What KFC’s Exit From Syria Says About the Country's Horrifying Food Crisis

The Colonel held out through two years of conflict, but recently the economic conditions there have become untenable.
Syrians eat at a KFC outlet in Damascus in 2006. It closed its doors this month. (Khaled al-Hariri/Reuters)

In 2006, Kentucky Fried Chicken opened Syria’s first American restaurant in Damascus. The franchise weathered more than two and a half years of war, but this month, it became one of the last foreign businesses in the country to close its doors.

The picture of a quintessential American brand thriving in an “Axis of Evil” country currently targeted by U.S. sanctions may seem contradictory at first blush. Yet, in the Middle East, people have spent up to seven times their daily income on a bucket of fried chicken. Even in the Gaza Strip, where the average income hovers around $2 (U.S.) per day, KFC remains popular. The KFC branch in Al-Arish, Egypt has smuggled in deliveries through Hamas’s tunnels for $30 a meal.   The United Arab Emirates, a country that has roughly the same population as New Jersey, opened its 100th KFC branch this May. Libya and Iraq crave KFC no less:  Knockoffs of the restaurant— “Uncle Kentucky” in Tripoli and Fallujah—thrive in places where American ideas may not be winning hearts and minds, but they are winning stomachs.

The only time Americana, the Kuwait-based company that owns KFC’s franchises in Syria and the broader region, faced politically motivated boycotts was during the Second Intifada, half a decade before KFC’s first Syrian branch opened. All of Americana’s brands—KFC, Hardee’s, TGI Friday’s, and others—were hurt during that time, with one exception: Pizza Hut. The reason? According to Americana’s vice president of finance, Ahmed Hassan, “people thought it was Italian.” Americana soon added to its regional logo the words “Arabiya Miyah fil Miyah,” meaning “one hundred percent Arab,” which effectively solved the problem.

Americana’s franchises have proved to be surprisingly resilient in a region that has seen its share of turmoil in the past couple of years. Almost all of the 1,400 restaurants region-wide have been able to effectively ride out the Arab Spring.  Even in Egypt, no stranger to widespread chaos, the effects of revolutions and counterrevolutions have been limited to a handful of its franchises. In 2011, the violence that led to Mubarak’s ouster only affected the company’s four outlets in Tahrir Square and its three “floating” franchises on the Nile, which were located near the Israeli embassy.

But for the past few years, the odds have been stacked against KFC in Syria.  Poultry production has decreased by half since the conflict began in 2011. The Syrian Ministry of Agriculture estimates that as of May 2013, less than 35 percent of the country’s poultry units were still operating, and more than 50 percent of jobs in the sector have been lost. 

Presented by

Adam Heffez

Adam Heffez is a research assistant with the program on Arab politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. 

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Global

Just In