Why McDonald’s, Starbucks and other American brands continue to pay the price of politics in the Middle East

Why McDonald’s, Starbucks and other American brands continue to pay the price of politics in the Middle East
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Updated 27 October 2023
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Why McDonald’s, Starbucks and other American brands continue to pay the price of politics in the Middle East

Why McDonald’s, Starbucks and other American brands continue to pay the price of politics in the Middle East
  • Campaigners are boycotting US franchises to express solidarity with Gaza and protest against perceived bias
  • Attacks on stores in Lebanon echo similar scenes from the time of the Second Intifada and the Iraq War

RIYADH: Whenever conflicts erupt in the Middle East, American consumer brands are often among the first targets of public anger. The war in Gaza has been no different, with McDonald’s and Starbucks branches in Lebanon attacked and consumer boycotts announced throughout the region.

These attacks and boycotts echo similar scenes from the time of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s and the Iraq War era, which prompted a ban on Coca-Cola that remained in place in many Arab countries for decades, giving its rival Pepsi a market advantage enjoyed to this day.

As Israel continues its bombardment of the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the Hamas attack of Oct. 7, Arabs have again launched a boycott of American franchises in the region to voice their solidarity with the Palestinians and to protest the perceived bias towards Israel.

At the heart of the controversy is McDonald’s — the world’s biggest fast-food chain — after the burger giant’s Israeli franchise announced it was sending thousands of meals to Israeli soldiers stationed on the front line against Hamas.

Arabs condemned the company after videos circulated on social media showing uniformed Israeli Defense Force troops enjoying McDonald’s branded burgers, fries and milkshakes — in stark contrast with the hunger and thirst-ravaged Gazan civilians just across the border.

It is not just McDonald’s that has faced a grilling for its perceived pro-Israel stance. Other American brands, including Starbucks, Burger King, Hardee’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Dominos, are also facing boycotts across the Arab world.

“Arab boycotts of American franchises due to the Palestine-Israel conflict highlight the deep-rooted emotions and political activism that this issue stirs in the region,” Ehsan Amin, a 35-year-old Saudi and private sector worker, told Arab News.




Smoke and fire rise from a levelled building as people gather amid the destruction in the aftermath of an Israeli strike on Gaza City on October 26, 2023. (AFP)

“Every person has their way of showing solidarity. Some protest in the streets and others boycott. I chose to boycott. This serves as a means for my voice to call out the Western bias in favor of Israel.”

Boycotts are a familiar tactic employed by Arab activists against multinational corporations that are viewed as supporters of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands in the West Bank and military operations in Gaza.

Since the conflict erupted on Oct. 7, many Arab nations have accused the US of favoring Israel over the Palestinians. With limited means of influencing US policy, Arab consumers are instead voting with their feet and choosing to spurn American brands.

“The recent events in Gaza have expectedly reignited the region’s deep solidarity with the Palestinian people and heightened sensitivity to corporate messaging,” Amjad Ahmad, chairman of the Atlantic Council’s empowerME Initiative, told Arab News.

“For global brands, this is a tenuous time, and they must lean forward to ensure they don’t offend their diverse consumers.

“Unfortunately, this can be challenging for franchisors with disparate local owners. However, this does not absolve them of the responsibility to do so, and most contractual franchise agreements allow them a certain amount of control, especially concerning communications.”

The influence of social media in promoting these boycotts cannot be understated. Platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram have allowed activists to rally support for their cause, sharing information and updates about which companies to boycott and why.

“Given the size and virality of social media, consumer advocacy is more powerful than ever and can have an outsized impact, positively and negatively, on brands,” said Ahmad. “Global brands, particularly, have a unique challenge in managing communications, given their vast and diverse footprint.”

However, customers may not be aware there is a distinction between a company’s global management and its regional franchises. Indeed, the actions of McDonald’s Israel do not necessarily reflect the views of the company as a whole or its other branches.

In fact, McDonald’s outlets in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the UAE, Malaysia, Pakistan and other states have offered support to the Palestinian people by providing financial relief and messages of solidarity.

Following the news that McDonald’s Israel was donating meals to IDF soldiers, McDonald’s KSA released a statement on X emphasizing this was an independent decision, stressing that the actions of individual franchise partners do not reflect company policy.

“As a purely Saudi company, we have been proud, since our inception, of our Saudi identity, and our continuous contribution to supporting our economy and national community, and adopting social and humanitarian matters that it (our community) is concerned with,” McDonald’s KSA said.

In alignment with these values, “we are delighted to announce that McDonald’s KSA will be making a donation of SR2 million ($533,000) to support the relief efforts for the citizens of Gaza, may God help them. This contribution follows coordination with the relevant official authorities.”

Franchises in Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Turkiye, Bahrain, Pakistan, the UAE, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt have likewise donated money to Gaza.




Gazan health authorities said at least 6,500 people have been killed since Oct. 7, 2023. (AFP)

The vast majority of McDonald’s locations are run by local franchise operators. These operators act in many ways as independent businesses, setting wages and prices and, when they feel appropriate, making statements or donations at their discretion.

