Saudi business leaders call for boycott of ‘hostile’ Turkey

Trade, tourism suffer as Erdogan’s drive for influence offends fellow Sunnis in anti-Islamist bloc

A Saudi woman looks at the dairy products in a supermarket, after Saudi Arabia's retail stores urged customers to boycott Turkish products, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 18, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/AHMED YOSRI)
A Saudi woman looks at the dairy products in a supermarket, after Saudi Arabia's retail stores urged customers to boycott Turkish products, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 18, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/AHMED YOSRI)
Political tensions between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are obstructing the movement of goods and putting a strain on trade relations between the two Sunni-Muslim regional powers.
Ties between Riyadh and Ankara have deteriorated over the past few years, with the countries on opposite sides of several regional conflicts.
Mohammed al-Bishi, a Saudi journalist specializing in economic affairs, told The Media Line that Turkey’s “aggressive regional policies” were behind the rising antipathy.
“This is a reaction to the hostile policies practiced by the Justice and Development Party [AKP, led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] in Iraq, Syria, Libya and now in Azerbaijan,” he said.
The antagonism reached its high point in late 2018 immediately after the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate.
Musa Uçan, an international affairs analyst at the Turkish think tank MİSAK (National Strategic Research Council), insists the call to boycott is politically motivated in the wake of a new lawsuit against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"It’s a cursory and claptrap boycott. A populist reaction… to Hatice Cengiz’s criminal complaint to Turkish authorities and [her] lawsuit against Salman in Turkish courts,” he told The Media Line.
He was referring to a civil suit that Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancée has brought against the Saudi crown prince and others for the journalist’s death.
Dr. Ali Bakeer, a Middle East analyst, says regional states are contributing to the heightened hostility.
“The Saudi-Turkish relationship is not supposed to be as bad as it is right now,” he told The Media Line. “However, many Turks believe that the anti-Turkey policies of the desert kingdom are the result of the Emirati influence of MbZ [Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed], the de facto ruler of the UAE, over the Saudi crown prince, MbS [Mohammed bin Salman].”
Last week, the head of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce called for a boycott of Turkish products.
“A boycott of everything Turkish, be it imports, investment or tourism, is the responsibility of every Saudi trader and consumer in response to the continued hostility of the Turkish government against our leadership, country and citizens,” businessman Ajlan al-Ajlan tweeted.
Bishi says this “popular boycott” comes as no surprise.
“This is a natural response from the Saudi people to what they perceive as constant attacks on their country and its leadership,” he stated. “This is the right of the consumers and the people.”
While Bishi stresses that the shunning of Turkish goods carries a message from the Saudi people against the “aggressive rhetoric” that Erdogan is aiming at the desert kingdom, Bakeer believes the campaign is “part of the long-standing spiteful policies” of Riyadh.
“Such behavior is deeply embedded in the political culture of some Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Another factor would be the immaturity of the Saudi leadership, which has brought disasters to the kingdom on the international level.”
Bishi notes that the boycott movement began with individual businesspeople but has since grown into a popular social campaign.
“Investors and businessmen in the kingdom realize that they have a duty to protect the kingdom from the Turkish attacks and policy of hostility by starting to withdraw their investments from various sectors,” he said.
According to unofficial Saudi estimates, the number of tourists visiting Turkey has dropped by more than 50%, and calls to stop purchasing Turkish real estate are growing.
Turkish opposition lawmaker Mehmet Güzelmansur complained last week that goods exported from his region of Hatay, in particular perishable fruit and vegetables, were being held for longer than necessary upon arrival at the Saudi border.
A Saudi businessman working with Turkish firms confirmed to The Media Line that Saudi customs officials were now taking longer to release shipments arriving from Turkey. The businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that for the time being, he would not be dealing with Turkish products.
Several large Saudi supermarket chains have also joined in the boycott.
Abdullah Al-Othaim Markets, ranked by Forbes Middle East as being among the 100 largest public companies in the region for the third year running, issued a statement on Twitter assuring patrons it had told its business partners not to import Turkish products, adding it will stop selling such products as soon stocks run out.
“This decision has been taken to support the popular boycott campaign because we believe it is a national duty and also a response to the Turkish government’s practices against our precious country,” the statement said.
Bishi estimates that Saudi Arabia exported roughly $3 billion worth of goods, mainly petroleum products, to Turkey in 2019, while importing products worth close to $12 billion.
The consequent loss of revenues will lead to pressure on the Turkish government from the country’s business community, he predicted.
“What is required is that this pressure leads to a change in Turkey’s policy toward the kingdom and in the direction of its leadership, and that it respects the sovereignty of the kingdom,” he added.
Uçan prefers to downplay the boycott’s effectiveness.  
"If it were companies like ARAMCO [or] SABIC announcing sanctions on Turkey and stopping the export of petroleum, petrochemicals or metal products, then we could say, ‘Yes, we’re now somewhere and have something to tell about a boycott and sanctions.’”
