The row, sparked by cartoons published in the Jyllands-Posten newspaper last September, could also turn into an international trade dispute following a warning from Peter Mandelson, the European Union’s trade commissioner, that the EU would take Saudi Arabia before the World Trade Organisation if the Saudi government encouraged a boycott of Danish products, which started last week.
Denmark, which is a member of the EU, also warned its citizens to show caution in other Muslim countries. The cartoons sparked protests on Monday in Gaza, while the Swedish consulate in Jerusalem said it had received a warning from Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades demanding the departure of all Danes and Swedes from the region.
At a meeting in Davos last week, Mr Mandelson told Abdullah Zainal Alireza, the Saudi minister of state, that “a boycott of Danish goods was a boycott of the European Union”, according to Mr Mandelson’s spokesman.
Mr Mandelson stressed that, if the Saudi government encouraged the boycott, he would have to pursue this “very serious’’ issue before the WTO, which Saudi Arabia joined last month.
Christine Lagarde, the French trade minister, told the Financial Times on Monday that there was “complete solidarity” over the issue among the 25 EU nations, as it concerned common principles of freedom of the press and religious tolerance. She said: “We believe in the rule of law, and so should all our international partners. Saudi Arabia very recently and voluntarily decided to join the WTO and that means that it must now abide by international trade rules. A government cannot encourage such a boycott.”
Several Danish companies warned on Monday the boycott was threatening their revenues and was spreading to countries in North Africa. Libya yesterday announced the closure of its embassy in Copenhagen.
Arla Foods, a dairy company that exports butter and cheese to the Middle East, said its products had disappeared from supermarket shelves in several Arab countries, leading to a daily loss of DKr10m (?920,000, €1.3m, $1.6m) in sales. Novo, the insulin maker, said pharmacies and hospitals had demanded the removal of Novo’s insulin from their premises.
Peter Thagesen, a senior adviser from the Confederation of Danish Industries, said: “Danish companies are being taken as hostage in a conflict in which we have no part. In this conflict, as is often the case in a conflict, there has been many misunderstandings on both sides.”
Danish exports to Arabic countries are worth DKr3bn a year, about 2 per cent of total exports. The three largest categories of exports are machinery, pharmaceuticals and dairy products.
Jyllands-Posten, one of two publications to print the cartoons, published an apology on Sunday addressed to the people of Saudi Arabia. “We are sorry that the matter has reached these proportions and repeat that we had no intention to offend anyone, and that we and the rest of Danish society respect the freedom of religion,” Carsten Juste, wrote the editor-in-chief.