I haven’t been writing or speaking about the Gulf for quite some time now. I am following the developments in an attempt to understand what might happen. The Gulf region, which is open to foreign winds – with what it possesses or what it is unable to possess – never surprises and is always able to make a new surprise. It didn’t surprise us again this time and the Dubai-based MBC TV channel removed Turkish TV series from its network without warning its viewers.
There was actually no broadcast planning; Turkish TV series were banned directly and in a surprise manner. The MBC, owned (or co-owned) by Waleed al Ibrahim, who was held captive for some time at a hotel-prison on corruption claims, removed Turkish TV series from its broadcaster as of March 1. Other TV channels lined up and a new Saudi-UAE-made film was put on the silver screen.
Do Turkish TV series deserve the ban?
It is a surprise for me to even have to write about the TV series, which I would not realize if they were removed from air in Turkey and had to explain to my Arab acquaintances dozens of times that I do not watch those series and that they do not represent Turkey.
As a matter of fact, I am one of those who know how much Turkish TV series have contributed to the Gulf tourism regarding Turkey. I followed their impacts for a long time. I read what they did and wrote with the reason that business in the Lebanon and Egypt-based cinema-film industry was going downhill. But these series must have become such hits that they became silent by entering the business of dubbing and distribution as well. Everything was going pretty well if it wasn’t for the some fatwa’s (religious edicts) by certain Saudi preachers. Arab channels were continuing to lull their own public with these series which they aired a few times a day. Even if we assume that the opportunity-seeking Lebanese and Egyptian cinema industry has a part in the current ban, we are still unable to give a sufficient explanation.
Who will the ban benefit?
This ban, which has come up on the agenda at a time when Crown Prince Mohammed, to whom I am inclined to give credit to for the things he wants to do in Saudi Arabia, has lifted some of the long-time bans in the country such as starting screenings at cinemas and concerts being organized in Riyadh and Jeddah, has compelled me to write.
Additionally, Mohammed bin Salman and Abdel Fattah el-Sissi going to watch a play in Cairo and posing together during the same days has led to further consideration on the ban.
The developments signal that a cut-throat war will be starting in the said market from now on. If the Turkish film and TV series industry is going to take place in this war, it needs to determine new strategies. It is certain that there is no way they will be able to keep people glued to the TV screen for long with series that repeat the same lines over and over again. They need to achieve proper and quality work that is of greater quality and suitable to the foreign market, and especially the perception of the Arab audience.
However, it is not possible to explain this ban with the commercial aspect alone. Hence, we need other analyses. Do not be surprised that the ban started off in Dubai. MBC is one of the most popular channels in Arab countries. It seems as though Waleed al Ibrahim acted upon an instruction he received before being released from detention. Even though MBC representatives say they were not the ones who made the decision, it is clear that they are unable to explain the situation.
There is no doubt that the UAE, which has lately been at loggerheads with Turkey, had an influence on this decision. As a matter of fact, it is certain that they want revenge for the argument they started with Fahreddin Pasha and about which they could not even convince their own public. It is certain that this is effective on at least one side of this decision.
Since Mohammed bin Salman is one of the parties to this decision, it becomes a little more difficult to explain the situation on the Saudi Arabia end. In an atmosphere in which the scholars are saying, “The country is increasingly shifting toward secularism, we are starting to resemble the UAE more and more, this much change is not good for us,” it would have been more suitable for Mohammed bin Salman’s own policy to air Turkish TV series and the likes. But, he obviously thought that by supporting this ban, he would further serve his own political aims, change and reform initiatives.
Claiming for some time now that these TV series are not compatible with the Arab social structure and, as a matter of fact, that couples have come to the point of divorce because of these series, that the family order has been ruined, scholars and some of their close circles had wanted them to be banned. By standing behind this decision, Mohammed bin Salman has aimed to hit two birds with one stone. First, while he is satisfying those against his own reforms with this stance, he is going to put more movies, more concerts into practice, triggering consumption and, transform social life into the likes of the UAE, at the very least. Meanwhile, the Arab film industry, which is disturbed by the commercial success of Turkish TV series, is going to give hope to the film and media industry, provide them with opportunities for new productions and ensure that they stand by their side against the conventionalists.
History in the Gulf
The final evaluation is that the people of the Gulf are generally keen on history, but more so on their own family history. Almost everyone believes that their grandfather was a great hero. King Salman, who is quite interested in history, when he was still crown prince wanted to create a Saudi history in place off family, tribal history by establishing – with a clever strategy – Darat Al-Malik Abdul Aziz, the Saudi Institute of History. For this, he made incredible investments; he mobilized all of Saudi Arabia and as a matter of fact, the Gulf. His aim was to steer the society from tribal history to national history. Interestingly, this was imitated by the UAE as well, not with aspirations but with envy. However, it failed to be as successful. The efforts of King Salman and all those imitating him were negated by Turkish TV series and led the history-buff Gulf audience to seek something new.
In short, a new commercial and political war has started in the TV series industry. Turkish producers need to follow this development closely and if necessary, establish partnerships and offer products that have no alternative to the Gulf audience. Because in the Gulf, every ban is a new opportunity.