How Arab normalization is undermining the boycott movement

The proliferation of fast food chains like McDonald’s in the Middle
east is an indicator of the collusion between government and Arab big business at the expense of the boycott movement and resisting Israeli occupation. (Matthew Cassel)

While boycott and divestment campaigns in the West become more sophisticated and widespread, the Arab world’s longstanding boycott of Israel is being undermined by Arab governments, companies and businessmen. This attempt at no-concession normalization with Israel must be countered by all those working for justice in Palestine. The recent Adalah-NY campaign against Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev sheds light on the burgeoning relationship between Arab governments and businesses, and Israel.

Earlier this year, the New York-based coalition Adalah-NY successfully spearheaded a campaign to prevent Leviev from opening a branch of his diamond chain in Dubai. Leviev is the chairman of Africa Israel Investments, which is constructing illegal Jewish-only settlements in the area of the West Bank village of Jayyous through its subsidiary, Danya Cebus. A mixture of media exposure and public outcry forced the Emirati authorities to deny that the jeweler had been granted any permission. This was a victory for those who wish to see an end to the Israeli occupation.

The success of the Adalah-NY campaign offers activists two insights: first, there is a growing culture of numbness and complicity toward Israel and its financial backers which is being cultivated at the highest levels of Arab governments. Second, these same governments are susceptible to pressure when the extent of this collusion becomes apparent.

It is disappointing to learn that, while public outcry and media attention effectively prevented Leviev from setting up shop in Dubai, other companies with known links to Israel continue to operate freely there. Giant retailer Marks & Spencer is high on the boycott list of most pro-Palestinian groups, and yet it has just recently opened one of its biggest stores in Dubai with an investment of approximately $3.9 million and plans for further expansion throughout the region.

Singled out in 2000 for praise by former Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom Dror Zeigerman, Marks & Spencer was estimated at the turn of the millennium to import almost $440.88 million worth of Israeli products and goods each year. Meanwhile the opening of the first Dubai outlet in 1998 was honored by the presence of then Crown Prince of Dubai and Minister of Defense Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum, who is now ruler of Dubai, prime minister and vice president for the United Arab Emirates. Given the prominence of Marks & Spencer’s Zionist supporters, it is difficult to imagine how al-Maktoum could have been ignorant of the company’s links to Israel. Of course, the Gulf states have been notoriously fickle observers of the pan-Arab boycott of Israel. Therefore it is not surprising that at an institutional level, discourse which would have been considered taboo just ten years ago is now being disseminated shamelessly.

One example of this was demonstrated recently with the announcement of Kuwait’s “Silk City.” A $132 billion project now under development, Silk City aims to connect Kuwait to Baghdad, Damascus, and then on to Iran and further afield to China. One of the aims of the project is also, in the words of project chief planner Sami al-Faraj, to “connect to Israel” (Khaleej Times Online, 22 July 2008). Al-Faraj, who is also president for the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies and adviser to the Gulf Cooperation Council, referred to criticisms of this plan as “outdated.” Unsurprisingly, Kuwaiti officials have remained silent about this, a silence which is underlined by acquiescence to Western and Israeli demands for normalization. For Saudi Arabia, membership in the World Trade Organization, which forbids the boycott of other member states including Israel, has meant that the official Saudi policy of boycotting Israeli goods is also in tatters, though it has yet to be formally abandoned.

The Arab boycott is essentially three-tiered, with the first tier concerned mainly with the direct boycott of Israeli products and any dealings with Israeli individuals or businesses. The second tier involved boycotting companies which operated in Israel or dealt with it, while the third covered companies which have dealings with those in the second tier. This boycott is now limited only to the first tier, and as demonstrated by the Leviev affair, even that is steadily being eroded.

To gain an insight into how the Arab boycott has been weakened one need only look at the situation in Syria, the headquarters of the once highly influential Central Boycott Office. The changes since 2000 have been astonishing as we see products and companies which would have been banned outright only a short time before now made widely available. This is due in part to the slow but steady liberalization of the economy. In Damascus, the skyline is scarred by the enormous Four Seasons hotel, introduced by the billionaire Saudi Prince Walid bin Talal, and with branches throughout the world — including Jerusalem. In the trendy Abu Roumaneh district, the first official Kentucky Fried Chicken in the country has been opened and is a favorite haunt of the Damascene well-to-do (in sharp contrast with its image in the West as a fast food chain for the lower-income working classes). The launch of KFC was handled by the huge Kuwaiti group Americana, which handles other fast food chains throughout the region and accentuates the strong Gulf influence behind this effort to erode the boycott. The fact that KFC was once boycotted by the Central Boycott Office appears to be conveniently forgotten now. In both examples we see a silent collusion between the government and Arab big business at the expense of the boycott and resisting the occupation.

The list of examples can go on almost indefinitely but the central concern remains: there is an urgent need for investigating and documenting this trend which seeks to undermine the Arab world’s boycott of Israel and the viability of resisting its occupation of Palestine. Arab governments can no longer be, if ever they were, considered reliable champions of the boycott. The recent experiences of groups like Adalah-NY and the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign has helped to expose the power relations which underlie the economic collaboration of Western and Arab states and companies with Israel. They have also served to embarrass those Arab governments, forcing them to maintain pressure on Israel. Otherwise, neglecting this trend could lead to an undermining of current and future Western-based boycott campaigns against Israel.

Wassim Al-Adel is a London-based Syrian blogger ( and MA candidate in philosophy.

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