Riyadh and Ankara cannot reconcile until normal trade between the countries is restored.
In 2020 and 2021, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have made efforts to improve relations. Ankara recently stating that it has “respect” for the Saudi trial that jailed eight people for Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 killing underscores the extent to which Turkey is seeking to repair its ties with the Kingdom. Riyadh has also indicated its desire to iron out its differences with Ankara. This thaw in Turkish-Saudi relations has been a result of uncertainties surrounding U.S. foreign policy with President Joe Biden in the White House, as well as Ankara and Riyadh’s concerns about possibly becoming more isolated.
Nonetheless, an Ankara-Riyadh rapprochement will take more time. One reason why pertains to the unofficial Saudi boycott of Turkish goods. This remains a sensitive matter that will need to be addressed before the two nations can move past issues that fueled significant friction in bilateral affairs in recent years.
The Saudi Boycott
It is not exactly clear when this Saudi boycott of Turkish goods started. On May 6, 2019, the governor of Riyadh, Faisal bin Bandar, famously declined Turkish coffee, which set off this boycott according to some observers. Others have pinned the start of the economic campaign to last year when prominent Saudi businessmen and retailers called for boycotting Turkish goods.
Regardless of when it began, it is easy to understand the root causes of the boycott. Numerous points of contention have contributed to friction in Ankara-Riyadh relations in recent years. Sensitive issues that fueled tensions have included Khashoggi’s murder in 2018, the blockade of Qatar (2017-2021), Libya’s civil war (2014-2020), militant Kurdish nationalism in northern Syria (2016-present), the ouster of Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi in 2013, the failed Turkish coup plot of 2016, Saudi Arabia’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, and Sudan’s post-2019 political transition. At the same time, Turkey’s assertive foreign policy in the Horn of Africa has unsettled Gulf states including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, adding to Riyadh’s perceptions of an alleged Turkish threat.
The Turks have paid a price for the Saudi boycott in various areas of the economy from construction to food to property sales to tourism. The timing is especially bad for Turkey, with the Turkish economy suffering from COVID-19 alongside a currency in freefall. According to the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TIM), in this year’s first quarter, Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia decreased 93 percent from 2020’s first quarter. A look at Turkey’s rising exports to other countries in the region during this span of time indicates that the plummet in Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia is not attributable to the global COVID-19 pandemic, but instead to this boycott.
To be sure, the Saudis are still purchasing Turkish goods, albeit in more costly and indirect ways. Turkish exporters to Saudi Arabia have contrived for their products to appear to be coming from elsewhere, through forging documents for an extra fee. Also, according to the data provided by TIM, Turkish goods such as chemicals, jewelry, and textiles have been arriving in Lebanon and Oman in significantly higher levels during this period of unofficial boycott. Most likely, products head to Saudi Arabia from these two countries after removal of the “Made in Turkey” label.
Finding Ways Forward
In late March, the Turks raised this issue before the World Trade Organization in Switzerland. There was a discussion about the Kingdom’s “restrictive policies and practices concerning Turkey” and the Saudi government provided a response, according to the WTO. What decision the body makes remains unknown for now, but it could pressure the Saudis to end trade practices that target Turkey. The Saudis would also like to settle this issue in ways that do not result in perception that their government is associated with the boycott, given the potential for concern and suspicion by foreign investors, whom Saudi Arabia needs to execute its strategic initiative Vision 2030.
Reportedly, large firms from Turkey have recently engaged the Saudis in discussions about restarting direct bilateral trade. But such talks have not yet led to any breakthrough, which demonstrates how “some parties in Saudi Arabia want to put brakes on the rapprochement efforts,” according to Ali Bakeer, a research assistant professor at Qatar University. At this juncture, the Kingdom is not yet ready to end its unofficial boycott of Turkey, maintains Bakeer, who does think however that this contentious issue could possibly be resolved through a continuation of bilateral talks. That seems to be exactly what Turkey’s government is committed to pursuing. On April 26, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman and adviser Ibrahim Kalin addressed the unofficial boycott, affirming that Ankara will “seek ways to repair the relationship with a more positive agenda with Saudi Arabia as well.”
Perhaps one question worth raising is whether the sale of Turkish-made drones to Riyadh could help compensate for this unofficial boycott, or at least enable the two countries to move past it politically. In March, Erdogan announced that the Saudis had an appetite for purchasing advanced Turkish drones. However, some experts remain doubtful as to whether the Turks would be willing to export such weapons to the Saudis. “I don’t believe that Turkey would sell Riyadh advanced drones at any point in the near future given the unpredictable behavior of the Saudis and their apparent reservations on the rapprochement effort,” Bakeer said. Yet if the Saudis did purchase these advanced drones, it would certainly add to Turkey’s much deserved reputation as a “drone superpower,” which recent Turkish military operations in Libya, Idlib, northern Iraq, and Nagorno-Karabakh contributed to significantly.
There are some regional indicators suggesting that Ankara and Riyadh could continue moving toward a rapprochement. These factors include marked improvements in both Turkey’s and Qatar’s relations with Egypt and reconciliation between Riyadh and Doha in the post-al-Ula period. Nonetheless, for Turkey and Saudi Arabia to put their relationship on track for a reconciliation, this boycott issue must be addressed.
Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, D.C.-based geopolitical risk consultancy.