x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Before you boycott anything, ask: what's the point?

Responding to a recent "request" to tidy up the bookshelves, I noticed an Arabic translation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier.

Responding to a recent "request" to tidy up the bookshelves (an experience with which many married men would commiserate), I noticed an Arabic translation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Steadfast Tin Soldier. Like most book buyers, I don't always read all the books that I collect over the years, but this I must have picked up for my son - in the global pursuit by parents to have their children appreciate other cultures.

The translation was surprisingly lively and the art work attractive, but what captured my young son's attention and in effect negated the great effort that shaped the book was his discovery of the author's nationality. Andersen was from Denmark. "Aren't they the people who bad-mouthed our Prophet? Why did you buy their book?" was my son's candid response. I consider myself a moderate, and believe that it's usually a few bad examples that make the news - and therefore I have always resisted generalising. I also try to extend this view to family and friends. But children do not live in a vacuum: they go to school, they talk to other relatives, and it is society at large that eventually shapes their views.

Such rejection is not unique to children, however, and the case of the objectionable Danish cartoons is still in some people's mind a few years after the incident. I routinely receive e-mails and text messages expanding the list of products-to-boycott. The list ranges from detergents to coffee houses and fast food chains. Not too long ago Danish dairy products topped these boycott lists. To show anger and to deliver a message is understandable, and I support it. But is boycotting goods the best way? The action is emotional and indignant: all the more reason to be cold and reasonable in judging its effectiveness.

So is it effective? First, consider what reaction it is intended to elicit. Boycotting dairy products, for example, if done on a grand scale, might put a small dent in farmers' finances in the hope that the target country as a whole "gets the message". But it could also easily feed into a society's fear, bias or apprehension, and eventually distrust and animosity - not for causing income disruption per se, but for disregarding freedom of speech, a highly valued principle. In effect, the Arab world could easily be labelled closed-minded.

I am also reminded of Who Is Us? - a famous article written almost 20 years ago by the American politician and academic Robert Reich and published in the Harvard Business Review. Mr Reich pointed out that Japanese companies build cars in the US and that American banks finance projects and industries in Asia. Does anyone really believe that trade is unilateral? Stop buying anything from abroad and you are bound to hurt the entire chain - including local money and labour.

More importantly, many of the offensive policies or actions and their perpetrators remain undeterred and unpunished. This applies all the way from Gaza violence (which is easily more than half a century old) to random writers having a go at Arabs or Islam or their principles. Interestingly, fast-food chains continue to grow in number and consumer goods double their sales. In the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, boycotting did not seem to have any effect, nor is there evidence that it reined in others from trading with Israel.

The effect, if any, is therefore short-lived, and succeeds in nothing beyond offering angry crowds instant gratification. Perhaps one should ask what makes an action so powerful that entire nations go up in arms, boycotting goods and burning embassies. Well, it was a few albeit inconsiderate words and drawings. No one stopped buying our oil and no trade shipment was diverted from our ports. It's the media! Think-tanks should be incubated and we should create special-purpose organisations whose sole aim is to propagate what we want the rest of the world to hear. It is western movies and their characters that we sympathise with: our children have Barbie as a role model and even Ala'a a Deen, once the most Arabic of folk heroes, is westernised into Aladdin in Hollywood talk. Until such times as we proudly expose our culture on our terms and in our words, the goal of delivering an effective message will remain elusive.

If anyone still underestimates the power of media, let me offer the following example. For more than 50 years, any time oil prices moved up the GCC received an instant dirty look and was accused of profiteering at the expense of the world. But if someone had written for more than 50 years and in numerous formats and forums that the US obtains most of its imported oil from Canada, I bet that look would not have been so dirty. Now that is strategy!

Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman