KUWAIT CITY // A Kuwaiti blogger said yesterday that the owner of a newly opened Benihana restaurant in Kuwait is suing him for posting an unfavourable review of a meal on his blog.
"I thought it was a bluff, but yesterday a court order was served," said Mark Makhoul, a Lebanese living in Kuwait who runs the popular blog www.248am.com. "They're asking for financial compensation, and asking for my blog to be shut down," he said.
The controversy started in December, after Mr Makhoul had visited the Japanese-style restaurant in the Avenues Mall. He said in a post that service "wasn't too bad for a restaurant that's been open for a few days and the staff were really friendly". He then gave an unfavourable assessment of his meal, and summarised: "Would I go back to Benihana? No, I wouldn't.
"There are two other Japanese restaurants at the Avenues: Wasabi and Maki, and I would prefer either one of those to Benihana."
He posted two videos of the chef cooking and juggling with utensils on a hotplate, something for which the restaurant is known.
The company's general manager in Kuwait, Mike Servo, in a comment posted on Mr Makhou's post, claimed that Benihana's name has been "destroyed and abused" by the blog. He said the blog advised customers to go to other restaurants instead of Benihana "and we believe this is against the law of Kuwait".
Mr Servo said Kuwait's criminal investigation department has been informed of the case, adding on the blog: "BTW [by the way], are you Lebanese?"
"Whatever we said on the blog, we don't want to discuss it any further," he said, adding that any decision to stop legal proceedings would be made by the upper management.
A copy of the court order that was downloaded from Mr Makhoul's blog said the article suspected the quality and safety of the servings. It said the blogger, who works for an advertising agency, had "hidden intents".
"They think it's a conspiracy. It's a very far-fetched argument. I don't think they have a case," Mr Makhoul said.
The restaurant's owner, Abdul Rahman al Mutairi, said yesterday that the law in Kuwait required both parties to refrain from speaking about the case until a verdict is reached.
Internet users from across the region have sent hundreds of messages of support to Mr Makhoul on Twitter and scores have vented their disgust with the US-headquartered franchise on its Kuwaiti Facebook page.
"Benihana, I think your management just ruined your reputation by suing the most popular blogger in Kuwait," said Osama Shaheen. "You should employ more professional people that understand constructive criticism. I have not tried your service and will never do so, not in Kuwait, not anywhere else."
"Wow," said another commentator, Salman Ager. "You guys need to hire a good agency. Your Kuwait brand is in crisis. What you have started is going to create a firestorm of negative publicity."
"Haven't you seen what's going on in Tunisia and Egypt?" he asked, "You have basically set up the same scenario online. And the odds are in favour of the public."
Mr Makhoul, who is waiting for the trial to begin on March 8, was feeling resilient yesterday. He said: "If they want to go ahead, I'm not going to chicken out. It doesn't just affect me; that's why I want everyone to get involved. If I lose this case it could affect all the bloggers in Kuwait."
He said he hopes the pressure will force the Benihana corporation to demand the Kuwaiti franchise owners drop the case.