Saudi Arabia and Turkey have long vied for the leadership of the Islamic world, but their regional rivalry has intensified following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in his country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Turkish exporters of textiles and other goods recently complained of excessive delay at Saudi customs.
Earlier this month, the head of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce called for a “boycott of all that is Turkish,” stressing that it is “the responsibility of every Saudi, the trader and the consumer, in response to the continuing hostility of the Turkish government against our leadership, our country and our citizens.”
After this call, major supermarket chains in Saudi Arabia, including Abdullah Al-Othaim, Tamimi and Banda Markets, announced that they would stop importing and selling Turkish products.
Abdullah Al-Othaim Markets said in a statement on Twitter that the decision came “in solidarity with the popular campaign for boycott,” stressing that “our leaders, our government and our security are an untouchable red line.”
Some shops stated that they will continue selling Turkish products until the current stock runs out.
In a store in Riyadh, employees removed “made in Turkey” products from a large number of shelves, and filled carts with various products such as coffee, chocolate and boxes of pickled vegetables, and replaced Turkish cheeses with cheeses made in Egypt.
“This is a very sensitive issue,” the manager of one of the stores, preferring not to be named, told AFP, refusing to address the fate of the goods that had not been sold or the losses that the store would incur.
Amid doubts about the possibility of Turkey filing a complaint with the World Trade Organization, the Saudi authorities confirm that they have not placed any restrictions on Turkish products and that the boycott campaign is led by citizens.
However, a joint statement issued by eight prominent Turkish groups stated that Saudi companies were “forced to sign letters obliging them not to import products from Turkey.”
In Ankara, the Turkish Contractors Union confirmed the existence of “various obstacles” to trade with Saudi Arabia, such as not inviting Turks to participate in solicitations for bids, difficulty obtaining visas for Turkish employees, and delay in payment.
The union estimates that “the negative impression on Turkey led to (losses) of three billion dollars in the Middle East for our contractors last year.” The union added that Saudi Arabia, which was in second place “in the list of countries with the most business in 2016-2018 (with Turkey), has dropped to the lowest levels.”
Last year, Saudi tourists faced calls to boycott Turkey, a popular destination in the region to spend the holiday, and there were also calls to stop buying real estate in Turkey.
It is not clear the direct reason for the recent launch of the Turkish goods boycott, but the two countries are fighting over influence in the Islamic world, and there are differences between Ankara and Riyadh on regional issues from Libya to Syria and even Israel.
In addition, Turkey is close to Qatar and has a military base there, which is criticized by Riyadh.
Turkish officials were the first to report the killing of Khashoggi. The crime damaged the image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who Turkish officials said was involved in the operation.
The Saudi campaign targets the Turkish economy affected by the spread of the new Corona virus, and at a time the Turkish lira retreated to its lowest levels.
With the spread of the “Boycott Turkey” campaign on social media, a cartoon appeared with an arm with the Saudi flag on it pulling the ear of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Riyadh accuses of interfering in its affairs.
“Stop buying any Turkish product … (Erdogan) is fighting our country with our money,” read a message spread on WhatsApp.
Karen Young of the American Enterprise Institute says this is a “kind of political showpiece.” According to Young, this is “a tactic for Saudi domestic consumption, and a signal from the state for citizens to identify an external opponent.”
Observers rule out that the Turkish government will submit to these pressures.
Saudi Arabia is only 15th among the major markets for Turkish exports.
Among the basic materials purchased in Saudi Arabia from Turkey are textiles, chemicals, furnishings, carpets and iron. Official figures indicate a decline in Turkish exports to 1.9 billion dollars in the first eight months of this year, compared to a value of 3.2 billion dollars in 2019. Saudis have warned that the boycott campaign may extend to include the kingdom’s regional allies.
Observers pointed out the similarities between what is happening now and what happened when Saudi Arabia sought to show its financial strength by adopting punitive measures following diplomatic disputes with Canada, Germany and Qatar.
Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, believes that “the bilateral trade flows between Saudi Arabia and Turkey are not large enough for the success or failure of the economy of either country.”
“Turkey will lose more in the short term from the turmoil in bilateral trade relations. But Saudi Arabia should tread carefully to mitigate any negative impact on its reputation in the world with regard to its trade policy,” he added.
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