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Last Updated: Monday, 6 February 2006, 13:56 GMT
Consumer boycotts sweep Middle-East
By Neil Heathcote
BBC News reporter in Dubai

Boycott notice pinned to a half-empty shop shelf
The row over the cartoons is now taking a financial toll on companies
As the Danish cartoon row rumbles on, consumer boycotts have sprung up across the Middle East and show little sign of flagging.

In local co-op supermarkets in suburban Dubai, you won't find Danish butter or cheese any more.

All such imported foodstuffs have been taken from the shelves, and in their place consumers are offered alternatives from New Zealand, Turkey or Saudi Arabia.

By and large, shoppers approve of the changes.

"They've impugned our religion and our Prophet," one regular customer pointed out. "That's something we just won't accept."

The protest - sparked by cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed that first appeared in the Danish press - continues to spread.

Even the French-owned Carrefour supermarket chain has now taken Danish products from its shelves.

The region is buzzing with text messages and e-mails promoting the boycott. Concerned citizens have been checking supermarkets for Danish goods - and then asking for them to be removed.

Market forces

Now many shops themselves have taken the lead.

"In some co-operative societies we list these products for awareness, to tell people 'these are the Danish products if you would like to avoid buying them'," said Dr Suleiman Al Jassim, Chairman of the UAE Consumer Co-operative Union.

"And at the same time we list the alternative products available, if they would like to buy them," he added.

Jacob Mikkelsen, Arla area manager
For us it's a very critical situation. It not only affects us in the market here - it affects our employees, it affects our partners
Jacob Mikkelsen, Arla area manager

Exporters have been caught in the middle and Europe's largest dairy firm Arla is one of the hardest hit.

The company is losing more than $1.5m (856,000; 1.3m euros) a day in sales and has had to close its plant in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh.

Expansion plans have been put on hold and the company said it has no idea how long it will take to recover their position in the market once the boycott ends.

"For us it's a very critical situation," said Arla's area manager Jacob Mikkelsen. "It not only affects us in the market here - it affects our employees, it affects our partners.

"We've had to lay off employees in the production sites in Denmark right now because, obviously, we cannot send any products here - as we don't have any sales," he explained.

Purchasing power

And the boycott appears to be gathering momentum.

In Qatar, the Chamber of Commerce has suspended trade missions from Denmark and Norway. Iraq's transport ministry has suspended contracts with the Danish government. And in Abu Dhabi, demonstrators have called for a boycott of all trade with the European Union.

However, most governments have so far been reluctant to get involved because official action could lead to problems with the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Dr Ahmad Abdul Aziz al Haddad, Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Works
This is the power of the Islamic people. The power to boycott
Dr Ahmad Abdul Aziz al Haddad, Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Works

But as long as the protests remain unofficial and grass roots, there's little that can be done to stop them.

For Islamic scholars like Dr Ahmad Abdul Aziz al Haddad from the Department of Islamic Affairs and Charitable Works, boycotts are a good way for the population at large to express their views.

"This is the power of the Islamic people," he said. "The power to boycott."

Dr Haddad explained that people are calling on governments to cut diplomatic ties with Denmark but if they don't respond, then their citizens can't change that.

However, what consumers can control are their own actions, and as a result they can refuse to buy products, he said.

Greater offence

It is difficult to tell how the protests will now develop because they are moving into uncharted territory.

Supermarket worker empties shevles of Danish products
There are few signs over how long supermarket shelves will stay empty

Previous boycotts of US products such as Coke or Ford faded after a while because they were prompted by a dislike of American foreign policy and its links with Israel - not by deeply-felt matters of religion.

This time, a greater number of people feel directly involved and their targets are less clear.

Swiss food multinational Nestle is just one of several firms who've had to take out advertisements in Saudi newspapers to counter rumours that their products are made in Denmark.

So for the moment, the situation remains both volatile and unpredictable.

Danish companies are putting what pressure they can on their government to end the crisis - but it remains far from certain that's an outcome the government can actually deliver.


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