Globalization and Middle East

 

Consumption, globalization process and identity crises brought some analysts to think that the increasing in consumption tends to some level of global homogenization of culture among consumers which can lead to the rise of negative responses to globalization. As consumer goods are always also cultural goods, consuming practices of imported goods sometimes result in a sense of cultural intrusion.

This “antagonistic response” to the globalization process is more evident in the Middle East than nowhere in the world, where it is seen as a process of “Americanization”. This dissent has grown since the second half of the 1990s.

That “antagonistic response” emphasizes themes like Palestinian cause or the defense of the Arabic language.

The feeling of cultural invasion intertwines with idea of a crisis in national identity and influence on the cultural-making process. The perception of threat regarding the conception of nation-state and its citizens is the logical consequence. Therefore, emphasizing the national or local differences is in the interests of the nation-state as an act of self-preservation.

Even so, some Middle Eastern and Islamic people welcome globalization, especially on the grounds that Islam as a universal religion should seize the chance to spread God’s message. Others claim for a compromise. They recognize globalization process provides challenges as well as opportunities. They argued that Muslim states and the Muslim religion could work to promote a more cooperative world order on the basis of the background and values shared by East and West.

Nonetheless, critiques of western, especially US, excessive prevail in international security and trading system remain unbroken.

Globalization, in broad sense, has become the object of widespread denunciation, conceived as an attack to the state, language, nation and fatherland of the Middle-Eastern people. Globalization is in this way seen as an ‘imperialist’ project, built to subjugate the political system, economy and culture of the Arab world, a continuation of western imperialism under another name and by other means. Small wonder if, oil apart, the rate of trade between the Western world and the Middle East is low and, with the exception of Israel and Turkey.

The region perhaps presents the most complex situation in the world in which complementary, opposed and blurred forces push each other shaping the relationship with the external environment. The insecurity that stems from the confrontation with Israel, the situation in Iraq or the authoritative position of the theocratic Iranian state, the interests and investments in oil, influence the kind of economic and social integration between the region and the world[9].

At first glance, Middle East is a trap for any attempt to build global cultural framework shaping identity, a region where consumption expansion tends to be perceived as homogenization of culture among consumers resulting in the rise of negative responses to globalization. The typical target, object of criticism is the ‘Americanization process’.

It is possible to observe this criticism in the marketing of such soft drinks as Cola Turka and Mecca-Cola, targets respectively of the Turkish and the Muslim community, which express a typical anti-Americanization position.

Mecca Cola is a relatively new soft drink which is very similar in taste, design and appeal to the more famous American brand Coca-Cola. According to the businessman who created the Mecca Cola brand, it aims to offer Arab and Muslim customers an alternative to the American Coke, which for many of them is the flag of the American cultural capitalism, which would be ready to dominate Middle East and its history.

According to Uri Ram, “Mecca and Cola [as terms] are strange bedfellows. The brand name Mecca Cola conjures together two iconic images which ordinarily are related to two distinct and even contrasting cultures: the culture of ‘authenticity’ versus the culture of ‘artificiality’. The  conspicuous juxtaposition of ‘Mecca’ and ‘Cola’, their hyphenization, so to speak, evokes questions about the relations between the ‘global’ and the ‘local’, ‘modernity’ and ‘tradition’, the ‘West’ and the ‘rest’, and ‘America’ and ‘Islam’”[10].

So far, this analysis dealt with the theoretical approaches to the globalization process, to the different perspectives, trying to argue for a global consumerist culture capable of being dispenser of identity. That supposed clash between American culture and Muslim world seems to challenge the vision of a global culture. Even so, paradoxically, it proves its existence.

Mecca Cola was sold in the end of 2002, one year after 9/11 event. It was arranged by Tawfik Mathlouthi, a Tunisian-born French businessman who sought to take advantage of anti-American feelings around the world especially in Middle Eastern communities. Of course, this was not the first time that Coca-Cola had been challenged by a competitor from the Islamic world.

Zam-Zam Cola, for instance, is a particularly popular Iranian soft drink, having gained the enviable status of Muslim alternative to American products such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi. ZamZam Cola, whose name is a reference to the Well of Zamzam in Mecca, was launched after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

A parallel product is Qibla Cola, launched in the UK in 2005. The word Qibla means direction, that is, a reference to the direction towards which Muslims have to pray. Even Qibla Cola has been considered as Muslim alternative to global multinational firms.

Cola Turka, instead, shows some degrees of differentiation because it is sewed on Turkish national image.

“In July 2003, eleven Turkish soldiers on duty in Northern Iraq were taken into custody by United States troops and bundled away with burlap bags over their heads. This event provoked widespread anger at the United States among Turkish people and troubled Turkish-American governmental relations […] The next day, the first two Cola Turka commercials appeared on television screens in Turkey”[11]. In a climate characterized by war which was fervently opposed by public opinion in Turkey, Cola Turka was considered as a symbol of growing anti-American thrust, of national upheaval against arrogant Americanism, American cultural imperialism and coca-colonization.

As much as Cola Turka, Mecca Cola tries to draw attention on identity claims. It was initially launched in France and exported to other European states where it found its way into ethnic shops in Muslim neighborhoods, then, filling the shelves of the supermarkets in some European countries (Belgium, France, Germany). Progressively Mecca cola became a high-requested good in Middle Eastern and other Muslim markets[12].

