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Business on a tightrope

February 19, 2017

AMERICAN businesses operating in Muslim-majority countries seem to be just one tweet away from ruin, thanks to frequent Twitter tantrums and country-specific executive orders by President Trump.

It may only be a matter of time before deep-rooted anti-Americanism manifests itself in passionate calls for boycotting US products and services should the new US administration continue to antagonise international trade partners. For example, a late-night ‘twitterstorm’ by President Trump denigrating Pakistan can spell disaster for dozens of American companies operating in the country.

So how frightened are American businesses in Pakistan these days? Nobody knows because they remain tight-lipped. The American Business Council of Pakistan (ABC), a 67-member representative body of large US companies operating locally, is avoiding any brush with media. None of its 11 office-bearers were available to comment on the issue, according to ABC Secretary-General Amna Daudi.

Speaking to Dawn, former ABC president Saad Amanullah Khan said big American businesses are deeply concerned about the direction the United States is taking under the new administration. “There’s been no policy change yet. But the whole atmosphere here is of anticipation,” said Khan, who worked in Ohio-based P&G for three decades and led Gillette Pakistan for more than seven years.

Member-companies of the ABC and Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry (OICCI) are apprehensive, he said. “Building walls and imposing import duties don’t send a good message to the rest of the world,” he said.

According to Bilal Khan, a senior economist at Standard Chartered Pakistan, the prospect of a large-scale boycott of US products and services in the event of a travel ban on Pakistanis remains highly unlikely.

OICCI Secretary-General Abdul Aleem believes the hype being built around the idea of global American businesses taking a hit because of President Trump’s policies is unfounded. “We’re not at a stage where Pakistanis start boycotting American products,” said Aleem whose organisation has 31 member-companies of American origin.

There has been no noticeable change in direct investment from the US as a result of Trump’s executive orders, Aleem said. It is business as usual as far as imports are concerned, he added. “Pakistan is not Mexico. Their decision to exclude Pakistan from the ban list must have been well-thought-out,” he said.

Published in Dawn, February 19th, 2017