He says the tensions will fizzle after the US presidential election on November 3.
"We can expect surprising developments in the Turkey-Saudi relationship, especially after the American elections," he stated, adding that if President Donald Trump loses, MbS will lose a major supporter.
"Salman doesn’t have too much to do without Kushner’s friendship," he said, referring to Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner.
Still, it goes well beyond just that, Uçan says, adding that two can play.
"Trade figures between Turkey and Saudi Arabia are astronomical,” he explained.
“If Turkey applies sanctions to Saudi products, [it has] many options,” he noted. “Saudi companies have a very big market share in Turkish petroleum, real estate and metal products, which can easily be filled by European or Asian suppliers. But the current boycott [against Turkey] is damaging middle-class vendors and traders, not major players. It’ll be a disadvantage for Saudi traders in the medium term."
Several Turkish entrepreneurs have expressed concern to The Media Line over the rising tensions and the impact on business.
“We are afraid that this will continue for a long period of time,” textile factory owner Fazil Mustafa said from Gaziantep. “We are already suffering the effects of the coronavirus.”
Last week, in a speech to parliament, Erdogan attacked Gulf states without naming them.
“It should not be forgotten that the countries in question did not exist yesterday, and probably will not exist tomorrow. But we will continue to fly our flag in this region forever, with the permission of Allah,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has put in place a blockade of its neighbor and fellow Gulf Cooperation Council member Qatar, closing the country’s only land border and blocking flights since June 2018 over claims that Doha, like Ankara, is an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups. Turkey is a close ally of Qatar.
Dr. Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, says there are several factors behind the latest round of Ankara-Riyadh tensions.
“First, Turkey is becoming a much more aggressive regional power in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, and this is troubling all its large neighbors and potential rivals, with very few exceptions,” he told The Media Line.
“There is a sense that Turkey is a growing regional hegemon that could prove a huge headache to other powers, especially in the context of the Middle East and, indeed, a world that is moving beyond the unipolar era of paramount US power that began with the collapse of the USSR, and into a more multipolar international environment,” he said.
“Second, Turkey is particularly dangerous as it uses populist themes to project influence in the Arab and Islamic worlds,” he continued.
He cited “Sunni-Muslim or Islamist leadership; neo-Ottoman themes drawing on Turkey’s deep, albeit contentious, history in the Arab world – as long as Turkey is seen as the heir to the Ottoman Empire, a common, though debatable, claim – and emotional issues such as Palestine and Jerusalem.”
Earlier in the month on a visit to Doha, Erdogan said Turkey’s military presence there served stability and peace not only for Qatar, but for the whole Gulf.
“No one except for those making plans of chaos should be disturbed by Turkey and the Turkish military presence in the Gulf,” he said.
Those comments were harshly criticized in Saudi Arabia, with Saudi Prince Abdulrahman bin Musa’ad, a businessman and writer, calling for a boycott of Turkish imports solely on the basis of those remarks.
Addressing this issue, Bishi said: “Economy and politics are two sides of the same coin and you cannot separate them. Therefore, trade relations between any two countries cannot be active in light of tension in political relations.”
He notes that top Saudi officials have remained quiet on the issue.
Bakeer agrees that politics play a major role in the current situation.
“I believe that Riyadh thinks Ankara is economically vulnerable at this particular time. That is why [the Saudis are] increasing the economic pressure,” he told The Media Line.
“However, calls to boycott Turkish products are meant to serve as a smokescreen and divert attention away from the epic failures of MbS in the economic, defense and political domains. They will also further undermine the status of Saudi Arabia in the eyes of most of the Arabs and Muslims,” he stated.
Bishi dismisses the idea that some of the tensions stem from a rivalry over the leadership of the Sunni world.
“Talk about competition in the region is nonsense. The Islamic world has only one direction to turn to when praying. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has Mecca and Medina, and they cannot be transferred to Turkey,” he noted.
Ibish feels that Saudi Arabia faces a direct challenge from Turkey for leadership of the global Sunni community, and of Muslim-majority states in general.
“This is a one-on-one rivalry, but it also takes the form of a new bloc at the international, organizational level,” he noted, specifically mentioning the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, where Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia are allies with support from Iran, although depending on the issue.
“This is very bothersome to Saudi Arabia, which has long sought a status of unchallenged Muslim leadership on the grounds of history, geography and religious purity, but both Turkey and Iran have rival claims based on other narratives,” he said. “Those are the main points of contention.”
As for how long a Saudi boycott of Turkish products will last, Bishi says Ankara controls the situation.
“The ball is in Turkey’s court. In the event that it changes its hostile policy toward the kingdom, it won’t take long” for the boycott campaign to end, he noted.
He stresses, however, that Ankara will have to change its rhetoric and policy.
“The language of economics is the most powerful language practiced by countries,” he said.
“We are watching what happens between the United States and China, between Russia and the European Union,” he noted. “Trade wars and economic sanctions are being used as a political tool, and that’s what the Saudis are doing.”
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