A de facto Saudi ban on Turkish goods has hit global fashion brands in the latest sign of the escalating rivalry between the regional powers.
Saudi Arabia has “banned all imports for made in Turkey products”, an employee at clothing group Mango told Turkish suppliers in an email seen by the Financial Times.
The Spanish company, which is one of a number of European and US fashion retailers with manufacturing facilities in Turkey, said in a statement that its teams “are looking into alternatives to the slowing down of custom processes for products of Turkish origin in Saudi Arabia”.
Mustafa Gultepe, head of Istanbul Apparel Exporters’ Association (IHKIB), said all retailers producing in Turkey and exporting to the Gulf state were affected. “We are talking about all global brands that have stores in Saudi Arabia, produce in Turkey and sell over there,” he told the FT.
Turkish exporters have complained that their products have faced long delays at Saudi customs over the past month. The problems have been viewed by businesses as an attempt by Riyadh and its close ally the United Arab Emirates to punish Ankara for what they deem to be its destabilising interventions in the Arab world.
The trade dispute marks a significant escalation of the quarrel between the regional rivals.
“Anything made in Turkey or coming through Turkey is . . . not allowed in Saudi,” said one person in the Gulf briefed on the issue.
The Saudi government said it had not “placed any restrictions on Turkish goods”, adding that trade between the two countries had not “witnessed any noticeable decline, except for the general impact of the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Value of Turkish exports to Saudi Arabia last year. Its imports stood at $1.9bn
In a statement from the government’s media office, Riyadh also said it was committed to free trade and international agreements and treaties.
But this month, Ajlan al-Ajlan, the chairman of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, called for a boycott of “everything Turkish” in response “to the continued hostility of the Turkish government against our leadership, country and citizens”.
Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the Middle East’s two biggest economies, have become ever more fraught as they accuse President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of meddling in Arab affairs and supporting Islamist groups.
The rivals back opposing factions in the civil war in Libya, where Turkey’s military intervention this year led to a string of defeats for the Gulf states’ Libyan proxy, renegade general Khalifa Haftar.
Saudi Arabia has previously sought to use economic measures against governments to apply diplomatic pressure. In 2017, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi spearheaded a regional embargo against Qatar.
Turkey backed Qatar in that dispute, with Mr Erdogan accelerating the deployment of troops to a Qatari base in a show of support for Doha.
Tensions rose further after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Saudi officials were infuriated by what they saw as Mr Erdogan’s efforts to politicise the journalist’s killing to weaken Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto leader.
On Saturday, eight prominent Turkish business associations published a letter voicing dismay at Saudi Arabia’s “increasingly negative attitude towards our country’s companies”.
They called for a dialogue to resolve the dispute, warning it “will inflict damage on the economies and the people of both countries”.
Turkey is one of the biggest textiles producers in Europe and the Middle East, exporting $17.7bn worth of ready-to-wear clothing in 2019, according to IHKIB. Ankara had a trade surplus with Saudi Arabia last year, exporting goods and services worth $3.2bn, while the value of imports stood at $1.9bn.
Mango, which has almost 50 stores in Saudi Arabia, played down the impact of the restrictions, saying: “This does not represent a big problem for the brand as the production is diversified and flexible, and we are confident we will be able to continue with business under normal circumstances in Saudi Arabia.”
Sweden’s H&M said it was “too early to comment on the most recently communicated trade restrictions and its significance for our business”. Britain’s Marks and Spencer and Spain’s Inditex, which also source some of their products from Turkey and have stores in Saudi Arabia, declined to comment.
Boohoo, a UK-based online retailer that seeks to expand in the Middle East, was working to establish whether its Turkish-made garments would be affected, according to a person briefed on the effort.
Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping line, wrote to Turkish clients last month to warn of the growing problems at Saudi customs. It recommended they “take necessary precautions to minimise . . . potential losses”.
The tensions have affected the aviation sector too. Turkish Airlines and Dubai’s Emirates have sought regulatory approval to reopen their popular routes to Dubai and Istanbul, which were closed during the coronavirus pandemic. But both civil aviation authorities have refused to approve the resumption of full services, western officials said.
“It’s an unofficial boycott,” said an Emirati official, adding that the coronavirus pandemic “gives cover” for the move. Turkish Airlines, Turkey’s civil aviation authority and Emirates declined to comment.
Additional reporting by Funja Guler in Ankara and Daniel Dombey in Madrid