Iranian State Media Angered by Contact Between Saudi King and Melania Trump

Patrick Goodenough | May 26, 2017 | 4:28am EDT
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Saudi King Salman shakes hands with First Lady Melania Trump at the international airport in Riyadh. (Photo: Saudi Press Agency) – Amid an ongoing war of words between the Middle East’s leading Sunni and Shi’ite powers, Iran’s state media latched onto a new irritant this week – the interaction between a U.S. first lady with an uncovered head, and the king of Saudi Arabia.

As President Trump’s first presidential trip abroad proceeded, some Western media outlets commented on the decision of First Lady Melania Trump and her stepdaughter Ivanka not to cover their heads in Saudi Arabia last weekend – but to do so when meeting Pope Francis on Wednesday.

But for Iran’s state-owned IRNA news agency, while that decision reflected a U.S. “double standard policy,” the real offense appeared to have come less from the Western women than from Saudi King Salman, who it implied had let down the entire Muslim world with his “disregard for religious values.”

“Muslims expect their top figures mainly the religious ones to abide by rule of Islamic law mainly at international level,” it said in an editorial.

“Negligence of religious leaders in observing shari’a law will leave detrimental consequences and its scope might be beyond expectations.”

IRNA noted that Salman has two roles – a political one as the leader of the Sunni Gulf kingdom, and a religious one as “custodian of the two holy mosques.”

Apart from the fact Melania Trump did not cover her head while visiting the nation that is home to the two holiest sites in Islam, IRNA seemed particularly incensed that the king had physical contact – a handshake – with a non-Muslim woman who is not a relative.

“Traditionally, women in Saudi Arabia are expected to wear a full-body garment and headscarf in public,” it said, adding that Muslims wondered why the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites had shaken hands in public with the unveiled “Czech model.”

(The editorial also called Melania Trump “U.S. First lady and Czech model Ivana Zelnickova,” plainly confusing her for the president’s first wife and Ivanka’s mother. Melania, who like Ivana has a fashion modelling background, was born in Slovenia.)

IRNA said Trump’s advisers should have “reminded the U.S. first lady that the Saudi king bears two political and religious status but they failed to do so.”

“To add more salt to the injuries, according to Saudi’s governing rules and regulations touching of women is forbidden, but the Saudi king who also is a religious figure and well aware of sentiments of the world Muslims should avoid shaking hands with the U.S. first lady (in a county its women are deprived of many basic rights as casting votes or even driving).”

IRNA opined that Salman’s “ignorance” had given the first lady the green light not to observe the expected dress code when meeting with him.

Melania and Ivanka Trump are far from the first high-level female Western visitors not to cover their heads when visiting Saudi Arabia.

During a visit in early 2015, immediately after Salman became king on the death of his predecessor, First Lady Michelle Obama did not cover her head.

Video footage showed many of Saudi royals and dignitaries walk past the first lady after greeting President Obama, although she did shake hands with the new king.

Other high-profile American woman not to have covered their heads when meeting with Saudi leaders included first ladies Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton and secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Madeline Albright.

British Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also didn’t cover their heads when visiting the kingdom

Iran also maintains a strict dress code for women.

Last February, Sweden’s female trade minister wore a headscarf when visiting Iran, a gesture that drew criticism at home and elsewhere since Sweden claims to have to world’s first “feminist government.”

Another high-powered female politician who has donned a scarf in Iran is E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini, although neither she nor her predecessor, Catherine Ashton, did so when visiting Saudi Arabia.

Bitter rivals

The IRNA editorial comes at a time when the animosity between Iran and Saudi Arabia is even deeper than usual.

Iran is today the world’s leading Shi’ite-majority country, while Saudi Arabia’s control of Mecca and Medina make it the flagbearer of Sunni Islam. Saudi monarchs have styled themselves “custodian of the two holy mosques” for the past three decades, reviving a title believed to date back to Saladin in the 12th century.

The two biggest countries in the region are backing opposing sides in the civil wars in Syria and Yemen – conflicts that have fanned the flames of sectarianism across the broader region. Saudi ally Bahrain, a Sunni-ruled monarchy with a Shi’ite majority, is another persistent source of tension between Riyadh and Tehran.

While in the Saudi capital for bilateral meetings and a U.S.-Arab-Islamic summit, Trump’s strong criticism of Iran and its regional behavior delighted his hosts, as well as many of the other Sunni leaders present.

Iranian politicians and media outlets were incensed by Trump’s calls for Tehran’s international isolation and a $110 billion weapons package for Saudi Arabia.

Iran’s foreign minister also noted with sarcasm that his country had just held an election, while in the Saudi “bastion of democracy” citizens aren’t allowed to vote for their leaders.

The schism between the two main schools of Islam dates back to a succession dispute after the death of Mohammed in the seventh century.

Between 85 and 90 percent of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are Sunnis, while 10-15 percent are Shi’ites.

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