|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
30 July - 5 August 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Colonel's chickens come to SyriaA billboard with big, red English lettering "Kentucky" on top of a building in one of Damascus's main streets heralded the arrival of something new: the US fast food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) has come to Syria. Scores of Syrians, mostly from the middle and upper classes, rushed to the new restaurant.
However, for political observers, KFC is not just like any restaurant. Together with famous US franchise companies like Pizza Hut and McDonalds, it is an introduction to what many Arabs see as the "American way of life", and a further step towards accepting Western culture in radical Arab countries like Syria, which has for long raised the banner of confronting "US imperialism" whether politically or culturally.
Expressing such feelings, one Syrian intellectual told Al-Ahram Weekly that "the countries where you can find KFC, Coca-Cola and McDonalds will never go to war with the US."
When President Hafez Assad came to power in 1971, he adopted a strict socialist system whereby all major industries, including banks and public utilities, were nationalised. However, with the fall of the former Soviet Union and the whole socialist bloc -- Syria's main allies in the past -- President Assad had no alternative but to carry out key changes.
In 1991, the Syrian parliament passed what has become Syria's economic mantra: Law 10. It aims at attracting private investment, foreign as well as Syrian, by giving tax breaks of up to nine years, customs exemptions on machinery and the right to repatriate profits.
But the opening of Kentucky has also marked a change in the attitude of the nouveau riche class in Syria, which has grown significantly since the Syrian government adopted its economic liberalisation policy.
Syrians are not known for being fans of fast food. Most average Syrians eat traditional Syrian and Lebanese dishes such as homous and fuul mixed with olive oil as starters, followed by the famous Halabi kebab. Moreover, the price of two pieces of KFC chicken and a small pack of garlic bread and French fries is one and a half times the price of a whole grilled chicken which could be found only a few blocks away from the KFC place at Autostrad El-Mezza Street in one of Damascus's posh areas. The average monthly income of a government employee in Syria is $40.
Syrians are not used to standing in queues in front of cashiers to get their meals, taking it over by themselves to their tables and finally getting rid of the waste in trash bins. They are also not used to drinking soda while eating, as the traditional drink accompanying a Syrian meal is yoghurt.
Probably aware of possible political and social implications, the Syrian government changed its mind soon after KFC's opening in mid-May, which was attended by two US Congressmen. Overnight, the word "Kentucky" was removed from the billboard on top of the building where the restaurant is located. It was replaced by a long line: The Syrian-Kuwait Company for Tourism Establishments -- the Kuwaiti Food Company: KFC. The Syrian flag was also raised on top of the building next to the sign, and the picture of President Assad was hung inside the restaurant, which is common in Syria. The Kuwaiti Food Company is Kentucky's agent in several Arab countries.
The reaction of the average Syrian in the street was cynical. One Syrian said that KFC stood for Kuwaiti Fried Chicken, while another went a step further and said jokingly that the initials stood for (Syrian Vice-President Abdel-Halim) Khaddam Fried Chicken. However, the red Kentucky sign with the famous Colonel's face remained on the restaurant's entrance door, although difficult to spot by customers who are not acquainted with the logo.
Following the changes, business at the restaurant was far from brisk. Now, customers are mostly members of the UN peace-keeping troops monitoring the border between Syria and Israel. Some rich Syrians also continue to go to the restaurant to enjoy being served by the English-speaking young female waitresses, one other uncommon phenomenon in Syrian restaurants which are usually run by males.
But the difficulties KFC has faced will probably not influence the opening of branches for other global companies in Syria. A growing number of Western companies like Germany's Adidas, Italy's United Colours of Benetton and a huge pharmaceutical plant under license from Glaxo Wellcome of Britain, Organon of Holland and Upjohn of the US have already been operating for years.
However, a spokesman for the Kuwaiti Food Company told the Weekly on condition of anonymity that the trouble Kentucky's branch faced in Damascus might influence his company's plans to open more branches in the capital and in other major Syrian cities. He added that it took four years to get the necessary paperwork done through the complicated Syrian bureaucracy, and that his company had never expected the changes ordered by Syrian authorities.
But the Kuwaiti company's official, probably aware of the political implications of Kentucky's opening, still hopes that if the peace process is revived again, there will be a chance to open more Kentucky branches. He said, "Since Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came to power two years ago, everything has been stalled, including the business. So let us hope things get moving again. Otherwise, there will be neither business nor peace."