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Durham e-Theses
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The Iranian-Saudi Rivalry: Prolonging the War in Yemen.
External Actors, Securitisation, Sectarianisation, and Digital Media.

WALSH, TOM,JOSEPH (2023) The Iranian-Saudi Rivalry: Prolonging the War in Yemen.
External Actors, Securitisation, Sectarianisation, and Digital Media.
Doctoral thesis, Durham University.



Despite the scale of the conflict in Yemen and the influence of external actors, few studies to date have analysed the nature, impact, and scope of their media campaigns surrounding the war. Across digital media, especially on online news platforms and social media, Iran and Saudi Arabia have exhibited a range of behaviours, in attempts to frame their involvement in the conflict. Thus, this thesis addresses the following research question: How have Saudi Arabia and Iran used digital propaganda to legitimise and frame their involvement in Yemen to international audiences?
This is the first study to examine the impact of these two competing propaganda networks on the Yemen War. In doing so, it traces Iranian and Saudi securitisation narratives across the conflict, testing their success in gaining the support of elite and non-elite actors in the international arena. It also shows the ways in which these narratives have aided Iran and Saudi Arabia in their struggle for supremacy in the region. The thesis develops an innovative approach to securitisation theory. It also incorporates critical discourse analysis and visual analysis to explore how Tehran and Riyadh have used digital media as part of their regional competition.
Using evidence from the most intense periods of fighting in Yemen and tension between the two actors between 2015 and 2021, the thesis show that Saudi Arabia successfully securitised their intervention in Yemen. Ironically, however, this worked to benefit Tehran far more than it did Riyadh. Several episodes of significance for the Saudi-Iranian relationship, and for the war in Yemen, are analysed, including: Operation Decisive Storm in 2015, The Riyadh Conference in 2017, instances of prominent Saudi airstrikes in 2017-18, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 and the Houthi ‘Operation Victory from God’ in 2019. Through discursive and visual analysis, the thesis explores the ways in which the representation of these events had an impact on framing the conflict, to the detriment of the people of Yemen. Securitisation narratives, dispersed across the Internet, regularly had a sectarian tone. These narratives fanned the flames of war, preventing any room for a meaningful prospect for peace. They also exacerbated the humanitarian situation, a dynamic properly detailed in the thesis’ conclusion.
Such narratives created a deeply polarising environment, in which extraordinary measures were justified. Through visual analysis, critical discourse tracing, and analysis of dynamics specific to the world of digital media, this thesis traces this process, providing a holistic analysis of the impact of the Iranian-Saudi rivalry on the war in Yemen. The thesis offers new methodological, theoretical, and empirical insights, emphasizing the importance of digital narrative warfare as a worthwhile and insightful field of study.

Item Type:Thesis (Doctoral)
Award:Doctor of Philosophy
Keywords:Yemen; Saudi Arabia; Iran; Middle East; Social Media; Securitisation; International Relations; Discourse; Propaganda; Visuality; Sectarian Identity; Houthis
Faculty and Department:Faculty of Social Sciences and Health > Government and International Affairs, School of
Thesis Date:2023
Copyright:Copyright of this thesis is held by the author
Deposited On:15 Nov 2023 10:37

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