Decisive Storm to maintain Yemen’s unity and Arab identity, a decision emanating from the will of a Yemeni people that rejects the control of regionally-supported militias to change Yemen’s Arab identity character, an identity that shall forever remain a part of the Arab nation.”
Similarly, in one of his articles, pro-March 14 columnist, Paul Shawoul, wrote that “Saudi Arabia’s role stems from its dual identity; Islam and Arabism… Hezbollah carries all the qualities and behaviors of Iranian aggression that is against anything that is Arab.”
On April 14, 2015 Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Ali Awadh Asiri, weighed in for the first time on the ongoing media battle inside the country. In an interview with Lebanese daily, Assafir, Asiri warned Hezbollah to stay out of Yemen, adding, “I do not believe Yemen is any of Hezbollah’s concern… Hezbollah is located in its own country, not in Yemen.” He went on to say that Hezbollah’s “intervention” – through media outlets and its support for Yemen’s Houthis – was unacceptable.
More generally, the Saudi embassy in Lebanon has attempted to stifle media outlets criticizing its intervention in Yemen, announcing it would take legal action against Al Akhbar for its anti-Saudi coverage. The embassy also targeted Tele Liban, Lebanon’s state news channel, for broadcasting an interview Nasrallah gave to a Syrian TV station, in which he criticized Saudi Arabia and its actions in Yemen. In the interview, Nasrallah said, “Saudi Arabia will suffer a major defeat that will have an impact on its domestic situation and the entire region… The Saudi aggression has failed miserably to change the situation on the ground in Yemen.”
In an attempt to appease the Saudis, March 14 politicians rushed to apologize and condemn the channel, with Lebanon’s Information Minister even offering an official apology on behalf of Tele Liban. Again Hariri spoke up in defense of Saudi Arabia, emphasizing how Hezbollah was jeopardizing Lebanon: “As if the problems that Hezbollah is causing to the Lebanese people were not enough, the party also had to involve ‘Tele Liban’ in the media and political boxing ring, and drag it into the trap of participating in the ‘show of insults’ against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its leadership… What concerns us in this regard is the use of Lebanese state positions and platforms to offend an Arab country and insult Saudi Arabia, its symbols and its role… [and] want Lebanon to fall into the trap of hostility with its Arab brothers, for the sake of Iran.”
The Fall Out
Over the last year, two very provocative and divisive media campaigns have been carried out by Iran and Saudi Arabia’s local allies. But, has this media spat changed much in terms of public opinion regarding the conflict in Yemen, or even the influence of these regional players? In essence, no – each side has fed their narrative to their supporters without really convincing the other side.
The media war has had real consequences for Lebanon, however. These include Saudi Arabia’s decision to cancel a $3 billion grant in military aid for the Lebanese army, the GCC designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the Saudi-ordered removal of Al Manar from regional satellite servers, and the expulsion of predominantly Shiite Lebanese living in the Gulf – including in Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.
Most importantly, the Lebanese media war has obfuscated what is really happening in Yemen. Amidst all the propaganda, the true narrative of the conflict and the real effects of this devastating aggression on the Yemeni people have been completely lost.