The recent news that two boys were sexually assaulted in Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah airport while returning from a pilgrimage to Mecca has met with public outrage across Iran. Iranian government officials condemned the attack, and President Rouhani ordered the Foreign Ministry and the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization to prepare a detailed report on the incident. Hundreds of people gathered to protest outside the Saudi embassy and expressed anger on social media. Soon after the allegations, the government suspended off-season or Umrah pilgrimage flights to Saudi Arabia.
Details about the assault remain unclear. News reports indicate that the attack was carried out by airport security officers, though this has not been confirmed.
IranWire asked its Persian-language readers their opinion on the best course of action. What role should the public play in determining a response? Should it pressure the government to demand immediate action from Saudi Arabia, despite tensions between the two countries? Should it be content with the government pursuing gentler lines of inquiry so as not to ignite further animosity? What impact should the war in Yemen have on a diplomatic response?
Given the level of anger over the assault, it is not surprising that 37 percent of those polled said “the best way to put pressure on the government is to demand the perpetrators be punished and call for Umrah Hajj flights to be canceled — even if this leads to a deterioration in relations between the two countries”. Twenty-six percent said “putting pressure on the government to follow diplomatic routes without affecting the relationship between the two countries” was the best response.
Taking the two responses together, the survey found that 66 percent wanted the government to react immediately, and to demand answers from Saudi Arabia, though they differed on how they thought this should be approached.
But 31.9 percent of the responders agreed with the following statement: “People should not exaggerate the incident or use it to stoke tensions, especially at a time when relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are volatile due to recent events in Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq”.
Many Iranians debated — and argued about — the issue on social networks. Among the balanced, informed commentary, there were also racist exchanges and a large number of anecdotal accounts on Viber and other sites. Iranian traditional media was also been quick to weigh in to the debate. Despite this, one third of those who took part in the poll said they had not been influenced by the media or the general mood on social networks.
Five percent of those polled ticked the “none of the above” box, saying none of the answers provided reflected their views on the matter.
A number of Iranwire’s Persian site readers commented on the incident at the Saudi Arabian airport, and on the public’s response. One said it was appalling that people spoke out against the Jeddah event but remained quiet when prisoners were abused in Iran, and pointed to the widespread violence of detainees at Kahrizak Detention Center in 2009. One reader joked that the Saudi ambassador should be punished by being sent to Kahrizak.
Some posted comments calling for civil society to boycott Hajj pilgrimages and the promotion of them, and to campaign for the government to allocate funds used for pilgrimages to building care homes for the elderly and orphans and the development of educational and charity centers.
Readers also posted comments about the huge income Hajj operations generate for some government officials. Because of this, one reader said, Iranian authorities were unlikely to introduce large-scale reform when it came to pilgrimage tourism.
“When I see a young person who has to sell things on the street because he can’t find a job — and then doesn’t even sell anything — I want to cry,” wrote one reader. The same person urged Iranian people to take action to help people in these dire situations.
Whether IranWire readers supported the regime or not, all of those polled said they disliked Saudi Arabia.
Though the poll represents a small proportion of Iranian opinion, it hints at the difficulty the Iranian and Saudi Arabian governments both face when dealing with these kinds of incidents, and highlights the need for the countries to work together, both in terms of managing social expectations and delivering an acceptable political solution. It is a need that is unlikely to be met anytime soon, much to the public’s — and many politicans’ — dismay.
Hostility has not diminished between the two countries in recent years, and this is reflected in public opinion. Whether it is due to regional conflicts in Yemen or Syria, or international tensions along Sunni-Shia lines that impact on domestic politics and economic policies or other clashes, the people of both countries are increasingly pessimistic about one another. The incident at Jeddah airport has resulted in a new wave of anger among Iranians — an anger that is as palpable on social networks and chatrooms as it is in the cafes and shops of Tehran and Isfahan.
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