Saudis let wallets do the talking to punish Turkey for Khashoggi

Jamal Khashoggi. (AFP)
Jamal Khashoggi. (AFP)

Biscuits and yogurt are emerging as weapons of choice for Saudis lashing out at Turkey for hounding their government over the grisly murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

Pro-government Saudis have been calling for a boycott of Turkish products on Twitter.

Among the biggest targets are dairy producer Pinar Sut Mamulleri Sanayii AS and Ulker Biskuvi Sanayi AS, which has two plants in Saudi Arabia and ranks No. 1 in its biscuits market.

"The objective is not to destroy the economy," Naifco, a pro-government Saudi user who promoted the campaign, tweeted to more than 500 000 followers. "It’s to express our anger in a civilised way."

Political ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia were already strained before the murder of Khashoggi, but the economic relationship had endured any public sabre-rattling from their leaders.

Bilateral trade amounts to $4.8bn. While that doesn’t even figure in the top 15 partners for Turkey, Saudi Arabia is a major export market for some Turkish heavyweights.

There’s also the effect on much-needed revenue from big-spending Saudi tourists who may be put off by Turkey’s repeated efforts to expose the Saudi role in the killing of the Washington Post columnist on October 2. Saudis were among the top buyers of Turkish property last year.

Qatar standoff

Weaponising economic ties isn’t without precedent under Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who’s been willing to flex the kingdom’s financial muscle by taking punitive measures in recent disputes with Canada and Germany.

One of his foreign policy missteps has been an attempted embargo of Qatar, ostensibly to punish the Saudi neighbour for allegedly sponsoring terrorism.

Rather than lasting weeks or months, the boycott is well into its second year. Turkey sided with the Qataris, exporting milk and other products to the tiny emirate.

Lira crisis

For Turkey, the showdown couldn’t come at a worse time; its economy is already battered by a currency crisis that’s touched off inflation and raised the risk of recession. The economic pain won’t be immediate, but the fallout is evident in the real estate market.

Saudis ranked as only the sixth-biggest buyers of real estate last month, when their purchases plunged 37%, according to official data.

The unease might also feed through to stocks, "provided that the tension intensifies, and these are seriously taken into consideration by Saudis," Melis Pocar, vice president for research at Oyak Yatirim, said in a note. Ulker and Pinar, for which Saudi Arabia is the top export market, are the two companies that could be particularly affected, she said.

Pinar said it’s "watching the development" but didn’t comment further. Yildiz Holding, Ulker’s parent company, declined to comment.

Trading threats

The standoff hints at a deeper strain between the two biggest economies in the Middle East. In public, the Saudi government has taken a more conciliatory tone, with most criticism of Turkey so far confined to social and traditional media.

While the authorities in Ankara have kept mum, many Turks vented their anger at Saudi Arabia on, one of the country’s largest online platforms, compiling 30 pages of comments on the subject. Some have responded with calls to boycott the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

Meanwhile, the hashtag urging users to name Turkish companies to be blacklisted was trending on Twitter in Saudi Arabia, indicating the topic’s popularity. Another campaign that began on social media last month called on hundreds of thousands of high-rolling Saudi visitors to boycott Turkey.

Saudi tourists spend $1 200 per person in Turkey, surpassing Germans and Russians, BloombergHT cited MasterCard Turkey General Manager Yigit Caglayan as saying in May.

Analysis of the pro-boycott posts indicates that most were retweets of a select number of pro-government accounts, including Naifco’s, according to Marc Owen Jones, a professor at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Saudi rival Qatar.

Some also came from possible Saudi government bots, or accounts that automatically generate messages, said Jones, who researches Middle East state propaganda on social media.

"It is government-driven, whether implicit or explicit," he said.

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