Saudis still drawn to Turkey, despite official tensions

Despite tensions between their two governments, Saudi citizens are increasingly enjoying Turkish melodramas and visits to Turkey’s conservative Black Sea region, Bloomberg reported on Sunday. 

“I can have the conservative lifestyle I have in Saudi Arabia but in beautiful, green surroundings and affordable prices,” 24-year-old Saudi tourist Noura told Bloomberg while visiting Trabzon province. “What’s not to like about Turkey?”

Almost a year after Saudi agents killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, relations between Ankara and Riyadh have rarely been worse, according to Bloomberg. 

“Yet Turkey’s cultural infiltration of Saudi Arabia endures, and resisting it is getting tougher,” said Bloomberg. “Many Saudis continue to stream Turkish TV soaps that are banned from many Saudi channels...They also continue flying to Turkish resorts, unfased by headlines in Saudi newspapers warning about everything from kidnapping to murder.”

In Trabzon, Saudis filled the main square on an August afternoon. They relaxed in cafes and shopped for Turkish treats, clothes and make-up. 

“Much cheaper here,” a Saudi woman told Bloomberg. When asked about the recent reports of Saudis who had been robbed in Turkey and had their passports stolen, she dismissed them as “just Twitter.”

In addition to disagreements over the Khashoggi murder, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have staked out opposing positions on the Muslim Brotherhood, the blockade on Qatar, and the Syrian war. 

Ankara now hopes to influence Saudis through its soft power, such as Turkish TV dramas and heavy support for tourism, Saudi Okaz newspaper reported this month.

“They can’t close the TVs, the flights, the cultural exchanges, the soft power,” Kamran Bokhari, founding director at the Center for Global Policy, told Bloomberg. “Through the medium of culture they have gradually and in incremental ways gained influence in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.”

Last year, some 750,000 Saudis visited Turkey, up 15 percent from 2017, and more than six times the number from 2011. The sell to Saudis is that “we want to cater to your halal-ness and we will make it possible,” said Bokhari.

Yet earlier this month, The Economist reported that the Saudi campaign to discourage its citizens from traveling to Turkey appeared to be working, as visitors from the Kingdom dropped 31 percent in the first quarter of 2019. 

And in May and June, Trabzon saw a considerable drop in tourists, Volkan Kantarci, head of the association of Turkish travel agencies in the Black Sea area, told Bloomberg. A local real estate agent said there had been a drop in the number of Saudis buying apartments in Trabzon this year. In May, Saudi authorities warned their citizens not to invest in Turkey due to the high risk. 

Still, Riyadh teacher Mohammed told Bloomberg he planned to spend most of the summer at the Trabzon apartment he bought three years ago in a building where eight families related to him have also bought. He said new direct flights made trips cheaper.

“I don’t regret my investment here,” he said. “It’s safe for women in my family to go out, I don’t have to worry about them being pestered for the way they’re dressed, and they won’t encounter anything that would embarrass them.”