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PBS Frontline’s ‘Bitter Rivals’ Tells A Complex Story Simply And Well
February 20, 2018  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

Here’s an international story that might not make you feel as good as seeing a snowboarder win Olympic gold in super-G skiing by 1/100th of a second — on a borrowed pair of skis! — but it’s worth a look just the same.

Long after the Olympics are a receding memory, the issues raised in tonight’s PBS Frontline documentary Bitter Rivals: Iran and Saudi Arabia — shown in two parts, the first part Tuesday, the second part a week later, on Feb. 27 — will be simmering at best and, at worst, roiling the entire Middle East in a wall of flame.
As the conventional broadcast networks continue to turn their collective backs on world news — too costly, too labor-intensive, and who cares about Uzbekistan and Carjackistan, anyway; Americans have issues closer-to-home to worry about, and what Kim Kardashian is wearing this week — it’s left to Frontline and news programs like it to pick up the torch.

Here’s the remarkable thing about Frontline, though, and it bears mentioning on a night like this: Even if you don’t particularly care about Iran or Saudi Arabia, if you’re just looking for a good story that's well-told, veteran Frontline producer and investigative journalist Martin Smith (right) — winner of nine Emmy awards from 13 nominations, as well a 2012 Polk Award for his Frontline documentary “Money, Power and Wall Street” and a 2014 Peabody Award for “The United States of Secrets” — can tell a cracking good yarn when he wants to.

And in Bitter Rivals, he clearly wants to.

“The Saudis insist that Iran is a hostile, belligerent, adventurous nation attempting to export revolution around the region,” Martin Smith begins, as he faces Javad Zarif, Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran. “How do you respond?”

“Talk is cheap,” Zarif replies.

Well, yes and no. Bitter Rivals is full of talk — you might say the two-part documentary is all talk — but these words matter.

Saudis help al-Qaeda, Zarif explains. Saudis fund terrorism. So they started this sectarian mess the Middle East finds itself in.

“Nonsense,” replies Adel Al-Jubeir, Foreign Minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. “The Iranians are the ones who are exporting terrorism. They’re the ones who’re stoking the fires of sectarianism. They’re the ones who’ve been on an aggressive path since 1979.”

The foreign minister of Iran. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia. Smith clearly has remarkable access to the corridors of power, in both countries. An optimist could be forgiven for thinking he should drop this whole journalism thing — that would be PBS’s loss — and take up diplomacy instead.

A realist, though, knows better. The rhetoric runs deep. It isn’t just empty talk. These words hurt.

Proxy wars aren’t just destroying the region. Unless something changes, and changes soon, they’re the way of the future.

It doesn’t take more than a few minutes into the three-hour Bitter Rivals to realize this war of nerves is going to take a lot more than a little diplomacy to defuse. As disputes go, this one is as close to intractable as disputes can be, short of actual war. One can no more imagine a peaceful end to the Sunni-Shia divide than one can imagine Israelis and Palestinians living alongside each other in harmony, side-by-side, in two safe, secure, economically vibrant nation-states, with open borders and a shared zest for life.

Sunni Islam, as represented by Saudi Arabia, is the world’s largest religious denomination, we learn. It comprises roughly 87-90 percent of the world’s Muslim population. Shia Islam, as represented by Iran, comprises roughly 10-13 percent. Saudi Sunnis see Iranian Shiites as heretics and reactionaries; Iranian Shiites see Saudi Sunnis as corruptible relics from a corrupt past who stand in the way of true progress.

The conflict, for now, is being waged in proxy wars, in Syria, Yemen and to some extent, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Lines are being drawn in Pakistan, a for-now stable country riven with tension.

As decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland show, nothing drives otherwise like-minded cultures and communities apart more than different interpretations of a common, shared religion.

Bitter Rivals was filmed in seven countries, over a period of several years. Smith himself has been covering the Middle East in various guises for more than two decades. “For an American journalist, it’s not easy to report from here,” he says, with classic understatement.

