Until the end of the 1990s, Turkish-Arab relations were often shaped by mutual distrust. Arabs remembered Turkey as the imperial hegemon dominating their lands under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Turks, on the other hand, kept alive memories of World War I, during which the Arabs refused to co-operate and ended up fighting against the Ottoman armies on the side of the Allied Forces.
These non-favourable perceptions reflected upon politics. There was little in the way of notable regional co-operation between Turkey and key Arab nations such as Egypt or Syria. The objectives of diplomatic relations were to keep out of one another’s way and to maintain a stable relationship to avoid open confrontation. Most of the time, Turkey did not have a say, nor did it try to have one, in Middle Eastern affairs and conflicts, as long as they did not have immediate impacts upon Turkish interests.
A shift occurred slowly from the late 1990s onwards and accelerated after the AKP’s electoral victory in 2002, ushering in an era of economic and political co-operation. The most notable outcomes from the Turkish perspective have been dramatic increases in trade volumes, which grew as much as sixfold from 2002 to 2011; visa liberalisation with several countries, including Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan; and, among other things, joint cabinet meetings with Syria. All of this has added up to Turkey’s newly proclaimed leadership in the region.
The uncritical tone that dominated the Turkish foreign policy rhetoric of co-operation disappeared with the so-called Arab Spring. Turkish policymakers found themselves obliged to respond to the changes or otherwise face the risk of losing their relevance in the political landscape of the Middle East. Turkey quickly sided with the opposition forces in Egypt and Tunisia and, after some further deliberation, with those of Libya and Syria as well. Other Arab uprisings, such as those in Yemen and Bahrain, did not find their way into the mainstream of Turkish political rhetoric.
Currently, the turmoil of the transitions in Turkey’s neighbourhood makes it premature to estimate the future of the acclaimed Turkish leadership in the Middle East. It cannot be taken for granted that Turkey’s support for regime change in places such as Syria and Egypt will result in close relations with the new regimes, although there are signs that Turkey would have it so.
The political and economic aspects shaping this brief overview of Turkish-Arab relations have been taken up at length elsewhere. The focus here is on the relations in terms of cultural interaction, which is often mentioned in passing but rarely explored in detail.
Cultural Links: A General Framework
Turkish-Arab interaction in the realm of culture has often followed the pattern of politics. For a long time, Turks tended to look down on Arab culture as backward and corruptive of their own culture’s authenticity. Arabs, on the other hand, considered Turkish culture and language to be distant. Despite this, there has long been a level of interaction and curiosity. For instance, in the 1980s, Istanbul and, to an even greater extent, Yalova, the north-western Turkish city famous for its spa resorts, became popular holiday destinations for Arab tourists. Likewise, a number of Turkish singers found audiences among Arabs, especially in Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
It cannot be taken for granted that Turkey’s support for regime change in places such as Syria and Egypt will result in close relations with the new regimes, although there are signs that Turkey would have it so
On the Turkish side, since the 1970s, Arab influence on Turkish music has given rise to a much-contested hybrid genre referred to as arabesk. But contrary to today, there was no grand narrative then placing these distinct interactions within a political framework.
In recent years, interactions between the cultures and peoples increased almost exclusively in the direction of Turkish culture. Turkish cultural influence became one of the mainstays of Turkey’s rising profile in the Middle East, and the Turkish government has been emphasising Turkish cultural identity and language through its public diplomacy efforts. Indeed, a cultural institute, the Yunus Emre Foundation, was launched for this purpose in 2007 with Middle Eastern branches in Lebanon, Iran, Syria, Egypt and Jordan. There are also a considerable number of students of Middle Eastern origin studying at Turkish universities and benefiting from Turkish government grants.
Yet the most significant cultural recognition Turkey has gained did not result from government-backed efforts. The flagship of Turkish cultural influence in the Middle East is its television series. Turkish television series gained unprecedented popularity from 2008 onwards when the Saudi television company MBC started broadcasting Nour, known as Gümüş in Turkey. The final episode of the show was watched by 85 million viewers throughout the Arabic-speaking world. Since then, several other television series followed up on Nour’s popularity. According to a recent survey, 97% of the Iraqi population watch Turkish dramas.
No other contemporary popular culture item of Turkish origin has drawn a similar amount of interest. Thus, these television series provide fertile ground to investigate Turkish cultural influence throughout the Middle East, especially among the Arabic-speaking public, and to determine the point to which aspects of Turkish culture are found to be appealing in the region and why.
The Appeal of Turkish Drama
The main appeal of Turkish television series seems to be the “modern” lifestyle they present. From the Arab perspective, modernity is especially inherent in certain types of gender relations and gender equality. In these series, women enjoy a freer standing in society compared to most of their Middle Eastern counterparts, take part in professional life and have rather liberal relations with men. Arab women have also expressed strong appreciation for the romantic male characters featured. Further contributing to the series’ appeal is the fact that all of this is presented in a setting of wealth and luxury enjoyed in mansions by the Bosphorus.
Yet if the modern lifestyle is the attraction, then why is it the Turkish television series instead of Western ones that are popular? Firstly, growing anti-Western sentiment in the region, especially after the Iraqi invasion, did not do much good for Western popular culture. Secondly,certain cultural codes are mutual to contemporary Arab societies and Turkish society, in contrast to those of Western societies, from which Arab societies diverge more sharply.For instance, both Turkish and Arab cultures are predominantly patriarchal, accommodate close-knit family ties and share Islam as their religion. This makes the setting more familiar to Arabic-speaking audiences.
