Inside the Making of “Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia”
Just last week, the U.S. intelligence community’s annual global threats report named the proxy battles playing out across the Middle East between Iran and Saudi Arabia as an “immediate” threat to the stability of the region.
Over the past two years, a team at FRONTLINE has been crisscrossing the Middle East, working on a documentary series on that very rivalry — both its historical roots, and its devastating contemporary fallout in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
“We’ve seen this rivalry brewing over the years, but it’s really grown to an extraordinary level of animosity and enmity at this point,” FRONTLINE founder and executive producer at large David Fanning says of Iran and Saudi Arabia’s feud. “What we’ve tried to do in this film is to both report on what’s happening now, and go back and ask, ‘Well, where did that come from?’”
The resulting series, Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia, begins Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 on PBS and continues on Tuesday, Feb. 27. A team effort from Fanning, veteran FRONTLINE correspondent and producer Martin Smith, and FRONTLINE producer Linda Hirsch, Bitter Rivals is a deeply-reported journey across one of the world’s most war-torn regions.
The series was originally conceived, Fanning says, as an exploration of sectarianism in the Middle East, tracing how an ancient battle between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam evolved, and how those differences sparked prejudice and occasional violence over the years. But it became clear that the real story was far more complex and contemporary — rooted in a nearly 40-year political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that has fueled sectarian extremism for political gain, with virtually every step the U.S. has taken along the way only inflaming the conflict.
Bitter Rivals features on-the-ground reporting from seven countries: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, where Smith and his team captured stunning scenes of destruction from the proxy war between the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition and the Houthis, an Iranian-allied rebel force based in the north of Yemen.
Even for Smith, who has been covering the Middle East for FRONTLINE for 20 years, the degree of civilian suffering on the ground in Yemen, Iraq and Syria was staggering.
“I can’t emphasize enough just the scope of destruction,” says Smith, adding that in Damascus, Syria, the situation had deteriorated significantly since his last reporting trip in 2015: “The amount of explosions, both outgoing from the government out into the suburbs and mortar fire incoming, was remarkably more intense.”
Fanning reported from Pakistan and from Lebanon, where he gained access to Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and was also part of the team that went into Iran. But in the other countries, there were just three people on the ground: Smith, field producer Sara Obeidat, who grew up in Jordan and speaks Arabic; and cameraman Scott Anger, who has covered the Middle East with Smith for years.
The team was able to spend 10 days in Iran, and 12 in Saudi Arabia. And after waiting it out in Djibouti, they became the only American reporters allowed inside Houthi-controlled Northern Yemen in all of 2017: “That reporting trip, and the enterprise that was also involved in getting access into Syria were all great challenges, and they took patience and time,” Fanning says. “That’s a gift from public broadcasting – to support this kind of in-depth original reporting. We believe that pays off in the sweep and scope of the film.”
Working with independent fixers in some countries, and government fixers in others, the team secured scores of interviews with key political, religious and military players across the region — from the foreign ministers of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, who each accuse the other country of exporting extremism; to the leader of one of the most powerful Shia militias in Iraq today, who admits to having received Iranian support; to the man who pulled the lever at Saddam Hussein’s execution — an event that became a dramatic flash point in the sectarian war that consumed Iraq.
“I had been in Iraq after the invasion of U.S. troops and the fall of Saddam, and then later on in 2006, 2007, when the sectarian war was really at its peak,” Smith says. “I experienced sectarianism in Iraq without really understanding the deeper regional rivalry that was behind it until this project.”
Both out in the field, and back in the edit room where Hirsch coordinated with editor and co-producer Brian Funck, Bitter Rivals was a uniquely panoramic project: “Usually you deal with one country or two, but this felt like a huge sweep of history,” says Hirsch. “It was the complicated histories of so many different countries, all intersecting.”
What emerged is something rare for U.S. television in its scope and complexity: A comprehensive look at how, ever since the Iranian revolution in 1979 and Saudi Arabia’s counter-reaction, the two countries have each tried to extend their influence beyond their own borders.
“It’s really a story of the rise of Iran’s influence in the region — their organized, committed support for proxy forces that have defeated the Saudi wishes and intentions in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon,” Smith says. “And now the Saudis have said, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore,’ and are taking a different approach in Yemen — directly getting involved in a bombing campaign against what they perceive as another attempt by Iran to foment trouble on their southern border.”
The story of what’s happening in Yemen, Fanning says, is “absolutely essential to be telling.” Years of bombings and a humanitarian crisis have been amplified by a historic cholera epidemic, and few foreign journalists have been allowed in to report. But Bitter Rivals captures rare and harrowing scenes that bring the devastation home — including a conversation with a man who says 26 members of his family were killed when the Saudi coalition used American-made weapons to bomb a funeral, and a heart-wrenching journey inside a hospital where severely malnourished children are dying.
“I just looked at all this, and wondered how this gets put back together,” Smith says of the suffering he saw on the ground in Yemen, Syria and Iraq.
And it’s that suffering, the team says, that shows who’s losing in Iran and Saudi Arabia’s feud: The countless civilians across the Middle East caught in deadly proxy conflicts between the two rivals — conflicts that show no signs of abating.
“There’s no one who’s actually mediating or trying to get these two to come together in some way and reconcile,” Hirsch says. “Everyone seems to think that this is going to take decades to resolve, and could get worse before it gets better.”
Bitter Rivals begins Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2018 on PBS and continues Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.