Africa & Israel

By Victor Dial 

In the summer of 1967, I was assigned the task of setting up a new Ford office in Paris to provide closer support to Ford distributors in French-speaking Africa, and the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. When Ford’s Beirut office was closed, Israel was added to its territory. The most important countries were the former French colonies such Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Cameroun, Congo (Brazzaville) and a number of other, even poorer ones. It also included the former Belgian territories of the Congo (now Zaire), Rwanda, and Burundi.

Soon after my appointment, I began visiting “my” new territory. The first trip was fascinating, exciting, full of discovery. At first, I didn’t notice the heat, the dirt, the poverty, the traffic jams, the outages, the disorganization, the sporadic water supply, the corruption, or the black-on-black racism. Tribal loyalty trumped loyalty to the State. I began to notice these things on the second visit. By my third trip I couldn’t wait to board the Air France or Sabena flight back to Europe. In early 1970 I was transferred to a new job with Ford in London.

Herewith are some of my souvenirs.

The Congo

The Congo was ruled by Belgium until it became independent in 1960. Following independence chaos reigned, but in 1965 it was pacified by a former sergeant in the Belgian-Congolese army who rose meteorically to the rank of Lieutenant-General, a certain Joseph-Désiré Mobutu. He later changed his name to Mobuto Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. The Congo became Zaire.

It was pretty typical in the post-independence era for former colonies to proclaim their new status by having their own airline and making their own vehicles: the Congo solicited proposals from Ford and others to set up local assembly plants. When Mobutu decided to attend the UN General Assembly in New York, he asked the American ambassador to arrange a meeting with Henry Ford II to discuss his project, and Mr. Ford agreed. I was instructed to fly from Paris to Detroit, accompany Mr. Ford to Teterboro, and brief him on conditions in the Congo, on Mobutu, and on the status of our proposal.

Mr. Ford and I met Mobutu in his luxurious apartment in the Waldorf Towers. The meeting was cordial and business-like, with courtiers surrounding Mobutu, hanging on his every word. Mr. Ford was quite the diplomat. He acknowledged that the Congo was an important market and promised we’d present an attractive offer.

After the meeting, Mr. Ford asked me if I had time to have a drink with him back at his apartment at the Carlyle. (Are you kidding?) He had a duplex apartment filled with impressionist paintings and pictures of his beautiful new Italian wife Christina (she had stayed behind in Grosse Pointe). He’d recently been on the cover of Time magazine. He was a courteous host, and I was fascinated to observe him up close, alone.

The Congo was immensely wealthy, blessed with plentiful deposits of copper and diamonds. Even with corruption and mismanagement, or perhaps because of it, the market for vehicles was significant. So, between the assembly plant proposal and on-going business I made a number of trips there. Decent hotel accommodation in the capital (Leopoldville, renamed Kinshasa) was difficult: there was only one good hotel, and it was often over-booked or even commandeered at short notice by the government. I regularly made courtesy calls on US ambassadors in my travels (Ford opened many doors), and some occasionally offered me accommodation. This was sometimes the case in Kinshasa where the embassy had a guest house within its spacious grounds.

A new ambassador to the Congo arrived in 1969, named Sheldon Vance. He was a charming career diplomat. One evening stands out in my memory. The Ambassador excitedly asked me to have dinner with him at the residence: “Victor,” he said, “this is an historic day for this country, remember the date!”. My goodness, I thought, what happened? He told me he’d had a wonderful meeting earlier in the day with the President (Mobuto), and “I’m going to repeat to you word for word what went on.” I was all ears. “I told the President that I was sorry to be bringing him bad news, but that I felt it was (my) duty to inform him that there was an immense amount of corruption in his country, and that unless it stops, the US might have no choice but to reduce its aid.” I held nothing back, he said, “I told him everything.” How did the General react, I asked? “He was shocked.” The President found it “hard to believe,” and was sure that the Ambassador was “…greatly exaggerating. It’s possible there may be minor corruption here and there; it is the African way, but I assure you there is nothing significant going on — if there was, I would know about it!” Vance continued: “the President made me a solemn promise – I will not tolerate corruption in this country! If it exists I will stamp it out with all the resources at my command. I will start tomorrow!” “Victor,” Sheldon said, “I feel I have been able to bring historic change for the better to this country; This is one of the most satisfying days of my career. I’ve just finished writing a cable to Washington with the great news.”

