Turkish soap operas a casualty of regional politics

Saudi-owned MBC broadcaster pulled Turkish-produced serial melodramas off the air.
Sunday 11/03/2018
A general view of the MBC building at Media City in Dubai, on March 5. (AP)
Substitute programming. A general view of the MBC building at Media City in Dubai, on March 5. (AP)

LONDON - It appears that the Gulf Cooperation Council’s love affair with Turkish soap operas has come to a screeching halt, a casualty of frosty relations with Ankara.

Saudi-owned MBC broadcaster pulled Turkish-produced serial melodramas off the air in what the network described as a drive to produce and nurture indigenous content.

“We will try to replace Turkish soaps with premium-quality Arabic dramas that embody the values and traditions of the region,” MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek told Agence France-Presse.

He said production of Arabic drama costs $40,000-$100,000 an hour compared to $250,000 an hour for the Turkish equivalent. Turkish soap operas were being shown for six hours a day on MBC.

Turkish soap operas dubbed in the Arabic language have been a phenomenon across the Middle East, leading to a spike in Turkish tourism and bringing in rating numbers very few Hollywood counterparts achieved. Turkish TV series exports jumped from $1 million in 2007 to $130 million in 2012, the BBC reported.

MBC was a catalyst for the broadcasting of Turkish soap operas in the Middle East. It was not known whether another regional broadcaster would try to take its place.

The Turkish-friendly, Qatari-owned Al Jazeera network, which is banned in most Gulf Cooperation Council countries, is unlikely to reach the same demographics, making any deal with Turkish producers cosmetic.

The only option for Turkish networks to reach such a high volume of viewers is to put content on independent streaming services such as Netflix, which has many Turkish soap operas in its repertoire.

Regional viewers both praised and blasted the cancellation of the Turkish-produced television series. The hashtag “cancellation of Turkish series” trended across the Middle East and North Africa, with more than 27,000 mentions in Saudi Arabia alone on March 6.

Many Saudi viewers called the ban long overdue. Others said the content was inappropriate for local consumption.

“Turkish series are completely lacking in modesty; a son betrays his father with his [father’s] wife, a girl becomes pregnant before marriage, a mother with her daughter’s husband,” Saudi Twitter user @boazoooz55 said.

Despite originating from a country whose government is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, the series’ programming often featured female-driven plots that included adulterous affairs and alcohol consumption. The programmes’ popularity gave Ankara both soft power and capital.

In Egypt, where relations with Ankara are also strained, TV talk show host Amr Adib, known for his anti-Muslim Brotherhood views, lauded the move by MBC and said he hoped Egypt would follow suit. “Airing such series via Arab TVs promotes Turkey and pumps money into its interests,” he said.

Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, do not agree with Turkey on many issues, especially its support for the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which is outlawed in all three countries.

They also oppose the Turkish government’s backing of Qatar, which the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with last June over what they described as Doha’s interference in their countries’ internal affairs and support for radical groups, such as Hamas, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In an interview with Egyptian media, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz said Turkey, Iran and radical Islamic groups formed a “triangle of evil” and that Ankara was trying to re-establish a system of government built on the Islamic caliphate, which collapsed with the fall of the Ottoman Empire nearly a century ago.

News of the Turkish series’ cancellation was not received well in Ankara. Turkish Culture Minister Numan Kurtulmus said “necessary initiatives” would be taken by the Foreign Ministry.