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Boycott campaigns over Gaza war hit Western brands in some Arab countries

November 22, 2023 at 8:13 pm

Rotterdam, Netherlands. Demonstrators outside a McDonald’s chant “Eat blood” to those inside the restaurant. Many pro-Palestinian individuals in different countries are beginning to boycott American products after President Biden’s support for Israeli airstrikes, as observed in Rotterdam on November 19, 2023 [MOUNEB TAIM/Middle East Images/AFP via Getty Images]

Midway through a recent evening in Cairo, a worker cleaned tables in an empty McDonald’s restaurant. Branches of other Western fast-food chains in the Egyptian capital also appeared deserted.

All have been hit by a boycott campaign over Israel’s military offensive in the Gaza Strip since the deadly Hamas attack in southern Israel on 7 October.

Western brands are feeling the impact in Egypt and Jordan, and there are signs the campaign is spreading in some other Arab countries, including Kuwait and Morocco.

Some of the companies the campaign is directed at are perceived to have taken pro-Israeli stances, and some are alleged to have financial ties to Israel or investments there.

As the campaign has started to spread, boycott calls circulated on social media have expanded to list dozens of companies and products, prompting shoppers to shift to local alternatives.

In Egypt, where there is little chance of people taking to the streets because of security restrictions, some see the boycott as the best or only way to make their voices heard.

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“I feel that even if I know this will not have a massive impact on the war, then this is the least we can do as citizens of different nations so we don’t feel like our hands are covered in blood,” said 31-year-old Cairo resident, Reham Hamed, who is boycotting US fast food chains and some cleaning products.

In Jordan, pro-boycott residents sometimes enter McDonald’s and Starbucks branches to encourage scarce customers to take their business elsewhere. Videos have circulated of what appear to be Israeli troops washing clothes with well-known detergent brands which viewers are urged to boycott.

“No one is buying these products,” said Ahmad Al-Zaro, a cashier at a large supermarket in the capital, Amman, where customers were choosing local brands instead.

In Kuwait City on Tuesday evening, a tour of seven branches of Starbucks, McDonald’s and KFC found them nearly empty. A worker at one Starbucks, who declined to be identified, said other US brands had also been affected.

In Rabat, the capital of Morocco, a worker at a Starbucks branch said the number of customers had dropped off significantly this week. The worker and the company gave no figures.

McDonald’s Corp said in a statement last month that it was “dismayed” by disinformation regarding its position on the conflict and that its doors were open to all. Its Egyptian franchise has underlined its Egyptian ownership and pledged 20 million Egyptian pounds ($650,000) in aid to Gaza.

Starbucks did not respond to a request for comment on the campaign. In a statement on its website updated in October, it said it was a non-political organisation and dismissed rumours that it had provided support to the Israeli government or army.

Other Western companies did not immediately respond to requests by Reuters for comment.

‘Unprecedented reaction’ 

The boycott campaigns have spread in countries where pro-Palestinian sentiment has traditionally been strong. Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel decades ago, but those deals did not lead to a popular rapprochement.

The protests also reflect a groundswell of anger over an Israeli military operation that is more destructive than previous offensives, causing a humanitarian crisis and killing 13,300 civilians, according to authorities in Gaza.

Israel said about 1,200 people were killed in the Hamas attack on 7 October, and that about 240 were taken hostage.

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Previous boycott campaigns in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation, had less impact, including those advocated by the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“The scale of the aggression against the Gaza strip is unprecedented. Therefore, the reaction, whether on the Arab street or even internationally, is unprecedented,” said Hossam Mahmoud, a member of BDS Egypt.

Some campaigners have singled out Starbucks for suing its workers’ union over a post on the Israel-Gaza conflict, and McDonald’s after its Israeli franchise said it gave free meals to Israeli military personnel.

An employee at McDonald’s corporate offices in Egypt, who asked not to be named, said the Egyptian franchise’s October and November sales fell by at least 70 per cent compared to the same months last year.

“We are struggling to cover our own expenses during this time,” the employee said. Reuters was not immediately able to verify the figures the employee provided.

Sameh El Sadat, an Egyptian politician and co-founder of TBS Holding, a supplier to Starbucks and McDonald’s, said he had noticed a drop or slowdown of about 50 per cent in demand from his clients.

Uneven take-up 

Despite efforts by targeted brands to defend themselves and retain business with special offers, boycott campaigns have continued catching on, in some cases outside the Arab world.

In Muslim-majority Malaysia, a worker at a McDonald’s in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital, said the branch was seeing about 20 per cent fewer customers, a figure that Reuters was not immediately able to verify.

Ride-hailing app, Grab, also faced calls for a boycott in Malaysia after the chief executive’s wife said she had fallen “completely in love” with Israel during visits there.

She later said the posts were taken out of context. The Malaysian arms of Grab and McDonald’s said, following the boycott calls, that they would donate aid for Palestinians.

Earlier this month, Turkiye’s Parliament removed Coca-Cola and Nestle products from its restaurants, with a parliamentary source citing a “public outcry” against the brands although no big Turkish company or state agency has cut ties with Israel.

Take-up of boycotts has been uneven, with no major impact seen in some countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Tunisia. Even where boycotts have a wider following, some people are sceptical they can have much effect.

“If we really want to boycott and support these people (Palestinians), we take arms and fight with them … Otherwise, no,” said Cairo kiosk owner, Issam Abu Shalaby.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.