SALISBURY — Documentary filmmaker Martin Smith said that while turmoil in the Middle East is nothing new, the degree of violence has increased markedly since 1979 as a result of proxy wars fought between groups tied to Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Smith was speaking at the Salisbury Forum, held at Salisbury School on Friday, Dec. 1.
Smith has a new documentary in the works, “Bitter Rivals,” which will start on the Public Broadcasting Service on Feb. 20.
He said that Americans tend to believe that Sunni and Shia Muslims “have been at each others’ throats” for centuries, and chalk up the current mayhem to the religious differences.
But ever since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the battle for supremacy between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia has intensified — in part because the Iranian revolution styled itself as an “Islamic” revolution and its leaders claimed (and still claim) to speak for all of Islam.
Smith said that Saudi Arabia, which has the two holiest sites in Islam (Mecca and Medina) sees itself as the rightful leader of the Islamic world.
But rather than declare war on each other, the two rivals finance terrorist groups, militias and aligned countries to fight for them.
Smith showed two clips from the film. The first begins with a stunning shot of a gigantic cemetery in Iraq — 1,500 acres, some 5 million bodies, in operation for 1,400 years.
The clip has the Iranian foreign minister blaming the Saudis for regional fighting and his Saudi counterpart blaming the Iranians.
Smith said he had just returned from Syria. He said people there “have accepted that [Syrian president Bashar] Assad is staying” and that the Saudis appear to be “walking away” from that particular conflict, in order to concentrate on Yemen, where a rebel group in the north of that country is supported to some degree by Iran, and the Saudis are in the third year of a bombing campaign that has all but destroyed the country’s infrastructure.
The situation in Yemen was so bad that Smith and his team decided “we couldn’t ignore the humanitarian disaster” and produced a separate film, which aired in the U.S. in July.
He said ordinary Yemenis are outraged that the U.S. is strengthening its ties with the Saudis.
Smith said it is very difficult to get into Yemen; his crew were the only American journalists working in the country.
And even then they needed the services of a Yemeni-British female journalist on the team.
“It’s easier for a woman to blend in. I look like I work for the CIA.”
Smith provided this grim tally from Yemen over the last three years: 10,000 dead, 7 million facing famine, 18 million in a state of “food insecurity” — out of a population of 28 million.
But Yemen is on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. So even though the Saudis started the campaign expecting a quick victory, they show no signs of letting up, three years later.
The Iranians, in the meantime, continue to support the rebels, but they are doing it “on the cheap,” Smith said.
During the question period, Smith was asked what roles the Russians and Israelis play in the current strife.
“Russia wanted bases on the Mediterranean, and they got that,” Smith said. “They’re not interested in reconstruction. I don’t see them getting involved on the ground.
“Israel’s enemy is Iran. …They have improved their relations with Saudi Arabia, so they are lined up on that side of the fence.”
One questioner asked how Smith and his team avoid bias during the editing process.
“We have to face it in the editing room,” Smith replied. “There’s no right side in this war.”