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Arabs Voting With Their Money

by The Guardian (England) Thursday, Jan. 09, 2003 at 2:15 AM

It is packaged in the lurid red and white of the Stars and Stripes and the logo mimics that famous swirl, but there is something different about this brand of cola.... The makers of Mecca-Cola are taking advantage of this by promising that 10% of the profits will go to a Palestinian children's charity. "Don't drink stupid," reads Mecca-Cola's label, "drink committed."

Arabs Voting With Th...
meccacola.jpg, image/jpeg, 128x64

French firm capitalises on anti-US feeling to sell cola

Jon Henley in Paris and Jeevan Vasagar

Wednesday January 8, 2003

The Guardian

It is packaged in the lurid red and white of the Stars and Stripes and the logo mimics that famous swirl, but there is something different about this brand of cola.

The clue is in the name: Mecca-Cola. The brainchild of French entrepreneur Tawfik Mathlouthi, 46, it is an attempt to capitalise on a wave of anti-US feeling by persuading consumers to 'buy Muslim'.

The soft drink is now expected to go on sale in Britain after Muslim activists decided the Real Thing left a sour taste.

The world's biggest soft drinks manufacturer is being targeted by Muslim campaigners because of its economic ties with Israel and because the war on terror has made all American brands a focus for resentment in the Muslim world.

The makers of Mecca-Cola are taking advantage of this by promising that 10% of the profits will go to a Palestinian children's charity. "Don't drink stupid," reads Mecca-Cola's label, "drink committed."

Launched just over two months ago in France, Mecca-Cola has now sold more than 2m of its 1.5-litre bottles, each one described by the company's Tunisian-born founder as "a little gesture against US imperialism and foreign policy".

Mr Mathlouthi told the Guardian he now had orders for 16m bottles of Mecca-Cola. "Demand has been phenomenal."

Targeting Britain

He described Britain as "a huge market for us, which will soon be bigger even than France. We have just signed a contract to send 20 lorries a month - that's about 2m bottles - to Britain, and are even now setting up two UK companies, Mecca-Cola UK Ltd and, with a partner in Birmingham, Mecca-Cola Distribution."

But he insists he is not trying to compete with Coke, and denies his product is anti-American. "I have nothing against the Coca-Cola company, and I like the US and its energy and dynamism, but I fiercely object to its foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East and towards the Zionist entity [Israel]," he said.

"We Arabs love an America open to the world, not this America, dangerous and aggressive to others."

Mr Mathlouthi says he has had a few complaints from more fundamentalist Muslims that he is profaning the sacred name of Mecca for commercial purposes, but believes that "in the current anti-Muslim climate, any positive mention of Mecca can only be beneficial".

Mecca's marketing originally targeted thousands of small épiceries in France's predominantly Muslim, neighbourhoods. "I was counting on the Arab and Muslim community, on honest people who wanted to contribute to a non-violent cause by allowing people to buy alternatives to American products," he said.

Such is the product's success, however, that at least one major hypermarket chain, Auchan, is stocking it in two vast stores in the northern Paris suburbs.

Coke's reputation in the Arab world has been shaky since it opened the first franchised soft drinks plant in Israel in the 1960s, and activists have made repeated calls for boycotts. Coca-Cola bosses acknowledge the current boycott has made an impact on sales in the Middle East. Now the protest is spreading to Europe.

Masood Shadjareh, chairman of the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission, which is backing calls to shun US brands, predicted huge interest in the new brand. "The Muslim community is targeting Coca-Cola because people feel that the only thing they can do is to hit America economically," he said.

"It is not only an issue for someone like me who is an activist. I bought some fizzy drinks and my children, who are 10 and 12, found out they were products of Coca-Cola and refused to drink them. I told them I'd already paid for them, but my daughter said: 'Look Daddy, it just won't go down'."

Concern is growing among owners of iconic American brands about a backlash in Muslim countries. Americans are increasingly reluctant to work in countries they perceive as hostile and the US media has debated whether it is worthwhile for businesses to try to operate in countries like Indonesia.

While Coca-Cola's revenues in the Middle East represent less than 2% of its global business, it is galling for Coke to lag behind Pepsi in the region.

Martin Norris, communications director for Coca-Cola UK, said: "We don't believe calls for a boycott are a proper way to further any sort of cause. As a business we don't take a position in matters of politics or religion.

"As far as we are concerned we are a business which is already local wherever it is. If you look at Palestine, we have a plant in Ramallah where we employ 200 people. I think we are one of the biggest investors in Palestine. If you look at the way we are considered there, we are actually extremely popular."

Mr Norris dismissed the threat from Mecca Cola, saying: "There are always competitive brands out there."

Britain's 1.8 Muslims have only recently begun to discover a collective voice and it remains unclear whether a boycott or a 'buy Muslim' campaign will take off.

Even in Brick Lane, east London, where CDs, clothes and food illustrate the continued grip of subcontinental culture on largely Bangladeshi locals, America is hard to avoid.

Asif Asgar, a customer in a fried chicken takeaway where the fridge was brimming with Cokes, said: "I'm totally against a boycott. If you are suffering in Palestine, a boycott is not going to solve it."

But Aftab Miah, 32, a waiter in a nearby cafe, disagreed: "I think it's important. Because America has got all the power they can do what they want. Economic power matters."

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