The informal call to boycott Turkish goods in some Arab countries is starting to bite into businesses relying on exporting from Turkey to the Arab world, especially to the Gulf countries.
The consequences for Turkey of the campaign have been reflected in a Turkish call for governments in the region to order retailers not to relinquish Turkish products. But as the boycott campaign is popular and not officially sanctioned, Turkey has few tools at its disposal to seek action to stop it, whether through bilateral governmental channels or through the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
Though Turkish relations with some Arab Gulf countries and Egypt have been sour for some years now, the popular boycott campaign is an escalation in response to the aggressive rhetoric used by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Earlier this month, Erdogan published a video on Twitter threatening unspecified Arab Gulf countries in an unprecedented way. “These countries did not exist yesterday, and perhaps they will cease to exist in the near future, but God Almighty will continue to raise our flag in the region forever,” Erdogan said in the tweet posted in Arabic with the video of his remarks in Turkish.
Twitter is a popular social-media channel in the Gulf, especially in Saudi Arabia. The platform later flared up with angry replies from people in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf countries attacking the Turkish president and describing his threats as a “declaration of war” on the Gulf and the Arab world.
Analysts described Erdogan’s “arrogant statements” as a clear reflection of “his annoyance with the Gulf countries that have stood against his ambitions” in Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
However, the majority of ordinary social media users were also furious. One Twitter user wrote that “not only has he posted the video on his Arabic account, but he also had the statements translated into Arabic. The least we can say is that it is a declaration of war! If it had happened with Europe or Canada, the NATO alliance would have met and things would have become serious. To threaten that the Gulf countries will not exist in the future! If this is not a threat, what is,” he wrote.
A hashtag on Twitter, “boycott_Turkish_Products” went viral and continued to trend in Saudi Arabia for several days. Within a week, eight Turkish business groups, including textile exporters and contractors, had called on the Saudi authorities to stop the boycott. But Reuters quoted the Saudi government media office as saying that the authorities had not placed any restrictions on Turkish goods.
Official trade and economic relations between Turkey and the Gulf states were not severed even when the Turkish president attacked the decision by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt (the Quartet) to boycott Qatar in 2017.
But Ankara then stepped up its relations with Qatar and established a military base there that caused a further deterioration in relations with the Quartet. Erdogan’s increased support of the Muslim Brotherhood and other militant groups working on destabilising countries such as Egypt also soured relations further, especially with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
Yet, trade did not stop, and Turkey even benefitted from the Qatar crisis by acting as a transit point for Saudi goods to Qatar at the start of the boycott, though this later stopped. However, since the start of this year trade between Turkey and many Arab Gulf countries has declined by almost a quarter or between 17 and 30 per cent in the first nine months of the year.
The new popular boycott campaign is hurting Turkey even more. The statement from the Turkish business groups went on to say that “any official or unofficial initiative to block trade between the two countries [Saudi Arabia and Turkey] will have negative repercussions on our trade relations and be detrimental to the economies of both countries... We deeply regret the discriminatory treatment that our companies face in Saudi Arabia... and expect the Saudi authorities to take concrete initiatives to resolve the problem.”
The Turkish signatory bodies to the statement included the Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK), the Turkish Exporters Association (TIM) and the Turkish Chambers and Commodity Exchanges Union (TOBB).
According to Saudi sources, there is no intention to “force” traders, wholesalers or supermarkets to exclude or to promote Turkish suppliers. “You can’t impose choices on private-sector businesses and tell them ‘buy Turkish’ – that would be absurd,” one Saudi source said.
Emirati political commentator Rashed Murooshid told Al-Ahram Weekly that “regardless of official positions that might be bound by international commitments, the popular boycott is a legitimate way of telling Turkey to feel the repercussions of the irresponsible policy of your leader.”
The trend has also been evident in the UAE and might have been there for some time even before the boycott campaign. “Popular resentment against Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been growing for some time. It has just become evident more now, reflected in the call to boycott Turkish goods after the recent insults from Erdogan of the Arab countries,” Murooshid said.
“When people see Erdogan bombing northern Iraq, occupying parts of Syria, and transferring terrorists to Libya, popular opposition to Turkey grows. These aggressive policies and direct support for terrorists are meant to destabilise the Arab countries, and they already threaten national security. The least people can do is to express their position by stopping buying Turkish products,” he added.
The campaign is also not only impacting Turkey, but is now also impacting multinationals that have production facilities in Turkey and markets in the Gulf. As one Gulf source said last week, “anything made in Turkey or coming through Turkey is not allowed in Saudi Arabia.”
Last week the UK newspaper the Financial Times reported that Spanish company Mango, one of a number of European and US fashion retailers with manufacturing facilities in Turkey, had said in a statement that its teams “are looking into alternatives to the slowing down of custom processes for products of Turkish origin in Saudi Arabia.”
Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia alone exceed $3.5 billion a year, while it imports less than $2 billion in goods from Saudi Arabia. The boycott will thus be hurting Turkey more than the Gulf countries, especially with the trend continuing and including more consumers of Turkish goods or services in the UAE, Bahrain and probably also Egypt and other countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly