by LobeLog’s Tehran correspondent
In April, the unofficial media in Iran published unconfirmed reports of the sexual assault of two young Iranian men in the Jeddah airport in Saudi Arabia. By April 6, the Iranian Foreign Ministry had confirmed the news that the assault took place in the second week of April. The two teenagers were in a convoy of Iranian pilgrims that traveled to Saudi Arabia to perform Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage in Mecca.
The statements of Iranian officials about the incident were partly contradictory. Hassan Ghashghavi, the consular deputy of the foreign minister, described the action as a “quasi-rape.” Ali Qazi Askar, the representative of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Iran’s Hajj and Pilgrimage Affairs, said, however, that “the news of the rape of two young Iranians in Saudi Arabia is a lie, and the incident was an attempt at assault and sexual harassment.”
This incident in Saudi Arabia has revealed the undercurrent of dislike among Iranians toward their Saudi Arabian neighbor. Between the initial unconfirmed reports and the official confirmation, a storm of anti-Saudi feelings broke out through applications such as Viber, Line, and Tango and across social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The membership of one irate Facebook page rapidly reached 8,000, and many Iranians published their posts regarding this incident with the #Jeddahdisaster hashtag. Even Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—chairman of the Expediency Council, former president, and the Iranian official said to have warmest relations with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia—described the Jeddah incident as a “serious scandal.”
On April 11, several hundred citizens gathered in front of the Saudi embassy in Tehran and demanded that the Saudi government deal decisively with those responsible for the “disgrace.” The Basij and other conservative forces have organized a number of protests in front of the Saudi embassy in recent years, for instance around Israeli attacks on Gaza. But the recent protests were organized by men and women who generally belong to Tehran’s middle class. Protesters called for the closure of the Saudi embassy even as they pledged support for President Hassan Rouhani.
At the same time, Rouhani issued a letter to the minister of culture, demanding an investigation into the Jeddah affair. On April 13, Culture Minister Ali Jannati announced the suspension of travel by Iranians to Mecca for the Umrah pilgrimage until the perpetrators are punished. About 850,000 Iranian pilgrims travel to Saudi Arabia for Hajj every year. According to Saed Ohadi, the head of the Hajj organization, Iran sends the largest number of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia after Egypt, Indonesia, and Turkey.
A senior diplomatic journalist in Iran told LobeLog, “In my opinion the moderate government of Rouhani preferred not to stop the Hajj in order to avoid worsening the relations between Tehran and Riyadh. But this time Rouhani took actions due to social pressure from below.”
A professor of political science at Tehran University added, “In the last three decades, I’ve never seen Iranians become so irritated with Saudi Arabia.”
Explaining the Negative Sentiment
The anti-Saudi feelings of Iranians are related to a number of different internal and external factors. As Ali Akbar Mahdi, a professor of sociology at the University of North Ridge, California, points out in an interview with LobeLog, the theocratic state has emphasized religious practices over traditional Iranian cultural practices in everyday life and national holidays. While secular Iranians often view religious practices as rooted in Arab culture, the clerical authorities view the traditional Iranian practices as rooted in pre-Islamic Zoroastrianism and discourage their continuation.
Meanwhile, the recent economic rise of Arab states in the Persian Gulf has attracted visits from a considerable number of Iranians, giving rise to new tensions in daily interactions. The trafficking of Iranian women to these states and their sexual exploitation has also generated anti-Arab feelings and injured Iranian patriarchal sensitivities.
Recent political tensions between Arab states in the Persian Gulf and Iran and their proxy wars in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon have fed into historical tensions and bitter feelings, thus giving rise to anti-Arab prejudice, Mahdi said to LobeLog.
As a result, the recent incident involving two Iranian young men could not have come at a worse time to aggravate tensions between the Persian and the Arab worlds. It has enflamed both Iranians’ sense of sexual honor and their racial attitudes toward Arabs.
Although a number of activists, especially outside of Iran, have warned in social networks about the outbreak of racist and religious animosities among the Iranian public, such negative feelings don’t often extend to Arabs. In the southern provinces of Iran including Bushehr and Khuzestan, about 1.5 million people speak Arabic. In general, Iranians don’t harbor strong negative feelings toward countries such as Kuwait, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt or even Iraq, the country that waged an eight-year war with Iran.
Also, because the primary energy behind the protests comes from the Iranian middle class, which does not have a powerful fundamentalist religious streak, the root of the current conflict is not likely found in the historic schism between Shiites and Sunnis. Indeed, this is the class that voted in large numbers for President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013. Rouhani promotes a policy of dialogue with the West and the Arabic countries in the region. This group is likely disappointed that Saudi Arabia, along with Israel, has been the most important stalwart opponent of the ongoing nuclear negotiations and the prospect of a lifting of economic sanctions.
For the last two years, Saudi Arabia has strongly called for the continued isolation of Iran. In this context it’s understandable that when Saudi airport personnel assault two teenage pilgrims, it triggers a huge upsurge in Iranian anger and provides a fresh reminder of recent Saudi policy against Iran’s interests.
Photo: Jeddah Airport by Ikhlasul Amal via Flickr