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Arab nations see boycotts of U.S. products

James Cox,
26 June 2002


Anti-American activists in the Middle East are gaining ground in their fitful, 20-month campaign to get Arab consumers to reject U.S. brands.

U.S. businesses operating in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Persian Gulf countries have been targeted by scores of boycott calls since violence erupted between Palestinians and Israelis in September 2000.

The boycotts had largely fizzled before getting new life in April. That's when millions of Arab consumers, enraged by a six-week Israeli military offensive in the West Bank, began turning away from U.S.-branded household goods, toiletries, cosmetics, fast-food chains, soft drinks, toys, credit cards, cigarettes, clothing and cars.

The boycott ''has arisen again but in a worse way,'' says Mahmoud El Kaissouni, an executive at fast-food franchisee Americana Foods in Cairo. ''This is getting very serious. Some chains are experiencing 50% losses (in sales). We're just trying to survive.''

Many Arabs and other Muslims resent the United States for giving political and financial support to Israel, which has reoccupied Palestinian land and used troops to crush the militants orchestrating a wave of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis.

Arab activists, religious leaders and student groups -- the organizers of most of the grass-roots boycotts -- argue that taxes paid by U.S. corporations flow to Israel in the form of U.S. foreign aid.

''The penny you spend to buy these products amounts to another (Israeli) bullet for the body of our brave Palestinian Muslim brothers,'' says a leaflet posted at mosques and schools in the United Arab Emirates.

The pressure on U.S. companies and brands is coming from:

* Protests. Lebanese students are staging sit-ins at Burger King, McDonald's and Starbucks sites in Beirut. In pro-tests that began in April, they have blocked counters and displayed signs urging patrons to ''Save a Palestinian life'' by boycotting U.S. products.

''The U.S. is the arch-foe of Islam, and we must boycott U.S. products as much as possible,'' Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, spiritual leader of the Lebanese Islamic militant group Hezbollah, said recently. He wants Arab governments to close accounts at U.S. banks ''because this money is passed on to Israel through an umbilical cord.''

* Official crackdowns. Beirut police raided a Virgin Megastore and seized CDs and DVDs that ''slandered religion and public decency and contravened the ban against Israel.'' The haul included movies featuring Hollywood stars alleged to have pro-Israel sympathies, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman.

* Religious edicts. In Qatar and other nations, Islamic clerics have issued fatwas calling on Muslims to shun U.S. and Israeli goods.

* Vandalism. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators in April smashed windows at two McDonald's in Oman and hurled stones at a McDonald's in Bahrain.

* Substitutes. An Iranian company is marketing its soft drink, Zamzam, as an ''Islamic cola'' substitute for Coke and Pepsi. Zamzam is named for a spring near the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Similarly, Egyptian street vendors are selling bags of potato chips that bear a cartoon likeness of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. The snacks outsell another leading brand, The Hero, which comes in bags that show a Palestinian boy preparing to hurl a stone at an Israeli tank. Both brands are marketed against U.S. powerhouses such as Procter & Gamble's Pringles and donate a portion of sales to Palestinian causes.

* Loss of sales channels. Bahrain's Al Muntazah supermarket chain has pulled all U.S. brands from its shelves and is urging competitors to do the same. Likewise, a clothing importers association in Cairo announced this month that its members have stopped buying U.S.-branded garments.

''It's disturbing. It creates an environment which makes it harder for U.S. businesses to operate,'' said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick at a news conference earlier this month in Cairo.

U.S. companies have tried to shield themselves from consumer backlash. Fast-food outlets and retail stores display Palestinian flags and posters and have donated to relief groups aiding Palestinians. Coca-Cola sponsors the Palestinian national soccer team.

Americana Foods, an Egyptian company that owns 180 KFC, Pizza Hut, Hardee's, Subway and other fast-food outlets, has added a line to its newspaper ads -- ''We are Arabs'' -- to remind consumers that the company is owned and staffed by Egyptians.

Various Web sites, including some maintained by boycott advocates in the USA, carry target lists of American companies. One site boasts a ''directory'' of 383 U.S. corporations purported to have ''invested in the Israeli market.'' Several of the companies are not U.S.-based, and not all operate in Israel.

Many targeted companies are reluctant to talk about the boycott.

Burger King, in a statement, says that in recent weeks, it has ''felt a slowing down of growth'' in the seven Middle East countries where it operates. The company, a Miami-based unit of Britain's Diageo, points out that its Middle East restaurants are run by Arab franchisees who employ local workers.

In Egypt, the banned radical group Muslim Brotherhood is enforcing the street-level boycott. College students and clerics are distributing lists of companies owned by Israelis or American Jews. Some Cairo motorists have placed signs in car windows: ''I boycott Israeli and American products for Palestine.''

Boycott groups in the UAE, Bahrain and other countries also are distributing lists of U.S. companies and goods to be shunned. Organizers have tried to get dockworkers and airport cargo employees to refuse to load and unload ships and planes carrying American freight.

''The first to suffer serious injury are the Arab employees of the boycotted firms in the region. Pick your franchise -- who do they employ in Palestine or elsewhere in the region? Local Arabs,'' says John Howard, vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Several members of the 22-country Arab League have tried unsuccessfully to revive a formal boycott of Israel and blacklist international companies doing business there. The Arab League maintained an economic boycott against Israel from 1951 until the mid-1990s, when Israeli-Palestinian peace talks led most Arab countries to suspend it.