Pulitzer Prize-winning commentator Thomas Friedman in the late 1990s famously claimed that two countries with McDonald’s outlets had never gone to war.
But as fighting rages between Israel and Hamas, the iconic American fast food chain is at war with itself.
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McDonald’s franchises in the Middle East have weighed in on opposing sides of the conflict, with branches in Muslim countries disavowing a decision by McDonald’s Israel to provide free meals to the Israeli military.
Franchises in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain and Turkey have distanced themselves from their Israeli counterpart and collectively pledged more than $3m to support Palestinians under bombardment in Gaza.
“Let us all combine our efforts and support the community in Gaza with everything we can,” McDonald’s Oman, which pledged $100,000 towards humanitarian relief efforts in Gaza, posted on X on Sunday.
“We ask God Almighty to protect our beloved country and all Arab and Muslim countries from all the evil and hate.”
Statement from McDonald’s Oman pic.twitter.com/SzKz7lhmgk
— McDonald’s Oman (@Mcdonaldsoman) October 14, 2023
Since announcing its support for the Israeli army, McDonald’s Israel has changed its Instagram account to “private” following a backlash from consumers in Arab and Muslim countries.
While McDonald’s ranks among the most iconic American brands, most of its restaurants worldwide are locally owned and operated.
McDonald’s headquarters in Chicago, the United States did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The case of McDonald’s highlights the tricky geopolitical dynamics that globe-spanning brands must navigate in an era where businesses are often expected to weigh in on hot-button social and political issues.
The controversy has also revived discussion of the so-called Golden Arches theory of conflict prevention, popularised by Friedman in his 1999 book The Lexus and The Olive Tree.
The theory – that countries with enough wealth and stability to support major chains like McDonald’s do not go to war with each other – has been widely discredited after conflicts between countries with the brand, including the 1998-99 Kosovo War and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
McDonald’s does not have any outlets in Gaza or the occupied West Bank but Israel has clashed with Hezbollah fighters in neighbouring Lebanon, which does have the American chain.
“We’re in a post-‘Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention’ world now for sure,” Paul Musgrave, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Al Jazeera.
“Even though Russia and Ukraine both had McDonald’s in 2022, they still went to war. Now, conflicts within the McDonald’s empire mirror the real stresses and passions of the region.”
McDonald’s is not the first global brand to be drawn into controversy due to its stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
United Kingdom-based multinational Unilever came under fire from investors last year for failing to disclose that its ice cream brand subsidiary Ben and Jerry’s had decided to boycott Israeli-occupied territory in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 2021.
Spanish retailer Zara was boycotted by some shoppers last year after the chairman of its Israeli franchise, Canadian-Israeli businessman Joey Schwebel, hosted a campaign event for far-right Israeli minister Itamar Ben-Gvir at his home.
Major brands have also found themselves drawn into controversies about the human rights records of other countries such as China.
In 2021, Japanese retailer MUJI faced criticism after publicly endorsing cotton grown in China’s Xinjiang region, where human rights activists say ethnic minority Muslims are exploited for forced labour.
Musgrave said that “the dream that capitalism and trade would quiet nationalism and other forms of fervour has been revealed to have some holes”.
“Having different franchises of McDonald’s end up on different [rhetorical] sides is another example of how politics permeates everything.”