Women, many from Saudi Arabia, queue outside luxury brand Louis Vuitton in Istanbu. A new campaign is calling on Saudis to shun trips to Turkey and Turkish products. Photo: Yasin Akgul/AFP

From pickled vine leaves to coffee and cheese, Saudi supermarkets are taking Turkish products off the shelves after calls for a boycott as rivalry between Riyadh and Ankara heats up.

The two countries have long competed for supremacy in the Muslim world, but their geopolitical rivalry intensified after Saudi agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in 2018.

The wealthy Gulf petro-state has sought to pressure Turkey’s struggling economy, with high-rolling Saudi tourists facing calls from nationalists last year to boycott the holiday magnet and stop buying property there.

Now, Turkish exporters of textiles and other goods are complaining of inordinate delays at Saudi customs, and warning that Riyadh’s attempts to block the imports could disrupt global supply chains.

This week, after a call from the head of the Saudi chamber of commerce to boycott everything Turkish, multiple supermarket chains announced they were stopping the sale of Turkish products.

“This decision has come in solidarity with the popular boycott campaign,” one of them, Abdullah AlOthaim Markets, said on Twitter.

Some retail chains said they would continue selling the goods until stocks were exhausted.

But at one Riyadh supermarket, an AFP correspondent saw sales staff scrambling to clear entire shelves of products made in Turkey, such as coffee, chocolates and jars of pickled vegetables.

Egyptian-made feta sat on a refrigerated shelf marked for Turkish cheese.

“This is a very sensitive matter,” the country manager of the retail chain told AFP, requesting anonymity and declining to discuss the fate of the removed products.

$3 billion lost

While the trigger for the boycott remains unclear, the campaign targets Turkey’s coronavirus-hit economy as it grapples with a currency in free fall.

The two countries are at loggerheads over a range of regional issues, from Libya and Syria to Qatar, a key Turkish ally that faces a three-year Saudi-led economic blockade.

Wary of rattling foreign investors and amid suspicion that Turkey could lodge a complaint with the World Trade Organization, the Saudi government has sought to distance itself from the boycott.

Authorities have denied placing restrictions on Turkish products and maintain that citizens have led the campaign.

But a joint statement from eight leading Turkish business groups this month claimed that many Saudi companies had been “forced to sign a letter of commitment not to import goods from Turkey”.

The Ankara-based Turkish Contractors Association meanwhile cited “various obstacles” at ongoing Saudi projects, such as not being invited to tender, difficulty in obtaining visas for Turkish personnel and payment delays.

“It is estimated that the negative perception of Turkey resulted in business losses worth $3 billion in the Middle East for our contractors last year,” the association said.

“Saudi Arabia, which was in second place in a list of countries with the most business in 2016-2018, has fallen to the lower tiers.”

On social media, accounts belonging to Saudi nationalists have been whipping up a frenzy.

In one cartoon that circulated widely on Twitter, a hand wrapped in the Saudi flag is pictured twisting the ears of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a gesture seen culturally as a punishment for children.

“Stop buying Turkish products. Erdogan is fighting our country with our money,” read one demand in Arabic on a popular messaging app.

Turkey biggest loser

Observers say Ankara is unlikely to cave in to the pressure.

Saudi Arabia is only Turkey’s 15th biggest export market, with textiles, chemicals, furniture and steel among the main items purchased.

But Saudi nationalists have warned the boycott could be adopted by the kingdom’s regional allies.

Observers have drawn parallels with how Saudi Arabia has flexed its financial muscle in diplomatic disputes with Canada, Germany and in particular Qatar, which hosts a Turkish military base, much to Riyadh’s annoyance.

In June, the WTO rapped Riyadh for failing to protect the intellectual property rights of a Qatari-owned broadcaster by not cracking down on a bootlegging network.

“Saudi-Turkish bilateral trade flows are not significant enough to make or break the economies of either country,” said Robert Mogielnicki, a resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

“Turkey stands to lose more in the short term from disruptions to bilateral trade relations,” he added.

“However, Saudi Arabia must tread carefully to minimize any reputation-related costs associated with global perceptions of its trade policy.”