Anti-American Boycott Is Growing in the Arab World
By NEIL MacFARQUHAR,
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,
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
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
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
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."