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An Anti-American Boycott Is Growing in the Arab World

New York Times News
May 10 2002

Doughnuts may not be quite as American as, say, apple pie, but they come close enough to make Samir Nasier, a Saudi fast-food king, nervous.

So nervous, in fact, that Mr. Nasier and his brothers are offering roughly $300,000 to anyone who can prove that their House of Donuts chain has any connection to the United States.

For good measure, their slogan "the American pastry" is being jettisoned, with Mr. Nasier musing aloud that doughnuts might qualify as traditional Saudi fare, given that he started making them 21 years ago.

"We share the same outraged feelings of the Saudi public toward the attitude of the American administration," Mr. Nasier said, speaking by telephone from the Jidda headquarters of his 180-outlet chain. "We are deleting anything that relates to America."

American support for Israel, especially during its recent military offensive in the occupied territories, is driving a grass-roots effort to boycott American products throughout the Arab world. With word spread via the Internet, mosque sermons, fliers and even mobile phone messages, the boycott seems to be slowly gathering force, especially against consumer products.

Purchases of American goods generated by 300 million Arabs form such a small part of American exports that even a widespread boycott would not cause much of a blip. Most trade consists of big ticket items like airplanes, with total American exports to the Middle East amounting to $20 billion in 2000, just 2.5 percent of America's total exports.

But a long boycott could retard the spread of franchises and other products, experts say. Sales at most American fast-food outlets in the Arab world are already off somewhere between 20 and 30 percent on average, American diplomats and industry analysts say, and consumer products face a similar decline.

The boycotts have largely been the effort of individuals and small groups without government involvement, like student organizations and such civic organizations as are allowed to exist. They reflect a growing sentiment that Arabs should distance themselves from the United States, and they want their governments to do likewise.

"They are beginning to feel that shouting slogans in reaction to what the U.S. is doing is not enough," said Kamal Hamdan, a Lebanese economist. A Marlboro smoker, he said that whenever he pulls out a packet, somebody invariably now reproaches him with, "What, still smoking American cigarettes?"

He went on: "They want to design detailed programs against specific goods and services that might involve the banking system, insurance, financial markets. They want to find some pressure points that can have an economic impact."

The attitude is everywhere. Scores of lists circulate suggesting non-American substitutes for things like Lays potato chips and Head & Shoulders shampoo. The research does not always seem that rigorous; Domino's Pizza was listed as non-American on one list apparently on the strength of sounding Italian.

Al Montazah, a supermarket chain in Bahrain, enforced the boycott on all its roughly 10,000 daily customers by replacing some 1,000 American products with alternatives. A few parents lacking Pampers diapers grumbled, but Abdulmonem al-Meer, the general manager, said the move had boosted sales at some stores.

"I know it will not do much in terms of putting pressure on the American government, but whatever I can do I should do," Mr. Meer said.

The boycott calls have thus far prompted little violence toward American companies, although an empty Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli was bombed overnight Thursday.

Even places like Syria, where American products have long been barred, are trying to get into the act.

Billboards around Damascus show horrific scenes of Israeli troops razing Jenin refugee camp, with the slogan,

"Boycott American products - Don't be an accomplice," in Arabic and English.

"No Americans Allowed," reads a yardlong wooden sign in the window of Mondo restaurant, incongruously an American-style diner decorated with icons like the Statue of Liberty. "The American people should feel that they have a problem," said Ahmed Diab, the 38-year-old owner.

The Arabs established a boycott office in Damascus in 1951 against companies that did business with Israel, and that kept products like Coca-Cola and Ford vehicles out of the Middle East for decades. But it gradually faded as major markets like Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel.

Boycott support in the region's government-run newspapers has been almost universal, although outright endorsements by senior officials have been rare, given that it could hurt foreign investment. The Syrian government is among the few encouraging the boycott.

More typical is a speech by Sheika Fatima al-Nahyan, the wife of the ruler of Ajman in the United Arab Emirates, telling a women's group, "Start by boycotting all makeup and clothes made by the enemies and prevent children from buying their products, too."

The idea has gained the whole-hearted support of many religious figures, with myriad Friday prayer sermons devoted to the issue. Worshipers at one Jidda mosque were so fired up when they emerged that they converged on a hapless grocer next door to demand that he tear down a Coke sign. He demurred.

Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the influential Muslim cleric on Al Jazeera satellite network, displays a blinking banner on his Web site that reads, "Boycott America from Pepsi cans to Boeing."

Indeed, the flood of e-mail and Web sites sets this effort apart from all previous ones. Calls for boycotting three American corporations - McDonald's, Starbucks and Microsoft - gained rapid momentum through the Internet.

In the case of McDonald's, the rumor erupted that it donated a part of every meal's cost to Israel. Local franchises from Morocco to the Persian Gulf issued statements denying it, stressing that they were locally owned and operated. The Lebanese McDonald's even paid for an instant message to be flashed on 60,000 cellphones, but in some cases the damage had been done.

After a McDonald's opened a year ago at the end of her street in Taif, Saudi Arabia, Lama Muhammad's 5-year-old daughter insisted on one Happy Meal a day. But recently she started watching the news with her mother. "I told her we are not supposed to buy from there because they support Israel," her mother said. The child has not asked for a Happy Meal since. Saudi parents report that their children vie in the schoolyard to list all the American things they avoid.

In the case of Microsoft and Starbucks, word bombarded across the Internet after the Israeli Microsoft branch sponsored a billboard supporting the Israeli Army, as did remarks reportedly made by Howard Schultz, chairman of Starbucks, at his Seattle synagogue.

A local news article forwarded endlessly quoted him as saying that Jews needed to confront rising anti-Semitism worldwide and that the Palestinians needed to do more to fight terrorism. The remarks about the Palestinians prompted the boycott call, even though the company issued two statements saying Mr. Schultz did not believe terrorism was representative of the Palestinian people and that he thought Israeli and Palestinian states should live together peacefully.

"Everybody is addicted to Starbucks - it's the hip place," said Kholood Khatami, a 25-year-old Saudi journalist.

"It's not empty, but it is not as crowded as it used to be. I'm boycotting. Of course, there are some things you cannot avoid - technology and software is all American."

Many companies, especially fast-food restaurants, are fighting back with huge advertising campaigns saying the boycott will only hurt locals. Burger King, in a typical advertisement this week in Saudi Arabia, pointed out that it bought everything from bread to lettuce to mayonnaise from Saudi producers.

Others with American products like Kellogg's breakfast cereal or Hershey's chocolate are hoping that the United States will change its Middle East policy fast enough for old consumer habits to return.

"Our sales are suffering, but I am not concerned about the loss of sales," said Sheik Wahib S. Binzagr, the patriarch of a Jidda merchant family that has imported a wide variety of American goods for decades. He was nonplused to find the clan's own name on the boycott list.

"I laugh from desperation because I cannot do anything about it," he said. "There is damage, and I think efforts should be mobilized to rectify the bad relationship, and then the other things will correct themselves."