DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A major Middle Eastern satellite network now believed to be majority-owned by Saudi Arabia has stopped airing Turkish soap operas, the latest entertainment casualty from the region’s volatile politics.
The Dubai-based MBC Group stopped broadcasting its popular Arabic-dubbed Turkish soap operas this month, a decision that came just after its chairman, Waleed al-Ibrahim, was released from being detained in a mass arrest by Saudi authorities. The network declined to discuss who made the decision.
Saudi-Turkish relations have plunged in recent months. Turkey has strongly backed Qatar as Saudi Arabia and three other Arab nations have boycotted it, and Ankara maintains ties to Iran, the kingdom’s regional rival.
“There is a decision to remove all Turkish drama off several TV outlets in the region,” MBC spokesman Mazen Hayek told The Associated Press Monday. “I can’t confirm who took the decision.”
Hayek declined to say whether the decision came from inside MBC’s management or outside of the broadcaster.
The National, a state-aligned English-language newspaper in Abu Dhabi, first reported MBC’s decision in its Monday edition.
A Turkish government official told the AP his nation was “not worried” about MBC’s decision as Turkish soap operas remain popular worldwide. The official said that those hooked on them likely would find “other means” to watch them.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with Turkish government rules that bar civil servants from making statements to journalists without prior authorization.
In theory, MBC operates in Dubai Media City, a free zone where foreign outlets like the AP and others have offices and face little government oversight in the United Arab Emirates. Its free-to-watch entertainment channels offer a mix of syndicated programming, both local and from around the world, as well as Hollywood films.
In practice, however, MBC increasingly has found itself under the sway of Saudi Arabia’s government, even before al-Ibrahim’s arrest. Its 24-hour news channel, Al-Arabiya, functions as an extension of the Saudi government’s messaging on the war in Yemen and the boycott of Qatar.
Al-Ibrahim was among dozens of princes, businessmen, military leaders and government officials rounded up in what Saudi authorities described as an anti-corruption campaign. The arrests also consolidated the power of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has grown increasingly assertive as he is now next in line to the throne.
The Saudi government has said detainees agreed to hand over $106 billion in assets in exchange for their freedom. It’s unclear if al-Ibrahim made a similar agreement.
Asked Monday about MBC’s current ownership structure, Hayek said al-Ibrahim retains a 40 percent stake and has “nominal management control” of the network. Hayek said he could not confirm who held the other 60% of the company.
Saudi Arabia’s Information Ministry did not respond to questions about al-Ibrahim’s settlement and the ownership of the MBC Group.
MBC is no stranger to controversy since its founding in 1991. One of its biggest off-screen dramas stemmed from its broadcasting of the Turkish soap opera “Noor” in 2008. Dubbed into Syrian colloquial Arabic, “Noor” took the Mideast by storm with its depiction of a love story with its male and female lead as equals, as well as showing people kissing and drinking alcohol.
A Saudi religious scholar went as far as to call al-Ibrahim and others “no less dangerous … than drug dealers” for airing the program and others like it.
Regional politics also have affected another major broadcaster. Qatar’s paid-subscription BeIN satellite network found itself cut off from the four countries that are boycotting Doha — Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, that access has come back as BeIN holds the broadcast rights to major international soccer matches, including the upcoming FIFA World Cup.