Common history and cultural proximity make Turkish dramas all the rage in the Arabic-speaking region, surpassing the Western entertainment industry by a massive margin.
Turkish dramas—or dizi, as they are called in Turkish—have long been a popular choice for television aficionados across the world.
Available and adored in over 150 countries, it is estimated that the export of the dramas rakes in nearly $500 million per year, a figure the Turkish government hopes to grow to $1 billion by 2023. Already one of the leading exporters of dramas, if the figure is reached, Türkiye would position itself to further bridge the gap with the top producer, the United States.
According to Izzet Pinto, the head of Istanbul-based powerhouse distributor Global Agency, it's no coincidence that dizi are internationally acclaimed. For him, it’s the “combination of family stories with big talents and directors, and great music” that attract audiences so widely, and Turkish culture as a whole, which he calls both “modern, but also very traditional”.
There’s also the fact that Turkish dramas are longer by the number of episodes, and seasons than other comparable shows, meaning viewers are generally able to enjoy a daily broadcast schedule, and buyers are getting more for their buck.
Among his top broadcast markets are the Middle East and North Africa, two regions that have loyally consumed dizi for decades. When shows are sold to the Arab world, they’re often dubbed into the Syrian dialect of Arabic—one of the most widely understood across the region—allowing viewers to feel like they’re watching any other local show.
But the relationship is a little more complicated than that.
A top reason for the success of Turkish dramas in the Middle East is the cultural proximity between Türkiye and several Arab nations. Religion, culture, and the handling of social justice issues see a lot of overlap. Many in the West even consider Türkiye to be part of the Middle East, which has no politically-defined borders, for similar reasons.
“When [Arabs] look at Türkiye, they admire the modern way of living, but it's never edgy, always traditional, which makes the story appealing and true. It doesn’t look like fiction,” says Pinto.
He says it's a primary reason Arabs would choose Turkish shows as opposed to American ones.
“When we look at American series, they’re usually based on fiction, but Türkiye is very much experienced with real, family stories. Many are adapted from books.”
Maghie Ghali, an arts and culture journalist and commentator based in Beirut, says the dramas are even quite similar to what is produced locally in Lebanon.
Take, for example, Cukur, one of Türkiye’s most popular dizi, which, according to Forbes, grossed over USD 4 million in 2019. According to IMDB, the drama revolves around a ‘noble mafia family’ whose youngest son must return home when the family risks losing control of their territory. It bears a striking similarity to Lebanon’s hit show Al Hayba, wherein a young widow returns to a Lebanese-Syrian border town to further understand the mafia family of her late husband. It has been lauded as a mirror of the real-life dynamics of such border towns, which are often ruled by families with close ties to Lebanese militias.
“In terms of dramatic plot lines, from family feuds to drawn-out love triangles… people here love that stuff,” says Ghali.
For Pinto, similar tales of inequality between Türkiye and the Arab world are another reason for the popularity of dizi.
“Since there is a huge living standard gap in Türkiye, many [dizi] combine the rich life of Türkiye, and the poor life of Türkiye, which Arabs can definitely understand,” he says.
In fact, examination of both Arab and Turkish dramas demonstrate that the shows can act as vehicles for change, or, perhaps, an imagination of what social landscapes could look like, with dramas often centering the roles of women, and helping to normalise otherwise taboo topics.
Turkish soft power
As popular as Turkish dizi may be in the Arab world, their ability to be televised is equally precarious.
According to Pinto, the shows are a form of Turkish soft power that can easily be affected by ever-changing political currents.
“Turkish dramas have always been a soft power of Türkiye. After the [Gulf Crisis of 2017], due to politics, the market shifted a lot,” he says.
To say the market shifted is an understatement: in 2018, amid fraying tensions between Saudi Arabia and Türkiye, tied, in part, to the Gulf crisis after Turkish President Erdogan backed Qatar, six dizi were suddenly pulled off air on Saudi-based network MBC. Ironically, MBC was the first Arab broadcaster to bring Turkish dramas into Arab homes in 2007.
When the shows were taken off air, then Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Numan Kurtulmus condemned the removal of dizi, saying “it is not a couple of politicians who are supposed to decide who will watch which movies or shows from their desks”.
The move was perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that Turkish dramas are far more meaningful than a past time: instead, they’re a pillar of influence for Türkiye that have fostered a unique interest in the country among viewers. According to Gulf News, the shows were a primary reason behind a boost in Arab tourism to Türkiye over the last decade.
Nevertheless, with MBC being the biggest media conglomerate in the Arab world — and shows available on nearly 20 channels, plus an on-demand service — the removal of dizi was enough to shift the Arab world from the number-one consumer of Turkish dramas to the third, behind Latin America and Central/Eastern Europe, according to Pinto.
While excited about the growth of new markets, he remains hopeful that the tides will change again in the Arab world.
“Lately the relationship is evolving in a positive way. I expect the Middle East market to go back to what it was,” he says.