As the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel continues to grow internationally, it is lagging in the Arab World – particularly within Gulf monarchies, where boycotting Israel is muddled by these monarchies’ close relationship with the United States and its allies.
In March, a bell pepper with a label indicating that it originated from Israel was found in one of Kuwait’s largest retail stores. Ironically, the pepper was bought by a volunteer for pro-Palestinian group Kuwaitis for Jerusalem.
Immediately a photograph of the pepper, with its label, was passed around social hubs such as Twitter, Facebook, and others forums, triggering debates regarding the nature and efficiency the Israel boycott.
This incident was not the first of its kind in Kuwait. Sporadically, an Israeli product or a product with Hebrew markings is found, and the local media stirs to attention. These cases are usually swiftly dealt with by the authorities and forgotten until the next incident rears its head.
Boycotting Israel in Kuwait is a very delicate issue in comparison to other Arab countries. It is not quite like Syria, in which Israeli goods and products are strictly unwelcome nor is it as open as Jordan or Qatar, where direct political and economic relations with Israel are active.
The Current Climate of Boycotting Israel
"The 1990s were the worst in terms of boycotting Israel. If you visit the head [Arab League Boycott] office in Damascus, you’ll see that they are very demoralized. Everybody ignored them after Oslo,” said a prominent Palestinian historian residing in Kuwait, who requested anonymity.
“The boycott in Kuwait is [currently] very loose; we hear in the newspapers that so and so was discovered here or there. They report this all the time. But there is no official or popular follow-up. People are demoralized after Oslo and Jordan [1994 peace deal],” he added.
An official within the Arab League dealing with Palestinian Affairs, and who also requested anonymity, echoed the sentiments of the historian in regards to the deterioration of Arab boycott efforts against Israel.
The Arab League boycott laws are still in place, he noted, and every six months a black list is revised, pointing to the current debates regarding Adidas as a recent example.
The official stressed that despite these laws, obstacles to an efficient boycott have been added by Arab states’ acceptance of American contentions of “peace” as well as concerns that any act sanctioning or boycotting Israel will be labeled as provocation and incitement.
The best thing one can do, he suggested, is to activate popular action, encouraging the greater public to complain to retailers, policy makers, and the press whenever an Israeli product is found. The public at large should bear the burden of overseeing the market if boycott violation occurs.
The Resurgence of Kuwaiti Popular Action
In Kuwait, support for Palestinians is typically articulated by Islamic organizations and charities, as the Palestinian historian pointed out.
Kuwaitis for Jerusalem, established in 1987-88 during the First Intifada, have been heavily involved in a number of campaigns, from raising awareness to music events in support of the Palestinian cause. Through this organization, members and volunteers have begun work to establish a BDS Chapter in Kuwait.
Hania al-Ariqy, a member of Kuwaitis for Jerusalem and one of the driving forces behind initiating a BDS Chapter, spoke briefly with Al-Akhbar.
Ariqy pointed out that the general BDS movement in the Arab region is severely lacking. “Where is it? In the Gulf region, it is virtually nonexistent. In Egypt, they just started. The only country that is actively doing it is Lebanon – because the political situation in the country and the continuous Israeli aggression, especially in 2006, kept the issue alive for the public.”
She said that the organization has faced no obstacles from the government so far, though that they have not officially launched yet. Nevertheless, she expects no restrictions from the authorities.
“The environment in Kuwait is much more welcoming to boycotting Israel than it is in other Gulf countries...You should consider that on the political level, there is no parliament [in other Gulf states],” she said.
She added that because of the parliament’s current composition, it would be publicly difficult for them to take a stance against the Palestinian cause.
Considering any lingering hostility towards Palestinians from the Kuwaiti public due to support of the Iraqi invasion from Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian political figures, she said, “I think it’s a thing of the past. I’m a member of Kuwaitis for Jerusalem and we started in 1988, during the First Intifada. When the Iraqi invasion happened, we halted our activities completely. It took us a long time to restart again, until 2000 – 10 years.”
Optimism on the Power of Boycott
Currently, the BDS chapter in Kuwait is to looking into reports regarding various Israeli products making their way into the country, particularly the recent Israeli bell pepper incident.
