Smoke Signals: What Big Tobacco Can Teach About Democratization
Far too often, America's best-laid plans to promote democracy in friendly Arab countries have gone up in smoke. Consider the State Department's woebegone Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), launched in December 2002 with great fanfare by the Bush administration. Its purpose was to fight the underpinnings of extremism in the Arab world by directly funding Arab activists who want to push for women's rights and political and economic reform. But according to a study by the Brookings Institution, almost two-thirds of the first $103 million MEPI spent ended up benefiting Arab government agencies instead--"subsidizing Arab governments' attempts to build a kinder, gentler autocracy." As for the money that was actually doled out to democracy activists, some recipients have faced retribution from their government. Last Monday's Wall Street Journal reported that the MEPI-funded Egyptian Association for Supporting Democracy had barely gotten off the ground before a pro-government weekly in Cairo accused it of being, in the Journal's words, "pro-Zionist, anti-Egyptian, and anti-Arab." Clerics at two prominent mosques tarred the group's staff as American stooges. The Egyptian parliament opened an investigation into possible wrongdoing by its members. Some lawmakers are trying to prevent more foreign dollars from pouring in. All this over a $150,000 MEPI grant--which had been earmarked for nothing more than a training seminar on how to run for parliament and an in-house film series of Egyptian movies.
When it comes to fomenting non-violent change in the Arab world, where is America's legendary ingenuity and know-how? You're not going to like the answer. The Americans who have been most effective at promoting their agenda in Middle Eastern societies, by any objective measure of success, are neither Washington wonks nor overseas diplomats. They are the owners of big tobacco companies.
Compare MEPI's pitiful record with the following statistics: Between 1990 and 1997, according to the American Cancer Society, while tobacco consumption dropped in South America and the Caribbean by 16.5 percent, North America by 7.6 percent, Western Europe by 5.9 percent, and Eastern Europe by 5 percent, the Middle East saw the opposite trend--a spike in consumption by a staggering 24.3 percent. In 1990, Egypt imported 90 million cigarettes; in 1997, it imported 500 million. Between 1995-96 and 1999-2000, expenditures on tobacco as a percentage of total urban household expenditures in Egypt went down by more than 50 percent; but during the same period, cigarette expenditures as a percentage of total urban household expenditures actually went up by about 5 percent. So at the same time as more traditional forms of tobacco consumption--such as water pipes and snuff--were declining, cigarettes were on the rise.
Of course, smoking is nothing new in the Arab world. But Western companies saw the popularity of their products grow significantly during the 1990s. And they managed to achieve this growth despite a rising stigma against American products in the Arab world--and despite anti-tobacco campaigns waged by Arab governments, Muslim clerics, and the media. American tobacco, pitted against authoritarian regimes and Islamists in a war of words and ideas, fought hard in the Middle East and won. And the question that Washington's befuddled policymakers ought to be asking is how. How--in the very same countries where U.S. government agencies are struggling to promote a noble ideal--have cigarette giants managed to sell millions of death sticks?
Thanks to anti-smoking activists, it's now possible to answer this question. Reams of internal documents subpoenaed from R.J. Reynolds, Philip Morris, and other companies through lawsuits are now available to the public and searchable online. The World Health Organization (WHO) has combed through them and published studies on the firms' operations--including their activities in the Middle East. The documents, which mostly date from the '80s and '90s, tell a story of Byzantine intrigue married to American-style tenacity: Where rubber-stamp Arab parliaments sought to ban smoking in public places and curb cigarette advertising, American companies managed to defeat some of these bills and knock the teeth out of others. Where Muslim clerics spoke out against the dangers of nicotine and issued religious edicts (fatwas) against smoking, Big Tobacco funded Islamic seminaries--and used its leverage to exact alternative fatwas in favor of smoking. Where Arab newspapers, mostly government-controlled, sought to warn their readers of cigarettes' health hazards, the companies manufactured one rebuttal after another--and pressured editors to print them.
They did all this, remarkably, on the cheap. With an annual budget of just a few hundred thousand dollars, big tobacco firms came together in the mid-1980s to set up their own equivalent of MEPI. The Middle East Tobacco Association (META), as it came to be known, had a mandate of "promoting and defending" the companies' agenda in the region. To be sure, where MEPI stands for democracy and freedom, META stood for nicotine and corporate greed. But nothing succeeds like success. So rather than ignore an organization like META because its end goals were reprehensible, Washington policymakers would do well to examine its methods. That is, of course, unless somebody has another bright idea about how to promote an agenda--any agenda--in a region of autocrats, without the use of force.