This isn’t humble-bragging. Smith has a quiet, thoughtful way about him. Honesty is a journalist’s only calling card — that’s why the term “fake news” is so hurtful to real journalists. Once a journalist loses credibility, he or she might as well go back to phoning it in from home.

Bitter Rivals sounds as if it could be a downer, and it’s certainly not as uplifting as watching figure skating or witnessing a lifelong snowboarder win a gold medal in skiing at the Winter Olympics.

As television, though, and as pure storytelling, Bitter Rivals is gripping stuff. It’s tightly edited, eye-filling and yet thoughtful, fast-paced, pensive and reflective. If John le Carré were to write a two-part, three-hour TV documentary about sectarian tensions on the Arabian Peninsula, it would look a lot like this.

There are betrayals and broken confidences. Bitter Rivals is complex, and yet disarmingly simple when one least expects.

It’s the surprises that stand out, that elevate it above the norm. Smith walks the streets of Tehran — a city he’s not visited in 25 years of covering conflict and war throughout the region — and is surprised at how warmly and gently people in the streets greet an American they don’t know, eager to share stories about their lives, their hopes and dreams, and the pride and defiance they have for their country.

Smith recalls the region’s history from a U.S. perspective — Frontline is intended for an American audience, after all — and a segment early in Bitter Rivals' first night focuses on well-intended but ultimately flawed decisions by then-President Jimmy Carter, arguably one of the more knowledgeable, better-informed presidents when it comes to international relations. (It’s easy to forget now, but Carter’s presidency followed close on the heels of the catastrophe in Vietnam.)

Bill Maher used to quip that George W. Bush’s only problem when formulating policy on Iraq was that he didn’t know the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni. (“‘I thought they was all Ay-rabs,’” Maher imagined Bush saying.)

No one watching the first night of Bitter Rivals will have that problem. By going over historical texts and documents, weighing past assumptions against present-day facts and asking pertinent questions of officials who’d rather be anywhere else — the Olympics, perhaps? — Smith lays bare the truth in simple, easy-to-understand terms.

He’s also fearless. Walking alongside then-Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in the royal palace in Riyadh in 2005, during the annual coming-together of the king and his subjects for a royal audience, Smith “takes a chance” and asks then-Prince Salman to explain what makes the monarchy legitimate.

Salman, today King of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and head of the House of Saud, looks for a moment as if he’d cheerfully toss Smith out of a helicopter somewhere over Sana’a, Yemen.

“Our legitimacy comes from Islamic ideology and the glorious Koran,” he grumbles, stone-faced, through an interpreter, then keeps walking, as if Smith were no more than a cockroach to be squashed.

In fact, Smith points out later, the monarchy’s legitimacy is rooted in the deal Saudis made during the founding of their state in 1932, a deal “that reveals a lot about how this country is governed.”

Bitter Rivals isn’t Game of Thrones exactly, but it’s just as compelling, in its own way, because it’s real.

If current events were taught in schools the way PBS' Frontline depicts them on the small screen, there’d probably be a lot more curiosity about the world beyond the borders of the USA. And knowledge. A well-informed public makes informed decisions.

That’s important — vital, even — when so many young American lives, from embassy workers to soldiers in foreign fields, are drawn into intractable sectarian disputes half a world away. Disputes that, as we’ve often seen in the recent past — and can expect to see again in the not-too-distant future — is just a heartbeat away from a shooting war. Bitter Rivals is compelling TV.

Bitter Rivals airs on PBS, Tuesday, February 19 at 9 p.m. ET (check local listings)
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Mark Ahrens
Well done, Mr. Strachan. Frontline should be a household word in this day of 2 minute news reports and endless crime documentaries, to say nothing of the Kardashian syndrome mentioned in the article. I relay most episodes to friends and am freguently surprised by intelligent people unfamiliar with Frontline's esteemed programs.
Feb 23, 2018   |  Reply
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