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Boycott campaign's impact on US economy hard to estimate

by Gareth Smyth,
Khaleej Times (UAE)
2 May 2002

This is a movement within Arab civil society, fuelled by an awareness fostered by Arab satellite television and newspapers. Its motivation is a simple human sympathy with the Palestinians' plight, and a disgust at the way Palestinian lives, rights and homes are being treated as if they are worth less than the lives, rights and homes of others.

BEIRUT: Something new is happening in the Arab world. As Israel continues its West Bank offensive, now in Hebron, with the effective support of the United States, thousands of Arabs are no longer buying American goods. This is not a move that is a result of demonstrations and campaigns by leftist and exremist groups, who are calling for both an ending of all ties with Israel and a boycott of all US products.

It is far more a grassroots move, spread by word of mouth and email, reminiscent of the popular boycott of South African goods by Europeans in the 1980s. This is a movement within Arab civil society, fuelled by an awareness fostered by Arab satellite television and newspapers. Its motivation is a simple human sympathy with the Palestinians' plight, and a disgust at the way Palestinian lives, rights and homes are being treated as if they are worth less than the lives, rights and homes of others.

September 11 is another factor at work. The suspicion towards Arabs in the West is discouraging visits as Arabs become more and more disillusioned with the time-consuming processes of passing customs and security - now known simply as "the line up". To take one staggering statistic released by the US, the number of Arabs applying for visitor visas has fallen 75 per cent since September 11.

But if the aftermath of September 11 has encouraged affluent Arabs to avoid travelling to America, it is Ariel Sharon's military offensive on the West Bank - leading to the destruction at Jenin refugee camp and the attacks on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem - that has pushed 'ordinary' Arabs into making their own personal protest by shunning American brands. "I am hardly selling any Marlboro cigarettes anymore, and they used to be very popular," said one shopkeeper in Beirut. "People are buying more Lebanese cigarettes as well as other imported brands."

In Damascus, Majd Tabbah has become a minor celebrity after asking the American consul, Roberto Powers, to leave her restaurant, Oxygen, in the old quarter of the city. Such is the level of anti-American feeling that Syrian, Lebanese and other Arabs have been flocking to Oxygen to eat and praise Tabbah for her stand. "I haven't done anything heroic," said Tabbah. "But, yes, people have been coming from Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to meet me, and I've had telephone calls from Kuwait and Bahrain. The Palestinians' case is just, and we are all very upset about their situation." She has even received an offer of marriage. Her suitor is already married, but given the circumstances, his existing wife said she wouldn't object. "I have no hatred towards the American people, and I welcome American tourists," said Tabbah, who is herself married with three children. "I fired out the symbol of [president George] Bush, who is supporting Ariel Sharon. We hear all the time Bush calling Sharon his friend."

In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Tabbah had expressed her condolences to the same American consul. US support for Israel has moderated that sympathy, and Tabbah is now convinced that "America as a state, not as a people, falsifies facts and stands blindly for the [Israeli] enemy". Her actions have been a dramatic example of a wider desire to shun the US. Lists of American goods to boycott are circulating widely, both in printed leaflets and on the Internet. But finding alternatives isn't easy. Pepsi, of example, is a very popular drink throughout the Middle East. "The other colas don't really taste the same," said one Lebanese devotee.

In Egypt, the weekly Al Ahram weekly emphasised the difficulties involved in renouncing Uncle Sam and his wares. "Levi's, Nescafe, Coca-Cola, and Palmolive are local household names. And as the summer heat begins to hit homes harder, and the insects crawl out of their winter hideouts, Raid and Off! become necessary household items. And for the mothers, the question is how to replace Cerelac, or the Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo. Or how, of course, to explain to a five or six year-old that the peculiar-looking Pokemon creature is off play bounds too."

The Arabs' love-hate relationship with things American is clearly seen with McDonald's. "My son really likes the Big Mac and fries," said one women in west Beirut, "but we've stopped going there. Of course it's due to American support for Sharon, but it's also a chance to remind ourselves that we have our own fast food - like maqoushe, falafel and shish tawuk - that are tastier and more nutritional than these burgers."

The Lebanese army discreetly posted soldiers outside McDonald's outlets when the US started bombing Afghanistan in November, but it is the Israeli offensive in the West Bank that has hit sales. Jean Zoghzoghbi, the franchisee for McDonald's in Lebanon, has used one of the cellular companies to circulate text messages and has also taken out newspaper adverts claiming that his business is "100 per cent owned, financed and managed by Lebanese". Zoghzoghbi continues: "McDonald's policy in Lebanon and worldwide is to serve the high-quality food for which McDonald's is renowned, and not to interfere in politics. Spreading these false rumours hurts local business and local people."

In Egypt, Al Ahram quoted a bemused McDonald's delivery driver making much the same point. "Our orders are much less than before - my real money comes from tips," he said. "What fault is it of mine?" Some of the money saved on Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets is being added to donations for the Palestinians.

Lebanese newspapers have for several weeks been listing points where readers can make donations, and even parents at the American Community School have raised $7,000. Telethons in Saudi Arabia and the UAE have, of course, raised far more. Ironically Lebanon, whose imports from the US are only seven per cent of the total, may benefit economically from the growing estrangement between the West and the Arabs. While applications for US visitor visas from other countries have fallen, Lebanon is enjoying a mini-boom in tourists with leading hotels fully booked since Christmas and the industry hoping for a bumper summer. In February, the number of Arab visitors was up 83 per cent from February of last year, with the number of Saudis up by 156 per cent.

Some real estate developers have also reported increased interest in buying homes from Lebanese living in the west. As yet there are no real signs of Arab entrepreneurs coming forward seriously to market guaranteed 'free' cola, but logically that is the next step. Osama bin Laden, if he is still alive, must be thinking that things are working out far better that he ever could have expected.