After 42 years, the country formerly known as the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya is getting its first taste of consumer capitalism in an unlikely form: sweet, sticky cinnamon rolls. Cinnabon, the Atlanta-based bakery chain, is at the vanguard of a potential business boom in the country, which deposed Muammar Qaddafi last year in a bloody civil war. In July, the unit of Focus Brands became the first United States franchise to open in Libya since the revolution. It's become a popular destination in a city with few diversions for residents.
Of all the places in the world, why Libya?
Cinnabon's bet on Libya shows the perils and potential of this wealthy new consumer market, eyed by a growing number of foreign companies. Libya has a rickety electricity grid and few formal property rights and, because of sectarian violence, it remains a dangerous place. At the same time the country sits atop Africa's biggest oil reserves.
But is the interest mutual?
Libya is a less incongruous spot for Cinnabon than one might expect. Syrupy treats like baklava are beloved in Libya, as in other Arab countries, so local palates are ready-made for the chain, said Mike Shattuck, the president of Focus Brands International.
Has the shop been whetting the appetites of locals?
On a recent evening the two-level Tripoli store was busy with young customers, about two-thirds of them women, who tend to avoid the traditionally male-dominated coffee houses. Unlike at most western restaurants, all of the staff are male. An upstairs lounge caters to patrons who want to linger, and the shop stays open until about 11pm to accommodate the local preference for late-night snacking.
Tensions can still get a bit sticky, though, can't they?
Libya presents challenges. Security in Tripoli is shaky. In August, Salafi Muslim militants demolished a downtown mosque of the more moderate Sufi sect with bulldozers. The government has yet to charge anyone with the murders of the US ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his officials, who died when the Benghazi consulate was stormed in September. Kidnappings, including that of the head of Libya's Olympic Committee in July, are a fact of life. Gunfire can be heard most nights in the capital.
Is the future really looking sweet then?
Others are optimistic, as Qaddafi left a wealthy country that needs everything from hospitals to power grids to oil infrastructure, along with modern retail, banking and telecommunications. As Libya rebuilds, the IMF estimates that its economy, worth about US$97 billion (Dh356.30bn) in 2010, will grow by 17 per cent next year. So far the biggest deals remain undone as the market waits to see whether Libya, with 2,000 kilometres of mostly pristine Mediterranean coastline and some of Africa's finest Roman-era archaeological sites, is on the road to becoming the next Dubai - or the next Iraq. Still, Cinnabon is unlikely to be the sole refuge for Libyans craving an American-style dining experience for long.
"It's a virgin land," the manager Ehab Abdelo-Meged says of the country. "Any franchise coming here will be a success."
* Bloomberg News