Saudi, UAE Nexus Spoiling Turkish Image, Ottoman Reputation: TRT

From bogus warnings on the threats of visiting Turkey to drama programs that misrepresent Ottoman history, Arab monarchs continue to destroy Turkey’s reputation in the Middle East writes the TRT World in its analysis.

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Saudi Arabia recently put Islamabad under immense pressure so that Pakistan withdraws from the Kuala Lumpur summit where Turkey was a major shareholder. This clearly depicted Riyadh’s financial levers to compel its allies and oppose any initiative where Turkey is a major player.

Saudi Arabia dismissed that it applied any pressure on Islamabad but Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asserted that Pakistan was threatened with the deportation of expatriate workers, as well as possible withdrawal of Saudi money from its banks.

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Since the rise of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, as well as its ally the UAE have been strained, wrote the TRT World

Ties between Saudi and Turkey deteriorated as the camps took different sides on a number of key issues. After the Arab revolutions, for instance, Turkey took the side of those calling for greater political and social freedoms, and who saw Ankara’s democratic system as a prototype to follow for their own states.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, on the other hand, have taken the side of regressive forces across the Middle East. In Egypt, they helped finance General Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s military coup against the country’s first and only democratically elected leader, Mohammed Morsi.

In Libya, Turkey backs the internationally recognised government, while the Saudi-Egyptian-UAE axis supports the warlord and self-proclaimed ‘field marshal’, Khalifa Haftar. Other issues that crippled ties were Turkey’s clear unwillingness to support the siege of Qatar, and the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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.

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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 clear in the campaign by Saudi Arabia to discourage its citizens from visiting the country.

Saudi propaganda backed by online troll armies, however, seeks to present a different image of Turkey. Earlier in 2019, animated videos started to appear on social media, which attempted to discourage tourists from visiting. The creators of these films claimed Turkey was unsafe and vulnerable to terrorist attacks.

Cultural Warfare

The past decade has seen increasing familiarisation with Turkish culture and history through the export of programs like Dirilis: Ertugrul and Magnificent Century, which have become very popular amongst the Arabs.

Concerned about the repercussions these shows are having among its population, Saudi Arabia has restricted 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.

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’.

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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.