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.