When American restaurants expand internationally, they typically rely on local franchise operators because regional business owners are better equipped to deal with local dynamics and appeal to local tastes. In doing so, they also cede some control over the business.

The effectiveness of boycotts in bringing about meaningful political change therefore remains a topic of debate. Critics argue that the impact on American franchises may be limited, but proponents believe that it serves as a powerful expression of solidarity and resistance.

“Middle East consumers can pressure brands by voting with their wallets, especially those brands with meaningful revenues in the region. Their actions may also spark a worldwide movement, multiplying the effect,” said Ahmad.

“Using economic pressure can be the most potent tool to protest, especially in countries with limited freedoms. Historically, financial pressure or boycotts have been used effectively, including during the US civil rights movement, in apartheid South Africa, and most recently against Russia.

“With the US’s unequivocal and unwavering support of Israel, US brands are particularly vulnerable. They may be negatively impacted in the short term with an elevated risk for long-term damage. Just as popular US brands prospered with the rise of America’s soft power, they will weaken with its potential decline.”

One of the most prominent instances of such a boycott occurred after the US officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017 and subsequently relocated its embassy to the city from Tel Aviv.

This move was met with condemnation across the Arab world, as it was seen as a significant deviation from long standing international agreements regarding the status of Jerusalem.

In response, many Arab consumers and businesses initiated boycotts of American franchises like McDonald’s, Starbucks, and KFC.

In some cases, boycotts have had tangible financial impacts, but they can be hard to sustain long term.

“While we may not always have a substantial economic impact on the franchises, they are a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause,” boycotter Amin told Arab News.

“They are also a way for us to engage with a complex geopolitical issue that deeply resonates with the region.”


Daesh attack in Syria kills three soldiers: war monitor

Daesh attack in Syria kills three soldiers: war monitor
Updated 43 min 25 sec ago
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Daesh attack in Syria kills three soldiers: war monitor

Daesh attack in Syria kills three soldiers: war monitor
  • The militants “attacked a site where... regime forces were stationed“
  • The Syrian army had sent forces to the area, where Daesh attacks are common

BEIRUT: Daesh group militants killed three Syrian soldiers in an attack Tuesday on an army position in the Badia desert, a war monitor said.
The militants “attacked a site where... regime forces were stationed,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, adding that a lieutenant colonel and two soldiers died.
The Syrian army had sent forces to the area, where Daesh attacks are common, ahead of an expected wider sweep, said the Britain-based Observatory which has a network of sources inside the country.
In an attack on May 3, Daesh fighters killed at least 15 Syrian pro-government fighters when they targeted three military positions in the desert, the Observatory had reported.
Daesh overran large swathes of Syria and Iraq in 2014, proclaiming a so-called caliphate and launching a reign of terror.
It was defeated territorially in Syria in 2019, but its remnants still carry out deadly attacks, particularly against pro-government forces and Kurdish-led fighters in Badia desert.
Syria’s war has claimed more than half a million lives and displaced millions more since it erupted in March 2011 with Damascus’s brutal repression of anti-government protests.


At least 9 Egyptian women and children die when vehicle slides off ferry and plunges into Nile River

At least 9 Egyptian women and children die when vehicle slides off ferry and plunges into Nile River
Updated 28 min 15 sec ago
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At least 9 Egyptian women and children die when vehicle slides off ferry and plunges into Nile River

At least 9 Egyptian women and children die when vehicle slides off ferry and plunges into Nile River
  • The accident, which happened in Monshat el-Kanater town in Giza province, also injured nine other passengers

CAIRO: At least nine Egyptian women and children died Tuesday when a small bus carrying about two dozen people slid off a ferry and plunged into the Nile River just outside Cairo, health authorities said.
The accident, which happened in Monshat el-Kanater town in Giza province, injured nine other passengers, the Health Ministry said in a statement. Giza is one of three provinces forming Greater Cairo.
Six of the injured were treated at the site while three others were transferred to hospitals. The ministry didn’t elaborate on their injuries.
A list of the nine dead obtained by The Associated Press showed four were minors.
Giza provincial Gov. Ahmed Rashed said the bus was retrieved from the river and rescue efforts were still underway as of midday Tuesday.
The cause of the accident was not immediately clear.
According to the state-owned Akhbar daily, about two dozen passengers, mostly women, were in the vehicle heading to work when the accident occurred. It said security forces detained the vehicle driver.
Ferry, railway and road accidents are common in Egypt, mainly because of poor maintenance and lack of regulations. In February, a ferry carrying day laborers sank in the Nile in Giza, killing at least 10 of the 15 people on board.