You might say that META operated in Arab countries much the way lobbying groups and political parties function in the United States--but with fewer restrictions from the legal system. WHO alleges that the group's very formation by rival tobacco firms amounted to a form of collusion. Leaving this possibility aside, however, META does not appear to have otherwise violated the law. It served its members as a private intelligence agency, a p.r. unit, and a springboard for outreach to influential Arabs. All these tasks were centralized under the stewardship of one "secretary"--a fact that made for the smoothest possible pooling of intelligence, ideas, and influence.
At times, the appointed secretary was an Arab national, although one of the most effective META chiefs happens to have been a Westerner, former journalist Robin Allen. According to an internal document from 1990, Allen was chosen for his "good contacts in the region" and put in charge of lobbying "opinion formers and decision-makers in the GCC"--i.e., the Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE--and "win[ning] goodwill on behalf of the industry." Hired hands like Allen were also instructed to monitor "threats" to the tobacco industry. In 1982, Philip Morris requested intelligence on "anti-smoking activity" in the Arab Gulf Health Ministers' Conference. Five years later, the firm called for a "consultant who can help us monitor and influence the Alexandria-based WHO office [in Egypt] which help [sic] prepare GCC health plans."
From these documents, two big ideas emerge: First, there's an implicit self-awareness that META's activities run counter to the interest of Arab regimes--at least, inasmuch as any regime should be concerned for the health of its citizens. Second, there's a dogged determination to view each autocracy not as a monolith but as a mosaic of individuals with conflicting interests of their own, some of whom are identified as "friends" of the tobacco industry and others as "threats" or "opponents." In this respect, META's behavior in Cairo, for example, has been similar to that of some of the more relentless lobbying groups in Washington today.
Thus in the early '80s, when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's wife Jihan campaigned for anti-tobacco legislation in parliament, the cigarette companies fought back--inside the parliament itself. Philip Morris won an assurance from legislator Hassan Soleib, who vice-chaired the Committee for Industrial Development, "that no draft law related to industry or trade could pass Parliament without the advice of his committee." No sooner had Egypt's first lady circumvented Soleib, presumably by lobbying her husband, than Philip Morris and another company, Rothmans, teamed up to take the battle to Egypt's health ministry. They sought "technical discussion regarding the implementation ... thereby also achieving a delay." META and its constituent firms fought tooth and nail for ten years to water down any legislation curbing cigarette advertising or smoking in public spaces. A Philip Morris memo in 1993 lays out one component of this strategy: "Seek to defeat the proposed [advertising] ban ... [or] as a fall back, ensure that advertising freedoms ceded are kept to a minimum."
In a sense, META's lobbying efforts mirror those of many multinational corporations in the developing world: Big companies can often find influential locals willing to work on their behalf. But the group's relentlessness is unusual, in that it stood up for years to some of the most powerful people in Egypt--and for a cause that much of the government was dead-set against. In this respect, META's success is an example that would-be American democratizers can learn from: It demonstrates that smart politics can often thwart the intentions of authoritarian regimes--from within.
Beyond the challenge posed to Big Tobacco by the healthier instincts of Arab leaders, another problem the industry faced was the relationship between smoking and Islam. In 1984, an intelligence report from Brown & Williamson in Saudi Arabia advised that "the pressure upon smoking is continuous, with Friday sermons being delivered in the mosques stating that smoking is haram (outlawed by Islam)." In 1987, Philip Morris suggested a new policy objective: "Work to develop a system by which Philip Morris can measure trends on the issue of smoking and Islam. Identify Islamic religious leaders who oppose interpretations of the Koran which would ban the use of tobacco and encourage support for these leaders." The company appears to have done just that, by making a charitable donation to an Islamic seminary in the Gulf. A Philip Morris memo from 1989 proclaims that the company had won "extensive coverage in GCC media for Philip Morris' corporate contribution to the House of Koran, an Islamic cultural institution in Bahrain."
Why Bahrain, of all places? While the document doesn't say for sure, a different source offers some idea of the company's thinking. META secretary Abdullah Borek wrote, "While Bahrain in itself is not such an important market, its function as a forerunner in the Gulf must not be under-estimated." This insight is rather profound. Had a Western tobacco executive sought to influence the teachings of a puritanical seminary in Saudi Arabia, he probably would have been chased out of town. But where Saudi Arabia sets the standard for rigid doctrinal sensibilities, Bahrain occupies an important cultural space of its own: It's a liberal desert island where many Saudis and other Gulf Arabs go to escape for a weekend of pleasure--a middle ground of waywardness that's socially to the left of Saudi Arabia but well to the right of Europe and the United States. Subverting Islamic ideas about smoking in Bahrain was a feasible way to affect popular sentiments all over the region--including in Saudi Arabia--through the back door.
