Istanbul (AFP) – Criticism mounted in Turkey on Wednesday over a decision by Saudi-owned broadcaster MBC to stop airing Turkish soap operas, stoking tensions between Ankara and Riyadh.
Viewers in the Arab world have in recent years become voracious consumers of Turkish soaps ranging from modern romances to historic dramas, enthralled by cliff-hanger plots and strong production values.
But the move by the Dubai-based MBC comes with tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Riyadh’s chief regional ally the United Arab Emirates soaring over issues ranging from Qatar to Israel.
MBC said it would replace Turkish soaps with “premium quality Arabic dramas that embody the values and traditions of the region.”
Turkish Culture Minister Numan Kurtulmus replied it was not up to politicians to “decide… who watches what film. Those times have passed.”
He was quoted by the state-run Anadolu news agency as saying that Turkish soap operas had made “rapid progress” in recent years and were now popular “all over the world”.
– ‘Blow to Turkey’s soft power’ –
Istanbul Chamber of Commerce (ITO) head Ozturk Oran said Turkey would look for private alternatives to defy the satellite network’s ban because Turkish soaps were “making serious business”.
“As long as Turkish series keep their good quality, nobody can bar Turkish productions,” he said, quoted by Anadolu, adding that producers could use carriers other than MBC to promote Turkish series.
Mevlut Tezel, columnist in the pro-government daily Sabah, called the ban a “blow to Turkey’s soft power” as well as its influence and popularity in the Middle East.
MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek told AFP Tuesday that the network’s decision to stop an average of six hours a day of Turkish programming — mid-season — was driven by economic and cultural considerations.
Some Turkish soap operas have achieved phenomenal success in the Arab world, turning star like actress Serenay Sarikaya and actor Kivanc Tatlitug into household names.
Actor Engin Altan, who stars in Ertugrul, a hit series on the earliest period of Ottoman history, told Al-Jazeera the decision would “surely have an impact on the Turkish series industry” although viewers could find other means to watch shows.
– ‘Anti-Turkey attitude’ –
Turkey has repeatedly bickered with the United Arab Emirates over the last months, even to the point of naming the street where Abu Dhabi’s embassy is located in Ankara after an Ottoman governor.
It has also been the key backer of Qatar since Saudi and the UAE led sanctions over the gas-rich emirate for allegedly supporting extremist groups and proximity to Iran.
While Turkish officials have taken the gloves off in verbal onslaughts against Abu Dhabi — in particular Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed — Ankara has been more circumspect in comments on Saudi Arabia.
Turkey has been keen not to damage relations with the regional kingpin and its hugely powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But pro-government media have adopted an increasingly strident tone against Riyadh in recent weeks, reaching a new peak with an angry editorial Wednesday by a columnist close to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Yeni Safak daily editor in chief Ibrahim Karagul warned Mohammed bin Salman against any alliance with the UAE and, in particular, its pro-Washington crown prince.
“Standing against Turkey, taking an anti-Turkey attitude on behalf of the US and Israel, targeting Turkey on behalf of Mohammed bin Zayed is going to win you nothing, but it will make you lose a lot,” said Karagul.
The Hurriyet daily linked the soap ban on MBC to Mohammad bin Salman, with a headline daying: “The prince’s trouble — Turkish soap operas.”
MBC is controlled by Saudi businessman Walid al-Ibrahim, who was held for nearly three months in a sweeping anti-corruption drive targeting Saudi Arabia’s elite.
The Financial Times reported that authorities ordered him to hand over his controlling stake in MBC to secure his release.
Hurriyet claimed al-Ibrahim’s “first job” after his release was to impose the ban on the Turkish soaps.