At the end of the day, shape and size of the bottles, the color of the drink, and the way in which is shaped the logo, all of that calls to mind Coca-Cola. The differences are the name “Mecca” in the place of “Coca” and the important fact that “ten percent of the profits are dedicated to charities operating in Palestinian territories and that another 10 percent are passed to international peace-oriented non-governmental organizations based in Europe”[13].

Maybe, this last point is what makes exactly clear the position of  Mecca Cola in the global market vis-à-vis the American product; the umpteenth tile in the wide mosaic of the relationship between the USA and the Muslim and Arab world.

In this sense, not just from a military or strategic point of view, but from the perspective of global cultural identity based on consumerist practices, such a product, Cola, becomes a very useful litmus test in order to analyze the state of the current global society. It seems strange that a trivial object such as a fizzy drink has been elevated to the symbol of cultures and identities.

The image of a community of consumption is unavoidable. Cola Turka and Mecca Cola wish to create a counter-image of globalization based on a resistant identity, by marking cultural difference in an era of globalization and by running for being “ethical” alternatives to American hegemony. But they fail in their aim. They do not result in the product of that Americanization that they, cleverly or not, fight, but in the product of that globalization which this paper tried to sketch.

Anti-Coca-Colas reflect the anti-American sentiment, taking advantage of the ‘Islamic’ or ‘national’ support. Nonetheless, they are made “by companies owned by entrepreneurs of Middle Eastern and Muslim origins, who live and run businesses mostly in ‘the West’[…] [They] announce the percentage of profits donated to ’just causes’, such as support for Palestinian organizations in favor of Palestine’s liberation”[14]. The so called ‘Coca-Cola impact’ made Mecca Cola and Cola Turka products of the Zeitgeist. They represent an adaptation to the practices, symbolic codes and culture of consumerist society, instead of standing as bulwarks against the consumerism. At same time, from the point of view of the consumers, people can express their preference regarding the product. This act shape their position, identity, approach towards an issue, like the Palestinian’s one, thereby engendering consuming practices and way of thinking which form a cultural system perfectly in line with the global consumerist culture.

In a mass-produced culture, each individual is urged to purchase in order to set its individuality. This leads ironically even to express the disapproval towards consumption by more consumption. In a globalized world, the concept of consumption of anti-consumption (like the soft drink phenomenon) is truly a turning point. Consumption has become the model of dissent, the model of rebellion, the model for political activity.

From these examples emerges one of the most relevant features of global consumer culture, its propensity to transform identities in signifiers for consumption. Mecca-Cola, Qibla-Cola, Cola Turka are brands of soft drink companies using them to distinguish their products. They demonstrate the outstanding power of consumer culture. If culture was understood through homogeneity or heterogeneity, there would miss the manifold effects of consumer culture. Cultural resources and individual choices are connected in a global system of meaning that is created and reproduced through the practices of consumption.

 

References

 

Chua Beng-Huat, ‘Consuming Asians: Ideas and Issues’ in Consumption in Asia: Lifestyles and Identities, edited by Chua Beng-Huat, 2000, London and New York: Routledge.

Foster R.J., ‘Coca-Globalization: following soft drinks from New York to Guinea’, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Foster R. J., Özkan D., ‘Consumer Citizenship, Nationalism, and Neoliberal Globalization in Turkey: The Advertising Launch of Cola Turka’, The advertising Educational Foundation, 2005.

García Canclini N., ‘Consumers and citizens: Globalization and Multicultural Conflicts’, U of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Goodman D. J., ‘Globalization and Consumer Culture’ in ‘The Blackwell companion to Globalization’, edited by Ritzer G., 2008, ch.16.

Goodman D. J., Cohen M., ‘Consumer culture :a reference handbook’, Santa Barbara, Calif. : ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Halliday F., ‘The Middle East in international perspective’ in ‘The Middle East in international relations’, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ch.10.

Robins K., ‘Encountering Globalization’ in ‘The global transformations reader : an introduction to the globalization debate’ , edited by David Held and Anthony McGrew.-2nd ed, 2004, ch.20.

Tomlinson J., ‘Globalization and Cultural Identity’ in ‘The global transformations reader : an introduction to the globalization’ debate / edited by David Held and Anthony McGrew.-2nd ed, 2004, ch. 23.

Ram U.,  “Glocommodification: How the Global Consumes the Local – McDonald’s in Israel”, SAGE publications, 2004.

Ram U., ‘Liquid identities : Mecca Cola versus Coca-Cola’ in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (2007), 4, pp. 465-484.

Murphy V., ‘Mecca cola challenges US rival’, 8 Januaty 2003, BBC News Online, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/2640259.stm.

‘Foreign Cola knockoffs offer anti-American political flavor’, 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. http://www.wmi.org/multi_boards/doc.asp?message_number=43233&ini=d:%5Casp_ini%5Cm52_politics.ini

 

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[9] Halliday F., ‘The Middle East in international perspective’ in ‘The Middle East in international relations’, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ch.10.

[10] Ram U., ‘Liquid identities : Mecca Cola versus Coca-Cola’ in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (2007), 4, pp. 465-484.

[11] Foster R. J., Özkan D., ‘Consumer Citizenship, Nationalism, and Neoliberal Globalization in Turkey: The Advertising Launch of Cola Turka’, The advertising Educational Foundation, 2005.

[12] Ram U., ‘Liquid identities : Mecca Cola versus Coca-Cola’ in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 10 (2007), 4, pp. 465-484.

[13] Ibidem.

[14]  Foster R. J., Özkan D., ‘Consumer Citizenship, Nationalism, and Neoliberal Globalization in Turkey: The Advertising Launch of Cola Turka’, The advertising Educational Foundation, 2005.