Unofficial but effective Saudi boycott strikes blow at Turkey

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - Ajlan al-Ajlan, chairman of the board of directors of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce in Riyadh, launched a boycott campaign based on three No's: “No investment, no imports, and no tourism.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Riyadh in February 2017. (AFP)

RIYADH – Without making it official, Saudi Arabia has succeeded in dealing a tough, direct blow to Turkey through a wide boycott of its products, in response to the many disparaging statements made by Turkish officials towards the kingdom, whether in the context of the Jamal Khashoggi case or in political campaigns directed against Riyadh's role in regional issues. That role seems to be resented by the Turks, who have sought to undermine it but failed.

The call for the boycott started on social media networks and quickly became the trending issue for Saudis on online platforms. The call then became a reality when local officials in the trade and industry sectors urged citizens to boycott products coming from Turkey or bearing a mark showing that they were made in Turkey. The move predictably irked Turkish businessmen at home, and turned into a pressure card on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Our contractors in the Middle East suffered a loss estimated at $3 billion at the least in the past year, as a result of the anti-Turkish sentiments that emerged there,” Medhat Yeni Kun, head of the Turkish Contractors Union, told the Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet.

Ajlan al-Ajlan, chairman of the board of directors of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce in Riyadh, launched a boycott campaign based on three No's: “No investment, no imports, and no tourism. We, as citizens and businessmen, will not have any dealings with everything that is Turkish,” Ajlan declared.

He called on fellow citizens to stop dealing with the Turks because they continue to insult Saudi leadership.

Analysts believe that the Turkish president cannot do much about the Saudi position, as it is the result of a spontaneous popular boycott for which the Saudi leadership cannot be blamed. Saudi authorities have not even jumped on the opportunity to launch a systematic media campaign against Turkey and Erdogan, like the latter did against Saudi Arabia in the Khashoggi case, or look for mediators to intervene in the matter. By opting for official neutrality on the whole affair of boycotting Turkish products, Saudi authorities are likely to avoid the controversy that came with the decision to boycott Qatar.

Riyadh's official silence also puts Erdogan in a difficult position, as he is accused at home of causing a new crisis that will further affect the exhausted Turkish economy and of opening the gate for intractable difficulties for Turkish businessmen who have profited tremendously from opening up business opportunities in the Arab Gulf over the past few years.

Exacerbating the crisis further is that the popular boycott did not stop at the products that Turkish companies supply to Saudi Arabia, but expanded to include imports of products of international brands manufactured in Turkey, which means that the boycott will have an effect on the business of these international companies that had invested in Turkey and could push them to move their investments elsewhere.

A British media report revealed that the Turkish economy was severely affected by the unofficial Saudi embargo on Turkish goods, indicating that retailers in global fashion were also affected by this matter.

The Financial Times stated that the Spanish clothing company Mango is looking for an alternative to Ankara, given that its goods are made in Turkey and are directly impacted by the fluctuations in demand and the competition between Ankara and Riyadh.

The newspaper report said that the Saudi ban on Turkish goods has hit global fashion brands such as Mango and Zara, the latest sign of the escalating rivalry between the two regional powers.

A Mango employee explained that Saudi Arabia has banned all imports of products made in Turkey. The Spanish company also stated that its teams are looking for alternatives to limit the manufacture of its made-in-Turkey products destined for the Saudi market.

Mustafa Gultepe, head of the Istanbul Apparel Exporters Association, revealed that all retailers producing in Turkey and exporting to Saudi Arabia were affected by this decision.

Turkish exporters have complained that their products have faced long delays at Saudi customs over the past month.

Turkish companies view these problems as an attempt by Saudi Arabia and its close ally the United Arab Emirates to punish Ankara for its destabilising interference in the Arab world.

Turkey's relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two largest economies in the Middle East, have become more tense as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi accused Erdogan of interfering in Arab affairs and of supporting radical Islamist groups, including interfering in Libya and supporting armed militant groups there.

A worker in Ankara brushes dust off a mannequin part at a factory of Koray Vitrin Mankenleri, which exports to the Arab region. (REUTERS)

Erdogan is concerned that the tacit Saudi boycott will turn into a comprehensive embargo that could spill over and extend to other Gulf and Arab countries that will choose to stand by Saudi Arabia, which has a strong network of investments, funding and aid in most Arab countries. The risk for Turkey is that the silent Saudi boycott may turn into a model for a more comprehensive Arab boycott, especially that this model spares states and official bodies any political embarrassment that go with an official embargo.

Observers of Gulf affairs point out that Erdogan erred in assessing the power and influence of Saudi Arabia in recent years when he expected to blackmail it through political and media pressures to serve his economy, pointing out that the Saudis, who have avoided issuing statements and fighting media battles, know when to deliver the blow that will repair the damage done to them and deliver the necessary message to their opponents.

The Turkish president is betting on his popularity within Sururi Salafist circles in Saudi Arabia, which are at the moment hibernating and waiting for the right moment to pounce on power, but analysts say the new Saudi leadership can cut off any of Erdogan’s manoeuvres to fabricate crises or leaking confidential information, especially as it has been able to counter other blackmailing plots before.

The Saudi public and official anger against Turkey was not caused by the Khashoggi affair and the Turkish media attacks on the kingdom and its leaders that followed, but with Erdogan’s efforts to strike at Saudi Arabia’s role as the main Sunni power in the Middle East and rob it of its symbolic importance and influence through his alliance with Iran's sectarian project, and through Sunni proxies such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in the region.

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