DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria is hitting back at Saudi Arabia for supporting rebels who want to topple President Bashar Assad by promoting an English-language movie that depicts the founder of the monarchy as a bloodthirsty womanizer.
"King of the Sands" opened to much fanfare under tight security Thursday at the Damascus Opera House despite calls from the Saudi royal family to have it banned, underlining the unprecedented downturn in relations between the two countries.
The much-touted first screening, attended by more than 1,000 officials and VIPs amid a raging civil war, demonstrated how far Syrian authorities were willing to go to lash out at the oil-rich kingdom, which they accuse of funding the uprising and sending scores of suicide bombers and extremists into Syria. Several mortar shells crashed about 100 meters (yards) from the venue during the screening.
"King of the Sands" is directed by Najdat Anzour, one of Syria's best-known producers and most acclaimed directors, who is also an Assad supporter. The movie debuted in London at a private screening on Sept. 11, a date that Anzour suggested he had chosen to highlight that the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. had their roots in Saudi Arabia.
The film purports to show events leading up to the creation of Saudi Arabia in 1932. In the movie, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud is portrayed as a merciless ruler fighting opponents with a sword, commanding that the hands of thieves be cut off, ordering the stoning of couples for having premarital sex, and taking numerous wives himself. He is also shown as a man who enjoys underage women.
"What's wrong with blood? A kingdom is only taken with blood. The sultan will never be obeyed but by the sword," Abdul-Aziz, played by Italian actors Fabio Testi and Marco Foschi, is shown as saying in the film.
"A sword was raised for the sake of the kingdom and the sultan making the sand soaked with blood," a narrator says.
The movie has enraged the Saudi monarchy.
Prince Talal bin Abdul-Aziz, a half brother of Saudi King Abdullah, posted a statement on his official Twitter account this month, saying he had asked a mutual friend of Assad to try to convince the president to ban the movie.
"I hope he responds positively in honoring King Abdul-Aziz as a person," the Saudi prince wrote, adding: "We cannot let such unsuccessful works tarnish the image of a great historical figure like King Abdul-Aziz."
The movie, which uses clichés and crude language to make its point, breaks longstanding taboos when it comes to criticism of Saudi Arabia in the Arab world. The Saudi monarch is the custodian of Islam's two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina, a position that lends him special importance and influence.
Fadia Kiwan, a political science professor at Beirut's St. Joseph University, said showing a movie that tarnishes symbols in Saudi Arabia may bring relations "to the point of no return."
There has rarely been any warmth in the Syria-Saudi relationship, which plummeted in 2005 after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, one of the kingdom's closest allies. Syria denied involvement but was blamed by many.
After the monthlong war in 2006 between Israel and the Syria-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, Assad called King Abdullah and other Arab leaders "half-men" for being critical of the militant group. That led to a severe strain in relations, and during an Arab summit in Damascus in 2008, the Saudi delegation was headed by the ambassador to Syria in a clear snub to Assad.
Relations later improved, only to plunge again when the Syrian uprising began in 2011. The Saudi king was among the first to criticize Assad's military crackdown on protesters, and as it turned more militant, the kingdom emerged as a chief backer of the rebels seeking to bring down Assad.
The Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel is often referred to in Syrian state media as the "blood channel," and Syrian authorities regularly single out the kingdom as an exporter of terrorism to Syria. Damascus has complained to the U.N. Security Council about Saudi Arabia's support for armed groups in Syria.
Last month, Assad was quoted by state media as saying that "Saudi Arabia is leading the widest sabotage campaign in the Arab world." He added that Saudi Arabia has mobilized tens of thousands of extremist fighters and is paying $2,000 a month for anyone carrying weapons.
Syria says its troops are fighting Sunni radical extremists that are referred to takfiris or salafis. They also refer to them as Wahhabis, a reference to the kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam.
"Personally, I strongly encourage this movie," Syrian Cabinet minister Ali Haidar told The Associated Press this week. "Relations might mend once Saudi Arabia corrects its policy, halts its support of terrorism and apologizes for what had happened in Syria."
Anzour said he has received death threats over the film.
He said the movie was carried out with "the help of friends who believe in my work," and was filmed in several Arab countries that he refused to identify, adding that the actors are from Europe, Turkey and some Arab states.
"The seeds of terrorism are the work of the fanatic salafi, Wahhabi terrorist ideology that has become an epidemic that needs to be eradicated," he told the AP in Damascus.
"From here came the idea to highlight part of the region's history and how this kingdom was established and under what circumstances," he said.
Anzour is no stranger to controversy. He was widely criticized earlier this year for entering the Damascus suburb of Daraya with army protection to shoot a Ramadan soap opera series, "Under the Homeland Sky," at a time when the area was being attacked by government troops.
He also received death threats and blistering criticism for an earlier series on suicide bombers in which he condemned terrorism by Islamic extremists as a global threat that hurts Muslims.
"King of the Sands" will appear in Syrian theaters this week following a heavy advertising campaign on state-run TV.
Mroue reported from Beirut.