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Animosity toward U.S. challenges business world

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The impending war with Iraq has prompted a legion of commentators—both pro- and anti-war—to write about "uncertainty." Essayists on both sides of the issue are peering into a foggy future, trying to prognosticate military, political and economic outcomes. This is serious business, not least of all for business people in the U.S. and abroad.

The current issue of BtoB features a pair of Page 1 stories on the topic. Senior Reporter Kate Maddox looks at how U.S. advertising agencies are bracing for events. Contributing Editor Sean Callahan talks with Middle East observers and business marketers already working in the region.

One sentence in Callahan’s story is too important to overlook: "And, finally, anti-American sentiment is very real in the region—real enough to become an economic force, some observers say."

Take Mostapha Saout, general manager of Allied Media, an Alexandria, Va.-based company that sells commercial time on al Jazeera and other Arab electronic media outlets, whom Callahan quotes. Saout claims that U.S. companies didn’t advertise in the Middle East because they were primarily dealing with "dictators under the table, wheeling and dealing" to get "billion-dollar contracts."

This belief, regrettably and ominously, is all too common. It’s a manifestation of the habit in the Middle East of blaming the region’s woes—poverty, a combined GDP lower than Spain’s, anti-Western radical Islam—on U.S. activities. (Alternatively, U.S. indifference is cited as the source of all the trouble.) Criticism and protests in these countries invariably aim at the U.S. and its allies. But that’s not surprising, since the state-run media in the region’s 22 nondemocratic states are sheepish about criticizing their own ruling royal families, dictators or increasingly powerful clerics.

A simpler explanation about the lack of advertising is that U.S. companies have had trouble finding a healthy, growing and receptive business class (and consumer middle class) in the region.

Meanwhile the perception of the U.S. seems to be getting worse, not better.

Charlotte Beers, before resigning this month as the Bush Administration’s point person at the State Department for improving the U.S. image in the Muslim world, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "The gap between who we are and how we wish to be seen and how we are in fact seen, is frighteningly wide."

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