Saudis let wallets do the talking to punish Turkey over Jamal Khashoggi murder

People attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey on Nov 16, 2018.
People attend a symbolic funeral prayer for Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the courtyard of Fatih mosque in Istanbul, Turkey on Nov 16, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

ISTANBUL/DUBAI (BLOOMBERG) - Biscuits and yogurt are emerging as weapons of choice for Saudis lashing out at Turkey for hounding their government over the grisly murder of journalist 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 and Ulker Biskuvi Sanayi, 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."

At stake is a relationship that includes US$4.8 billion (S$6.6 billion) of bilateral trade, a major export market for some Turkish heavyweights and 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 Oct 2.

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

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

Saudis, among the top foreign buyers of Turkish properties in 2017, ranked as only the sixth-largest last month, when their purchases plunged 37 per cent, 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", Ms 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 is "watching the developments" but did not comment further. Yildiz Holding, Ulker's parent company, declined to comment.

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 Eksisozluk.com, one of the country's largest online platforms, compiling 30 pages of comments on the subject. Some have responded with calls to boycott the haj, 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 US$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 Professor Marc Owen Jones at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Saudi rival Qatar.

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

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