KFC quits Damascus as Syria crisis becomes too much for the colonel (& Pizza Hat in Iran)

November 03, 2013

Syrians eat at a KFC outlet in Damascus before the current civil war


This dispatch concerns American Fast Food outlets and the Middle East.


* Damascus’s Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise weathered more than two and a half years of war, but last month, it became one of the last foreign businesses in Syria to close its doors.

* KFC’s decision reflects the striking degree to which the country has run out of food, fuel, safe roads, hard currency and just plain customers.

* In the Middle East, American ideas may not always win hearts and minds, but they are winning stomachs: in Gaza people have spent up to seven times their daily income on a bucket of fried chicken.

* The United Arab Emirates, a country with the same population as New Jersey, opened its 100th KFC branch this May.

* Libya and Iraq crave KFC: Knockoffs of the restaurant – “Uncle Kentucky” in Tripoli and Fallujah – thrive in places where America is not so popular.

* A look at Iran’s fake American food franchises: From “Pizza Hat” (not Hut!) to “Mash Donald’s,” bootleg American franchises are popping up in the Islamic Republic of Iran.


* You can comment on this dispatch here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.


Pizza Hat, in Teheran



1. KFC quits Damascus as Syria conflict becomes too much for the colonel
2. A look at Iran’s fake American food franchises (Buzzfeed)
3. “What KFC’s exit from Syria says about the country’s horrifying food crisis” (By Adam Heffez, The Atlantic, Oct. 31 2013)
4. “KFC smugglers bring buckets of chicken through Gaza tunnels” (By Ahmed Aldabba, Christian Science Monitor, May 15, 2013)
5. “Women-only cafes offer new visions of Palestinian public space” (Palestinian Ma’an news agency, Nov. 2, 2013)


[Note by Tom Gross]

I have written before about both real and rip-off American fast food franchises in the Middle East – for example, the “Star and Bucks” café in Ramallah where I used to have a latte when I visited the political capital of the West Bank.

Below are a series of articles by others on the subject.

The first serves as a reminder that while some Iranians enjoy chanting “Death to America” – indeed Iran’s parliament erupted in “Death to America” chants today as deputies celebrated the 34th anniversary of the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran – many other Iranians crave American fast food franchises, as the photos linked to in the first item indicate.

The second article is from The Atlantic magazine (in America) – about how KFC has finally shut down in Damascus. And the third article concerns KFC in Gaza.

While there has never been any food crisis in Gaza like there is in Syria, many Gazans are unhappy that KFC haven’t opened there and therefore are willing to pay an exorbitant price for KFC smuggled in from Egypt.

As Ahmed Aldabba, the Gaza correspondent of the Christian Science Monitor points out:

“Ironically, one of the reasons Gaza smugglers agreed to start dealing in KFC is because Israel’s easing of restrictions on trade since the November cease-fire with Hamas has dealt a serious blow to the tunnel business.”

The fourth and final piece – from the European government funded Palestinian Ma’an news agency – describes in a rather light-hearted way (as though this is something positive) how segregated women-only cafes have opened in Palestinian towns.

-- Tom Gross



From Pizza Hat to Mash Donald’s, bootleg American franchises have been popping up in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Photos and text here.



What KFC’s exit from Syria says about the country’s horrifying food crisis
By Adam Heffez
The Atlantic (magazine)
October 31 2013


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.

As a result, Americana could no longer source chicken from local farms. To keep its franchises open for business, the company imported chicken from a Lebanese company called Hawa. “With the right connections, we were able to bring in [everything] to Damascus,” Hassan said.

But importing eventually became unsustainable. Violence made road transportation unsafe and severely crippled the supply chain of food. Making matters worse, transportation was prohibitively expensive. The price of diesel has increased anywhere from 20 percent in Damascus to 600 percent in Aleppo. Orient News, a network aligned with the opposition, attributes the price hike to the Assad regime’s use of additional diesel revenues to raise the salaries of state employees and bribe them for their continued loyalty. The regime blames scarcity and terrorist attacks on production facilities.

Transportation is one of the two main factors in food importation. The other is the availability of hard currency. “The biggest problem with food is less its availability and more people’s ability to afford it,” said Donatella Rovera, a senior crisis response adviser for Amnesty International, who visited rebel-controlled areas throughout northern Syria earlier this year. In the first quarter of 2013, unemployment in the country reached 49 percent.

The CATO Institute estimates that monthly inflation averages 34 percent, making cash increasingly scarce and worthless. This has led to “dollarization” in all economic sectors. The Assad regime responded in July 2013 with a decree that would imprison traders caught dealing in anything other than Syrian pounds for three years. The sentence is even longer if the amount involved exceeds $500. However, the Syrian pound, which is both scarce and diminished in value, can neither buy people enough food nor give farmers enough incentive to continue producing. They already face higher input costs and lower returns on yields, with 300 percent year-on-year increases in fertilizer prices and reduced availability of labor after more than 100,000 people have been killed and nearly 5 million displaced.

