By Nadim Ladki
AMMAN, April 29 (Reuters) - From cigarettes to Big Macs, a growing
number of ordinary Arabs are shunning U.S. goods in protest against Washington's
perceived pro-Israel policies.
But a grassroots campaign across the Arab world to support the Palestinians by boycotting everything American appears so far to be having a symbolic rather than economic impact.
Arabs enraged by Israel's crackdown on Palestinians have taken to the streets of Arab capitals in recent weeks in the most widespread demonstrations in decades to demand action against Israel and the United States.
Unable to influence the policies of their undemocratic governments, non-governmental and civic organisations, student bodies and professional associations have urged citizens to buy local and European alternatives to U.S. goods.
"If all Arabs boycott U.S. goods, we will force the United States to reconsider its unjust policies against Arab and Islamic states," said one Bahraini calling himself Ali.
The United States gives Israel $3 billion a year in aid and sells it the world's most advanced weapons.
"Why should I help the economy of what I see as an enemy when it is destroying the social structure of a fellow Arab nation (Palestinians)?" asked Salem Seif, an Omani banker.
Boycott organisers have drawn up lists of companies, mainly American, that are alleged to channel aid to Israel.
FAST FOOD SALES FALL
American fast-food chains appear to be suffering the most.
Managers at KFC and McDonald's branches in the Omani capital Muscat said sales had fallen by 45 and 65 percent respectively since January.
"People have stopped coming like they did last year, mainly to show sympathy with the Palestinian problem," said a McDonald's branch manager, who declined to be identified or to give figures.
Local McDonald's franchise owners in a number of Arab states have published advertisements declaring that their staff are all locals and denying giving aid to Israel.
In Jordan, McDonald's went a step further. Marketing manager Nadia al Dairi said the franchise donated 10 percent of all sales in the first half of April to the Hashemite Relief Fund, a Jordanian government charity that gives aid to Palestinians.
In Bahrain, which has seen some of the most violent protests in the Gulf against Israel's military offensive, many ordinary people have started boycotting U.S. goods following calls by hundreds of protesters during the past three weeks.
Bahrain is the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet.
"The American offensive against what they say is terrorism was in Afghanistan yesterday, is in Palestine today and we don't rule out Baghdad being the next target tomorrow, followed by Syria and Lebanon," one trader said. "For this reason, we are boycotting all U.S. products."
Even in Kuwait, the emirate liberated from Iraqi occupation in 1991 by U.S.-led forces, the boycott call is making waves.
"If we get an offer from a non-U.S. firm we will consider it seriously and will now think twice before taking U.S. equipment," a contractor said. "We will look and see what is available, no matter who is our partner."
Despite such statements, analysts say U.S. equipment will continue to come to Kuwait, especially military gear.
DOLLARS, MARLBOROS, MEDICINE
In Morocco, the newspapers L'Economiste and Assabah have launched a campaign against the U.S. dollar, printing a headline every day urging Moroccans to avoid using the currency in their business dealings.
"Boycott the dollar in your operations for the sake of Palestine. Whenever possible, opt for the euro," it said.
Hamdy el-Sayed said the Egyptian Doctors' Syndicate, which he heads, had sent doctors and pharmacies a list of U.S.-made medical products with alternative local or European products.
"We understand this is not economically effective, because people would continue to buy American goods. This action has more of a symbolic value than a real effect," Sayed said. Cigarettes are another important target.
"I'm a heavy smoker, but I quit smoking Marlboro and am currently smoking a French brand of cigarettes," said Jordanian Duri Ajrami.
Despite the growing popularity of the boycott, not everyone is convinced.
Fatima Elouennass, a veiled Moroccan school teacher, said Arabs had become addicted to U.S. goods.
"It's like so many things in life which in fact are trivial, like Coke or a hamburger. But you're afraid of being branded anti-U.S. or Islamist if you boycott them. Besides, you will never be the cool guy if you don't consume them," she said.
"U.S. culture and movies have brainwashed us."
04/29/02 06:45 ET