Sipping coffee in downtown Amman, a friend just returned from a three-week stay on a scholarship in the United States surprised me by saying, “I don’t know if I should smoke.” Had she fallen victim to the American anti-smoking frenzy? Not exactly, she continued: “You know, I’m boycotting American products, and there are only Marlboros [for sale] here.” Marlboro cigarettes are but one target of a movement sweeping Jordan and the entire Arab world calling for the boycott of American and British companies which deal with Israel.

Once delighted at the first appearance of McDonald’s in Amman, many Jordanians are not only refusing to consume burgers and fries under the golden arches, they are also boycotting the goods and services of companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Burger King, Tide, Pampers, Heinz, Johnson and Johnson, Philip Morris, Nestlé, Timberland, Estée Lauder, Hasbro and Sara Lee. Though you still see some Jordanians drinking Coca-Cola and others driving Chevrolet, and the Tex-Mex restaurant Houston is still crowded at the dinner hour, sometimes you don’t have a choice if you are not a boycotter of American products. You have to go to many supermarkets and shops before you can find a simple can of Coke. Most shopkeepers will tell you that Jordan’s main import-export agent no longer distributes American products.

Though 15 political parties in Jordan have endorsed the boycott strategy, the Jordanian professional associations, controlled by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, have led the boycott campaign. Evoking embittered debates about peace with Israel and Arab honor that raged in Jordan in the not so recent past, the boycotters have successfully turned their campaign into a confrontation with the government.


Although almost all reports say the boycott campaign is two years old, the basic strategy dates to much earlier. In a sense, the official economic boycott of Israel started in 1945, before the state’s formation, when the Arab League adopted resolutions stipulating the need for Arabs to boycott products of Jewish settlements in Palestine. Following the establishment of the state of Israel, in 1950 the Arab League endorsed more elaborate recommendations of boycotts on all Israeli commodities as well as boycotts on all countries or companies who dealt with or invested in Israel.

From the 1950s through recent decades, boycott policies were widely observed, though their effectiveness began to decline in the 1970s and 1980s as Arabs and Israelis began to tilt toward peaceful resolution of the conflict. But Coca-Cola, for example, remained a banned product in many Arab countries until the 1990s. Arab tourists in Europe and the US did not shop at Marks and Spencer’s and did not buy any commodity that carried a “made in Israel” tag. Following the Madrid peace conference in 1991, however, the boycott policy was officially suspended. The boycott office of the Arab League did not convene a meeting from that time until July 2001.[1] But even in the 1990s, economic boycotts were not completely terminated, as Arab states focused on smoothing cultural relations as a prelude for fully normal relations with Israel. Governments, however, were working on their own kind of peace, imposing it upon populations who still heard almost daily news of Israel’s repression of Palestinians. On one side, the governments that had signed peace treaties with Israel — Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt — were working in isolation from civil society institutions and other social forces. On the other side, ferocious opposition, mainly from Islamists and leftists, rose against what came to be known as “normalization.” From positions of authority within the powerful professional associations, opposition leaders representing professions ranging from engineers to doctors to lawyers threatened to terminate the membership of any professional who dared to pursue business deals or any type of connection with Israelis. Sultan Hattab, now a daily columnist for al-Ra’y newspaper, fought a long battle with the Jordan Press Association, which expelled him for giving an interview to Israeli television during the Madrid conference. Only a court ruling restored his membership. Another writer’s membership was terminated for giving an interview to an Israeli newspaper.

In the mid-1990s, a lively debate over normalization of relations with Israel on all fronts was heating up in the Arab media. When the famous Arab poet Adonis was expelled from the Arab Writers Union in 1995 because he encouraged peace and dialogue with Israeli thinkers, protests in favor of Adonis were louder than those who supported the expulsion decision. Unlike in Egypt, Jordanian professional associations did not move to isolate participants at the January 1997 Copenhagen meeting of Jordanians, Palestinians, Egyptians and Israelis which issued a declaration of support for UN Resolution 242. Nor did Jordanian critics of the Copenhagen document send threatening letters or launch personal attacks on the participants accusing them of treason, as had happened before in Jordan, and as happened in Egypt. Division was evident, but the Jordanian pro-peace camp was on the verge of imposing cultural and economic normalization as a fait accompli, until the government repressed the debate by imposing a very restrictive press law. Ironically, freedoms that were granted during the short-lived liberalization process in Jordan (1989-1997) gave space to pro-peace activists in the kingdom to project their views for the first and only time. These views were obliterated by the domineering old guard, which is not necessarily anti-peace but rather “prefers to avoid the nuisance of debates,” in the succeeding years. Anti-peace arguments resurfaced. Then the outbreak of the second intifada lent more weight to the arguments of anti-normalization activists, and the boycott campaign regained momentum.

