Those following Saudi social media will have noticed that Turkey has once again become the prime target of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) army of internet trolls. Posing under titles such as “analyst” or simply calling themselves Saudi patriots, all of the accounts are sharing the same message – boycott Turkey. The message is accompanied by a carefully crafted image, with a cancel sign over the Turkish flag and a message in Arabic as well as other languages calling for the boycott.
Though Saudi officials have on several occasions insisted that the kingdom has not enacted an official boycott on Turkish imports – as such a boycott would be a breach of World Trade Organization (WTO) regulations – the coordinated nature of the attack infers the order has been given from the highest echelons of the Saudi government.
Indeed, Turkish products have been suffering from excessive and long inspections in Saudi ports for some time, with foodstuffs often being left to rot for weeks, prompting Turkish Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan to call her Saudi counterpart back in July.
Since then the trade minister has acknowledged that exporters doing business with Saudi Arabia have continued to face difficulties, signaling that Riyadh for the time being remains uncooperative regarding Turkish demands.
Media outlets linked to Riyadh have been running commentaries on the boycott for weeks, calling it a citizen’s initiative rather than the official policy of the government. Reports keep underlining how Turkey’s economy will be damaged by the boycott, using inflated statistics that overestimate the volume of Turkish-Saudi trade.
Realistically any boycott will result in minuscule damage to Turkey’s economy. Despite the economic fallout, the political ramifications could be far more significant if the Saudi government continues to provoke Turkey.
Turkey, which has always been cautious in its relationship with Saudi Arabia – even when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered in the country’s consulate in Istanbul, might be motivated to adopt a more aggressive stance toward Riyadh’s provocations.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has already signaled an imminent confrontation, singling out countries in the Gulf that counter Turkish interests in a speech in early October. A change in Ankara’s policy toward Riyadh would be a major game-changer in the region and would result in Saudi Arabia losing ground in its bid to counter Iranian influence.
Unofficial or official boycott?
It was the head of Saudi Arabia’s Chambers of Commerce, Ajlan al-Ajlan, that initially called for the boycott of “anything Turkish” earlier in October. Riyadh has purposefully chosen this course of action, using intermediaries such as Ajlan instead of regime representatives to attack Turkey, in order to avoid any potential controversy. These intermediaries have been the cornerstone of Saudi attacks on Turkish products, with Ajlan and minor members of the royal family taking center stage in their attempt to paint Turkey as a hostile power.
Saudi Arabia’s tactics are classic asymmetric assaults, coordinated at the top and fed into the vast apparatus of organizations on the ground. The regime has instructed members of the press, academia and business circles to attack Turkey at a time they perceive the country as being vulnerable, fighting several fronts at once. The pandemic also provides ample cover for Saudi Arabia to deflect blame regarding worsening economic relations without calling out for an official boycott.
Painting Turkey as a hostile threat to Saudi interests also aids Riyadh’s domestic agenda in breaking Turkey's soft influence over the majority of Saudi citizens. Turkey’s cultural exports, such as TV shows and cinema, as well as Saudi interest in Turkish tourism has long been a point of concern for MBS’s government.
Last year Saudi owned broadcaster Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) aired an alternative to Turkey’s acclaimed historical drama series "Diriliş Ertuğrul." The MBC Series, called "Kingdoms of Fire," portrays Ottoman Sultan Selim I’s conquest of Mamluk Egypt but from an angle highlighting Arab-Turkish hostility. The series is based on a completely revised understanding of historical events that demonize the Ottoman Empire.
The recent “unofficial” boycott is simply part of the wider agenda of Saudi authorities to undermine the perception of Turkey in Saudi Arabia and the broader Arab world. Riyadh is keen to manage perceptions of Turkey, which despite political tensions, holds a valued place in the minds of many Saudis. This isn’t to say that the entire Saudi government opposes Ankara. Among the political elite, especially within the ranks of experienced statespeople, there is a willingness to engage with Turkey in a more nuanced manner.
A change in tune
Many pundits saw Saudi Arabia’s recent boycott movement as retaliation against Turkey’s decision to try in absentia several Saudis involved in Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. The trial, which had its first hearing in July, will continue this month – potentially inciting another Saudi reaction.
The Khashoggi affair, despite being unresolved and horrendous in nature, is not the sole reason for the rift between Ankara and Riyadh. Indeed, even at the height of the incident, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boldly asserted that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are friendly nations, as he protected King Salman from any blame for the murder. Though many in Ankara and elsewhere believe that the crown prince had ordered the attack, Turkish officials have never explicitly named MBS in connection with the crime.
Until recently the kingdom also reflected the Turkish sentiments with MBS, in a televised forum after the Khashoggi affair, commending Turkish-Saudi cooperation and claiming that Riyadh and Ankara would not drift apart as long as the crown prince and Erdoğan remained in power. This approach is clearly no longer being adopted in Riyadh.
Despite the Turkish will to maintain strong relations – even in the presence of regional disagreements in areas such as Libya and Egypt – Riyadh has clearly opted to perceive Turkey as a threat. The recent normalization between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain with Israel has also clearly emboldened Saudi Arabia to seek alternative partners in the region, even if the relations remain clandestine for the time being. Israel and Saudi Arabia share a vested interest in countering Iran and increasingly Turkey too, which they perceive as possessing great influence in Palestinian politics as well as the broader Arab world.
The changing tune in Riyadh has prompted Ankara to reconsider its relations with the kingdom. In the absence of a meaningful push from Riyadh to engage in an understanding of sorts, Ankara now appears to have become irritated by Saudi Arabia's unconfrontational aggression against Turkish interests.
Though a total fallout in relations is unlikely, Saudi Arabia should be wary of further antagonizing Turkey. In the past, Riyadh could lean on Ankara to counter Iran's expanding influence, exemplified most recently in the Syrian conflict. Given the current state of affairs, Saudi Arabia appears to be losing a powerful regional partner.
*MSc comparative politics candidate at the London School of Economics