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Danish products back in Saudi stores

Cheese and butter from the Danish company Arla were back on supermarket shelves Thursday in Saudi Arabia after an Islamic group ended a boycott of the dairy producer.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Cheese and butter from the Danish company Arla were back on supermarket shelves Thursday in Saudi Arabia after an Islamic group ended a boycott of the dairy producer sparked by Denmark's publication of drawings of the Prophet Muhammad.

"We're delighted that our largest Saudi customers have decided to lift the boycott," said Arla Foods' executive manager, Finn Hansen.

The company said its products were now selling in 3,000 shops and supermarkets in the Middle East.

Shelves at El-Ethem market in downtown Riyadh, the Saudi capital, displayed various Arla products Thursday, although there was no rush from buyers.

Another 31 retailers in Saudi Arabia promised to resume sales of Arla goods on Saturday. Its products still were unavailable Thursday in two major Jordanian supermarkets and the shelves of Kuwaiti state cooperatives.

Saudi stores began restocking Arla products after the International Committee for the Support of the Final Prophet gave the company the green light and praised the measures it had taken to distance itself from the Prophet Muhammad caricatures that provoked mass demonstrations and riots across the Muslim world in January and February.

Arla had taken out newspaper advertisements condemning the publication of the cartoons and pledged to fund projects helping disabled children and cancer victims in the Middle East.

"We must differentiate between those who insulted us and those who stood by us," said Soliman Albuthi, spokesman for the International Committee for the Support of the Final Prophet, which is based in Washington.

‘Bold stance’
The group said its recommendation to end the Arla boycott would help Danish Muslims who had suffered discrimination in a backlash because of the boycott.

It also referred to the conference of Muslim scholars in Bahrain last month, in which its played a leading role. The conference expressed appreciation for Arla's "bold stance," saying "it was a good start for opening a dialogue with this organization to establish a common ground to reach a common understanding."

In Bahrain, a local spokesman for the group, Adel Al-Maawdah, said the end of the Arla boycott was "a clear message that we had no intention to harm Western interests, and that our concern and anger were directed against the offensive cartoons."

Al-Maawdah, who is also a cleric and member of parliament, added that the boycott had only been lifted against Arla. Asked why the move was not extended to other companies, he replied: "This company apologized to Muslims and sponsored humanitarian projects for the needy."

Albuthi suggested the group would consider lifting the boycott against other Danish companies if they made the right moves. "Other companies must state their position," he said in a call from Saudi Arabia.

Arla estimates it has lost as much as $65 million because of the boycott, which began in January. The company produces milk, powdered milk, cheese and butter.

"It is up to the merchant to sell the products or not, and likewise with the consumers, they can buy it or reject it," said Sheik Salman el-Awda, the secretary general of the Islamic group, speaking by phone from Saudi Arabia.

Arla said it knew that reservations remained.

"We're fully aware that many Arab consumers remain skeptical about our products, so we plan to adjust certain parts of our marketing," Hansen said.

Full-page ad
In a full-page ad in Asharq al-Awsat on Wednesday, Arla thanked the Bahrain conference for its decision to exclude it from the boycott. It pledged to sponsor "an international conference about the Prophet Muhammad for better understanding between world religions and cultures."

Praising Arla's move, Albuthi said: "Had the government of Denmark taken these positions, this crisis would have been resolved a long time ago and would not have taken such scope."

The newspaper that published the cartoons in September apologized for offending Muslims, but stood by its decision to print the drawings as an expression of free speech. The Danish government said that it could not stop a newspaper from publishing such drawings, and it could not apologize for something for which it was not responsible.

The protests of the cartoons turned violent in several countries, with European diplomatic missions being attacked in Lebanon, Libya and Syria. Protesters were shot dead in Libya and Afghanistan.