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Thomas Walsh


Member of the Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies



Title: How have elites in Saudi Arabia and Iran used the media, and social media, to legitimise their involvement in Yemen and Syria?

My thesis innovates around propaganda studies, and securitisation theory, to analyse Iran and Saudi Arabia’s processes of justification, for their involvement in the Yemeni and Syrian conflicts. Both actors use narratives of sectarianism, to galvanize support from elite, national, regional, and international audiences. The simplistic way to define this behaviour is as an example of soft power, used to legitimise extraordinary behaviour.


Both of the conflicts in question have caused untold suffering. At the same time, much of this suffering has received the backing of international superpowers. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have been condemned by human rights organisations across the world, including the UNHCR. Nevertheless, the UK and the United States remain firmly on their side, tapping in to Saudi narratives to continue their support. The Syrian government have received similar condemnation. However, Assad and Iran have been heavily supported by Moscow.


Across social media, but especially on Twitter, both Iran and Saudi Arabia have vast propaganda networks. This consists of a multitude of different factors. Government officials, and religious leaders, have extremely prominent social media accounts, and push manipulative rhetoric about the opposing side. Bots and botnets are also used to generate propaganda. These are accounts that pose as real people, but are in fact covert operations connected to the ruling regimes. Many of them are essentially robots, set up to continuously post massive numbers of Tweets per day. There are also whole news agencies and websites that are set up to portray the opposite side in a misleading and highly negative light.


Whilst it is untrue to say that there is no true sectarian element to Saudi and Iranian foreign policy, these ideations are used as tools to shield the true motivations behind their involvement in these conflicts. Through a fusion of quantitative and qualitative research methods, my thesis sets out to examine these propaganda networks and the effects they have on their target audiences. As Noam Chomsky so concisely put it: ‘a propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in (by) enemy states as worthy victims, whereas those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy’.