Saudi Arabia is taking a “soft power” jab at its regional rival Iran this week — a news website in Farsi, the language of Iran.
It launches Thursday and the Saudi government expects to eventually start a Farsi-language TV channel as well.
The step into soft power is new for the wealthy Kingdom, more known for opening its checkbook to gain influence.
“Yes, indeed, to give correct information,” explains Adel al-Toraifi in an interview with NPR. He is the recently-named minister of culture and information, one of the young technocrats appointed by King Salman in the government’s generational shift.
As for soft power, he says, “This is what we are lacking,” and it is time to “catch up with the world.”
In September, the Saudis launched a short-term Farsi TV and radio broadcast during the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of Muslim faithful to Mecca. The programming was strictly religious commentary and the broadcast ended when the Hajj was over.
Al-Toraifi says this is part of a larger effort by the Saudis planned to include a web site in Russian, Chinese and Farsi — and coming up next — TV channels in English, Farsi and Urdu, the language of Pakistan.
He says the immediate goal is to “actually explain Saudi society” to Iranians in their own language.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are regional rivals, fighting local proxy wars. Now a media proxy war may be heating up, with Tehran already out in front.
In 2003, Iran began a 24-hour news service in Arabic that broadcast into Iraq after Iraqi state television collapsed during the U.S. invasion. Many Iranian-backed Arabic TV channels and web sites have been launched since then, which al-Toraifi described as “very negative.”
For the first time, the Saudis aim to challenge Iran’s media blitz, says al-Toraifi. “It’s better if Iranians know how we live, it’s kind of a dialogue between people.”
The question is, what kind of dialogue? Anti-Iranian sentiments in Saudi Arabia are as strong as anti-Saudi feelings are in Iran. The rival powers represent the Muslim Sunni-Shiite divide in the region and have been engaged in a regional cold war for decades.
In October, a prominent Saudi businessman who owns an online newspaper called on Arab states to fund Farsi TV channels, to counter what he called “Iran’s arrogant behavior” toward Arab countries.