McDonald’s Mideast franchises offer side of politics with their burgers

BEIRUT — As Israel’s war in Gaza spreads anger and anxiety across the Middle East, one of America’s most famous brands has found itself in the thick of it: McDonald’s.

It all started earlier this month when a McDonald’s franchise in Israel run by Alonyal Limited said it would provide free meals to Israeli soldiers as well as hospitals.

Franchises elsewhere in the Middle East were quick to distance themselves, saying they had nothing to do with the decision to serve soldiers, and some began making donations to Gaza in solidarity with the Palestinians.

Then in the wake of a horrific strike on a Gaza hospital that killed hundreds, several branches of the chain were vandalized in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt.

With more than 40,000 stores worldwide at the end of 2021, McDonald’s is one of the globe’s most recognized brands and is closely associated with America — even though the vast majority of the restaurants are locally owned under the franchise system.

Over the years, the stores with their highly recognizable golden arches have been repeatedly targeted as symbols of the United States, especially in the Middle East.

Unlike U.S. Embassies with their concrete walls and police protection, McDonald’s and other fast-food franchises have been easy marks for politically motivated vandalism.

The emergence of McDonald’s as a flash point harks back to an era of Arab boycotts of American brands in the early 2000s, during the second Palestinian intifada and after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. During the Arab Spring protests in Cairo in 2011, the fast-food restaurants around Tahrir Square were attacked, gutted and turned into first aid stations for protesters.

The current storm over the hamburger chain has intensified as the death toll has soared in Gaza following nearly two weeks of Israeli bombardment, sparked by a deadly Hamas incursion into Israel.

A week into the crisis, franchises in Turkey, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon and across the Persian Gulf released statements distancing themselves from the actions of their Israeli counterparts. The McDonald’s Corporation did not respond to a request for comment on the political and charitable activities of franchisees.

“What the licensee in Israel did was an individual and private act, and not with the approval or direction of the international company or any other licensee, especially in our Arab world,” read a statement released by Al Maousherji Catering Company, which operates McDonald’s Kuwait.

Franchises in Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Turkey, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia donated money to Gaza. Others, in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan, released statements but only later, under pressure, offered money.

But those gestures did not stop calls for a boycott of the fast-food company, as well as attacks on some locations. In Egypt, boycott calls quickly circulated online as many people took to social media to express their anger.

“This famous restaurant which gives food to [Israel] which we eat everyday and has locations in all of Egypt, we all know it but I can’t name it … this restaurant as of today should not be around, this is the least we can do,” said TikTok star Ahmad Nagy, speaking with a blurred photo of the golden arches behind him in a video that has so far received 1.3 million views.

The vitriol spurred a popular Egyptian talk show host, Amr Adib, to tell his viewers on Oct. 14 to not boycott the local franchise because it is owned by the Egyptian billionaire Yaseen Mansour and provides jobs to countless Egyptians, he said.

“What is the point of closing McDonald’s … what is the point of hurting this man and hurting people’s livelihoods?” he said. Egypt’s franchisee, Manfoods, said in a statement that it provides “more than 40,000 job opportunities directly and indirectly for Egyptian citizens.”

In response to these concerns, Tafwela, a local restaurant, posted an ad on Facebook offering to hire McDonald’s defectors. “Anyone who wants to stop working at places that support those who kill our brothers, talk to us, and God willing, we will give you a good salary.”

In a viral post on TikTok, Egyptian influencer Ali Ghozlan called McDonald’s out for not showing support to Gaza. “Just release a post, one post saying I support our family Gaza.”

In response to the criticism, Manfoods on Sunday announced that it would donate 20 million Egyptian pounds ($650,000) for relief efforts in Gaza.

“McDonalds Egypt today announced that they’ll donate 20 million pounds for the cause. I’ll say this again, your voice can make a difference, and this is the result!” Nagy said in a TikTok.

Meanwhile, in Israel, the local McDonald’s franchise has had to battle rumors that it’s supporting the Palestinians, threatening legal action against anyone spreading such stories. It said on its X account that it has donated 100,0000 meals to security forces and local hospitals and is offering 50 percent discounts to members of the rescue and security forces.

Calls for boycotts of McDonald’s are not uncommon in the region. During the second intifada, McDonald’s and other American products faced boycott calls across the Arab world. At the time, Reuters reported that the franchiser of McDonald’s Saudi Arabia responded by raising money to donate to Palestinian hospitals. Egypt’s operator took out a full-page ad in the local daily Al-Ahram saying it employed 3,000 people.

In 2003, after the start of the Iraq War, a McDonald’s in Beirut was targeted in a bomb attack, wounding five.

A 2008 University of Minnesota study found that American multinational corporations such as McDonald’s adopted strategies such as making donations and emphasizing the impact on the local economy to quell boycott calls during the second intifada. It also spurred them to localize their offerings by introducing items such as the McFalafel in 2001.

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