(Bloomberg) -- The mountaintop lake and cool breeze couldn’t be more different to the baking desert sands that surround Noura’s town. Yet as the Saudi tourist nibbled on chips at a cafe in Turkey’s lush Trabzon province, she said it felt just like home.
There’s the mosque next to the water and restaurants offering the Saudi lamb and rice dishes she likes. Cafes stop music for prayers the way she’s used to, and nobody gives her black robe and niqab face cover a second glance.
“I can have the conservative lifestyle I have in Saudi Arabia but in beautiful, green surroundings and affordable prices,” Noura, 24, said on a recent August day as mainly Gulf Arab tourists sailed in the lake or took selfies in front of the mosque. “What’s not to like about Turkey?”
What might be music to the ears of the tourism industry inevitably has a political twist in the Middle East. The relaxed cordiality between pious Saudis and their Turkish hosts masks a power struggle between the two Sunni Muslim rivals as Turkey tries to gain greater influence in the Arab world.
Almost a year after Saudi agents killed U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, relations at an official level have rarely been worse. Saudi ire is directed at Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government, which discredited Saudi denials and disclosed details of the gruesome murder. Yet Turkey’s cultural infiltration of Saudi Arabia endures, and resisting it is getting tougher.
Many Saudis continue to stream Turkish TV soaps that are banned from many Saudi channels and dine at restaurants that offer the grills and pastries featured in their favorite series. They buy Turkish clothes, scented candles and carpets.
They also continue flying to Turkish resorts, unfazed by headlines in Saudi newspapers warning about everything from kidnapping to murder. Some visitors said they go because their embassy is still open in Ankara and there’s no official ban. If one were imposed they would stop going, just like they did when their government warned against travel to Lebanon.
In the city of Trabzon on the Black Sea, Saudis filled the main square in the late afternoon. One man in black pants and a white top slumped in a chair at a café as his wife surreptitiously lifted her niqab to lick a green and yellow lollipop.
Others shopped for baklava glistening with syrup. A woman from the Saudi city of Jeddah shopped for Turkish make-up. “Much cheaper here,” she said. When asked about the warnings, she dismissed them as “just Twitter.”
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and the world’s biggest oil exporter, and Turkey, NATO’s biggest military power after the U.S., have been on opposite ends of many of the Middle East’s problems of late.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pursued a more assertive foreign policy, stepping up a bombing campaign against Yemeni rebels and leading a boycott of Qatar. Erdogan, meanwhile, is trying to reassert Ottoman authority in Turkey’s traditional sphere of influence.
Turkey has been a haven for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in the kingdom and classified as a terrorist group. The government in Ankara has also actively undermined the Qatari embargo, exporting food and dairy products to the Gulf emirate.
Now Turkish tactics include trying to influence Saudis through its soft power, such as Turkish TV dramas and heavy support for tourism in Trabzon, the Saudi Okaz newspaper said this month.
“They can’t close the TVs, the flights, the cultural exchanges, the soft power,” said Kamran Bokhari, founding director at the Center for Global Policy in Washington. “Through the medium of culture they have gradually and in incremental ways gained influence in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states.”
Last year, close to 750,000 Saudis visited Turkey, up 15 percent on 2017, according to Turkey’s tourism ministry. In 2011, when the Arab Spring started, the number stood at less than 120,000.
The sell to Saudis is that “we want to cater to your halal-ness and we will make it possible,” said Bokhari.
To be sure, there have been setbacks and signs the Saudi counter campaign has worked. In May and June, there was a considerable decline in tourists in Trabzon, said Volkan Kantarci, head of the association of Turkish travel agencies in the Black Sea area. Things started to pick up in July after Saudis went back home and reported Turkey was safe, he said.
A real estate agent said there’s been a drop in the number of Saudis buying apartments in Trabzon this year. He said one Saudi man told him he was worried that his country would sever all ties with Turkey and he would lose his investment.
Indeed, Trabzon shows the extent of Turkey’s allure, even among travelers from Qassim, a Saudi region that’s the heartland of the kingdom’s strict Wahhabi strain of Islam.
Noura took one of the packed, three-hour direct flights from the Saudi city of Buraidah in Qassim in August to the tiny airport in Trabzon before heading to the lake at Uzungol. A series called “Blind Love” drew her to Turkey, she said, declining to be identified by her full name like most Saudis speaking with international media.
Initially spooked by the warnings in Saudi newspapers, Noura changed her mind after her fears were dispelled by relatives who had visited earlier in the tourist season. “It was just media talk,” she said.
A stroll around the lake showed the lengths the Turks have gone to make the spot appealing for Gulf Arabs. The region in northeast Turkey is more conservative than cities like Istanbul and most women cover their hair with colored scarves and wear long dresses.
Butchers advertised sheep for slaughter for an upcoming Muslim feast. A man with music blaring from his car was told by a passerby to shut it down as the call of prayer came from the mosque on the lake. At a photo shop, visitors could have their pictures taken in rented outfits similar to those worn by their favorite TV characters.
A favorite spot in Trabzon’s main square is the pool with the soothing sound of its fountains. Mohammed, a teacher from Riyadh, said he planned to spend 48 days at an apartment he bought three years ago in Trabzon in a building where eight families related to him have also bought. He said direct flights introduced in the last couple of years have 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.”
Asked whether he was worried about the political tension between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, he shrugged: “There’s no country in the world that can give us what Turkey gives us.”
To contact the author of this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Riyadh at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rodney Jefferson at email@example.com
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