Freedom Coke

The Arab world’s foolish boycott of American food.

When the first McDonald’s opened in Moscow, in January 1990, 30,000 Russians braved the winter cold to stand in line for their Big Macs. Those were the good old days. While American brands like McDonald’s used to benefit from their association with the land of the free, in the 21st century U.S. multinationals have more frequently been associated with sweatshops, rapaciousness, income inequality, and—in the Middle East—Israel. This has led to far-fetched rumors: Procter & Gamble, for instance, has taken an economic hit in Egypt because a grass-roots group called the Egyptian Committee for Boycott claims its detergent Ariel is named for the hated Israeli leader, and that its atomic logo is a cleverly disguised Star of David. (P&G plausibly denies both rumors: Ariel and its logo have been around longer than Sharon.)

The truth is that U.S. companies in the Middle East have been suffering across the board, even in the absence of damaging, pointed rumors. Coke’s sales have dropped by 10 percent across the Middle East, falling even further in Bahrain, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia. McDonald’s sales declined by 7.5 percent in the Middle East/Asia Pacific this month, the sharpest drop in any of its regional markets (compared with a global decline of 4.7 percent). American fast-food business is down by 50 percent in Saudi Arabia since September 2000. Fast-food outlets in Lebanon, Oman, Bahrain, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia have been physically attacked; all these countries are officially neutral or friendly toward the United States.

As a result, a long-overdue phenomenon appears to have emerged in the region: local entrepreneurship, in the form of protest foods. West Bank-made Star Cola has seen its sales rise by 40 percent in the last three months in the United Arab Emirates (another supposed friend of America’s). Also available in Palestine are Hero Chips, which come in a bag depicting a boy about to throw a stone at an Israeli tank. In Egypt, consumers can buy cheese-flavored Yasser Arafat chips; the bag—festooned with the red, green, black, and white colors of Palestine’s flag—shows Arafat saluting while standing in what appears to be a field of exploding potato chips. Egypt’s Al-Ahram brewery has become one of the world’s most profitable; it openly sells halal beer (which is non-alcoholic) to practicing Muslims and discreetly delivers the real stuff to less observant consumers’ homes. Shortly after its 1979 revolution, Iran started producing Zamzam Cola, named for a holy spring in Mecca, which it used to export only to Iraq and Afghanistan; this year the cola was distributed in Bahrain, Qatar, and to millions of pilgrims making the hajj in Saudi Arabia. The company plans to expand its sales to Europe, targeting the Muslim diaspora. After Israel’s incursion into Jenin last year, a Tunisian-born French Muslim launched a drink called Mecca-Cola, with the slogan “Don’t Drink Stupid—Drink Committed!” and a promise to donate 10 percent of its profits to Palestinian children’s charities and 10 percent to European Muslim charities. He expects to sell 300 million bottles this year and says his product “is not just a drink. It is an act of protest against Bush and Rumsfeld and their policies.” Another French-based drink called Muslim Up promotes itself as “an alternative for all who boycott Zionist products and big American brands.” Qibla-Cola—named for the direction in which Muslims pray—launched this year in England, and also promises to give 10 percent of its profits to Muslim charities.

Such protest-boycotting should ring familiar: As Bob Ney could attest, the Middle East is hardly the only region to politicize its food; renaming french fries “freedom fries” is merely a petulant and childish nose-thumbing at a prickly ally. But France’s agricultural and culinary economy is so large, diverse, and firmly established that even if Americans stayed away in droves from Beaujolais and brie, it would likely do little harm.

In the Middle East, however, a successful boycott could be harmful—to the boycotters, not the targeted companies. Western fast-food restaurants are locally owned franchises; their employees, naturally, are also local. Qibla and Mecca colas are not even Arab owned; they are European companies who showily donate a portion of their profits to charity and use canny ethnic appeals to entice buyers whom they, unlike Coke and Pepsi, do not employ. In Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Egypt, Coke pays its employees 15 percent more than local franchises do. In Palestine, Coke, which is the region’s second-largest investor, and their Palestinian bottling company offer steady work, loans, and business training. In Egypt, Procter & Gamble—the company that supposedly named its products after Ariel Sharon—has spent $97 million on factories and community projects; it has built schools and paid for pilgrims to go to Mecca.

Right now, Qibla, Mecca, and Muslim Up offer a Potemkin alternative; the percentage that the companies donate to charity is ultimately of less value to the region than the hundreds of jobs Western companies provide. Could the companies ride the crest of anger, expand into the Middle East, and become as prominent a part of the local economy as Coke and Pepsi are now? Possibly, but that’s a long way off. Right now, if Arab consumers believe that venting anger is more important than sustaining their economy, then Qibla and Mecca are the appropriate colas for them to buy. But perhaps a better immediate investment—for the region, if not for the arteries—would be an order of freedom fries in a red and yellow carton.