This hard economic reality means that the little food that Syria continues to produce often doesn’t even reach the country’s suqs (markets). The World Food Program reports that since the crisis, more Syrian livestock has been sold in places where it gets higher returns: Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey. Samir al-Taqi, a physician who heads the Orient Research Center, the country’s leading think tank, calls this trend “de-facto economic annexation.”

The country’s battered markets have left approximately 4 million people facing food insecurity. Americana’s decision to close up shop in Damascus is just the latest example of the dissolution of normalcy in even Syria’s most protected areas. As long as the operational obstacles facing KFC mirror the ones that Syria faces in feeding its people, Colonel Sanders is unlikely to return.



KFC smugglers bring buckets of chicken through Gaza tunnels
By Ahmed Aldabba
Christian Science Monitor
May 15, 2013


For six years, Rafat Shororo longed for the taste of a KFC sandwich he had eaten in Egypt. This week, he got his finger lickin’ fix at home in the Gaza Strip after a local delivery company managed to smuggle it from Egypt through underground tunnels.

“It has been a dream, and this company has made my dream come true,” says Mr. Shororo, an accountant, as he receives his order from the delivery guy.

The al-Yamama company advertises its unorthodox new fast-food smuggling service on Facebook. It gets tens of orders a week for KFC meals despite having to triple the price to 100 shekels ($30) to cover transportation and smuggling fees. The deliveries go from the fryers at the Al-Arish KFC joint 35 miles away to customers’ doorsteps in about three hours.

The fact that the tunnels operate quickly and cheaply enough for the Colonel’s secret recipe to be enjoyed in the tightly controlled Gaza Strip shows just how much of a sieve the Egypt-Gaza border has become.

“All you need to have any KFC product is a short phone call and a few hours, then you can enjoy the great taste of fried chickens,” says Shororo, checking over his chicken pieces, salads, and apple pies. Like other customers who are acquainted with KFC from their travels abroad, he says he doesn’t care how much it costs. “I just want it.”

KFC may be one of the stranger products to come through the hundreds of smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza that have sprung up in the past six years in response to Israeli restrictions on imports to the Hamas-run territory, which allow cars, sailboats, motorcycles, weapons, fish, and now even drumsticks into the tiny coastal territory. While Egypt has a border crossing at Rafah, it is limited to foot traffic, and Cairo has so far refrained from opening a commercial crossing and thus risking Israel’s ire.

Ironically, one of the reasons smugglers agreed to start dealing in KFC is because Israel’s easing of restrictions on trade since the November cease-fire with Hamas has dealt a serious blow to the tunnel business.


The KFC delivery service in Gaza started with a hankering rather than a business plan.

Mohammed al-Madani, financial manager of al-Yamama company, says the employees of the company decided to order some meals for themselves from the KFC restaurant in the neighboring Egyptian city of al-Arish.

Someone from the company contacted a friend in al-Arish, asking him to make the order and then bring it through the tunnels; the whole process just took three hours.

“Then we asked ourselves, ‘Why don’t we provide this service for Gazans?’” says Mr. al-Madani.

The company got more than 20 orders a few hours after a short advertisement was posted on their Facebook fan page. Those who order are well-to-do people and don’t care much about the price of the food compared to the original price at the restaurant.

“Most of those who order are people who are accustomed to travel and eat KFC food around the world,” says Madani.

Al-Madani says the process of smuggling the food into Gaza is not difficult at all.

“After getting the orders, we call our partner in al-Arish and ask him to make the orders, after getting the meals, he goes to a specific tunnel and asks smugglers to transfer them into the other side of the tunnel; this may take a few minutes,” says al-Madani.


For the tunnel owner who smuggles the KFC food, moving the meals is a bit strange. Smuggler Abu Iyad says the tunnels are meant to bring in basic food stuffs, construction materials, and sometimes people. “This is the first time to smuggle such goods,” he says.

He adds that the tunnel business has gone down recently mainly after Israel relaxed the embargo it imposed on the territory after Hamas seized it in 2007.

“This is why I accept to smuggle anything except weapons and drugs,” Abu Iyad says as he carried the buckets of KFC with the famous face of Col. Harland Sanders.

“The tunnel business is not like before, things are going worse and barely work, especially after the Egyptian army started to tear down the tunnels,” he says, referring to attempts to shut down illegal smuggling after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed at Rafah in August 2012. Both Egypt and Israel are concerned that the tunnels are facilitating jihadist attacks in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

With Israel relaxing the embargo and allowing more goods to reach Gaza cheaply, the premium that smugglers could once charge for some goods has gone down, according to Abu Iyad.

“Bringing some meals like these would cost $200 or more three years ago, but now they don’t even cost $20. The Egyptian and Hamas police are not giving us the chance to work freely and the business may shut down if things continue to be this bad.”

At the Gaza side of the tunnel opening, a Hamas policeman was waiting to check if the buckets contain any forbidden materials. Apparently greasy chicken is not on his list. Abu Iyad is given a green light to deliver the food to the Al-Yamama delivery guy who will take the meals to customers.

