McArabia: McDonald’s in the Arab World

McDonalds in Muscat, Oman

Since I last wrote about McDonald’s when I was in Dubai, I’ve been in Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Egypt and Jordan. As all of the McDonald’s in the Arabian Peninsula are owned by the same company, there isn’t a whole lot to add to what I had to say about McDonald’s in Dubai. I managed to have at least something at a McDonald’s in every country except Qatar. I saw a McDonald’s sign from the window of my taxi, but never found one when I was walking around. Oddly enough, I did manage to eat at a Hardee’s in Qatar, which I thought was really bizarre. It appears that the only place in the world that has Hardee’s outside of the Midwest United States are the Gulf States.

What I want to focus on is McDonald’s Egypt, which was slightly different in substance than what I saw in the Gulf, and very different in the role it served in society. The Gulf states are all rather rich, and even Jordan is not too bad off considering it isn’t an oil producing nation. Egypt is much larger, much more crowded, and much poorer than the other Arab countries I visited. Also, in all of the above countries I listed, I ate maybe one or two meals at McDonald’s, and even then I only did it for the purpose of writing this article (the things I go through for my readers…) In Kuwait, I only got an ice cream cone and just went in to check out the menu.

McArabia Sandwich: Burger + flatbread

In Egypt, I ended up going to McDonald’s more than I have in any other country, and it had nothing to do with food. I would go every day depending what city I was in for one simple reason: McDonald’s had free wifi.

As is usually the case with my McDonald’s articles, I really don’t want to talk about McDonald’s or for that matter Egypt. I want to talk about something bigger. I need to back up as I often do in these articles and address the complaint that I always get. Some people will turn their nose up and say how they would never eat at a McDonald’s when traveling because they want a real cultural experience, and they wouldn’t want to eat garbage food, if you are going to a foreign country they’d want to experience local cuisine. While I understand where they are coming from, their view of fast food restaurants like McDonald’s is a very western view and they are projecting their view of these restaurants on to the places they visit. It might be completely reasonable if you are a westerner visiting, but it isn’t the whole story.

If someone were to make the claim that fast food was the bottom of the barrel of dining in a western country, I don’t think I’d argue with them. Fast food isn’t supposed to be high cuisine. It is supposed to very utilitarian. You get in, you get food, you get out. It is cheap and fast. Much of the fast food experience is totally lost on most westerners, however. The fact that every Big Mac is identical, is by design. Creating a consistent experience means that you know what you are getting, for better or worse, when you go to a chain restaurant.

Qatar has a Hardees. Dont ask me why.

In a world were every restaurant has clean toilets and sanitary kitchen, that might not be a big deal. In many countries I’ve visited, restaurants like McDonald’s are the high end dining option. The average person might never afford to eat at the nice restaurant at the hotel for foreigners, but they might be able to take the kids to McDonald’s once or twice a year for a birthday party and get some free toys in a Happy Meal. (and the birthday parties seem to be a much bigger deal than they are in the US) It isn’t an option for dining that you exercise every day or even every week. The role of the fast food restaurant is sort of turned on its head in a world where you don’t have many restaurants at all.

When the first McDonald’s opened up in the Soviet Union, they had lines around the block. Families would get dressed up and spend a week’s or more income to have a meal that people in the west would turn their noses up at. Part of it was certainly the taboo of eating food from the west, but another part of it was having something of consistent quality, in a clean environment.

When I was in Phnom Penh Cambodia, I visited the KFC. As far as I knew, it was the only western fast food restaurant in the entire country (another KFC was being built in Sieam Reap, but wasn’t open yet). I was struck by something: all the kids who worked there seemed very bright, had nice clothes and spoke English exceptionally well. These were the smart kids and probably children of the Cambodian elite. Asking “do you want fries with that” is actually a pretty good job when there aren’t many other options. Where as most kids in the west would consider working at McDonald’s a crummy job, in Cambodia it was the job for the best and the brightest.

McDonalds in Cairo

Which brings me back to Egypt. While Egypt is not as destitute as Cambodia, it isn’t as rich as Kuwait either. There are plenty of restaurants all over the place where you can eat that are perfectly fine. In fact I came to really like many Egyptian dishes like Foul (or fool depending on the spelling). McDonald’s is neither the best nor the worst option in Egypt. McDonald’s niche in Egypt dining ecosystem seemed to be a hangout for high school kids and young adults. Something which I also saw when I was in Taiwan. It was a place to study and a place you could bring a computer (usually cheap netbooks) to surf with your friends.

Every McDonald’s in Egypt ran McDonald’s radio. It was their own station which was a mix of western and Arab music. Most of the McDonald’s I visited were in tourists areas (because I’m a tourist) and it just added to the “western” vibe you’d get if you were an Egyptian youth.

What is the lesson can we take from this? McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants are a constant like the speed of light. They have a certain consistency which exists no matter where they are. How they fit into a particular country is a function of the development level of the country in question. The richer the country, the lower they are looked upon as a food option. The poorer the country, the more respectable dining option is it. I realize this isn’t quite as simple as sneering at every McDonald’s, but reality is never cut and dry.

19 thoughts on “McArabia: McDonald’s in the Arab World”

  1. please see the following wikipedia link regarding labor policy in the philippines:

    no, the system here in the kingdom of saudi arabia is not perfect. but filipinos are able to earn a salary here which they may otherwise not be able to earn in the philippines.

    in many cases the downfalls of working in ksa can be truly horrific. yet progress is being made in order to stop the abuse of the innocent. the government of ksa is dynamic and as a citizen i see signs that it is changing for the better every day.

