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Apathy hinders Arab boycott of US goods

Financial Times, April 25, 2002

Arab activists in the Gulf oil monarchies are trying to mount a popular boycott of US goods and services via e-mails and the internet. Their efforts are combined with calls to reactivate the Arab League's Israeli boycott office in Damascus. As targets of popular anger, the US and Israel are synonymous, say Gulf activists.

"This is the start of a mass movement," claims one, but the response appears to be patchy.

Efforts to start a boycott are handicapped by widespread public indifference, as well as by official apathy, or outright hostility.

In Kuwait popular indignation at the US and Israel has been spent in demonstrations: "Empathy for the Palestinians under a brutal Israeli occupation is one thing," said one young Kuwaiti official; "But lashing out at the US, the guarantor of our independence, is another thing entirely."

"Many people," said one Kuwaiti, "are sending e-mails urging their friends to boycott US goods, saying for example, 'don't spend money at McDonalds or Burger King, because the profits will end up in Israel.' But the wider public response has been poor."

Elsewhere in the Gulf, notably in Saudi Arabia, autocratic family governments have resorted to either co-opting activists, as in the UAE where the ruling family is carefully controlling the protests; or, as in Saudi Arabia, warning anti-US activists to desist in public or face arrest - which in Saudi Arabia, according to one, means immediate and arbitrary imprisonment.

In Saudi Arabia, activists are privately frustrated at what one called the government's "pusillanimous" approach to an oil embargo against the US. Saudi and other Gulf government officials have made it clear they will not consider using oil as a political weapon.

"But we are not allowed to discuss these things openly," one Saudi businessman complained.

"Police have arrested people who openly call for demonstrations or a boycott of US goods.

"Nevertheless," he added, "People on the street have never been so angry - you can read calls for a boycott of US goods and fast-food outlets all over the net. Many people have stopped buying goods in supermarkets they know originate in the US."

But these efforts are unco-ordinated. The only statistical evidence the US is being affected is that, according to the US embassy, applications for US visit visas by Saudis have fallen by 75 per cent since last September 11.

In Lebanon, Hizbollah, the radical Shia Muslim group, has been joined by an assortment of socialist, Communist, Palestinian and grassroots groups in calling for a boycott of US products.

Only around 7 per cent of Lebanese imports come from the United States, but defining what is and what isn't a US product is far from easy.

After demonstrations outside his restaurants, Jean Zoghzoghi, the local franchisee for McDonald's has taken newspaper adverts proclaiming that his business is "100 per cent owned, financed and managed by Lebanese" and that "spreading false rumours hurts local business and local people".

An activists letter to the editor:

Dear Editor:

The Article by Robin Allen on boycotts in the Arab world was misleading and rather dismissive of grass root boycott efforts. A letter campaign inundated Intel with over 2000 letters about their plant built on land Israel confiscated in 1949 from expelled Palestinian villagers. This plant makes Pentium 4 chips. Intel appears to have scrapped its planned expansion in Israel.

Haaretz reported (4/23/02) that the Made-in-Israel label is becoming hard to sell abroad. Exporters are complaining that merchants refuse to sell any products with any identification marks that it is made in Israel.

Over 500 US and other academicians and researchers declared a moratorium on all research and academic contacts with Israel. A similar petition in Europe also gathered hundreds of signatures. A counter campaign to encourage academics not to severe their ties has been initiated. Microsoft headquarters apparently reprimanded Microsoft Israel for putting up billboards supporting Israeli military.

Israeli technology companies are having difficulty selling their products. South African Muslims declared purchase of Israeli products to be Haram (forbidden by religious law). A movement by student groups at several campuses is insisting on divestment and this movement is now spreading from Berkeley to Princeton to Yale and beyond.

These boycotts are threatening not just Israeli Companies but American ones as well. Demand for American products in the Gulf States dropped by half according to the largest newspaper in the United Arab Emirates. This is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. With the whole world united in support of Palestinian human rights, economic pressures are bound to be the only weapon left to effect change in behavior of the recalcitrant governments of Israel and the US.

Mazin Qumsiyeh, Ph.D.