Just as US troops are taking control of the region, with the CIA more omni-present than ever behind-the-scenes, now McArabia is the ever-so-fitting name for the cultural/food/values penetration of the American Empire right into the heart of Arabdom and Islam. Surely it must be realized others beyond Osama and cohorts are not so thrilled with these historic developments.
You Want Falafel With That?
After a Massive Buildup, McDonald's McArabia Sandwich Lands in Kuwait
By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2003; Page C01
KUWAIT CITY, March 16 -- Tempted by billboards, the Saudi student who calls himself Shaggy sets out for the beach, hungry for a taste of something new. He sweeps into a spacious, two-story McDonald's, takes his place in the male-only line and orders: One McArabia sandwich, please.
Now he's digesting it. "I like it," he says of the latest fast-food sensation here, two chicken patties garnished with lettuce, tomato, onion, garlic sauce and -- here's the marketing hook -- "dressed in Arabic flatbread," according to the ad campaign.
But the 20-year-old, wearing a formal headdress and robe, isn't totally won over. "It's not real Arabic taste," concludes Shaggy, who goes by Abdulaziz Aifan when he drops his rap-star moniker. Enrolled at the University of Kuwait, he hails from Riyadh, the Saudi Arabian capital.
A fellow Saudi at the restaurant, Thuniyan Thuniyan, also judges the sandwich inauthentic. "They tried to Islamicize it."
As metaphors go, this one is juicy, even if the McArabia's chopped, pressed and grilled poultry is not. The McArabia-with-fries-and-a-soda meal (about $3.40) has a bland mouth feel, and none of the exotic heat of actual Middle Eastern cuisine. Like much of what one finds in Kuwait -- the neon that spills over high-rise buildings like doilies woven in Las Vegas, the pudgy cell-phone-slinging sheiks in their luxury SUVs, the lush-lawned mini-mansions planted in the desert -- the sandwich suggests an odd cultural collision. Social behavior here may be wrapped in Islamic piety, but people feast on American values and junk culture.
An Islamic fast-food anthropologist, if one existed, might portray Kuwaiti society as Saudi lite. Kuwait marginalizes women politically, but unlike its neighbor to the south, it doesn't unleash religious police to harass those who reveal their hair and curves. Like Saudi Arabia, it is ruled by rich, aging royals, but Kuwait tolerates religious diversity. (Up to a point: Three teenagers recently were arrested in Kuwait City for "devil worship.")
Both Muslim kingdoms ban alcohol and porn, but neither attempts to regulate the brain's calorie-craving pleasure center. In fact, the McArabia rollout earlier this month was announced in Jiddah, Saudia Arabia, where a major McDonald's license-holder is based. Hundreds of McDonald's billboards blared the news in several Persian Gulf states, including Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain.
"The idea was to launch something for the local taste. There were so many options of what to call it, but the best was McArabia," says George Khawam, Kuwait marketing director for McDonald's, which has more than 30 eateries in the emirate.
The first one opened in 1994, a glitzy complex on Gulf of Arabia Street that covers 3,000 square feet and features patio seating on the beach. It's one of the largest McDonald's restaurants in the world.
"We call it the Mother of All Stores," says Khawam with no hint of irony in his voice, even as Kuwaitis await a sequel of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, which Saddam Hussein dubbed the "Mother of All Battles."
The McArabia launch, planned a year ago, comes as a U.S. military buildup in the Gulf, coupled with U.S. support for Israel, have sparked boycott campaigns and attacks on McDonald's in some corners of the Muslim Middle East. In Kuwait, extremists have not targeted the Golden Arches, according to Khawam, but in Saudia Arabia they have. In January Saudi police arrested a man who torched a McDonald's near a U.S. air base. More recently, three Saudis tossed a Molotov cocktail at a McDonald's in Damman, but it didn't explode.
Following fatal attacks on Americans here, the Kuwaiti government has rounded up Islamic fundamentalists and begun a PR blitz touting the kingdom's aversion to extremism. It invites foreign journalists to a fort and museum at Jahra, where Kuwaitis in 1920 repelled an invading force of Muslim militants, known as the Ikhwan ("brothers"), who came from what is now Saudi Arabia. The religious purists denounced Kuwaitis as kaffirs -- non-believers -- for cooperating with the British and using tobacco.
"There are few fundamentalists in this country," says Haitham H. Ashkanani, 34, a building materials supplier and history buff. "The government is saying these are not Kuwaitis, and from a historical perspective it's true."
Many Kuwaitis say the rigid Wahhabi beliefs that pervade the Saudi social order will never take root here. This seaport culture has long welcomed trade, and enjoys a bountiful coexistence with the West. In busy malls, few pause to pray when mosques issue forth the call five times a day.
If the United States' war on Iraq is designed to spread Western values in the Middle East, as some analysts say, then the McArabia is perfectly positioned. "It's a multinational chicken patty," explains Khawam, the marketing man. For now the meat comes from Malaysia and the "Arabic flat bread" from Britain.
But flecked through the pita-like wrapping are aromatic black seeds popular in the Arab world. Muslims cite their health benefits. The seeds were recommended for consumption by the prophet Muhammad himself, believers say.
Khawam can offer no literal counterpart in English. He calls them barakha seeds. In Arabic, the word means "blessing," which may tell you something about how a mammoth American corporation wants itself to be seen, here in McArabia.