Vance was a bit naïve – quite a trick coming from me! It was common knowledge that Mobutu’s own (number one) wife was filling hers and the General’s pockets with much of the country’s immense wealth; it was estimated he and his family stole more than $1 billion during his reign. If he was interested in the Ambassador’s words it was only because he thought someone else might be horning in.

One day Jacques Bogaert, our distributor’s managing director, suggested I visit their large distributorship in Katanga province, a thousand miles to the southeast. This was the region where most of the country’s mineral wealth originated. Katanga had a long history of revolt, military coups, lawlessness, and vicious criminality: not too long before a group of catholic nuns had been raped and massacred. I wasn’t too sure about the wisdom of the trip, and briefly wondered whether Bogaert wanted to get rid of me.

The US embassy had a Consulate in Lubumbashi (ex Elisabethville), the capital. The consul was named Bill Harrop whom I’d met and befriended when he was serving at our embassy in Brussels. He was brave — he’d been to Harvard — and better yet had been a Marine. So I wired Bill and asked him what he thought. He kindly offered me bed and breakfast, promising I’d be safe and comfortable. As I couldn’t think of another reason to back out without revealing abject timidity, off I went.

Bill wanted me to get a feel for the local culture, so we went out for dinner together, driving in his big old American Chevrolet. He was flying the American flag on the front fender and I remarked on it. He said that strictly speaking only ambassadors were allowed to fly the flag, but he did it anyway, it was safer. After dinner, as we were returning home in utter darkness our headlights suddenly illuminated four soldiers standing in the middle of the road, brandishing assault weapons. The soldiers were very black, like the moonless night, and it was a lucky thing Bill spotted them in time. Bill told me to stay calm and let him do the talking. The soldiers surrounded the car and motioned for us to roll down our windows. Two of them stuck their heads and the muzzles of their guns into our faces. The smell of their dirty bodies and alcohol was overwhelming. I would have choked if I hadn’t been so scared. Bill calmly explained that he was the big chief from America and pointed to the fanion. He also gave them the equivalent of two dollars. After a few tense minutes, they let us go. I was glad to get back to Bill’s place, and for once I was even glad to arrive back in Kinshasa later the next day.

[Bill Harrop went on to have a distinguished Ambassadorial career, serving in Guinea, Kenya, Zaire, and Israel. He ended his career in Washington as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.]

In the end, we chose not to bid for the plant. There was just too much corruption. The contract was awarded to our great rival, General Motors. 


Shortly after achieving independence from France, Morocco banned virtually all vehicle imports, so local assembly was a prerequisite. Some years before, Ford had entered into an agreement with a local assembler called SAIDA. This company was jointly owned and managed by two powerful Moroccan families. The King secretly shared in the profits (if any), as he did indeed in almost every large-size business in his kingdom.

Ford’s situation was complex: SAIDA had the assembly rights for Ford trucks, whereas the distribution franchise was with Auto Hall, owned and operated by Jacques Meslin, a Frenchman. Auto Hall had magnificent sales and service facilities throughout the country, but was living on borrowed time: the government and the municipality were squeezing him with taxes and regulations, hoping they could force him out and seize his property without having to pay for it; SAIDA, as his sole supplier was squeezing him on the other side by charging exorbitant fees for its assembly work. Auto Hall complained that the trucks SAIDA assembled were of poor quality, that they provided no reliable production information, and regularly raised transfer prices without prior notice or justification. SAIDA complained that Meslin was a poor salesman, provided poor service, and set retail prices too high; SAIDA didn’t have enough volume, so it was forced to raise its transfer price to make a decent return. It was a peculiar relationship: each party needed the other, but there was permanent conflict between them.

But help was on its way! Into the breach stepped a seasoned international negotiator, a certain Victor Dial (recently turned 29). He would sort this out, once and for all! He would sit down with both parties, and mediate a written agreement that would deal with outstanding operational issues, and establish ground-rules for transfer pricing based on independently-established economic indices that both sides could accept. After days of haggling, skillfully arbitrated by me, the two parties came to a three-year agreement setting forth terms and procedures that would enable them to work together harmoniously for the greater good of their businesses, and for Ford. That night we celebrated together at a lavish dinner generously offered by the managing Moroccan partner — I’ll call him Osman — at his elegant house. After coffee, the two parties formally signed the agreement, and I witnessed it.