By the early '90s, the companies appear to have been emboldened to push the envelope even further. A 1991 memo from Philip Morris to the secretary of META states that the company "would prefer to maintain the right to hold special promotions during Ramadan." In 1995, Brown & Williamson went so far as to propose a special ad campaign to promote light cigarettes during the fast month, with the slogan, "Now is the time to switch to Lights." According to a company memo:
The Holy Month of Ramadan is a time of fasting, in order to practice self restraint and cleanse the body.
It is therefore a time when Muslims try to live a healthier life and it is believed that many people may try to give up smoking.Smoking during daylight hours is banned until the Iftaar [break-fast] cannon goes off around 6:30 pm. Therefore smokers will not have had a cigarette for around 14 hours.
This being the case it is reasonable to assume that after such a period of abstinence the tar/nicotine levels of a Lights/U.L.T. brand may be more acceptable to consumers than at normal times. This coupled with a desire to lead a healthier life may provide an opportunity to get smokers to switch.
Tobacco executives, who make their living by understanding and manipulating cultural sensibilities, showed an intuitive understanding of the Islamic milieu that some American policymakers still do not grasp. Rather than accept any particular notion of Islam as preached from a pulpit, they viewed the range of Muslim attitudes as part of a living cultural continuum--susceptible to nudges from within and without. It's tragic that this understanding on the part of some Americans has been applied to such unwholesome ends--while not, it seems, to the cause of political reform.
Finally, there is the matter of Big Tobacco and public relations. U.S.-backed reformers aren't the only ones who suffer from negative perceptions in the Middle East. After all, while the region's pundits widely believe that America wants to harm Muslims, they know that cigarettes cause cancer in Muslims. Yet inexplicably, only the latter of these two p.r. nightmares has managed to inspire a dogged counter-campaign.
"I strongly believe," wrote Abdullah Borek at the end of a lengthy META memo, "that any attacks from the other side should be countered in this way"--by sending letters to the editor--"and while we will not be able to change general trends and considerations, I am fairly certain that we can give the other side to understand that they do not own the floor." The group hired a local communications firm to monitor local and regional newspapers for any and all coverage of tobacco. META then began to respond to negative press by submitting letters to the editor and op-ed pieces under assumed names--seeing to it, according to one document, that "no excess duplication appears ... [to] avoid the appearance of a concerted campaign." Articles rebutted the charge that smoking is hazardous to one's health and advocated "smokers' rights," along with the merits of allowing tobacco companies to advertise their product. By the early '90s, the group became more aggressive, calling for "more placements, less caution." META scored dozens of hits in the region's leading papers, noting in one report that "key anti-industry publications had been breached in Saudi Arabia, pan Arab and UAE." Building on this momentum, the group launched a new campaign called "Voice of Reason," which sought to persuade well-known Arab journalists "to develop pro-industry articles," arguing that "it was doubly essential to approach only those well-known writers who had an open mind, and see that he was a) willing and b) well-briefed." In this way, tobacco companies built relationships with editors and publishers, enlisting their support to oppose advertising bans--and occasionally threatening to withhold advertising dollars from publications that opposed the tobacco agenda.
What lessons should be drawn from the story of Big Tobacco in the Middle East? That depends on your perspective. Take the view that META's tactics were inherently anti-democratic--based as they were on complicity with powerful elites and the use of money to buy off public voices--and you have an argument for the U.S. government to reject these methods completely when promoting Arab democracy. The trouble is, while the State Department's MEPI behaves like a troop of Cub Scouts in the Arab world--promising transparency in its strategies and a commitment to "partnership" with Arab governments--its grantees are getting crushed, because their competitors have far fewer scruples. The clerical endowments of Saudi Arabia and Iran finance their own political agendas in much of the region, but they promise neither transparency nor partnership.
Personally, I find it remarkable that many Americans who would agree to the use of force to promote democracy would at the same time eschew the more subtle tactics of a tobacco company to achieve the same ends. In any case, let's not delude ourselves: There is no hope of achieving reform in the Middle East through "partnership" with authoritarian regimes. When done right, democratization is addictive, and hazardous to a dictator's health. When done wrong, it isn't worth doing at all.
Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on April 18, 2004.