Go cold Turkey

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When Riyadh’s chamber of commerce held its election in February, one candidate was utterly ubiquitous: Ajlan al-Ajlan, billionaire founder of a company that sells Saudi men’s clothes, appeared to spare no expense for his campaign. On street billboards, newspaper pages, television channels and social media networks, his face was inescapable. People even joked they found him inside their microwaves and bread toasters.

Al-Ajlan’s heavy spending paid off as he came first in the election, winning a total of 6,283 out of 42,112 votes. His elevated profile earned him an interview on the kingdom’s top talk show during Ramadan where he was asked if his campaign has gone overboard considering the low stakes. “I’m serious and take everything seriously,” he said as he defended spending nearly $5m for the seat.

Despite his election win, many people outside Saudi Arabia would not have probably heard of al-Ajlan until earlier this month when he emerged as the leading voice calling for a full boycott of Turkey. “The boycott of everything Turkish, whether it is imports, investment or tourism, is the duty of every Saudi (trader and consumer) in response to continued hostility by the Turkish government against our leadership, country and citizens,” he said on Twitter.

Turkish businesses have for months complained that their exports to Saudi Arabia were facing obstacles and long delays, saying their goods are effectively banned from reaching consumers there. The Saudi government has denied it, telling Bloomberg that “the official authorities in the kingdom have not placed any restrictions on Turkish goods, and the bilateral trade between the kingdom and Turkey has not witnessed any notable decline.”

Even as the government timidly denied imposing a boycott and attempted to distance itself from it publicly, local media and pundits have repeated the boycott calls in unison, leaving little doubt that this was something meticulously orchestrated from the top.

Al Arabiya and other state-controlled outlets have been eager to frame the boycott as a “grassroots campaign” by regular Saudis who have suddenly become fed up with Turkey, even though the tensions between the two countries have been brewing for many years since they took opposite sides during the Arab Spring. In particular, the kingdom is irked by Erdoğan’s support of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the fact that Istanbul has become a safe haven for many Islamists.

These tensions fluctuated over time but did not reach a boiling point until now. A former Saudi diplomat in Istanbul told me in the summer of 2018 that the two countries have too many crises on their plates and would rather spend their energy on more immediate threats, but he did not rule out that Saudi Arabia at some point would seek to impose a Qatar-like boycott against Turkey.

The Khashoggi assassination has probably delayed that, adding more fuel to already tense relations and arguably giving Erdoğan a strong hand against the Saudis, but the kingdom’s officials at the time tried to play down these differences.

“For those who are trying to use this painful thing to drive a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, I want to send them a message,” Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said at the time. “They will not be able to do this as long as there is a king called King Salman bin Abdulaziz, and a crown prince called Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and a president in Turkey called Erdoğan.”

Officially, the government gave the appearance that they were trying to cooperate with Turkey on the investigation but for the most part unleashed local media on the Turks and accused them of exploiting Khashoggi’s death for political purposes.

The Saudis consider the Khashoggi affair now officially over after his family pardoned the killers and they were handed prison terms instead after the trial was concluded last month, and that’s probably why they finally decided to make their move against Turkey.

However, it seems that the Saudis have learned some lessons from the Qatar boycott. Turkey is a far bigger country and a fellow G20 member. An official boycott announcement from Riyadh would cause a major regional political crisis and possibly open the kingdom to legal action at WTO and other organisations.

Instead, they appear to be trying to hurt the Turkish economy at a vulnerable moment by practically halting imports and discouraging Saudis from investment and tourism in Turkey by issuing repeated warnings about potential fraud and crime targeting them there.

One week after his initial boycott call, al-Ajlan doubled down with another tweet: “We as citizens and businessmen will not have any dealing with anything Turkish. Even Turkish companies operating in the kingdom, I urge you not to deal with them,” he said. This is the least we can do in response to the continued Turkish hostility and insults to our leadership and country.”

Saudi Arabia’s largest supermarket chains all shortly fell in line and announced they will no longer offer Turkish goods once existing stocks are sold off. The full impact of this “informal” boycott will be seen in the coming months (official data show Saudi imports from Turkey increased in August when compared to July), but it has already led to some hilariously awkward situations.

Entrepreneur Faris al-Turki, who owns a chain of breakfast cafes, found himself under fire because his restaurant’s menu includes items such as Turkish coffee and Turkish shakshuka. He said they would rename them to “black Arabic coffee and shakshuka with pastrami,” respectively, only for some Twitter users to taunt him he would need to change his last name too.

In one widely-circulated video, an amateur Saudi singer sets his Turkish-made lute on fire and picks up an “Arab oud” to sing about the virtues of the boycott while a Saudi flag and the campaign logo can be seen in the background:

Mohammed al-Suwayed, a financial analyst, was one of the rare people who dared to voice concern about the wisdom of having the head of the commerce chamber leading the boycott campaign (note that he is not criticising the campaign itself, just the tactics employed). 

“It is inappropriate for the boycott call to come from the Chamber of Commerce because it is affiliated with the Ministry of Commerce, and that is likely to raise the country risk for foreign investors so I think we need swift action to avoid that,” he said.

Indeed, the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce is not an independent body. Even though it holds elections to select its board members, one-third of that board are actually appointed by the minister of commerce.

While the Saudis insist this is a non-governmental “grassroots campaign” (one pro-government columnist even tried to link it to the Ottoman colonial history in the Arabian Peninsula), it does not take much work to see that many elements of the strategy and messaging around it, from the ultranationalist rhetoric to the juvenile social media imagery, bear the hallmarks of a certain former senior adviser.

The informal ban is damaging for many local small and medium businesses who depend solely on imports from Turkey, particularly in sectors such as textile, furniture, clothing and food. But as we have seen in previous gambits, economic consequences are usually secondary to political considerations. The issue also raises questions about the fate of nearly 100,000 Turkish expats who work in the kingdom in businesses, many of them occupy jobs in restaurants and barbershops.

As for global brands such as H&M and Mango who manufacture in Turkey and sell goods in the kingdom and the Gulf, this has been disruptive but their diversified supply chains can probably work around it and find alternative solutions.

That is all for this dispatch from Riyadh Bureau. In the coming weeks, the newsletter will be moving from its current monthly schedule to a semi-daily one as I focus on writing here full-time. Thanks for reading and I hope you will continue to support me as I take the next step. Photo by Takenori Okada on Unsplash. You can send your feedback by email: alomran@hey.com.