Suspension of Turkish soaps is a blow to Erdogan and his neo-Ottomanism

The decision to ban the programmes was a political move par excellence.
Sunday 18/03/2018
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech during a rally of his ruling Justice and Development Party’s supporters in Mersin, on March. (AP)
Theatrics. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gestures as he delivers a speech during a rally in Mersin, in March. (AP)

The prominent Saudi-owned MBC television network has announced it would suspend broadcasts of all Turkish soap operas. After being dubbed into Arabic, the programmes were amazingly successful throughout the Arab world for a decade, selling 13,000 hours of broadcast annually and generating as much as $150 million in revenue per year.

The series also led to an incredible boom in tourism in Turkey, with visitors from Qatar more than doubling in 2013 and visitors from Saudi Arabia increasing 88%.

The decision to ban the programmes had nothing to do with money or entertainment. It was a political move par excellence — a soft blow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was inching dangerously close to Russia and Iran.

Once allied over the common objective of bringing down the regime in Damascus, Ankara and Riyadh have drifted apart, especially after Erdogan stood with Qatar in its standoff with Saudi Arabia, refusing to cut relations with the gas-rich state and sending troops to bolster the regime of Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

The Turkish president was already at daggers drawn with the Saudis over his unwavering support of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its ousted President Muhammad Morsi, as well as his support for Al Jazeera’s non-stop smear campaign against Morsi’s successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, an ally of the Saudi kingdom.

There was nothing about Erdogan that the Saudis liked. He was allied to jihadi groups in Syria, supporting them with money and arms; yet the world turned to him to help end the Syria war. He was also allied to the Brotherhood, which was historically an enemy of the House of Saud. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz was quoted by Egyptian media as describing Erdogan’s Turkey as being part of a “triangle of evil,” along with Iran and the region’s hard-line Islamists.

The suspension of Turkish dramas from Arabic television networks is no minor thing for Erdogan and his team, who, since achieving power 15 years ago, have invested heavily in cultural expansionism as part of their policy of “neo-Ottomanism.”

In its broadest term, that ideology aims at restoring Ottoman influence in politics, culture, tradition, cuisine and economics of Arab societies once ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

The term is not the brainchild of Erdogan, however, and was first used with a negative connotation by the Greeks sometime after Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus. It will now forever be associated with Erdoganism and his Justice and Development Party. Erdogan supporters often describe themselves as “Osmanlitorunu” — “grandchildren of the Ottomans” — a line that Erdogan is incredibly proud of and bent on promoting through books, commerce and television dramas.

During his honeymoon with the Syrians in 2004-11, Erdogan made sure that anti-Ottoman television dramas produced in Damascus in the 1980s and 1990s were pulled off the airwaves. He was particularly upset with one show called “Ukhwet al-Turab,” which shed light on the torture of Arab opponents of the Ottoman Empire during the first world war.

Syrian authorities made sure to muzzle anything that upset Erdogan, banning the work until relations turned sour with the Turkish leader after the outbreak of the Syrian conflict seven years ago. The Turkish government also invested money and effort into producing a mega-drama in Arabic about the life of former Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, aired in 2010 starring Syrian actor Abbas al-Nouri.

After nine decades of non-stop indoctrination against the Ottomans in mainstream Arab media and government curriculums, it was very difficult for Erdogan to rebrand the word “Ottoman” in Arab circles, so he did it softly through such productions, letting the idea that the Ottomans were not as bad as the Arabs had accused them of being quietly sink into the collective Arab psyche. This was basically Erdogan’s main message.

When Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, he engineered an exceptionally warm relationship with Syria and was a frequent guest of Damascus and Aleppo, two celebrated Arab cities in Ottoman history. His government sponsored peace talks between Syria and Israel in 2008 and the Syrian media were filled with front-page editorials eulogising Erdogan as “big brother” and “founder of modern Turkey.”

During a visit to Damascus prior to the present conflict, he attended an economic forum and said: “Hand-in-hand, Turkey and Syria can do wonders. Work with us closely and we will extract milk, even from the male goat.” Trade volume between the two countries was an impressive $2.5 billion before 2011.

Erdogan has toyed with the idea of restoring the Ottoman Turkish language to schools and suggested the Turkish national anthem be played on drums and brass instruments, making it sound royal rather than presidential, coming straight out of Ottoman history books.

Erdogan lifted visa requirements with Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, describing the move as a “regional Schengen,” referring to the 1985 EU agreement.

In 2015, Erdogan received Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with a dramatic reception at a 1,150-room mansion, constructed in Ottoman spirit and splendour to look and feel like the palaces of the sultan. Standing on the staircase were 16 spear-carrying warriors in gold helmets, looking like the royal guard of Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

Much of that will remain so long as Erdogan is in power. He travels the world with his ambitious agenda, picking up friends — and plenty of enemies — along the way with his neo-Ottomanism.