He's not a trained actor, but Turkish businessman Serdar Ali Abet hopes his television debut - and a mix of cliff-hangers, melodrama and lavish sets - can win fans across the Arab world and help revive Turkey's tourist industry. Abet, a travel agency owner, had an idea that a soap opera set in the Mediterranean province of Antalya might lure Arab tourists. He has since become a backer of the Turkish-Arab co-produced series, and it's unlikely star. With a budget of $3 million, "Big House" began airing this week on TRT Al Arabiya, the Arabic language channel of Turkey's state broadcaster. Abet thinks its 30-episode run during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan can boost Antalya's visibility.
"As a tourism executive, I started to think about strategies for boosting the sector. I had the idea of making a series for the Arabic market," Abet told Reuters.
He was inspired, he said, by the Turkish soap opera "Noor," which several years ago became a runaway hit in the Arab world, drawing a record of nearly 85 million viewers for its final episode. It also boosted tourism, with Abet doubling the number of his Arab customers at the time by arranging tours to Istanbul sites that appeared in that show.
When he heard that Saudi comedian Hassan Assiri was looking to produce a series in Turkey, he got in touch and lobbied for Antalya, touting its upscale resorts.
"When I suggested they shoot the series in Antalya they weren't so enthusiastic. But then I took them to see the city, which is luxurious. And Arabs love luxury." Abet agreed to shoulder the logistic support for the shooting, including paying for rental cars, food and accommodation for the crew. In return, the fluent Arabic speaker was given the lead role in the series. The producers are counting on Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan's widespread popularity in the Arab world, where he is respected for his Islamist-rooted politics and willingness to stand up against the West. "A lot of the people in the Middle East love Erdogan and the way he does things," said Assiri, the comedian whose company, Al Sadaf, is co-producing the series with TRT Al Arabiya and who also appears in the show.
The main setting for "Big House" is the $8,000 a night villa at the Regnum Carya Hotel where Erdogan stayed during the G-20 summit last year. The hotel's owner, Ali Safak Ozturk, says he is already trying to appeal more to Arab tourists, by increasing the privacy of the outdoor sections of his villas.
In the series, Abet plays a Turkish billionaire who is looking for his uncle's heir in Arab countries in order to pay an inheritance. Would-be relatives, some of them swindlers, come to Turkey to try and get the money. The show focuses on their intertwining stories and intrigue in the "Big House".
And Abet's acting?
He struggled for the first few days, slowing down the shooting as he had to repeat his scenes over and over, director Hayal Aslan said, adding he got better as the show progressed and did a "good job". "Actors sometimes go into business after they make money. But I've never heard of a businessman becoming an actor," Abet said. "I did it for the sake of tourism."