Although Saudi Arabia has been growing coffee for the past few centuries, it is by no means a major coffee-producing country. In 2020, it’s estimated that Saudi-grown coffee totalled around 300 tonnes.
However, the country has a rich history of coffee consumption, which is only continuing to grow. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that Saudi Arabia will import around 200,000 60kg bags across the 2022/23 crop year.
So, could the gap between these two figures ever close? To learn more about Saudi Arabia’s coffee sector, I spoke with two local coffee professionals. Read on to find out more about how the country’s coffee production is changing.
You may also like our article on the history of Mocha coffee & Yemeni coffee culture.
A profile of Saudi Arabian coffee production
Coffee production in Saudi Arabia is mostly concentrated in three regions in the southwest of the country: the Jazan region around the city of the same name, Hejazi, and Asir. Most of the coffee produced here is consumed domestically, as well as being exported to other Middle Eastern countries.
In the region around Jazan alone, it’s estimated that more than 79,000 coffee plants are growing on the steep hillsides of the area’s mountain ranges. The climate is moderate, with high levels of humidity and rainfall, which makes it ideal for growing coffee.
Several unique coffee varieties grow in Saudi Arabia, including four by the name of Khawlani, Berri, Harari, and Bahri. It’s believed that the Bahri variety was transported from Brazil via Turkey, having been brought to Saudi Arabia for cultivation some years ago.
In Saudi Arabia, flowering usually begins in late March before coffee cherries mature for around six months. Once harvested and processed, the beans are sorted and graded, often by colour, before they are sold to exporters or roasters.
Almohanad Almarwai is the co-founder and CEO of the Arabian Coffee Institute (ACI). He tells me that Saudi people generally prefer lighter roasts compared to most other Middle Eastern countries.
“In Saudi Arabia, people tend to drink a light roast [that is roasted to just before] first crack,” he says. “Some of the more common flavour notes are raisins, dates, other dried fruits, dark chocolate, and spices such as cardamom and cinnamon.
“Saudi’s coffee drinkers tend to prefer more flavourful and complex coffees, which is why we add spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves,” he adds.
Initiatives to increase coffee production
Over the past few years, there have been several attempts to bolster coffee production in Saudi Arabia.
One of the more notable initiatives is the Saudi government’s Vision 2030, which seeks to diversify the nation’s economy and thereby reduce dependence on oil exports. As part of this initiative, the government launched the 2022 Year of Saudi Coffee campaign, which also aims to promote domestic coffee consumption.
Through this programme, the Saudi Arabian government plans to grow around 5,000 tonnes of higher-quality coffee every year, with plans to export at a major scale by 2040.
“Saudi is aiming to be one of the leading coffee-producing countries [over the next couple of decades],” Almohanad tells me. “We are also experimenting with different processing methods.
“The Middle East has always been a major hub for coffee, so the Saudi government is planning to revive this [in the coming years],” he adds.
Alongside bolstering production, there is also significant interest in increasing the domestic consumption of specialty coffee.
“When specialty coffee was first introduced to Middle Eastern countries around late 2013, consumers were already used to coffee being a complex drink which is full of flavours,” Almohanad explains. “This is why consumers were easily acclimated to specialty coffee.”
The number of specialty roasters and coffee shops in the country are steadily on the rise, as well as organisations such as the newly-founded ACI.
The institute is currently creating a coffee curriculum in Arabic that will be used to educate national coffee professionals and consumers, as well as informing international markets on different farming, processing, and brewing methods in the Middle East.
Overcoming challenges in the Saudi Arabian coffee sector
But despite the launch of these initiatives, coffee production in Saudi Arabia still faces challenges.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the country shifted its focus to make oil a key export for the Saudi Arabian economy. As a result, many people abandoned coffee production in favour of other, more profitable industries, which meant there were huge declines in production and some farms were abandoned.
“[As such], coffee plants in Saudi Arabia are old, which naturally results in low yields,” Almohanad explains. “The plants need more attention; I sometimes still find primary and secondary defects.”
What’s more, rising global temperatures are negatively affecting Saudi coffee production. In December 2021, Arab News reported that coffee farms in the region around the city of Jazan were some of the worst affected in the country because of lower levels of rainfall.
To add to the already difficult growing conditions, coffee farms in Saudi Arabia are typically located on the steep hillsides of mountains, which makes it difficult to implement proper irrigation systems.
“Moreover, rainfall levels in [areas such as Jazan] are very unpredictable and are often insufficient for coffee cultivation,” Almohanad says.
Aside from climate-related challenges, a lack of formal coffee knowledge and investment in technical assistance is also hindering production. Many Saudi coffee farmers have minimal access to research, best agricultural practices, and updated farming technologies, which has held back significant development of coffee production.
However, with the government’s drive to promote the production of Saudi Arabian coffee, both yield and quality could improve in the future.
Looking to the future
Although Saudi Arabia’s coffee export levels are still largely negligible, there is certainly potential for production levels to grow.
In fact, a 2017 research paper found that with the appropriate resources and infrastructure, the Saudi coffee sector’s share of the global market could increase as high as 2%. The researchers also concluded that coffee production could be scaled mostly in the southern and southwestern parts of the country.
By the end of 2021, around 400,000 coffee trees were planted across 600 farms in the country, which are capable of producing about 800 tonnes of coffee each year.
Furthermore, as a part of its 2030 Vision, the Saudi government aims to plant a total of 1.3 million coffee trees by 2025 to boost production levels, as well as developing direct trade relationships with smallholder farmers.
In the long term, there will be several programmes put in place to support farmers with training, achieving organic certification, and marketing their coffees.
There have also been efforts to protect coffee production in Saudi Arabia. In 2019, the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society filed a UNESCO application to protect traditional Khawlani coffee production methods in Saudi Arabia.
Khawlani coffee beans, which are named after the tribe that first cultivated them, are some of the most highly-prized coffee beans in the Middle East. Typically, traditional Khawlani coffee farming techniques are passed down through generations, which means there is a lack of more formal and documented agricultural practices.
Support from local roasters
In order for the country’s coffee sector to grow sustainably, support from roasters is essential.
Many professionals in the Saudi coffee industry are working with local farmers to produce higher-quality coffee.
Osamah Al-Awaam is the founder of Roasting House. He tells me why he donated several Behmor roasters to Saudi farmers.
“For us, it’s not just a donation; it’s a necessity,” he says. “If we want farmers to understand what we are looking for [with the coffee they produce], we have to give them the chance to taste it.
“We need to connect more roasters with the farmers,” he adds.
He also says that with the support of roasters, some Saudi farmers are starting to experiment with different processing methods. In some cases, this means moving away from traditional natural processing methods, and adopting newer and more innovative techniques such as anaerobic fermentation.
Osamah explains that more and more of the younger generations working at all levels of the country’s coffee industry have started to attend coffee events and participate in competitions, which also serves to further increase exposure for specialty coffee in the country.
While Saudi Arabia’s specialty coffee industry may still be in its early stages, there is great potential for the sector to grow in the coming years.
With continued support from the government, as well as the private sector, the country could become a more important part of the global coffee industry.
As more coffee plants are cultivated in the country, it will be interesting to see if it is able to meet its ambitious goals for increasing coffee production.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on coffee culture in Iran.
Photo credits: Tony Pramana, Osamah Alawwam, ASH Cafés
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