  2. Eating in the Middle East is different. I ate at KFC a lot when i was in Egypt. The menu will differences compared to US restaurants. I look forward to going back.

  3. I lived in Estonia a couple of times and there were a few McDonald’s Restaurants there. Sadly, one of the first things you see as you go through the gates in the wall of “Old Town” Tallinn, are the Golden Arches. However, I saw some of the same things you did in other countries there. A job at McDonald’s for the people there was a great opportunity. The food was something the locals did not usually eat, but it was a treat for them when they could afford it. The strangest thing for us as Americans was to be charged for every ketchup packet.

  4. I realize this is a bit off-topic, but Hardees is a south-eastern US franchise — there are almost none in the midwest. They’re owned by the same parent company that owns Carl’s Jr. now… most US Hardees are being rebranded. Anyway — they’re all over the middle east: Pakistan, Egypt, Kuwait, UAE… I don’t know if they’re still around, but in the late 90s and early 2000s, I ate in Hardees in Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea.

    • Good point about the ralativity of the standing of McDonalds depending on the average standard of living. In Lagos, Nigeria I didn’t see any McDonalds but they have an equivalent called ‘Mr Big’s’. A local girl I was with felt too embarrassed to go and eat at the ‘plush’ fast food outlet in the city so I had to bring the food for her to eat in the car.

  5. I really like that article. In the US, and especially in New York (where I live) we have a habit of looking down on everything American and love complaining about how it destroys other cultures and gets forced on them. But we never really consider how the people actually living there feel. It’s kind of selfish in an ironic way.

  6. Excellent article..Enjoyed it…Is American culture going to dominate the World?..Can McDonald’s bring World Peace…? Something to ponder about…food for thought…not just for the tummy…!

  7. Hardees are not only in the midwest but the midatlantic as well.
    I love me some Hardees.
    Anyway whatever country I go to I go to mcdonalds or any american fast food place just to see what they offer there.
    Because some things are different
    And its awesome. I spent a year in Germany andi by going to McDonalds I knew I would find people that spoke English that would help me learn the language. (I learned numbers and words for food and large :) )
    McDonalds kept me fed and helped me broaden my horizons by giving me the confidence to travel further in country whose native language I didnt speak:)

  8. The view of McDonald’s actually reminds me of Heineken.
    In the Netherlands, Heineken is seen as a generic mildly-beer-flavored can of sewage. Outside Europe, it is seen as one of the better beers.
    If so, I pray for those that are forced to drink the local beer…

  9. If it isn’t too late look for the KFC in front of the palace in Bahrain. After having a few drinks with some fellow soilders in a bar that played the Jaws music over and over on a keyboard for “the great americans!” we spotted the KFC and killed two buckets of chicken on the walk way in front of the Royal Palace.

  10. This is definitely a whole new way of looking at Micky D’s.
    Even here in the U.S., there are sometimes interesting variations in the menu from region to region. I don’t go to Micky D’s at home, but I’ll usually make a stop if I’m out east in the U.S. or Canada for a McLobster roll just to say I did it. :)

  11. Gary, I love your McDonald’s series! I seek them out as well for the same reasons, although obviously I haven’t been as many places as you! So I love to hear how McDonald’s turns out in various countries. It’s an interesting insight into each culture.

  12. I imagine one of the arguments other travelers have against going to McDonalds whilst travelling is that the food is a constant. And you more or less know what you’re going to get.

    There will be some exceptions – for example, India, where they may not serve beef, etc – and there will be few individual surprises depending of the country and their market research with regards to what sells best, but essentially it is the same formulaic food you get in any other McDonalds around the world.

    Fast-food exists in every country. There is a market for fast food – that you can purchase and eat with minimum inconvenience – in every country. For example, in the Arab countries there are shawarma and perhaps falafel and maybe even lahmacun.

    There certainly is a comfort factor with McDonalds. It is a known entity, but there is that ever-present saying, “When in Rome…” I don’t imagine those turning their noses up at McDonalds abroad consider the class and cultural dynamics involved.

    And of course, I doubt very much the shawarma establishments in the Middle East have wifi. :)

    • i live in the kingdom of saudi arabia and can confirm that wi-fi is alive and widely available here! free wi-fi is available at malls, cafes, universities, hospitals, and many other public places including shawarma establishments.

  13. Another reason we always scout out McDonalds while traveling is that they always have clean, western toilets, equipped with toilet paper and hand towels. Everywhere else it’s pretty much take your chances! In many places around the world you better bring your own toilet paper with you!

  14. I had read that McDonald’s Arabia was the company that owned all the McDonald’s in the Gulf. I wonder if they don’t own it in Oman, or if it is a holding company which grants other franchises in the region.

  15. Gary, you bring up an excellent point: The farther away McDonald’s is from America, the more intriguing it becomes. (Heck, t can even be intriguing in the U.S. — hence the tail-molded McLobster sandwich in Maine.)

    Paris isn’t far enough; it’s still a shock to see ground zero for fine dining blighted by the Golden Arches. But in the Arab world? I’m oddly fascinated to see that pita-wrapped McArabia.

    But, I’m still uneasy about McD’s popping up across the globe.

    While I’m all for job creation in near-subsistence economies like Cambodia’s…I still can’t get behind a company that’s so weak on conservation and recycling, and ensures the growth of the factory farming industry. I’d be curious to know if McDonald’s environmentally-unfriendly practices are the same around the world as they are here.

    If so, then maybe those fresh-faced kids behind the counter aren’t making such a great future for themselves.

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