I returned triumphantly to Paris early the next morning, but on arrival found a message to call Meslin — urgently. He told me he’d just received a hand-delivered letter from Osman announcing a transfer price increase! I was stunned. I called Osman and asked him what was going on. He blithely explained that earlier that morning his accountants had brought him news of some  unanticipated internal cost increases, so he’d decided to raise prices. I reminded him of the agreement he’d agreed the evening before, linking increases only to changes to public indices. “Oh that,” he said….“that was yesterday.”

Several years later Osman was appointed Minister of Justice.


Renault and Peugeot had dominant positions in Algeria because the French government made foreign exchange available to Algeria, much of which was used to import French products, notably cars and trucks. From time to time the Algerian government got the urge to escape its dependence on the French. In 1969 the government announced its grandiose intent to establish a complete automotive manufacturing industry: making engines, transmissions, axles, foundries, and stamping plants. The idea was to make an “Algerian” car, which would supply the Algerian market, export it to its neighbors to the east and west, and then — while we’re at it — sell it throughout the rest of Africa and the Middle East. Ford and five others were pre-selected and invited to submit proposals.

While I had been beavering away in darkest Africa, Ford had established a large European HQ outside of London, and beefed up the management. Ed Molina was appointed Vice President of Sales Operations, and became my new “big” boss (there were several “lesser” ones between him and me). He was an experienced manager, with down to earth common sense that was sometimes disconcerting. I was a big fan.

Learning of the Algerian project, Molina asked me to arrange a meeting with the Minister of Industry in Algiers – he wanted to talk to him about his project. I asked him if he needed my help to prepare for the meeting or our trip. “I’ll take care of everything, and pick you up in Paris.” As the company Gulfstream wasn’t available, another plane was chartered: a 44-seat commercial turboprop, with two pilots and two stewardesses (an unusual extravagance).

The welcoming committee at Algiers airport must have been surprised to see just the two of us dis-embark from such a large aircraft, but it improved our VIP status. We got to the hotel at about dinner-time, and our minder took us to a restaurant/cabaret, the best place in town. After dinner, the lights were dimmed for the show, and the orchestra warmed up. The warm-up seemed to be taking quite a while, so I asked our host when the show would begin. He said their routine was well underway – that’s when I first realized I didn’t care for Arab music.

Our meeting the next morning was, let’s say …interesting. The Minister and his entourage probably expected us to hand out a presentation book, with slides, spreadsheets, etc., as had the five manufacturers that preceded us. We had absolutely nothing. Ed began the meeting by explaining that the Minister’s project was far too ambitious. As if to prove his point he then withdrew an A-4 envelope from his inside breast pocket and placed it carefully on the table before him. Then he took out a felt-tipped pen, and said out-loud as he wrote:

engine $200 million
transmission $100
foundry $75
forge $50
stamping $100
paint $75
assembly $200
working capital $100 etc.
$1 billion.

Triumphantly, Ed pointed to his “project envelope” and asked the Minister “where are you going to get that kind of money?” Without waiting for an answer he continued: “even if you raised the money, even if you built the factories, you’d never make a dime.” Ed was disconcertingly honest, and he added, in case it wasn’t clear, that Ford wouldn’t cooperate with  un-economic projects …. but — before the Minister could catch his breath — made a counter-proposal: Algeria should rather specialize in making labor intensive components: for example, exhaust systems, wiring harnesses, spark plugs, or fuel pumps: the Algerian operation could thus become a potential supplier to the automotive industry worldwide. This approach would create many jobs, would cost a lot less, and would generate sustainable profit and growth. Ford would make every effort to make that strategy a success. What Ed was saying was eminently sensible, of course, but it wasn’t what the Minister was after. He wanted Algerian cars, not Algerian spark plugs.