Syrian first lady Asma Assad has leukemia, presidency says

Syrian first lady Asma Assad has leukemia, presidency says
Updated 21 May 2024
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Syrian first lady Asma Assad has leukemia, presidency says

Syrian first lady Asma Assad has leukemia, presidency says
  • Statement stated that Asma would undergo a special treatment protocol that would require her to isolate

DUBAI: Syria’s first lady, Asma Assad, has been diagnosed with leukemia, the Syrian presidency said on Tuesday, almost five years after she announced she had fully recovered from breast cancer.
The statement said Asma, 48, would undergo a special treatment protocol that would require her to isolate, and that she would step away from public engagements as a result.
In August 2019, Asma said she had fully recovered from breast cancer that she said had been discovered early.
Since Syria plunged into war in 2011, the British-born former investment banker has taken on the public role of leading charity efforts and meeting families of killed soldiers, but has also become hated by the opposition.
She runs the Syria Trust for Development, a large NGO that acts as an umbrella organization for many of the aid and development operations in Syria.
Last year, she accompanied her husband, President Bashar Assad ,on a visit to the United Arab Emirates, her first known official trip abroad with him since 2011. She met Sheikha Fatima bint Mubarak, the Emirati president’s mother, during a trip seen as a public signal of her growing role in public affairs.


Yemen’s Houthis say they downed US drone over Al-Bayda province

Yemen’s Houthis say they downed US drone over Al-Bayda province
Updated 21 May 2024
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Yemen’s Houthis say they downed US drone over Al-Bayda province

Yemen’s Houthis say they downed US drone over Al-Bayda province
  • The Houthis said last Friday they downed another US MQ9 drone over the southeastern province of Maareb

DUBAI: Yemen’s Houthis downed a US MQ9 drone over Al-Bayda province in southern Yemen, the Iran-aligned group’s military spokesperson said in a televised statement on Tuesday.

Yahya Saree said the drone was targeted with a locally made surface-to-air missile and that videos to support the claim would be released.

The Houthis said last Friday they downed another US MQ9 drone over the southeastern province of Maareb.

The group, which controls Yemen’s capital and most populous areas of the Arabian Peninsula state, has attacked international shipping in the Red Sea since November in solidarity with the Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas militants, drawing US and British retaliatory strikes since February.


Iranians pay last respects to President Ebrahim Raisi

People mourn the death of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a helicopter crash.
People mourn the death of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a helicopter crash.
Updated 21 May 2024
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Iranians pay last respects to President Ebrahim Raisi

People mourn the death of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in a helicopter crash.
  • Mourners set off from a central square in the northwestern city of Tabriz
  • Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declares five days of national mourning

TEHRAN: Tens of thousands of Iranians gathered Tuesday to mourn president Ebrahim Raisi and seven members of his entourage who were killed in a helicopter crash on a fog-shrouded mountainside in the northwest.

Waving Iranian flags and portraits of the late president, mourners set off from a central square in the northwestern city of Tabriz, where Raisi was headed when his helicopter crashed on Sunday.

They walked behind a lorry carrying the coffins of Raisi and his seven aides.

Their helicopter lost communications while it was on its way back to Tabriz after Raisi attended the inauguration of a joint dam project on the Aras river, which forms part of the border with Azerbaijan, in a ceremony with his counterpart Ilham Aliyev.

A massive search and rescue operation was launched on Sunday when two other helicopters flying alongside Raisi’s lost contact with his aircraft in bad weather.

State television announced his death in a report early on Monday, saying “the servant of the Iranian nation, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, has achieved the highest level of martyrdom,” showing pictures of him as a voice recited the Qur’an.

Killed alongside the Iranian president were Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, provincial officials and members of his security team.

Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri ordered an investigation into the cause of the crash as Iranians in cities nationwide gathered to mourn Raisi and his entourage.

Tens of thousands gathered in the capital’s Valiasr Square on Monday.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ultimate authority in Iran, declared five days of national mourning and assigned vice president Mohammad Mokhber, 68, as caretaker president until a presidential election can be held.

State media later announced that the election would will be held on June 28.

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, who served as deputy to Amir-Abdollahian, was named acting foreign minister.

From Tabriz, Raisi’s body will be flown to the Shiite clerical center of Qom on Tuesday before being moved to Tehran that evening.

Processions will be held in in the capital on Wednesday morning before Khamenei leads prayers at a farewell ceremony.

Raisi’s body will then be flown to his home city of Mashhad, in the northeast, where he will be buried on Thursday evening after funeral rites.

Raisi, 63, had been in office since 2021. The ultra-conservative’s time in office saw mass protests, a deepening economic crisis and unprecedented armed exchanges with arch-enemy Israel.

Raisi succeeded the moderate Hassan Rouhani, at a time when the economy was battered by US sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear activities.

Condolence messages flooded in from Iran’s allies around the region, including the Syrian government, Palestinian militant group Hamas and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

It was an unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel that sparked the devastating war in Gaza, now in its eighth month, and soaring tensions between Israel and the “resistance axis” led by Iran.

Israel’s killing of seven Revolutionary Guards in a drone strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus on April 1 triggered Iran’s first ever direct attack on Israel, involving hundreds of missiles and drones.

In a speech hours before his death, Raisi underlined Iran’s support for the Palestinians, a centerpiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Palestinian flags were raised alongside Iranian flags at ceremonies held for the late president.