In early 2018, the Dubai-based, Saudi-owned, Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) announced via UAE media that it was going to ban Turkish drama series, despite the soap operas' massive popularity in the Arab world. Though there was no explanation provided, it was denounced by Turkish officials as a "political move" because Turkey has supported Qatar throughout the Gulf States' blockade of their neighbour. Egypt followed suit by banning all Turkish programme content in the country; the Egyptian Dar Al-Iftaa (Centre for Islamic Legal Opinions) reportedly published a fatwa accusing Turkey of trying to create an "area of influence for itself in the Middle East using its soft power. The statement targeted the Dirilis Ertugrul series for aiming to "revive the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East and regain sovereignty over Arab countries which were previously under Ottoman rule."
This was shortly after the Kuala Lumpur (KL) Summit in December 2019 before which Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan abruptly cancelled his scheduled attendance following a visit to Saudi Arabia prior to flying to Malaysia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pointed out that he was "unsurprised" about reports that Saudi Arabia pressured Pakistan not to attend the summit for Muslim leaders. "It is not the first time that Riyadh has threatened Islamabad," added Erdogan.
Perhaps among the incidents to which he was referring are allegations of Saudi displeasure at the prospect of airing Turkish programmes, particularly Dirilis Ertugrul, on state-run Pakistan Television Corporation (PTV), which was ordered by Khan himself in early December 2019. Employees of the corporation who were part of the team responsible for dubbing the eagerly-awaited drama series posted social media videos in early January 2020 claiming that they had been told that the project had been shelved; no further explanation was provided. Given alleged Saudi highhandedness when it came to Pakistan going to Kuala Lumpur, it is reasonable to expect that the Kingdom continued to extract a price for helping a cash-strapped Pakistan as it faced an economic crisis in late 2018.
Nevertheless, PTV eventually aired Dirilis Ertugrul in April this year, and Imran Khan once again reiterated support for the drama series, claiming that it depicts a "life with values" and is reflective of Islamic culture. The timing of its broadcast appeared to be linked to a visit by President Erdogan to Pakistan in February, when he addressed the Pakistani Parliament for a record fourth time, more than any other international leader.
This could be construed as an illustration of diverging Saudi and Turkish convictions of what regional leadership entails, as well as a vision for the future when it comes to regional cohesion and cooperation. Saudi leadership appears to follow a quid pro quo approach with a price to be paid for all support extended to countries like Pakistan that the Kingdom considers to be long-time allies, whereas Turkish leadership appears to appreciate the inherent value of maintaining long-term alliances despite differences.
Moreover, Turkish foreign policy seems to be more nuanced as it aims to be attuned with people's aspirations to enable greater synergy and long term collaboration. This is in sharp contrast to Saudi foreign policy, which has grown to be reportedly more reckless, short-sighted and seemingly rigid under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who has overseen the blockade of Qatar; the diplomatic row with Canada over human rights issues; the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi; the house arrest of the then Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri and the disastrous war in Yemen, to name but a few examples from the recent past. Perhaps most importantly in the context of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia did not condemn India for its ongoing human rights violations against Muslims in Indian-administered Kashmir. Turkey, on the other hand, was one of the few countries to call out the Indian leadership publicly for the blatant disregard for Kashmiris' human rights.
This may provide a foretaste of how and why Turkish entertainment media and Turkish soft power will prevail when it comes to winning hearts and minds across the world. Not even the Saudi Arabia and UAE-produced $40 million, 14-episode series Mamalik el-Nar (Kingdoms of Fire) is likely to succeed. It was meant to reveal the "the fierce history behind the Ottoman state", depicting the alleged exploitation of the Arabs by the Turks.
Even though the UAE was a pioneer of soft power in the Gulf while several Saudi government agencies have spent billions of dollars on da'wa (Islamic propagation) activities around the world for decades amongst other public diplomacy outreach efforts, both countries, being tightly-controlled monarchies, appear to have stepped up their efforts to further their political agendas. This has all been coloured by the 2011 Arab Spring when hopes and aspirations for democratisation and a new social contract were first inspired.
However, although they have attempted to challenge growing Turkish soft power, they do not appear to be successful. When Saudi Arabia and the UAE banned Turkish programmes, social media users across the region expressed their disappointment; even as Egypt's highest Islamic authority issued a fatwa against Muslims consuming Turkish dramas and suchlike, Arab tourists flocked to Istanbul; and despite the long wait, Pakistanis are reportedly thrilled to be able to watch Diliris Ertugrul in their own language, breaking popularity records in the country.
That may be the crux of Turkey's success in the Muslim world: its media output is reflective of the hopes and aspirations of the people for democracy and dignity. Turkey's soft power is only going to grow via its film and television industry, not least because Turkish programme content aims to inspire, not command, hearts and minds.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.