“We Can Do What We Want”

It is not clear in which country the latest wave of boycotts began. But it certainly spread over the Internet and was picked up by newspapers, satellite channels and TV stations, with no reference whatsoever to the ramifications boycott campaigns might have for local economies or the decades-long efforts of governments to attract foreign investment. Professional associations, opposition parties and Islamic leaders spearheaded the popular campaign, framing it as a national duty. At Friday prayers in mosques across the Arab and Muslim worlds, clerics exhorted worshippers to observe the boycott. Religious and political leaders have gone on television in Saudi Arabia to support the anti-US protests.

In October 2000, the grand mufti of Egypt, Nasr Farid Wassel, called for a worldwide Arab boycott of Israeli products. Wassel was soon followed by Abdallah bin Salah al-‘Ubayd, Secretary General of the League of the Islamic World, who stated that it was the obligation of every Muslim to boycott American and Israeli products. [2] In Egypt, the Egyptian Committee to Boycott Israeli, American and British products has formed to mobilize and inform the populace. In Iraq, the Arab Engineers Union convened and called on its members to work more actively against normalization through mobilizing people, conducting studies and focusing on women’s role in inculcating in their children the need to resist the Zionist enemy and to boycott American products.[3]

Most important for disseminating the concept of the boycott in Jordan was the fatwa (religious ruling) issued by prominent Muslim cleric Yusuf Qaradawi in a leaflet distributed all over the country. The fatwa banned Muslims from purchasing any Israeli or American products. Qaradawi, a very popular figure in Arab countries, was quoted as saying: “We cannot impose on the governments what we want, but we can do what we want.” [4] The leaflet contained a long list of banned products, ranging from candies to cosmetics, and featuring such international brand names as Nike, Pepsi, Citibank, Pringles, Pizza Hut, Calvin Klein, DKNY, Guess, Levi’s, Dunhill, Ford, Chevrolet and Chrysler. According to the leaflet, Pepsi stands for: “Pay every penny to save Israel.” Another news item said that Philip Morris donates 12 percent of its daily net profit to Israel. [5] Try to drink a can of Coca-Cola in front of a boycotter and you are instantly warned that each sip equals four Israeli bullets.

Those who do “normalize” fear popular pressure and harsh criticism. They are the subject of a boycott at the local level and in the Iraqi market as well. Any company dealing in the Israeli market is being blacklisted by Iraq, a major trade partner of Jordan. In July, following official talks, the Jordan Times reported that the Iraqi government agreed to remove the names of 14 companies that “proved” they had no ties with Israel, but kept some 50 other companies embargoed. Apparently, some of the companies that had been blacklisted by Iraq were exporting their products only to the Palestinian market, but there was a “misunderstanding” about the goods’ final destination, according to Minister of Trade and Industry Salah Bashir.

Domestic Frustrations

As aggression against the Palestinians continued and the US targeted Iraq again, Jordanians have embraced the boycott movement, which has grown stronger each day. In June, Armoush Tourist Investments Company, which owns the six branches of McDonald’s in Jordan, estimated an average drop in sales of no less than 25 percent for all US franchises in Jordan over the past three months. [6] The popular response to boycott calls all over the Arab world, including the Gulf states, is not only related to Israeli aggression against the Palestinians or American threats to use force against Iraq. The campaign has caught on because it reflects public discontent with government policies. On the domestic front, there is growing disenchantment with the lack of public freedoms. The public is continuously disappointed as the government promulgates restrictive laws, imposes limitations on civil society, muzzles freedoms and tolerates high levels of corruption, poverty and unemployment. On the level of foreign policy, Jordanians, like Arabs elsewhere, are continuously frustrated by the incapacity of Arab governments to challenge Israeli occupation or US policies, with Jordan even incapable of saying no when the US applied to import a special brand of candies.

This structural gap between the Arab governments and public opinion is hardly new. But following the September 11 attacks, the regimes, with unequivocal international blessings, wielded a heavy hand in repressing domestic freedoms in the name of fighting terrorism. The change for the worse has been especially dramatic in Jordan, and there the public has been especially well-organized in venting its frustration, participating in what has become a globalized boycott network targeting Arab governments and the primary foreign power which backs them — which happens to be the same power supporting Israel and on the verge of attacking Iraq. Jordan has been among the top recipients of US Agency for International Development funds over the past several years. According to State Department figures, total US economic assistance to the kingdom in 2002 amounted to $250 million, with additional military assistance of over $100 million. For fiscal year 2003, the US requested over $500 million in financial and military aid to Jordan. US wheat supplies to Jordan in 2002 were 200,000 metric tons. As for Israel, reports indicate that there are more than 50,000 Jordanians working illegally in Israel. [7] Clearly, close ties with the US and maintenance of peace with Israel offer important safety nets for the Jordanian economy, and hence the stability of the regime.

