People like stuff, and they like to be able to get stuff in a convenient, fun place where shopping is an experience, even in Kuwait:
- Never mind Iraq. The British invasion began this morning, well south of the border, when Sir Richard Branson, president and CEO of The Virgin Group, breezed into Kuwait City. He is here to open the Middle East’s largest Virgin Megastore – a marble-and-glass behemoth in the swanky Marina Mall overlooking the Persian Gulf.
“I DON’T think I’ve ever seen a more beautiful shopping center in the world!” he says, as flashbulbs flicker and tuxedoed waiters serve tea and canapes. Branson says he realizes that with war looming in Iraq, “it may not be the most auspicious time” to open a new record store in Kuwait. “But business,” he declares, “must carry on.”
“Inshallah,” says a woman in the crowd. “God willing.”
The new Virgin Megastore is situated in Kuwait’s Salmiya district, a governate whose main drag would look at home in Miami or Houston. Since the American liberation of Kuwait 12 years ago, the trappings of Western consumer culture are everywhere here. Oil-rich young people cruise the palm-lined streets in Ferraris and Porsches. Sophisticates in Armani sip grande lattes at a Starbucks across the street from a movie theater that is currently playing “Die Another Day,” the new James Bond movie. On my first day in Kuwait, a Kuwaiti friend asked, “Have you had the new Five-Star Burger at Hardee’s?” We ended up eating chili-cheese fries at Johnny Rockets, a diner decorated like a 1950s soda shop.
Kuwait has not yet morphed completely into South Beach. Until it was taken down recently, the Virgin store featured a giant red billboard that read: IF IT ISN’T BANNED, WE’VE GOT IT. “This is not a joke,” the store’s manager reassures me. Government censors still snip questionable scenes and lyrics from movies and songs. But Branson, ever adventurous, says he’ll actively campaign to change Kuwait’s laws if he thinks they’re wrong. “We won’t keep quiet if we think it’s a stupid, stupid rule,” he says. [Newsweek]
The thing about business is, you can’t force people to buy things they don’t want. Of course crass commercialism meets with resistance in a place like Kuwait – it meets with resistance here – but freedom of choice is addicting and once people get used to being able to buy what they want, they eventually believe they should be able to think and live how they want.
- It’s still an open question whether Kuwait will continue to be a safe place for American and British troops and businesses in the run-up to a possible war with Iraq. Military officials have already locked the troops on base, canceling once-frequent “morale” trips to Kuwait City. But Sir Richard doesn’t seem concerned about his debut. He’s already thinking about his own march to Iraq’s capital. “I hope one day we will open a shop in Baghdad,” he says.
If it exists, you will.