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
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
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
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.