Fwd: An Anti-American Boycott Is Growing in the Arab World

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Fri May 10 2002 - 13:36:44 BST

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    The memetics of brand names and market identity.

    - Wade


    An Anti-American Boycott Is Growing in the Arab World



    CAIRO, May 9 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,

    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

    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

    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

    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

    "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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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