RIYADH: Diplomatic fallout over journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder appears to be slowing the flow of high-rolling Saudis to Turkey, as calls grow within the oil-rich kingdom to boycott the holiday magnet.
Each year hundreds of thousands of Saudi tourists visit Turkey, thanks to its milder climate, turquoise waters and status as a crossroads between East and West.
But tensions over the journalist’s murder are feeding into growing calls by nationalists and pro-government media to boycott Turkey, potentially hitting its already strained economy.
“Don’t go to Turkey” and “Turkey is not safe” are just some of the headlines that have popped up, with multiple media outlets running hostile stories in recent months.
Many, including Al-Arabiya, have splashed official warnings from the Saudi embassy in Ankara about rising passport theft and petty crime.
The apparent scaremongering seems to be working, since the Turkish tourism ministry reported Saudi visitor arrivals dropped more than 30 per cent in the first five months of 2019 compared to the same period last year.
A travel agency in Riyadh reported a similar fall in bookings, although Saudi tourism authorities did not respond to a request for comment. “I care about safety,” a young Riyadh resident said, explaining why he was likely to avoid Turkey.
Saudis, who are also among the top property buyers and investors in Turkey, spend an average of $500 a day as tourists in the country, significantly higher than European visitors, according to a 2018 study by Riyadh’s King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies.
Appeals for a boycott of Turkey are not limited to tourism. A video predating Khashoggi’s murder that showed Riyadh’s influential governor Faisal bin Bandar declining an offer of Turkish coffee recently resurfaced on social media, triggering a call for a boycott of Turkish products.
Ajlan al-Ajlan, chairman of the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has been particularly strident. “As the Turkish leadership and [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan continue their hostility and target the kingdom’s leadership, we call more than ever before to boycott them … in all areas — imports, labour and dealings with Turkish companies,” Ajlan wrote on Twitter last month.
Observers have drawn parallels with how Saudi Arabia flexed its financial muscle by adopting punitive measures in recent diplomatic disputes with Canada, Germany and neighbouring Qatar, now under a Riyadh-led economic blockade for two years.
The boycott rhetoric could not have come at a worse time for Turkey as it battles an economic crisis. “The already suffering Turkish real estate market could be further damaged by a mass exodus of Saudi property holdings,” said Hussein Ibish, a scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.