War of Words

Understanding the extreme sensitivity of the issues involved, at first the Jordanian government adopted a “wait and see” approach. But as the boycott movement gained momentum and the public response defied expectations, the government broke its silence. In May-June 2002, a war of words started between government newspapers and opposition private weeklies, especially the Islamist al-Sabil weekly, over the “feasibility of the boycott” and how much it will tangibly support Arab causes or damage Jordanian economy. Qaftan al-Majali, minister of the interior, inveighed that boycott campaigns were “destructive calls that are bound to harm our national economy and our commercial relations.” [8] The government’s primary line of attack has been that the boycott is hurting Jordan and Jordanians. The boycotted franchises and industries, they say, are Jordanian businesses that mainly use Jordanian materials and employ Jordanians.

In fact, the list of alternative products recommended to Jordanians in the main pro-boycott leaflet featured very few Jordanian brands. Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Indonesia seemed to have the lion’s share, followed by Switzerland, France, Germany and Japan. Neither did the list say exactly why a given product should be boycotted nor did it give details of Israeli shares in a given company’s stock. The reasons for boycotting products are usually transmitted by word of mouth, and mostly are not based on facts or figures. Rumors spread about a certain company’s donation of money to Israeli settlements, or another company’s total support of Israel’s policies or a third company’s percentage of Jewish shareholders. But in general, and despite the strong campaigns that have been launched, there is no accurate data on the percentage of Israeli investments and shares in the boycotted companies. Nor is there any information on Arab shares in these companies or the effect the boycott might have on local employees and the economy, except for scattered bits published shyly in response to the growing boycott campaigns.

According to a comprehensive report published in the Jordan Times on June 25, 2002, multi-nationals Pepsi-Cola and Coca- Cola have invested some $250 million in the Jordanian market. Coca-Cola alone employs 1,000 Jordanians directly and created 8,000 jobs indirectly. According to another report published in the weekly Shihan newspaper in June, Jordan needs investments worth at least $40 billion to achieve the objective of doubling the income of its citizens. “If we treat any investment as a foreign one that should be boycotted, it will surely scare investors off and it will have serious and negative implications on the national economy,” the article read. “We would be committing suicide.”

“From a patriotic point of view, boycotting American and Israeli products is fine, given the fact that the US is extremely biased towards Israel,” columnist Hani Kayed wrote in the state-owned daily al-Ra’y. “However, if we examine it closely from the economic perspective, the boycott is against us and not targeted at the US. Recent statistics show that there are more than 20,000 families stranded without income because of the damage that inflicted a large number of companies and restaurants.” The government has primarily used such means of persuasion, but has also resorted to repressive measures to counter the boycott. On June 25, 2002, police forces obstructed the roads leading to the Professional Associations Complex in Shmeisani in western Amman where the national day for anti-normalization was scheduled to take place. After ruling that the Anti-Normalization Committee is illegal, the government pressured the professional associations to dissolve it and arrested the three main leaders of the boycott campaign.

Boycotters resorted to other methods, namely the Internet and word of mouth, to continue their campaigns. Al-Sabil and other private newspapers transmitted news of boycotts in other countries such as Saudi Arabia and Syria, and carried stories about Jordan’s relations with Israel and the increased volume of trade between the two countries. Boycott leaders were released at the end of November 2002, and have resumed more cautious campaigns that ebb and flow according to the rhythm of events in the region. It will be some time before the shops bring boycotted products back onto their shelves.


[1] Jordan and Egypt, signatories of peace treaties with Israel, did not attend the 2001 meeting.
[2] Cairo Times, October 26-November 1, 2000.
[3] Al-Wihda, May 15, 2002.
[4] Al-Jazira, May 13, 2002.
[5] Al-Sabil, June 11-17, 2002.
[6] Jordan Times, June 25, 2002.
[7] Al-Quds al-‘Arabi, May 29, 2002.
[8] Al-Ra’y, June 19, 2002.

How to cite this article:

Sa'eda Kilani "Boycott Fever in Jordan," Middle East Report 226 (Spring 2003).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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