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13 February 2006

Danish butter? No thanks

By James Montague

You have to feel sorry for Thomas Bay. The affable Danish consul and trade commissioner to Dubai has arguably one of the hardest jobs in the world at the moment: trying to persuade Muslim consumers in the emirate to start buying Danish again.

Ever since the scandal broke over Jyllands-Posten‘s caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, Bay has been wheeled out to talk to anyone who will listen as he attempts to stem a boycott from consumers willing to punish Danish firms for the offensive cartoons. But he appears to be fighting a losing battle. “One hundred to 200 million dirhams [£15.5m] for the whole Gulf Co-operation Council area,” he says, when asked what the campaign has cost the Danish economy. “And that’s just in the past one and a half weeks.”

Most of the damage is being done to Arla, a Danish-Swedish dairy that, according to Bay, is losing nearly £1m a day. Whether you agree with the boycott or not, its success has been something to behold. What began as a few disgruntled customers in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia voicing their displeasure quickly led to every single Middle Eastern supplier cancelling its orders with Arla, putting more than a thousand of the company’s workers in the region at risk; 170 have already been sent back home to Denmark.

The sheer scale of the protest – which has reached Sudan and Lebanon – shows what powerful tools boycotts can be when backed by numbers. But equally integral to a boycott’s success is coping with privation, and Muslim consumers are about to face a big test: a butter shortage. Arla is responsible for 70 per cent of the UAE’s butter supply. So, once its stocks dwindle, the country will have to make do with margarine on its toast for breakfast. “If you don’t bring butter in by air,” explains Bay forebodingly, “then it will take four weeks to get here by container.”

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