The Saudi Arabian fast-food company Herfy’s announcement on October 18 of its decision to rename its “Turkish Burger” the “Greek Burger” attracted criticism as “petty,” though it denotes Saudi Arabia’s hardening geopolitical stance towards Turkey.
One Saudi government employee praised Herfy’s decision, tweeting: “Thank you for your patriotism, love for the country and its leadership,” providing a glimpse into the brewing anti-Turkey narratives within the country.
It comes amid an escalating “unofficial” boycott of Turkish goods within Saudi Arabia, indicating Riyadh is ramping up pressure on its regional adversary Ankara. The boycott mostly targets textiles, produce, and contractors.
Saudi Arabia’s Chambers of Commerce called for a nationwide boycott of Turkish products on October 4. “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.
“Boycott Turkish Products” trended across Saudi Twitter in October, with leading influencers encouraging others to follow suit.
The hashtag “Boycott Turkish Products” trended across Saudi Twitter in October, with leading influencers encouraging others to follow suit. Twitter has been a powerful tool for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), with the government utilizing an army of pro-Saudi Arabia trolls and bots to shift public opinion on the social media platform.
Several stores—including the largest supermarket in Saudi Arabia—joined the boycott, emptying their shelves of goods marked “Made in Turkey,” AFP reported.
Saudi Arabia also “banned all imports for Made in Turkey products,” an employee at the Spanish clothing group Mango told Turkish suppliers, according to the Financial Times.
The boycott was suspected last year after Saudi Arabia reportedly blocked 80 Turkish trucks and 300 containers with fruit, vegetables, textile products, and chemicals from entering through Saudi ports, claimed one Turkish official.
The Saudi government denied that it was encouraging a boycott. However, it could face repercussions for its trade policies such as World Trade Organization (WTO) sanctions and other reputational damages.
Moreover, even though the Saudi Chamber of Commerce is under the government’s control, anti-Turkey narratives within the kingdom have likely inadvertently provoked support for an actual boycott.
Along with a “media war” this year which resulted in Saudi Arabia censoring Turkish news outlets, including TRT and Anadolu Agency, and various Saudi outlets promoting anti-Turkey sentiments, Riyadh has promoted the idea of Turkey pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” vision, through education and in the public sphere.
Riyadh has promoted the idea of Turkey pursuing a “neo-Ottoman” vision, through education and in the public sphere.
Some popular media narratives present a Saudi-Turkish rivalry competing for dominance over the “Islamic world.” It is true that Saudi Arabia enjoys such status as patron of the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina and may see Turkey as a threat. Yet there are other political factors driving Riyadh’s stance.
Turkey’s assertive regional foreign policy has placed it on the opposite side of Saudi Arabia in Libya, where Ankara backed the UN recognized Tripoli-based Government of National Accord against the warlord Khalifa Haftar, who has received Saudi backing alongside other states, including Riyadh’s close ally the United Arab Emirates.
While Turkey and Saudi Arabia mutually backed Syrian opposition factions against Bashar al-Assad’s regime early on in Syria’s conflict, Riyadh has shifted its approach under MbS and now shows more receptivity towards Assad.
The Saudi newspaper Independent Arabia published an article in October titled “Damascus reconnects severed rope with Saudi Arabia and UAE,” praising the prospect of normalization between Riyadh and Assad. Former Saudi intelligence official Saad Al Jabri claimed last August that MbS altered his Syria policy in 2015 and began “encouraging” Russia’s intervention in support of Assad.
Turkey ramped up its own operations in northern Syria, including a military campaign against Assad earlier this year, and this has further prompted Riyadh to change its stance.
There are claims that Riyadh perceives Ankara as a “new Iran,” referring to Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Iran since the latter’s 1979 Islamic revolution, which has since threatened Saudi Arabia’s regional hegemony. This would be a reasonable suggestion, given that Iran has also supported the Assad regime and has alleged links with Haftar.
Saudi Arabia holds a grudge against Turkey after the revelation of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
Of equal importance, Saudi Arabia holds a grudge against Turkey after the revelation of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. This was a severe blow to MbS’ PR efforts in Western capitals, to present Saudi Arabia as a “reforming” and more progressive country under his rule.
Soon after Khashoggi’s killing, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote in the Washington Post that “Saudi Arabia still has many questions to answer about Khashoggi’s killing,” and has since repeatedly raised the issue. He said in October 2019 that the incident delivered “a serious threat to the international order.”
This apparently prompted MbS to pressure Erdogan’s government. In August 2019, the Middle East Eye (MEE) claimed a leaked document from the Emirates Policy Center – a think-tank with close ties to the Emirati government and security services – outlined a Saudi-led plan to take down Erdogan’s government.
“The kingdom would start to target the Turkish economy and press towards the gradual termination of Saudi investment in Turkey, the gradual decrease of Saudi tourists visiting Turkey while creating alternative destinations for them, decreasing Saudi import of Turkish goods, and most importantly minimizing Turkish regional role in Islamic matters,” according to MEE’s report.
Saudi Arabia clearly views Turkey as a threat, and the narratives in favor of a boycott reflect the government’s own enmity towards Ankara, therefore suggesting a state-encouraged boycott of Turkey.
Some criticism of the boycott has since emerged within Turkey. Eight of Turkey’s largest business groups called on Saudi Arabia to end it.
“This issue has gone beyond bilateral economic relations and become a problem for global supply chains.”
“This issue has gone beyond bilateral economic relations and become a problem for global supply chains,” said the statement that was signed by industry leaders, exporters, contractors, and unions.
“Any official or unofficial initiative to block trade between the two countries will have negative repercussions on our trade relations and be detrimental to economies and people of both countries,” the statement added.
Mehmet Guzelmansur, an MP from Turkey’s Hatay province, warned that his country is already enduring difficult times because of the coronavirus pandemic and such a major boycott will hurt many local businesses.
However, in reality the economic impacts of the boycott on Turkey remain to be seen and are highly unlikely to have significant effects on the country’s economy.
Should this boycott further develop, there are concerns over what other area may be targeted. Saudi Arabia may even limit Hajj quotas for Turkey for instance, given its past politicization of distributing them, while tourism may also be targeted.
With this latest development in Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s relations, it seems that rapprochement between the two governments is a distant prospect.
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Turkey and US Organizations Push for Accountability for Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder
Sources of Turkey’s Current Assertive Foreign Policy in MENA