McDonald’s, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Burger King and the list goes on. Since the start of the Hamas-Israel war on Oct.7, calls to boycott companies suspected of supporting Israel have spread across social media.
Such calls have sometimes been heeded and followed with concrete action, especially throughout the region . The climate of hostility has gone well beyond the initial scope of such calls, and on several instances, protesters have stormed various chains. In one extreme instance, protesters released rats into a McDonald's while people dined.
American fast-food chain McDonald’s, which has been emblematic of Uncle Sam, especially became a target across Arab-Muslim countries. This is because the McDonald’s Israel franchise announced on Oct. 13 that it was offering thousands of free meals to military personnel engaged in the war against Hamas. This announcement triggered anger throughout the region, including in Lebanon, and embarrassed many of the brand’s Arab franchise branches.
Without mentioning this specific case, Miknas Food, a McDonald’s franchisee in Lebanon, has pledged to donate $70,000 to an organization helping the Palestinian population, thus joining its counterparts in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. The action was taken “in solidarity (...) with the suffering of the civilian population in Gaza,” the Lebanese company announced in a press release.
The situation prompted the parent company to publish a statement on the social media pages of several of its Middle East franchises in early November. McDonald’s noted that it “neither finances nor supports any government in this conflict.”
“The actions of our business partners with local development licenses were taken independently, without the consent or approval of McDonald’s,” it added.
Impact still unknown
Speaking to L’Orient-Le Jour, Miknas Food declined to comment on the matter and refused to divulge information about the possible impact of the boycott on its sales.
“It is still too early to be able to put a precise figure on the impact of such campaigns in Lebanon, or even to see if they are having a real effect,” said Tony Nehme, a member of the Lebanese Franchise Association (LFA), a body that represents foreign franchise owners in Lebanon and Lebanese brands franchised abroad.
Nehme condemned the unproductive nature of the boycotts. “Most of the damage is done to Lebanese investors, who undertake to represent certain brands, and to their Lebanese workers,” he said.
He asserted that the vast majority of revenue generated by these foreign brands remains in the Lebanese economy, which has been in crisis since 2019. “The royalty fees paid to the parent companies are usually from four to seven percent of annual turnover, to which must also be added the fees paid at the start of the representation contract,” he said.
“Boycotting some products locally could lead to the same thing happening to our products and brands abroad,” he warned.
Nehme said there are currently around 50 Lebanese franchises that have succeeded in exporting their products and which could face negative repercussions.
“This type of action is nothing new and comes to the fore every time the Palestinian-Israeli issue becomes controversial. But this time it's way bigger,” said Amr Saad Eddin, researcher and author of “the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel,” launched in 2005 as part of the second intifada.
“It represents a peaceful means of putting pressure on Israel or any country or company that supports it. Companies like Hyundai, Caterpillar and HP, which sell technologies that enable the Israeli government to better control and enslave the Palestinian population, are also concerned,” Saad Eddin added.
In some cases, this pressure has born fruit. On its official website, the Boycott Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement said it contributed to a 46 percent drop in foreign direct investment in Israel between 2013 and 2014, and to the withdrawal of some international companies from Israel after the boycotts caused them huge losses.
One of the most notable examples is French water and energy efficiency giant Veolia, which withdrew from the Israeli market in 2015 after the boycott caused them over $20 billion in losses.
While boycott campaigns have existed before, they are now being amplified and finding new audiences due to social media, where false information is also spread. “One must not have blind faith in everything that circulates on the networks. Some brands like Starbucks are victims of a false reputation imposed on them because of their country of origin, among other things,” said Rami Salameh, a member of the Campaign to Boycott Supporters of Israel in Lebanon.
Founded in 2002, the collective uses information campaigns to promote economic, artistic and academic boycotts, among other things, to put pressure on Israel and its supporters. “Although Starbucks is targeted throughout the Arab world, it is not on any serious list of products or brands to be boycotted,” he added. Starbucks withdrew from the Israeli market in 2003. For his part, Amr Saad Eddine defends recent calls to boycott the American chain, which "recently filed a complaint against one of its workers' unions (Starbucks Workers United (SWU)), after the latter displayed its solidarity with Palestine. In the case of Starbucks, it's not a question of false information", he stresses.
“Others, such as the Swiss giant, Nestlé, are less often singled out on social media, although in some cases they openly support the Israeli state and appear on all the boycott lists,” added Salameh, whose collective lists some 50 brands ranging from digital giants Amazon and Google to clothing brands like Nike and Puma, and food groups including Mondelez, Coca Cola and PepsiCo.
NB: This article was modified on November 20 at 2:30pm to add a clarification from Amr Saad Eddine regarding recent calls to boycott Starbucks.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.