Saudis strongly back severing ties with Iran
LONDON - A sense of weariness, anger and frustration dominates Saudi sentiment on the dispute with Iran, with a majority of the kingdom’s populace endorsing severing diplomatic ties and embracing a boycott of Iranian products.
The latest chapter in the feud between the two countries began after Saudi Arabia on January 2nd executed 47 men, including radical Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, on terrorism-related charges. Later the same day, protesters attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its consulate in Mashhad.
Chain letters and text messages calling for a boycott of Iranian products spread rapidly across Saudi Arabia and the Saudi media backed the cutting of ties with Iran.
“The general impressions you get from social media is a sense of general confusion with regards to the political and religious dimensions of the dispute with Iran,” Jassim al-Ghamdi, a Jeddah-based journalist and analyst, told The Arab Weekly.
“I had hoped that public awareness would transcend the sectarian aspects of the dispute,” Ghamdi said, highlighting that some social media reactions carried a sectarian tone.
“The Shias in the kingdom are Saudi nationals with the same privileges as all Saudis and some of these online attacks should not have included our Saudi Shia brethren,” he added.
Ghamdi said cutting diplomatic ties was “welcomed, timely and a last resort. The geopolitical circumstances today are challenging and Saudi Arabia had to set parameters.”
A quick look at Saudi reaction on social media underscores the range of opinions from the angry to hostile.
On his Twitter account Saudi journalist Naif al-Osaymi wrote: “Yesterday, we beheaded the terrorists and today we are cutting ties with a sponsor of terror.”
Another Saudi Twitter user, known as Alsuhaib22, went further calling for the kingdom to cut ties with Iraq as well. “If Saudi Arabia really cut its ties with Iran, it should also cut ties with Iraq. The Safavid government in Baghdad is just another image of [Iranian Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei,” Alsuhaib22 tweeted.
The term Safavid refers to the early 16th-century Persian Shia dynasty, which rivalled the Ottoman Empire. Today, the term is used in a derogatory way to describe Iranian leaders, because of the shared view of the Shia expansionism activities.
Another user, Saeed Salah al- Ghamidi wrote: “I ask that the Saudi people also boycott Iranian goods.”
The fallout from cutting economic ties was also prevalent, with the Saudi business community uniformly backing the move. Business figures across the country, through various chambers of commerce, have spearheaded the boycott, with chamber leaders telling Saudi businesses to replace Iranian goods with goods from other Arab and Islamic countries.
On a grass-roots level, consumer activist group Mogatah posted pictures of Iranian products that it says businesses should remove from their shelves and cease selling.
The group blasted Swedish retailer Ikea for selling a Persian carpet with a “Made in Iran” label at its stores in Saudi Arabia and applauded a Riyadh-based carpet shop chain for halting sales of Iranian rugs.
Saudi Arabia’s biggest food producer, Savola, saw its shares plunge 9.7% on the Saudi stock index Tadawul after a senior executive at the firm told Reuters of plans to maintain its investments in the Islamic Republic despite the standoff.
“We knew the risks of doing business in Iran from the start,” the unnamed executive said. “For the long term, Savola will have a competitive advantage once sanctions have been lifted.”
Despite the plunge, analysts see the firm, which earns 13% of its gross revenue in Iran, weathering the economic storm in the long run.
The severing of economic ties will likely not affect either country dramatically. According to intelligence firm Euromonitor, the volume of Saudi exports to Iran totalled about $102 million at the end of 2014 whereas Saudi imports from Iran amounted to $181 million.
Prominent Saudi TV host and Islamic scholar Mohsin Shaikh al- Hassan has also called on all Arabs and Muslims to boycott Iranian products.
“I urge all Arabs and Muslims to boycott all Iranian products such as food, clothes, vegetables as well as services. Iran has been promoting terrorism,” Hassan said.
The diplomatic spat even spread to the football pitch. The Saudi Arabian Football Association stated it would not participate in any international matches in Iran due to safety concerns. Teams from the two countries had been scheduled to play each other in the Asian Champions League and the Asian Under-23 Championships.