From fake warnings on the dangers of visiting Turkey to drama series that distort Ottoman history, Arab autocrats are trying to tar Turkey’s image in the Middle East but with little success.
Saudi Arabia’s recent success in forcing Pakistan to withdraw from the Kuala Lumpur summit of Muslim countries revealed not only its ability to use financial levers to pressure its allies but also underscores the extent of its opposition to any initiative involving Turkey as a major player.
Riyadh denies it applied any pressure on Islamabad but Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made clear that Pakistan was threatened with the deportation of expatriate workers, as well as possible withdrawal of Saudi money from its beleaguered central bank.
Since the ascent of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in recent years, ties between Ankara and Saudi Arabia, as well as its ally Abu Dhabi, have been strained.
Relations between the two sides have worsened as the camps took different sides on a number of key issues.
After the Arab uprisings, for example, Turkey took the side of those calling for greater political and social freedoms, and who saw Ankara’s democratic system as a model to emulate for their own states.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi on the other hand have taken the side of reactionary forces across the Middle East. In Egypt they helped fund General Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s military coup against the country’s first and only democratically elected leader, Mohammed Morsi, who passed away in prison earlier this year. In Libya, Turkey supports the internationally recognised government, while the Saudi-Egyptian-UAE axis backs the warlord and self-proclaimed ‘field marshal’, Khalifa Haftar.
Other issues that harmed ties were Turkey’s avowed refusal to support the blockade of Qatar, and the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi state agents in Istanbul in October 2018, a crime for which there is considerable suspicion placed on MBS and his inner circle.
Propaganda and scaremongering
It is not just within the diplomatic sphere that Saudi and Emirati antagonism towards Turkey manifests, but also within the media and cultural spheres.
A recent article for TRT Arabi by journalist Ibrahim al Olabi highlights just some of the tactics used by the axis and its army of media proxies to target Turkey’s image among Arab populations.
On the media front, Olabi gave the example of Abu Dhabi based Sky News Arabia, which for an outlet focused on Arab issues, appears to plant a disproportionate focus on Turkey. The author argues that any given time, around half of the stories on the news outlet’s front page are Turkey-related, and many of these paint the country in a negative light using either unsubstantiated or false accusations .
Olabi notes that on a broader level, the attacks on Turkey are not limited to its government but also its society and people as a whole.
This was evidenced in the campaign by Saudi Arabia to discourage its citizens from visiting the country.
Turkey for decades has drawn tourists from Gulf states, who prize it for its cultural similarities, affordable prices, favourable weather, and geographic proximity, among other factors.
Saudi propaganda backed by online troll armies, however, seeks to present a different image. Earlier in 2019, animated videos started to appear on social media, which sought to deter tourists from visiting. The creators of these films, claimed Turkey was unsafe and at risk of political instability and terrorist attacks.
Despite these efforts, the tactics are not deterring visitors from the Gulf and other Arab states, as Turkish officials recorded an uptick in tourists from the region in 2018 and 2019.
The past decade has seen increasing familiarisation with Turkish culture and history through the export of soap operas, such as Dirilis: Ertugrul and Magnificent Century, which have become wildly popular among Arab audiences.
Concerned about the impact these shows are having among its population, Saudi Arabia has removed Turkish shows from its biggest TV networks, in what Turkish ministers have described as ‘clear censorship’.
Noting the success of shows like Ertugrul, the Saudi-UAE axis has drafted western directors to produce shows that show the Ottoman empire in a negative light. The $40m ‘Kingdoms of Fire’ by British director, Peter Webber, seeks to counter the good impression of Turkey made by Ertugrul, according to commentators.
This campaign forms part of a broader effort by Gulf autocrats to recast the Ottomans in a negative light using concocted claims about its nearly five century-long rule in the region.
Turkish historical series "Resurrection: Ertugrul" aired its final episode on the same day as the anniversary of the Ottoman Empire's conquest of Istanbul pic.twitter.com/LmJV8H27qn— TRT World (@trtworld) May 30, 2019
In 2016, the UAE ambassador to Ankara was summoned after Abu Dhabi’s Foreign Minister Abdullah al Nahyan made the unfounded claim that Ottoman officer, Fahreddin Pasha, had plundered the people of Medina, Islam’s second holiest site, during the First World War.
Fahreddin Pasha was in fact a defender of Medina, during the siege by the British army and its rebel Arab allies. His conduct was so exemplary that his contemporaries bestowed him with the title ‘Tiger of the desert’.
The same process is seen in Saudi Arabia, which is revising school textbooks to cast the Ottoman empire as an ‘occupier’.
However, as Olabi notes in his article, then as now, Turkey is acting in the interests of ordinary people in the region and their values.
While the Saudi-UAE axis has sought to strengthen ties with Israel, as it attempts to annex Jerusalem and other Palestinian territory, Turkey has loudly opposed it.
Likewise, while Gulf leaders move to quietly repair ties with Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad despite his responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, Turkey continues to oppose his normalisation.
It’s no surprise then, that Arab citizens continue to be drawn to Turkey in droves.
Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, the UAE Foreign Minister accused the Ottoman Empire of abusing, robbing and kidnapping Muslims in the city of Medina. This was President Erdogan’s response pic.twitter.com/0zfbe7KTZu— TRT World (@trtworld) December 20, 2017