Dueling Fan Fiction

Fan fiction, in which ordinary fans pen stories featuring their favorite characters, is nothing new, but what was once a labor of love, undertaken mainly for the enjoyment of the creator, has become an entirely new genre of art thanks to the wonder of the Internet. Authors of fan fiction can now instantaneously share their work with thousands of other like-minded fans online, even occasionally garnering their own share of critical or financial success. Given the right combination of factors, what begins as a work of personal fantasy can, on occasion, morph into a reality.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen with the latest edition of Middle East fan fiction. This video showing a Saudi Arabian invasion of Iran has been dominating my Twitter timeline for the last few days, and…well…it’s something:

The video begins with a quote from Mohammed Bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince, which states that the goal of the Iranian regime is to attack the holy city of Mecca. “We will not wait until the fight is in Saudi Arabia,” MBS promises, “We will bring the fight to Iran.”

Cut to a “Saudi aid ship on a humanitarian mission” somewhere in the “Arabian Gulf.”  Suddenly, a trio of armed Iranian speedboats come zooming toward the defenseless tanker. Luckily, a Saudi frigate is nearby. Before the Iranians even fire a shot — I guess we’re simply supposed to infer the Iranians’ nefarious intent — the Saudi boat unleashes a barrage of missiles and bullets that shred the Iranian sailors. The tanker, unharmed, is now free to carry out its humanitarian mission in peace. Where is it going? No idea, but it probably isn’t Yemen.

There’s no time to worry about such trivialities right now, though, because the Iranians have initiated the second stage of their attack. In a futuristic command center, a Saudi soldier informs his commander, in English, that ballistic missiles are incoming. Once again, however, the Saudi defense forces are ready. With the help of American-made Patriot missile batteries, they blast the Iranian missiles from the sky.

By now, the Saudis are sick of this unprovoked Iranian aggression. It’s time to take the fight to Iran. What follows is a series of exponential escalations of force, beginning with long-range missile attacks and ending with an air, land, and sea invasion of the Iranian homeland. Saudi troops cut through Iranian defenses without much opposition. At one point, we watch as Saudi soldiers capture an Iranian military base, lowering the Iranian flag as (also American-made) tanks surround the compound. While explosions outside shake the walls, Saudi troops bust through a door to reveal a trembling Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, who sinks to his knees in surrender. The video ends with scenes of jubilation in Tehran’s Azadi Square, where the Iranian people have flooded the streets to wave the Saudi flag and hold aloft posters (did they just have these ready at home?) of their liberator, Mohammed bin Salman.

I should note here that I don’t really know the provenance of this video. A user with the handle “Saudi Deterrent Force” (in Arabic) posted it on YouTube about three days ago. The account has only posted six identical copies of the same video above with subtitles in different languages (including Persian and Hebrew), along with two short teaser clips posted about a week ago. Some reports are describing it as “Saudi produced,” although what that means isn’t entirely clear. It has a kind of bad video game quality to it, like an off-brand mid-2000s edition of the multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike. One would expect that the Saudi government, with all the money at its disposal, could afford something with slightly better production value. The use of English as the primary language, along with the multi-lingual subtitles, suggests that this was meant primarily for international consumption.

As of this writing, the main video has over 700,000 views (and climbing) on YouTube, with the other subtitle variants each adding a few thousand more. Several mainstream news outlets, including Al Jazeera Arabic, have picked up the video and produced their own pieces on it.

Strangely, this video is not the first of its kind in the Iran-Saudi rivalry. It may have been produced as a response to another video, posted back in January 2016, that depicted a fictitious missile attack against Saudi Arabia:

With similarly cheap graphics alongside a soaring musical score, we watch as Saudi oil fields, military bases, and cities are destroyed in a hail of missiles. The text in the video — written in Persian — explains that the missiles belong to “the forces of the people of Yemen,” presumably exacting revenge against the Saudis for their military intervention in Yemen’s ongoing civil war. The only other item I’d note is at 2:26 there’s a shot of a signpost at Saudi Aramco’s Ghawar Field that depicts the sword from the Saudi flag with a small Star of David attached to the hilt, an obvious reference to the Saudi-Israeli alliance.

This video was far less successful than the Saudi version, only garnering about 30,000 views as of this writing (I’ve noticed this number going up over the last few days, possibly the result of a small bump from those, like me, who discovered it after the Saudi video went viral). Interestingly, while the video is in Persian, the YouTube page description is in Arabic.

Absent any additional context, there’s no way to tell for sure whether these videos are the work of enthusiastic individuals or part of coordinated government propaganda efforts. If I learned anything in 2017, it’s that perception is often more important than reality when it comes to political decision making. If enough people are convinced by the sincerity of these videos to push Iran and Saudi Arabia closer to an actual war, it may not matter who made them in the first place.

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