The country is a favoured tourist destination among Gulf Arabs but continued reputational damage over xenophobia could damage cultural ties
A complaint about being overcharged by a restaurant in the Turkish city of Trabzon by a Gulf tourist named Mohammad al-Ajmi ended with the Kuwaiti national being hospitalised and briefly spending time in a coma.
The assault, which also left Ajmi with four broken teeth, was captured in a surveillance video, which went viral earlier in September and once again placed the spotlight on rising xenophobia in the country.
Ajmi was making a complaint to a police officer when a Turkish man passing by began his assault. Instead of helping stop the attack, four other locals joined in, seemingly unaware of who started the fracas.
All of the attackers were subsequently arrested and Ajmi has been visited in hospital by wellwishers including local police officials.
According to local media outlets, the assailants told police that they thought the “tourist was resisting a police officer”.
The attack comes amid heightened anti-Arab sentiment in the country – most evident in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections held in May this year.
The main focus of such sentiment has been Turkey’s large population of Syrian refugees, who number close to four million.
Both the government and opposition made their return to Syria a key aspect of their respective platforms in order to appease anti-immigrant sentiment, and the government has worked towards fulfilling its promise by stepping up deportations.
Yet the attack on Ajmi potentially represents a new dimension to anti-Arab feeling. Until now tourists from the Gulf largely avoided the worst excesses of discrimination and violence.
Turkey is a favoured destination for citizens of the region because of its proximity, Muslim culture and relatively cheap prices.
However, the incident in September has sparked outrage in Kuwait, as well as other Arab states, even leading to calls for a boycott.
Trabzon, is a particularly popular spot with Gulf tourists, who are drawn to the region for its lush green forests and picturesque villages nestled in valleys.
Authorities there have made no secret of their condemnation, with both local government and police officers visiting Ajmi and even bringing flowers to him.
Kuwait’s ambassador to Turkey also visited the victim of the assault and met with Trabzon’s governor.
Whether these efforts will be enough to undo the reputational damage to Turkey’s image among Gulf citizens is another question.
A balancing act
While Ankara has stepped up its campaign to deport refugees and migrants, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also restated his commitment to hosting refugees.
The Turkish president opened his country’s doors to millions of refugees after the outbreak of wars in Iraq and Syria and has also sought to foster close ties with the Arab world.
Even his nationalist ally Devlet Bahceli, head of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), has condemned anti-immigrant agitation by far-right groups, saying that “the refugee problem was exploited for creating domestic chaos”.
The government has also launched a crackdown on traditional media and social media accounts known for their inflammatory comments about migrants.
At least 27 people in 13 cities have been arrested in recent months over accusations of hate speech.
But to put down anti-Arab sentiment exclusively to recent geopolitical developments would be misleading.
Many scholars who study the subject argue that such viewpoints stem from prevailing stereotypes in the country, especially when it comes to people from the Gulf region.
Betul Dogan Akkas, an expert on Turkey-Gulf relations, told Middle East Eye that “Gulf people suffer from stereotypes around the world. But especially in Turkey they are regarded as ‘walking’ dollars”.
This is in contrast to prevailing Gulf attitudes towards Turkey, which are largely positive despite political rifts between Gulf states and Ankara.
“Xenophobia from Turkish society is more disappointing [for Gulf Arabs], compared to its versions in the West since they expect a more positive attitude from Turkish society due to its Muslim majority and proximity to the Middle East,” said Akkas.
“Turkey is widely regarded as a brother nation in the Gulf region,” she added, explaining that anti-Arab attitudes in Turkey carried more of a shock value than similar attitudes in Europe.
Beyond this emotional impact of anti-Arab sentiment, there is a risk that continued reputational damage might end up affecting Ankara’s diplomatic efforts.
Impact on ties
Ali Baker, an expert on Turkish-Gulf relations, said the increasing racism in Turkey must be stopped before it begins harming the country’s foreign relations.
“Currently, racism in Turkey is targeting Arabs mostly. It is sabotaging the effort paid during the last 20 years to bring both closer to each other,” Baker told MEE. “Furthermore, it feeds the radicals on both sides and jeopardises not only the social and cultural relations, but the political ties too.”
Indeed, after the attack on Ajmi, both Turkish and Kuwaiti nationalists launched hate campaigns on social media targeting one another.
A Kuwaiti author, Abdulaziz al-Hajri, posted a series of tweets insulting the Turkish Republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the secular order he established.
Subsequently, thousands of Turkish social media users responded to him and his supporters with references to the Arab rebellion against the Ottoman empire during the First World War.
Turkey’s Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said in a statement that Turkey had asked Kuwaiti authorities to launch an investigation against al-Hajri.
Such episodes reveal the fragility that underlies relations between any two countries.
Ankara signed $50bn worth of agreements in multiple fields during Erdogan’s visit to the UAE in July.
Akkas believes that the recent xenophobic incidents would not jeopardise this rapprochement. However, in her opinion, it would cause a decrease in the number of tourists.
Akkas warns “the most damaging part will be the social response. People might be afraid to come to Turkey for holidays or studies.”
Baker agrees about the possible implications of anti-Arab sentiment in Turkey.
“Tourism, the services sector, infrastructure sector, investment, economic interactions – all will be impacted by widespread xenophobia in Turkey unless the judiciary and the government stop it with an iron fist and deterrent penalties,” he said.
The Gulf countries are vital to Turkey’s tourism industry. Ankara expects to receive more than six million visitors from the Gulf in 2023.
‘If this racism, anti-Arab sentiment… keeps rising, tourists will start preferring other destinations’
– Asim Ozcan, tourism industry worker
Statistics show that in the first four months of the year, more than a million tourists from the Gulf countries visited Turkey.
Moreover, Trabzon remains a top tourist attraction. In the first seven months of 2023, 400,000 tourists visited the city, made up primarily of citizens from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan.
Asim Ozcan, a tourism agency worker in Istanbul told MEE that the assault in Trabzon was “stupid”.
His firm organises tours to Trabzon and the Black Sea region. “Amid this economic crisis, these people [tourists] are like a lifeline,” he said.
“What is the point of frightening, bullying, cheating them?”
Ozcan added that his firm had not received any more cancellations than usual after the assault.
However, he warned: “If this racism, anti-Arab sentiment, or whatever you call it, keeps rising, tourists will start preferring other destinations.”
Source : Middle East Eye