RIYADH (Reuters) - A Turkish soap opera that flopped when first broadcast in its native Turkey three years ago has taken the Arab world by storm, provoking a flood of Gulf Arab tourists to Turkey that even includes royalty.
"Noor" became an immediate hit when Saudi-owned MBC satellite television began airing it earlier this year, partly because of its unconventional usage of colloquial Arabic dubbing -- and because its blond-haired, blue-eyed leading man had women swooning.
Turkey is expecting the number of Saudi tourists this year to top 100,000, including King Abdullah's wife Hissa al-Shaalan, who has been the subject of YouTube videos showing her swanning through the markets and sweet-shops of Istanbul.
"From 41,000 (tourists) last year to 100,000 this year -- the same year this show became phenomenally successful," said Turkish diplomat Yasin Temizkayn. "It's more than just a coincidence."
Spanish-language soap operas have been shown on Arab television in the lucrative Saudi and Gulf markets in recent years with classical Arabic voice-overs.
But with "Noor" -- the main character whose name means "light" -- the names of the characters in the original Turkish soap "Gumus" have been swapped for Arabic, and Syrian vernacular has replaced the formal classical Arabic of modern media and religion.
"I don't like all that Maria Mercedes nonsense," says Dania Nugali, 16, referring to a popular Mexican soap. "I feel like I am in Arabic literature class when I watch Mexican shows. But when I watch Noor, I definitely feel that it is entertainment."
Yet the main pull has been the co-star Muhannad, 24-year-old Turkish actor and model Kivanc Tatlitu.
"It seems most viewers are female," said Hana Rahman, who runs an Arab entertainment blog (waleg.com). "They're so swept away by the main character. He's become a heartthrob here! He has even caused divorce cases in Saudi Arabia."
The drama, which made poor ratings when first shown in Turkey in 2005, centers around a family whose patriarch strives to ensure his sons focus on the family business and maintain cohesion without straying into romantic temptation.
"We made the series with a Turkish audience in mind," Tatlitu told al-Arabiya Television during a recent visit to Dubai. "The fact that it has amassed such a following in the Arab world just proves how much our cultures have in common."
Many Saudi women explained their devotion to the show as a form of escapism from stifling, love-less marriages.
"Our men are rugged and unyielding," quipped a 26-year-old house-frau who preferred to remain unnamed. "I wake up and see a cold and detached man lying next to me, I look out the window and see dust. It is all so dull. On Noor, I see beautiful faces, the beautiful feelings they share and beautiful scenery."
(Editing by Summer Said and Mary Gabriel)