Ties Binding U.S. to Arab World Are Weakened

Education, Tourism And Trade Hurt by Sept. 11, Mideast


By Howard Schneider

Washington Post Foreign Service

Monday, July 8, 2002; Page A12 


CAIRO -- On its first swing through Cairo, a regional

tour by representatives of American MBA programs

demonstrated the promise of Arab-U.S. relations: 639

students, all from a country struggling to boost its

economy, devoured information about how to get into

Cornell, Duke, Carnegie Mellon or Georgetown.

By last fall, however, the schools and the students

were running scared, and in opposite directions. After

Sept. 11, the fall 2001 tour was canceled, and this

year's is in doubt. 

Among the universities that it was hoped would send

recruiters back to the Middle East this fall, "no one

has registered," said Sohair Saad, educational

information director at the training group Amideast,

which helped sponsor the MBA tour. Students, she said,

are expressing less and less interest in studying in

the United States.

"We're scared of them, they are scared of us," she

said of the current attitude toward the United States.

"This is very unfortunate." 

Diplomatic and political tension between the United

States and Arab countries is nothing new. U.S. support

for Israel and an anti-Western streak in Arab politics

have frequently put the two at cross-purposes. 

But the events of the past 10 months have cut far

deeper, upending trends in tourism, education and

trade that helped strengthen ties despite

disagreements over foreign affairs. 

If Saudis did not like U.S. coziness with Israel, they

did like Disney World, and flocked there each summer

on Saudi Arabian Airlines' weekly flights from Jiddah

to Orlando. Demand has disappeared, and the flights

have been canceled. 

If Egyptians bemoaned their educational system,

increasing numbers of them found alternatives in the

United States, with more than 2,200 studying at U.S.

colleges last year. 

Visa applications for the upcoming academic year,

however, have fallen by about 50 percent, according to

the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. 

At Amideast, weekly sessions explaining the U.S.

university system now draw five or fewer students

instead of the 25 or more who routinely attended

before Sept. 11. 

If Arab-U.S. trade was small by American standards, it

was growing, as fast food franchises, consumer goods,

automobiles and computers began to flow more freely

into newly opened economies, such as Egypt's, or to

newly prosperous countries in the Persian Gulf.

Between a global recession and a well-organized Arab

boycott of U.S. products, however, trade between the

United States and Arab countries is down about 25

percent since last year.

Economists say it is hard to determine accurately how

much of the decline can be attributed to such

international factors as exchange rates and the price

of oil, but there is extensive anecdotal evidence that

the boycott has taken a toll.

Word of the boycott, triggered by the Israeli military

incursion in the West Bank that began in March and

perceived U.S. support for it, spread through coffee

house chatter and Friday prayers, shoe-leather

leafleting, mobile phone messages and Web sites that

listed U.S., Israeli and other businesses whose

products should be avoided. 

At its peak, the effort cost soft drink companies and

fast food franchises 40 percent or more of their

business in the Arab world, and left some companies,

including Procter & Gamble, with serious branding

problems. The company lost a reported 60 percent of

its sales of Ariel detergent, solely because of the

product's name. 

Originally a European product now manufactured in

Egypt through a local limited partnership, Egyptian

consumers identified it with Israeli Prime Minister

Ariel Sharon, and stopped buying. 

"It is quieting down . . . but it goes into 20 or 30

percent" in terms of lost sales, said Loula Zaklama,

president of Rada Research, a marketing company that

has been advising Procter & Gamble. 

Even though the boycott had little apparent impact on

the United States -- an executive at McDonald's parent

office was not even aware of it -- the local effect

was so intense that officials leapt to the defense of

Arab franchise investors. 

In Saudi Arabia, the interior minister, Prince Nayef,

discouraged the boycott, saying it would weaken the

local economy but would not influence U.S. policy -- a

sentiment echoed by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. 

In Jordan, labor unions and Islamic groups were

forbidden to promote the boycott on the grounds that

it would hurt the Jordanian economy and damage

national security. 

The boycott is, however, still going on. And though

its effect has abated -- Coke and Pepsi both launched

aggressive marketing efforts tied to the World Cup to

regain market share -- it is still noticeable. 

In Bahrain, the owner of the Muntaza supermarket chain

pulled all American products from the shelves in

March. A Western diplomat said business at the local

McDonald's chain is still down 40 percent, and that

dealers of U.S. automobiles, computers and other

durable goods have also lost business. 

"If you want to buy Vermont maple syrup, it is

available," the diplomat said. But "there was good

organization, and word spread quickly." 

"The reality is there is going to be an economic

effect" by limiting trade, academic and other ties

that had been flourishing before Sept. 11, said Sen.

Bob Graham (D-Fla.), but it is a cost he said he

believed Americans accepted in return for better


Efforts are underway to counteract the damage. The

State Department is expanding what it calls "public

diplomacy" to burnish the image of the United States

in the Arab world -- including the launching of a new

pop music, Arabic-language radio station. 

Saudi tour agents, in conjunction with the U.S.

Embassy in Riyadh, the capital, recently launched a

"Go-2-USA" Web site to try to rebuild their

transatlantic business. 

Companies throughout the region have battled the

boycott with a none-too-subtle emphasis on their local

employees and investors, and by distancing themselves

from the United States, while others have donated a

portion of sales to Palestinian relief organizations. 

At Amideast, there is still hope that demand will

rebound. On Wednesday, some of Egypt's top students

gathered at a reception honoring their imminent

departure for such U.S. universities as Harvard and

Stanford. Winners of a full scholarship offered by the

Egyptian construction conglomerate Orascom, they have

agreed to return to Egypt after they graduate. 

Orascom head Nassef Sawiris said that as they adjust

to the post-Sept. 11 world, U.S. officials should keep

in mind that some of their best ambassadors will not

hail from the State Department, but will be students

who have spent time studying in the United States. 

For Egypt and the United States, "it would be a

disaster if it stopped," said Sawiris, a graduate of

the University of Chicago. "It helps the U.S. to have

people who'll be appreciative." 

 2002 The Washington Post Company 


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