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McEmirate’s: McDonald’s in Dubai

McDonalds in Dubai

McDonald's in Dubai

It has been awhile since I have been able to talk about McDonald’s. There were none in Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos (although there were KFC’s in Vietnam and Cambodia). Dubai, however, has everything manner of fast food you can think of. In addition to McDonald’s I’ve seen KFC, Pizza Hut, Burger King and the oh so rare Taco Bell.

The McDonald’s here has a few things on the menu I haven’t seen elsewhere. They have the McArabia sandwich, which appears to be a normal beef or chicken patty with flat bread instead of a bun. They also sell chicken strips which are something like you’d see at a Long John Silvers. Just fillets of chicken, no bones, no sandwich.

Technically, Burger Emir or Burger Sultan would be more appropriate.

Technically, Burger Emir or Burger Sultan would be more appropriate.

As in Malaysia, hamburgers are not called hamburgers, so there is no confusion about there being pork in the meat. In many countries, the nutritional brochure you can get in the store will point out how the food is locally produced. Beef in Australia, fish in Japan, etc. As there isn’t a lot of ranching or farming in the Arabian peninsula, there isn’t much to showcase for local production. They do hint at some regional production of dairy products, but they don’t say where it is from.

Since I’ve been in Dubai I’ve visited the Mall of Dubai (which still seems to be under construction) and the Mall of the Emirates. Both are megamalls with ridiculous attractions like the indoor ski slope in the Emirates mall and a giant aquarium and skating rink in the Mall of Dubai.

I’ve noticed something in the malls here which I first noticed in Singapore about 10 years ago. The food courts are the mirror image of food courts you will find the US. In your typical US mall you will have some sort of ethnic food, usually Chinese, and a bunch of different western options: baked potato, pizza, sub sandwiches, tacos, etc. The food courts in Asia are the opposite. In Singapore you would find every sort of subdivision of Asian food: South Indian, Japanese noodle, Chinese seafood, Indian hot pot, Thai….and then you will find the generic western food stall. Usually something like a McDonald’s.

Kebobs are popular in New Zealand and Australia, but really popular in the Middle East

Kebobs are popular in New Zealand and Australia, but really popular in the Middle East


In Dubai, you see a lot of different Middle East or Mediterranean food stalls. In the Mall of Dubai I saw Iranian, 2 or 3 Lebanese booths, and Greek in addition to Indian, Thai, Chinese…and then the obligatory western fast food.

Many people flip out with the idea of western restaurants in non-western countries. They lament “globalism”, which is usually defined as elements of western culture in non-western countries. Whereas non-western cultural elements in western countries is considered “diversity”. It isn’t quite that simple.

Just because you have McDonald’s and Starbucks doesn’t mean a country’s culture has been destroyed, any more than Chinese restaurants destroy American culture. (and it should be noted that there are more Chinese restaurants in the US than there are McDonald’s, Wendys, KFC and Burger King COMBINED). You can add elements from another culture and still keep what is essential to your own.

I think the food court phenomenon is evidence of this. You can take something like a mall or a food court and put a local twist on it to make it your own. Dubai is a very modern city, but there is no doubt that you are in the Middle East.

  • 12 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. Alex says:

    I had a chicken big mac at the Sharjah airport. I not embarassed to say that McDonalds can be a handy resource when traveling for cheap meals, free wifi (sometimes), or clean bathrooms (sometimes).

  2. Jeff B says:

    Sort of related… I remember once having a discussion with a Belgian girl who was complaining about us (America) exporting McDonalds to her country (Belgium obv.) and Europe in general. I remarked if you guys wouldn’t eat that crap then they wouldn’t put them there…. Conversation over.

    Personally I don’t eat McDonalds at home and have no interest in doing so when abroad, but it is interesting the differences.

    Safe Travels

  3. tacogirl says:

    Got to this post from your twitter was a great read for this morning – thanks for that.

  4. Very interesting article. I especially like that you point out that having western food stores in non-western countries does not destroy a culture any more than Chinese restaurants in America destroy our culture. Any you are right about the number of Chinese restaurants in the U.S., they are everywhere. Yet I still speak English. BTW, great photos.