When it was discovered, the volunteers of the BDS chapter contacted the retailer to find out how this product, with its label clearly stating its Israeli origins, ended up on the shelves.
According to the volunteers, the retailer claimed that it was merely a mistake and that the illicit product was removed. Despite these assurances, the volunteers are concerned that the retailer simply changed the packaging and kept the product, although they do not have any conclusive proof.
At the same time, BDS members began researching which governing authority is responsible for ensuring the boycott against Israel. With some effort they discovered the Customs Office for Boycotting Israeli Goods.
When the volunteers spoke with employees from the office, they assured them that only few products were smuggled in and that they were serious about maintaining the boycott. According to Ariqy, the office was even willing to create a hot-line with the organization in order to coordinate efforts. It was these officials’ first meeting with members of the public in over ten years.
For Ariqy and other volunteers, the main goal currently is to bring back the secondary sanctions and boycott laws, particularly in regards to companies like Veolia Transport and Alstom, who the authorities do not blacklist despite their work within Israeli settlements across the occupied territories. The Kuwait BDS also aims to modernize the laws regarding boycotting Israel in Kuwait.
"The problem with the Office of Boycotting Israel is that it is tied in with the decrees and policies of the Arab League, and the law in regards to boycotting Israel was made in 1964. It still has not been modified or developed further to meet the current challenges,” she said.
Ultimately, Ariqy is optimistic about the future and the growth of the BDS movement, and other similar non-violent campaigns that could play a dramatic role in changing the region.
“I’m optimistic because the movement is still young, and we in the Arab region may still not feel the major changes because the movement isn’t as well developed here. But changes do happen. The people in general are not aware of the importance and influence they wield. An Arab person may still feel helpless or feel that such actions are futile, but I think this viewpoint is changing.”
The Mercurial Kuwaiti-Palestinian History
Kuwait’s boycott system, with its virtues and vices, arises from its ever-changing foreign policy and its historical relations with Palestinians.
Toufic Haddad, writing for the Palestine Chronicle, noted that the history of Palestinian-Kuwaiti relations, which is deep, complex, and intersects much of the pivotal points of the Palestinian experience, is one of the most under-studied topics in contemporary Arab history.
After the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing by Zionist forces, a large number of Palestinians found themselves, at some point, living or working in Kuwait, including iconic figures such as Yasser Arafat and Naji al-Ali.
In reflection, Kuwaiti society and policy from 1948 to 1990 was much more pan-Arab and pro-Palestinian than other Gulf monarchies, although the Kuwaiti authorities maintained a tight grip on Palestinian activities.
During the four-year reign of Sheikh Abdullah al-Salam al-Sabah, the first emir of Kuwait, an emiri decree established Law 21 of 1964 that outlined how Israel was to be boycotted. It was part of a collective Arab League effort to sanction Israel and its allies.
All forms of trade, commercial and financial transactions with Israel, and ownership of Israeli goods and goods that include Israeli components, were forbidden. This included countries and companies that were doing business with Israel or were aiding the Zionist state in any form.
Punishment for violating this boycott resulted in a sentence of three to ten years hard labor and a fine. Subsequently, the Office for Boycotting Israeli Goods within the Customs Department was established to oversee this law.
The Arab collective boycott effort faced its first major blow in 1978 when Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel. But it was during the post-Oslo period when much of the general Arab boycott system significantly deteriorated.
For Kuwait in particular, the 1990 Iraqi invasion was a defining factor. Yasser Arafat’s apparent support of Saddam Hussein was grossly detrimental for Palestinians living in Kuwait. Tens of thousands of Palestinians were deported by Kuwaiti authorities, regardless of whether they opposed the invasion and occupation.
In August 1991, Kuwait announced an ease of its boycott of non-Israeli companies, particularly British and French, which were actively doing business with Israel under the justification of rapid postwar reconstruction. Two years later, the secondary Kuwaiti boycott on all non-Israeli companies working with Israel was lifted. In addition, aid to the Palestine Liberation Organization was drastically cut.
Relations only began to soften because of the Second Intifada in 2000. With each intensifying Israeli aggression against the Palestinians over the years, Kuwaiti political and social sentiments gradually swayed back and became much more supportive.