by Waseem Shehzad (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 31, No. 6, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1423)
The boycott of American and Israeli goods and products is gaining momentum, especially in the Middle East, although most Arab regimes have not officially endorsed it. The movement is spreading rapidly, with individuals and groups taking the campaign to new areas, largely through the internet. Even in Saudi Arabia, known for its subservience to the US, individuals, groups, businessmen, khatibs at mosques and even school and university teachers are supporting a campaign that is helping ordinary people to feel empowered for the first time. Unlike the campaign against apartheid in South Africa in the seventies and eighties, which had the backing of the United Nations, the current anti-Israeli campaign is entirely driven by individuals, thanks to the power of the internet.
High-visibility American food-chains are the hardest hit. Branch managers of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken in Egypt have admitted that sales have fallen by between 20 and 50 percent since the beginning of the second intifada, 19 months ago. Similar losses have been reported from Saudi Arabia, which imports US$6 billion worth of goods from the US each year, compared to US$3.7 billion for Egypt. With consumers and pro-boycott groups placing advertisements in newspapers and posting messages on the internet, the boycott campaign has developed teeth and is beginning to bite. In tiny Bahrain, base of the US Seventh Fleet, when one supermarket chain announced that it was taking nearly one million dollars’ worth of American goods off its shelves its sales shot up by 60 percent: consumers flocked to its stores to shop there in appreciation.
Other American goods that have suffered are such brand-name products as Coke, Pepsi, Levi jeans and Starbuck. American-manufactured Marlboro cigarettes are also being abandoned, with smokers switching to French or local brands. Owners of American franchises are trying desperately to win back customers with such gimmicks as offering to donate 20 percent of their profits to support Palestinian orphans, but consumers are not falling for cheap moves like that. Others have placed advertisements in newspapers and on television saying that the boycott is hurting local workers. Maybe, but if so people are now prepared to make such sacrifices. The truth is that the boycott campaign is hurting the pockets of pro-American and pro-Israeli businessmen, and that cannot be a bad thing.
Earlier this month, delegates from 19 Arab countries gathered in Damascus, Syria, for a meeting of the Arab Boycott Bureau. The group, which was established by the Arab League in 1951, oversees the boycott of companies that deal with Israel. The meeting was the second held since 1993, when it was forced by US pressure to end the boycott of pro-Israeli companies after the signing of the Oslo Accords. That the accords were a fraud perpetrated against the Palestinian people has now become apparent to all. Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania, which have diplomatic relations with Israel, stayed away from the Damascus meeting. The government of Husni Mubarak, while permitting boycotts of US and Israeli goods, has refused to take part officially. However, the Egyptian people remain among the most ardent supporters of the boycott campaign, with protest rallies being held on university campuses almost daily. Kentucky Fried Chicken was the target of protesters at Cairo University last month: they torched one of its outlets.
Together with Egypt and Jordan, Saudi Arabia, also beholden to the US, refuses to join the boycott officially. Nor is it willing to support the call for an oil-embargo, as proposed by the Rahbar, Seyyed Ali Khamenei of Iran, last month. In a khutba on Friday 12 April, he proposed that the Organization of Oil Producing Countries (OPEC) institute a complete oil-embargo for one month to exert pressure on the US to modify its policy of unconditional support of zionist war criminals in Palestine. Two days later, Iraq announced that it was stopping oil exports. The Iraqi announcement had little real effect; Saudi Arabia immediately declared that it would make up any shortfall caused by Iraq’s gesture. That the Saudi regime refuses to use oil to exert pressure on the US reveals its total subservience to Washington. This was also evident when Saudi crown prince Abdullah visited George Bush last month. At their meeting in Texas, Abdullah reassured the US that Saudi Arabia will not allow oil to be used as a weapon against the US and Israel. Non-OPEC oil-producers — Mexico, Canada and Russia — would be able to make up the shortfall if one or two OPEC producers cut their production, but would not be able to replace all of OPEC’s current output. The loss of so much oil from the international market would have a serious effect on western economies; the advocates of this strategy hope that it would force the US to change its policy of blind support for Israel.
Saudi Arabia refuses to help in the most effective way it can, yet the boycott has spread beyond the Middle East. In such places as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and South Africa the boycott idea is catching on. It is now widely known that many products are identified by a bar code, instead of mentioning the country of origin. Thus all Israeli products’ bar codes start with the digits 729; American products start with 00 all the way to 09: consumers are ‘wising up’ to these tricks, and lists of Israeli- and American-manufactured products have been widely circulated.
That the campaign is hurting the zionist state is evident from the reaction of Israel’s supporters. When John Harris of Texas Automotive Export, an auto-parts store in Austin, declared that he would “not do business with Israeli citizens at this time,” because of Israel’s oppressive policies, he was inundated with angry e-mails and phone calls from American Jews. His fax also said: “We urge you to rein in your military and stop your oppression of the Palestinian people,” reminding the Israelis: “Your country has lost the respect of the civilized world.” Then the US commerce department got in on the act, threatening Harris with sanctions because Washington’s “open market” policy forbids boycott of Israel (although the US itself imposes sanctions against countries it dislikes). Although Harris was forced to back down, the episode reveals both the impact of the boycott and the degree to which it has unnerved the zionist state and its supporters all over the world.