Mideast groups unaware of self-harm caused by US brand boycott

WASHINGTON: A grassroots campaign to boycott American companies and American-made goods, though little noticed in this country, is quickly gaining momentum in the Middle East.

WASHINGTON: A grassroots campaign to boycott American companies and American-made goods, though little noticed in this country, is quickly gaining momentum in the Middle East.

A small number of civic institutions and professional associations began pushing the boycott 19 months ago, but not until Israel began reoccupying Palestinian territories did it take hold with the public. Now, a barrage of e-mails, mobile text messages, and pamphlets are rapidly spreading the word throughout the region.

A recent survey showed that 20% of Jordanians are actively supporting the boycott, and according to official US figures, exports to Saudi Arabia plunged by 43% in Q1 of 2002.

Hardest hit are fast-food restaurants such as KFC and McDonald's, and high-profile American brands such as Coca-Cola. But because many of these are locally owned or franchised, the boycott may prove more harmful to local businesses than to the companies themselves - a fact American companies think the boycotters don't realize.

Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick Worldwide, returned from Dubai last week, where he was advising his clients in the region. WSW has the largest Middle East presence of any American PR agency.

While he is advising for some cases to be kept low-profile, "In other cases we're suggesting that they respond, and with a lot of facts, such as the fact that in every one of these countries these American companies are locally owned, so the boycott is not having a significant economic impact on major companies in the US, but is having an impact on the Arab owners of these franchises. That's not well understood."

Leslie conceded, however, that this is an emotional issue, and "sometimes economic arguments don't work in emotional issues. Hence WSW is helping clients put together more long-term plans touting their charitable and community-oriented work in the Middle East.

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