There's nothing that screams "USA!" more than a burger, fries, and a shake, a combo on the same plane of mainstream Americana as baseball, apple pie, or a monster truck rally. But in recent years, fast food in the United States has gone from being merely a staple of the instant-gratification consumer age to an industry that, at least in many of its ads and promo materials, emphasizes salads, calorie counts, and natural ingredients.
Taking McDonald's as an example, the world's largest burger chain has seen four straight years of dropping customer counts at its US locations, and pushes to improve its burger patty meat mean we may soon see plugs for farm-to-table or locally sourced burgers on highway billboards.
But even as they change up their game domestically, fast-food conglomerates have found new customers for their old-school formula by turning toward other parts of the world, where the market is a bit less saturated—and the dangers of their product less well known. One of the most remarkable places where this has taken root in recent decades is the Gulf region of the Arabian Peninsula, which has some of the most affluent populations in the Middle East. Oil revenues have transformed the area drastically over the last half century, and with vast wealth and modernization came a flood of cheap burgers.
We caught up with economics professor Dr. Mohsen Bagnied, chair of the Department of Marketing at the American University of Kuwait, to get a better sense of how the trend of fast-food culture has taken over in Kuwait and in the Gulf states more broadly. Here's what he had to say.
VICE: When did American fast food first come to the Middle East?
Mohsen Bagnied: The first time hamburgers were introduced to Kuwait was in 1981 by Hardee's. And after that McDonalds came 13 years later, in 1994. And now every major fast-food chain, mostly from the US, is in Kuwait, whether it's McDonald's, Burger King, Hardee's, Johnny Rockets, Wendy's, Taco Bell, Nathan's, Pizza Hut, Subway, Domino's, Five Guys. Just name it—everybody's here.
What has the reaction been like culturally to this American fad?
There has been a cultural invasion in Kuwait by Western, especially American, culture since the Gulf War. Anything that symbolizes America—jeans, fast food, fast cars, liberal values—are all here by now. That does not mean that there has not been some resistance by some elements of society for several years.
How mainstream do you think fast food is in the culture in Kuwait and other Gulf countries?
Fast food has really taken over from local foods. It's not only the major chains, but now there are many local brands that are spreading too. People basically replaced domestic or local foods with Western or fast food, and it's a hamburger culture. Especially among young people, it's becoming very popular. They consider going to a fast-food restaurant a source of entertainment for the whole family. And the reason for that is that fast food is still in the growth stages of development.
People also think of it as tasty, clean, fun, and affordable. But many do not realize that a lot of calories are involved in this junk food, with little nutritional value and high saturated fat, high sugar, and little fiber. They don't think about it. They are starting now in schools, especially in foreign schools like American, French, English—they started educating the kids that you have to limit fast food. The government is also starting to introduce this issue.
Check out the trailer for the VICE on HBO segment about fast food of Arabia, and watch the full episode Friday, April 21, at 7:30 or 11 PM on HBO.
Can you talk a bit about the pace of growth here? Americans often read stories about the constant construction of new fast-food restaurants in, say, China. Is there a similar trend underway in places like Kuwait?
It's a booming industry. McDonald's, for example, they expect their sales to continue to grow by 11 to 12 percent per year. It's amazing, the figures they have for growth. And fast food in Kuwait has not yet reached a saturation point yet.
The first day it was something like 15,000 people going to McDonald's, with a seven-mile long [line] of cars waiting for the drive-thru. According to some of the reports I've seen, McDonald's makes $6 million dollars per day in the Middle East [and Africa] selling their products, and $2.2 billion annually. And they plan to increase that figure by 60 percent by 2020, which is only a few years from now.
What is the brand you see the most often? Arbys seems to be ramping up its presence, for example.
Now the most common are McDonald's, Burger King, and KFC—those are the most visible. But there are others—Domino's, Papa John's, Five Guys. I mean, here across from my window, I'm directly on the Gulf, I wish I could show you a picture of the beautiful Gulf from here, but Pizza Hut's in my face.
What's the demographic profile of people who eat fast food in Kuwait, which doesn't strike me as having the same problems with poverty, food deserts, and obesity that the US does?
There is a focus on young people. The youth are very much Americanized in their clothing, in the way they drive cars, the way they eat, the way they dress. I teach in the American University of Kuwait. I see all the latest models of everything that the students are adopting here.
Now, there is a very high divorce rate in Kuwait—it's almost the same level as the US. So many people are living alone, not in families as [often] it used to be. So many people find it easy to just go pick up fast food—not only going to restaurants. In fact, there is a booming business of home delivery. The home delivery businesses are reaching record profit levels, where you order by phone, and it comes to you at home. They don't even want to go there; they want to sit on the couch, being a couch potato as we call it, and get their fast food. At every fast-food restaurant, you can order the food to come at home.
How easy is it to open new franchise restaurants in Kuwait? Who owns them?
I had one of my students try to get a franchise for Chipotle. He contacted them, but he couldn't get it. He said they deal only with big families or big companies, and so they weren't ready to open here. But everybody else is here.
And I would say that here you have some big companies with tremendous financial resources, which makes it very attractive for franchises. But here they say it's like cars—there's only one Mercedes dealer or one BMW dealer for the whole country. We don't have multiple franchisers. That's one thing different from the US.
How do fast-food brands advertise locally? Are there specific strategies that work in the Middle East that might contrast with those in the US?
There is tremendous heavy promotion in TV newspaper, billboards, social media. You see it on half the front page of the Kuwait Times and other newspapers about KFC, McDonald's Burger King, Pizza Hut, and others. They spend a lot of money on promotion. Social media is very popular here now. Everybody is walking with their smartphones—everybody's using it.
All you have to do is to drive along the major roads, and you see the huge billboards about different brands of fast foods.
How do these companies market to young people?
The most important thing they highlight is that we have halal meat. They say we only use vegetable oil, which really doesn't say much. But they focus on having pure meat, halal beef, no external ingredients. They try to focus on things other than the fat and sugar levels and the stuff that really hits you hard health-wise.
Do fast-food companies tweak their specific dishes to adhere to local tastes in the Middle East the way they do in China?
There is McArabia [a pita sandwich], and a few that use some Arabic names. They adjust their menu to the Arabic culture to some degree. But again, they focus on advertising halal meat.
How has fast food affected diet and health? Is Kuwait on the road to facing its own obesity crisis?
Oh, yes. That's why there are a lot of openings of health clubs here. You see, half of the year here, the weather is so hot it's very hard for people to have outdoor activity or walking. So that's one reason.
There has been recently excessive numbers of stomach stapling surgeries. I saw an article in Bloomberg in 2012 that said the number of surgeons performing such operations in Kuwait increased ten times over ten years earlier. In 2012, 5000 people were getting surgeries in Kuwait compared with 3,000 in [much more populous] Canada. Lots of my students have done this operation.
Of course, they are starting to diet and exercise, especially young people, but still at a limited scale. Kids here are so heavy. They have to start educating school children about the dangers of fast food, and educating families in schools by the government and even religiously, in mosques and churches—they should alert people to the dangers of excessive use. McDonald's and other fast-food places started producing salads and starting to have more healthy nutritional food, but they haven't reached any good level like what's happened in the US.
Fast food is on the decline in the US, but sales overseas are booming in most countries, because still there isn't much resistance to the dangers.
So wait, do you eat fast food?
I do, because I have son who's 12. So once in a while, he says, "Baba, let's go to McDonald's or Burger King."
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Check out our segment on Fast Food of Arabia tonight on VICE on HBO at 7:30 and 11 PM.
Follow Ibrahim Balkhy on Twitter.