Saudi tourists shun Turkish destinations as government relations deteriorate

Issues between the two countries are also ideological, with a post 9/11 Saudi Arabia shunning political Islamic movements while Turkey has become a safe haven, particularly for the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Saturday 03/08/2019
Changing mood. A Saudi man walks out a Turkish Airlines office in Riyadh . (AFP)
Changing mood. A Saudi man walks out of a Turkish Airlines office in Riyadh . (AFP)

LONDON - With the summer season in full swing, Gulf tourists, particularly Saudi nationals, are shunning traditional holiday destinations in Turkey because of the deteriorating relations between Riyadh and Ankara.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry, in a statement July 17, warned Saudis travelling to Turkey to take extra precautions, particularly from scam artists targeting tourists.

The Foreign Ministry warning was the latest official statement urging Saudi nationals to remain vigilant while in Turkey. Sky News Arabia reported that this was the fifth travel warning regarding Turkey issued by the Saudi government in the last year.

Both the kingdom’s traditional and new media have been discouraging tourism to Turkey, with reports claiming it is a dangerous destination. Some social media users referenced the killing of seven Saudi nationals in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve 2017.

Before the latest travel warning, the Saudi Embassy in Turkey had urged citizens to exercise caution after incidents of passport and money theft were reported in various parts of the country.

Headlines such as “Don’t go to Turkey” and “Turkey is not safe” have appeared in Saudi publications in recent months. Social media users called on Saudis to boycott Turkish tourism and Turkish products.

“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,” Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry Chairman Ajlan al-Ajlan posted on Twitter in June.

The Saudi travel warning came while Turkey is dealing with significant economic woes. “The already suffering Turkish real estate market could be further damaged by a mass exodus of Saudi property holdings,” said Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

Saudis are highly sought tourists, with the ability to make any holiday destination’s summer season a success, as has been seen in countries such as Lebanon, which was on the receiving end of a recently overturned Saudi travel ban for a number of years that adversely affected its tourism industry.

Agence France-Presse, citing a 2018 study by Riyadh’s King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies, reported that Saudi nationals, who are among the top property owners and investors in Turkey, spend an average of $500 a day as tourists in the country, significantly higher than European visitors.

The Saudi strategy seems to be working. The Economist said Saudi tourist arrivals were down 31% in the first five months of 2019, compared with 2018.

A major contributing factor to current relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey is Ankara’s handling of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi last October in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, which Saudi officials say was exploited by the Erdogan government.

However, issues between the two countries are also ideological, with a post 9/11 Saudi Arabia shunning political Islamic movements while Turkey has become a safe haven, particularly for the Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Saudi Arabia and its allies, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, do not agree with Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is outlawed in all three countries.

They also oppose the Turkish government’s backing of Qatar, which the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with in June 2017 over what they described as Doha’s interference in their countries’ internal affairs and support for radical groups, such as Hamas, the Taliban and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkish soap operas, once a significant weapon in Ankara’s soft power arsenal, have also suffered because of the country’s frosty relations with Gulf nations. Major regional networks, including Saudi-owned MBC, have pulled Turkish-produced melodramas off the air.