‘Turkish’ Burger Goes Greek in Saudi Arabia as Tensions Flare
A plant based burger in Russia. (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

‘Turkish’ Burger Goes Greek in Saudi Arabia as Tensions Flare

Not much was Turkish about Herfy’s “Turkish Burger” besides the branding -- an Ottoman fez over a black mustache -- but that didn’t stop the sandwich from getting caught up in a geopolitical storm.

This week, as tensions rose between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, the Saudi fast food chain announced that it was replacing the beef patty with an identical “Greek burger,” slashing the price to boot.

“It’s the same thing,” Herfy employee Mahmood Bassyoni reassured a customer with a smile, offering a spoonful of the burger’s spicy sauce to taste. “Just the name changed.”

The sudden menu overhaul is a sign of how swiftly a political disagreement between the two regional powers is deteriorating into a battle over trade that’s hitting global brands like Mango. Already-strained relations between the countries worsened after the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi leadership, at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. Then, this month, after two years of simmering discontent, they dived again.

Turkish businessmen said that Saudi Arabia was hindering the entrance of their goods, a claim the Saudi government denies. Soon after, the chief of Saudi Arabia’s chambers of commerce, Ajlan Al-Ajlan, called for a boycott of all things Turkish, saying it was the “responsibility of every Saudi” to stop importing Turkish products, investing in Turkey or traveling there due to “the continuous hostility of the Turkish government to our leaders and country.”

Pro-government social media influencers with large followings stoked the boycott calls, and suddenly the campaign had not only a hashtag but a logo.

“A true citizen doesn’t wait for a decision from the government,” Salman Aldosary, a Saudi columnist close to the kingdom’s leadership, wrote on Twitter.

Saudi Arabia is Turkey’s 15th biggest export market, with sales led by carpets, textiles, chemicals, grains, furniture and steel amounting to $1.91 billion in the first eight months of the year.

‘Turkish’ Burger Goes Greek in Saudi Arabia as Tensions Flare

Over the past two weeks a series of Saudi businesses, including major grocery chains like Abdullah Al Othaim Markets Co., announced that they’d stop carrying products from Turkey. A dwindling stock of Turkish dairy was still available during a recent visit to a Tamimi Markets outlet in Riyadh, but that chain has now also joined the boycott. A small online fashion business that sold mostly Turkish products announced it was shutting down entirely less than a month after its launch.

Officials and businessmen have portrayed the boycott as a spontaneous decision by Saudi citizens frustrated with years of what they say is anti-Saudi sentiment from Turkey. However, in a country where freedom of expression is increasingly limited and political action is strictly controlled, it’s unlikely the campaign would have spread so widely without official sanction or support. Herfy did not respond to a request for comment made through calls to its headquarters and emails to two executives.

Off social media, it’s unclear how much traction the boycott has.

“Sure, why not,” said Abdullah Al-Naami, as he left a Herfy branch in the capital of Riyadh carrying his favorite menu item, an Oreo milkshake. “We boycotted Denmark in the past,” he pointed out, referring to a controversy in 2006 over cartoons mocking Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

As to the Saudi boycott of Turkey, “this is the first I’ve heard about it,” Al-Naami admitted. “I don’t follow the news.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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