The main appeal of Turkish television series seems to be the “modern” lifestyle they present. From the Arab perspective, modernity is especially inherent in certain types of gender relations and gender equality
Nevertheless, there are also considerable differences between Turkish and Arab societies, the most obvious differences being brought about by the effects of Turkey’s secular regime and its impact on everyday life. The popular Turkish television series emphasise the hitherto unimagined combination of modern lifestyles and an Islamic society. It is notable that other Turkish series, produced by conservative television channels and promoting an Islamic morality, have not garnered any spectacular success in the Middle East.
As for the region’s own productions, formerly popular Syrian television series have fallen from prominence. This is apparently due to the increasingly Islamic content resulting from Saudi funding, which became more prominent with the spread of Arabic-language satellite stations. This funding dictates, for instance, a de facto ban on filming a man and a woman alone. Although still popular, Egyptian dramas also offer little novelty. Nor is Iran, with its emphasis on the Sunni-Shia split that alienates various segments of the Arab societies, a likely source of television entertainment.
Objections to Turkish Cultural Influence
The new Turkish cultural influence among the Arab nations has met with some resistance on two grounds. First, Turkish culture and television series are claimed to be corrupting to the morals of Arabs. A number of fatwas have been issued in Saudi Arabia warning the faithful against the habit of watching them. T-shirts featuring Turkish actresses were declared haram by a Syrian sheikh, and the Saudi Arabian head of the Islamic sharia courts warned that owners of television channels that broadcast these immoral productions can be condemned to death.
Turkish television series have also been blamed for a number of other ills, such as traffic jams, increased divorce rates, and decreased work efficiency. Moreover, there has also been a nationalist reaction that has framed the Turkish influence as the embrace of alien Turkish culture at the expense of authentic Arab culture. Yet none of these concerns has put an end to the popularity of Turkish drama.
The Turkish Front
No reading of Turkish cultural influence in the Middle East through television series is complete without a mention of the series’ domestic reception, as this sheds light on disagreements regarding what defines Turkish culture. The Turkish government wants to see Turkish culture become popular throughout the Middle East, but it has had an ambivalent reaction to the popularity of Turkish television series. According to Minister for EU Affairs Egemen Bagis, television series play an important role in introducing contemporary Turkey to the world and have become one of the cornerstones of Turkish soft power. The Turkish government also uses actors and actresses from television series to promote its exports to the Middle East.
Nevertheless, other members of the ruling elite have not been as accommodating. During her time in office, the former Minister of Family and Gender Affairs, Selma Aliye Kavaf, commented that these television series are harming Turkish family values due to their depiction of births out of wedlock and extra-marital relations. The Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council, a public body authorised to inspect the content of broadcasting, often fines series for similar reasons.
Overwhelmed by the pressure, producers have been forced to change scripts and happily wed off characters who would otherwise remain in less formal relationships. Yet other observers maintain that the series reinforce and reproduce repressive patriarchal values with their uncritical approach. The image of Turkey and Turkish culture presented through the television series is thus contested both by the Turkish public and policymakers.
The immediate outcome of these television series’ popularity is the Arab publics’ perception of contemporary Turkey as modern. Other tangible outcomes are a heightened interest in Turkish culture and language, as well as a growing number of Arab tourists
Outcomes for Turkey and Arab Nations
From the Turkish perspective, the immediate outcome of these television series’ popularity is the Arab publics’ perception of contemporary Turkey as modern. Other tangible outcomes are a heightened interest in Turkish culture and language, as well as a growing number of Arab tourists. From the Arab perspective, the series have created awareness about the effects of a secular regime on everyday life. They have, according to El-Arabia Turkey representative Daniel Abdulfettah, also made Arabs engage in public debate about otherwise controversial issues, such as honour crimes.
The less immediate effects on Turkey’s soft power assets are more difficult to single out. Does the interest in Turkish drama series necessarily equate to political power for Turkey? It may create a positive image for Turkey, but a positive image does not necessarily translate into power or buy people’s support.
The Arab Spring’s effects on the Turkish cultural influence also remain to be seen. Turkish productions have further strengthened their edge as the unrest has put Arab productions on hold. But the Islamist political parties in Arab governments such as in Egypt and in Tunisia are already putting pressure on immoral forms of art, defining immorality quite broadly and often in relation to religion. At times, attacks against immoral cultural expressions, such as the Tunisian artist Nadia Jelassi’s installations, are approved by considerable segments of these societies.
Salafist movements are also gaining more visibility throughout Arab nations and raise further worries of not only political but also societal forms of restrictions on freedom of expression. If these trends become more prominent, Turkish culture and television series appreciated for their secular outlook might fall from grace. Turkey would then lose one of the mediums that have been so influential in painting its image in the region. This would be only one of the consequences of such a scenario, but the popularity of Turkish television dramas is nevertheless one of the trends to follow for a comprehensive assessment of the region’s changing dynamics.
 Salamandra, Christa. “The Muhannad effect: media panic, melodrama, and the Arab female gaze.” Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 85, No. 1, p. 49, 2012.
 Akgün, Mensur & Senyücel Gündoğar, Sabiha. Ortadoğu’da Türkiye algısı. Istanbul: TESEV Yayınları, p. 22, 2012.
 Despite the image offered to Arab viewers, Turkey is not doing all that well in terms of gender equality. According to the World Economic Forum 2012 Global Gender Gap Index, Turkey ranks 124th out of 135 countries, below, for instance, Lebanon, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Algeria. Data available at www3.weforum.org/docs/GGGR12/MainChapter_GGGR12.pdf.
 Salamandra, p. 65.
 Kraidy, Marwan M. & Al-Ghazzi, Omar. “Neo-Ottoman cool: Turkish popular culture in the Arab public sphere.” The International Journal of Media and Culture, vol. 11, No. 1, p. 28, 2013.
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 Salamandra, p. 54.
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 Kraidy and Al-Ghazzi, p. 26.
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