“I wonder why people pay a lot of money to buy a small meal of chicken,” asks Abu Iyad wryly. “I can buy four chickens for the price of one meal.”



Women-only cafes offer new visions of Palestinian public space
By Alexa Stevens
Palestinian Ma’an news agency
November 2, 2013


RAMALLAH (Ma’an) -- Discreetly located at the foot of a staircase, the cafe offers a familiar scene: shisha pipes are stacked neatly on the counter, ashtrays dot each table, Lebanese satellite television plays in the background and steaming Turkish coffee is served to a table of regulars.

Like many other cafes lining the busy avenues branching off of Ramallah’s bustling Manara Square, this is a gendered space. Male employees stand guard outside, surveying the entrance of the cafe with stern eyes.

Unlike most public establishments in Ramallah, Ladies is a cafe for women only.

When the cafe opened in early 2012, it was the first women-only cafe in Ramallah. As in most cities in Palestine, cafes in Ramallah are primarily a men-only affair. Many cafes and restaurants have mixed clientele and some even have delineated “family” sections, but for the most part women rarely frequent cafes on their own.

Ladies promised to provide a different experience, one that barred male clientele and instead offered a public space intended exclusively for women. The hope was that in a society where cafes are traditionally geared towards men, the creation of a women-only cafe would offer women equal access to the public sphere, but on their own terms.

Cafe owner Jamil Ali explains that in a woman-only space, women can feel comfortable and take off their scarves, smoke cigarettes and sit with their legs crossed, unlike in male-dominated cafes where these behaviors might draw attention.

“She doesn’t want anybody to look at her,” he says. “A thousand eyes will go to her, a thousand eyes.” But in a public space frequented exclusively by women, she is free to unwind in a comfortable setting.

In addition to creating a space accessible to women, Ali also sought to ensure that the cafe be economically accessible to a female-only clientele. As he explained, many mixed cafes charge prices out of reach for most Palestinian women. Although the entire menu was originally priced at 10 shekels ($3), after realizing that the prices were still too high for some patrons, the price of drinks were lowered to seven shekels ($2).


Unlike Jamil Ali, Susie Atilla didn’t set out to create a women-only space three years ago when she co-founded Diva, a cafe patronized predominantly by women inconspicuously located off of a main street in Bethlehem.

Atilla was originally encouraged by the male owner of the commercial center where Diva is located to open the cafe there because a number of other female-oriented businesses had locations nearby. Among Diva’s neighbors are a gym, hairdresser and a Turkish bath.

She explains that even though the cafe was open to a mixed clientele, “the reputation spread that it’s only for women.”

“Some men get really embarrassed to come with their wives but we always tell them men and families are welcome!” she adds with a chuckle.

Susie and her sister, Nancy, started Diva as a project meant to provide them with an income for after their retirement from their day jobs. They hoped in the process to create a place where they and their friends could come and socialize.

When asked about Ladies cafe in Ramallah, Atilla smiles.

“It’s great for girls to be able to feel comfortable,” in a cafe like Ladies. “Women don’t have to be on their guard.”

She emphasizes that even though its location is somewhat isolated, Diva offers “privacy,” and a place where women feel comfortable.

The sentiment was shared by many patrons at Ladies interviewed by Ma’an.

A patron from the US uses the cafe as a space for lessons with teenage Palestinian girls she tutors. The parents of the girls, she says, feel comfortable knowing that the cafe only serves women and thus offers a secure public meeting spot for young girls.

Many of the students’ parents usually only allow their daughters to go to school and come home, the tutor says, but when they heard about the cafe they welcomed the idea.

She concedes, however, that gender-segregated cafes “enforce the idea that girls have to do things in secret.”

A Palestinian woman at the cafe adds, “It’s sick, the separation thing. Ramallah is better (than other cities in Palestine, but) you still find people who won’t let their daughters or wives go places.”

This customer tells Ma’an that she sees a women-only cafe as another example of the kinds of separation between genders that persists in Palestinian public space.

She adds that the cafe’s decision to serve an exclusively female clientele furthers the gender divide between men and women in public spaces.

“The society and the mentality of the people is not going to change soon,” she says with a shake of her head.


Both cafes, though quite different in mission, have become spaces for women located in a larger urban context that offer comfort and privacy for their patrons. Neither cafe set out to change the fabric of Palestinian society, or the fact that most public establishments primarily cater exclusively to men.

Rather, each cafe acknowledges the realities of a male-dominated public sphere by offering a place where women can feel comfortable.

Even though all-women cafes like Ladies “(enforce) the separation,” a Palestinian patron says, they can also be seen as “a solution that make things easier for some part of society.”

And for the many women who frequent Ladies and Diva, but feel uncomfortable or unable to patronize male-dominated establishments, these cafes offer a unique and inviting alternative that offers comfort, privacy, and access.

Atilla, the owner of Diva suggests that “some women in society feel like they need to have a place that is private and that’s where they feel comfortable.”

(Alex Shams in Bethlehem contributed reporting.)

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.