Food products lead the Netherlands' exports to Saudi Arabia, according to Dutch officials, with agricultural products also ranking highly. In total Saudi Arabia imports around US$2.7bn worth of products a year from the Netherlands.
The Saudi government has not made any official announcement on the matter, but local newspaper Arab News reported that the Council of Saudi Chambers, a business organisation, had received a letter from “higher Saudi authorities” with instructions not to involve Dutch companies in local projects.
The Dutch foreign ministry has confirmed it is aware of the threatened sanctions, and announced it would send its director-general for political affairs, Wim Geerts, to Saudi Arabia in an attempt to resolve the situation.
The ministry said it understood Saudi Arabia was considering imposing trade sanctions in response to stickers which mimicked the Saudi flag, but carried anti-Islamic slogans, produced by right-wing anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders, ahead of European elections this week.
“The Dutch government still emphatically disagrees with actions that insult [Muslims'] faith. The Dutch government also still emphatically disagrees with actions such as insulting or abusing national symbols, like flags,” said a statement posted on the Netherlands Embassy in Saudi Arabia's website this week.
Food leads trade
The row comes just two weeks after Dutch officials were busy promoting food imports to Saudi Arabia at a “Holland Food Festival” in Riyadh. The Netherlands' ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Laurens Westhoff, said the kingdom was one of the Netherlands' key trading partners.
"Food products and machinery figure as the highest export products, owing to the diversification of the Saudi economy," said Westhoff at the event, adding that the Netherlands was the world's leading producer of white veal, in addition to traditionally Dutch products such as cheeses.
"Dairy companies are currently expanding their activities in the Kingdom," he said.
Westhoff and the Netherlands agricultural attache Hans van Dijk also had a meeting with the Saudi Grain Silos and Flour Mills Organisation director-general Waleed Elkhereiji this month, to discuss food security issues.
If the sanctions come into force, they could potentially have the effect of eliminating Dutch products and services from Saudi Arabia.
The situation has echoes of a 2008 boycott of Danish products across much of the Muslim world, following publication of cartoons in a Danish newspaper which depicted the Prophet Mohammed – an action which is expressly forbidden in Islam.
That boycott saw Danish products withdrawn from sale, including staples such as Lurpak butter.