On the way to the airport Ed reiterated his point to me: no sense wasting everybody’s time on projects destined to fail. When we boarded our plane we discovered that the Minister’s sense of hospitality had clearly outweighed his disappointment at our message: cartons and cartons of Algerian wine, and a vast quantity of Algerian dates. They must have thought there were 44 of us! Ed was savvy enough to know to avoid the dangerously strong Algerian wine and gifted all of it to me. We dropped him off in London (Stansted) and continued on to Le Bourget, leaving me alone with the two stewardesses, the wine, and the dates; unfortunately Paris was only a one-hour flight, leaving little time for a bacchanalian orgy, even if the ingredients were to hand. The next day I arranged for a van to collect my cadeau empoisonné at the airport and bring it to the office where it could be widely shared.

In the end, the manufacturers that submitted formal proposals wasted unaccounted time and energy in fruitless and utterly useless discussions with the Algerian authorities. Every now and again the same grandiose project would re-surface; I ran into it again with Peugeot in the ‘80s. Nearly forty years later (2007), the authorities are still evaluating things.

Just in!!!!  The November 12, 2019 issue of Automotive News reported that PSA (Peugeot) was teaming up with three local partners to join Renault and VW in assembling a small number of cars in Algeria.


The Arab League declared a boycott of Ford products that came into effect in early 1967. The cause was Ford’s refusal to cease assembly of some 10,000 small passenger cars for civilian use in a small Israeli-owned plant in Nazareth. The same plant also assembled a Jeep-type vehicle supplied by Chrysler used primarily by the Israeli military. Amazingly, and for reasons I never completely understood, Chrysler was not threatened with boycott, only Ford.

Ford had been ranked number one in sales in the Middle East for decades with the best distributors, and the highest market share by far of any competitor, selling 40-50,000 units per year. The Ford office in Beirut coordinated these activities. The Arab League’s ultimatum went all the way to the Chairman’s office for decision. Henry Ford II refused to comply, and the boycott was applied – much to the consternation of many Ford executives who felt it was a mistake to lose our outstanding distributors to competitors, notably the Japanese, salivating at the opportunity. Mr. Ford’s decision to refuse the blackmail was courageous. Some thought it was because his grandfather, Henry Ford I, was openly and publicly anti-Semitic, even funding an anti-Semitic publication. Perhaps this was why many wealthy American Jews bought Cadillacs, not Lincolns. With this gesture, perhaps Mr. Ford hoped he might do something to redress the wrongs of his grandfather; his moral courage in this matter is one of the many reasons I admired the man.

My job was to offset as much as possible of the “lost” Arab business. I knew little about Israel, but the amazing outcome of the six-day war certainly demonstrated its military prowess.

On my first visit to Israel, I took an El Al flight from Paris to Tel Aviv, a continuation of a flight from New York. It was full of Jews! Most were wearing little round things on their head, and there were many orthodox Jews in their distinctive dress. When we began our descent to Tel Aviv the whole plane broke out singing — their excitement was palpable. The six-day war had been won scarcely a month before.

The sales manager of our distributor was at the airport to meet me. His name was Joe Bohbouth, and he was my age. He spoke perfect English. He was a reserve major in the artillery, and had distinguished himself in the recent six-day war. Joe was a Sabra, someone born on Israeli soil. His forbearers had immigrated to Israel from Russia in the late 19th century.

In the days and months that followed my first trip, Joe took me everywhere, including of course the newly-conquered eastern part of the magical city of Jerusalem. It was a major eye-opener for me: we visited a kibbutz; we explored all the biblical spots – Nazareth, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, Canaan, and on and on. He introduced me to many of the most important people in the country, from the great one-eyed General Moshe Dayan, to the sultry Mandy Rice-Davies. He explained the complicated history of the region. He was a wonderful host. There was an amazing euphoria in the country. It was fascinating.

Ford did reasonably well in Israel, but the Israeli market wasn’t anywhere near large enough for us to recover the volume we lost in the boycott countries. I don’t think the average Israeli customer (nor the Jewish community in the US) ever gave Ford the credit that Mr. Ford’s courageous and principled stance deserved.

Our Israeli distributor was a tough negotiator in all things. I learned that while negotiations in Israel were always difficult – as with other Middle Eastern countries, but minus the baksheesh – once an Israeli agreed, his word was his bond. No need to write things down. You could take it to the bank.

To this day, Joe and I still trade emails.

Victor Dial
February 2021, Gstaad

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