  5. Gary Arndt says:

    Today I go to Bahrain, then Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan. That is it for the Arab world on this leg of the trip.

  6. lara_dunston says:

    Yep, locals (as we call the Emiratis) officially make up around 10% of Dubai's population and closer to 20% of the country's, but those are figures that are often disputed. One of the first things I always send my guests to do (and I never get bored with it myself, even though I have lots of local friends) is the Cultural Breakfast at Sheikh Mohammed's Centre for Cultural Understanding. It's a non-profit organization staffed by locals that aims to build bridges between cultures and give foreigners (expats and visitors alike) the chance to meet Emiratis and get to know their culture/religion/way of life etc. It's fantastic.

    Having lived in the UAE since 1998, for me, the most enriching part of the experience has been the development of friendship with Emiratis. They really are extraordinary people and in many ways (like Qataris, Bahrainis, Omanis too), are the quintessential Arab – gracious, hospitable, generous – and also very funny. I'm always wishing more visitors to these countries had greater opportunities to meet locals. They'd come away with very different perspectives to what many travellers come away with. And particularly to what you read in travel magazines. Just read yet another story on Abu Dhabi (the flavour of the month it seems) in a high profile travel magazine and the Abu Dhabi in the story (written by a journo who flew in for just 3 days) is very different to the city I lived in for 5 years.

    Enjoy the rest of your time in the Gulf! Are you going to Syria and Lebanon. Two of my favorite countries. Now, I know you don't use travel guidebooks, but I'm very proud of ours on S&L. And our many books on Dubai/UAE. If you are heading there, you might also find our hotel reviews for Damascus, Beirut, as well as Cairo, on the Lonely Planet site helpful. Happy travelling!

    • Mal says:

      Hi Lara
      Hope u dont mind me messaging u.I will b travelling to Dubia next month on a family holiday.My first trip ever to the emirates and we all very excited.I am wondering if you have any tips to offer and could tell me what food prices are like eating out?

  7. lara_dunston says:

    Hi Gary – but did you get to meet any locals (Emiratis)? I would have loved to have heard more on your thoughts about the local culture and your experience of it. You're writing about my (adopted) home town of course, so I'm keen to hear what visitors think. Shame I wasn't here while you were in the neighbourhood.

    Liked your response to Eric's travellers vs tourists question, and I've written my own post today and linked to you today at cooltravelguide.

    cheers
    Lara

    • Gary Arndt says:

      I have met very few locals anywhere in the Gulf. Everyone I interact with has been from South Asia (India/Pakistan/Bangladesh/Sri Lanka) or the Philippines. It seems that they make up most of the population of these countries. That has been the most surprising thing of my entire visit to the region.

  8. Kelsey says:

    Great post. I asked around in Bangladesh why there wasn’t a McD’s there and was told that the local meat wasn’t good enough. It didn’t meet McD’s standards. I thought that was pretty scary and have since become a vegetarian in any country that doesn’t have a McD’s.

  9. Sean says:

    I have it on good authority that you can also find something called “Damascus Fried Chicken” in Dubai, which I find hilarious way out of proportion. Five dollars if you can find Arabian Pork Chops on a menu somewhere.

  10. Nikki Hootman says:

    Great post! I agree that the spread of McDonald’s and other fast food do not mean globalization is wiping out local culture.

    Also, when you’re living abroad, it’s funny how those places take on a totally different meaning. I lived in a small Chinese city for a year – where there was literally nothing to eat OTHER than the local fare. Except… one McDonald’s and one KFC. I had never actually eaten at KFC before I went to China, but it became my once-a-week retreat. It was the one public place I could go where people EXPECTED to find a foreigner – where I wasn’t constantly stared at or approached for English practice or photographed. KFC was my little western haven!

    It was funny when I finally went back to the US. I had come to like KFC quite a lot, so I was surprised when the US KFC was definitely sub-par. It tasted strange. And McDonald’s didn’t have my favorite new items! The joke was on me, because what I had been eating were the items KFC and McDonald’s came up with to appeal to the Chinese market. Now I actually miss the KFC and McDonald’s I had in China, because it doesn’t exist here!

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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