What’s it like to be a specialty coffee barista in the Middle East?
The Middle East has one of the oldest coffee cultures in the world. In fact, traditional arabic coffee (also known as qahwa coffee) received UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status in 2015.
Alongside its historical and cultural significance, the Middle East’s coffee sector has been flourishing in recent years.
According to data from Project Café Middle East 2023, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) branded coffee shop market grew by 10.5% over the last 12 months. As part of this, Saudi Arabia experienced the biggest growth – accounting for 40% of all branded coffee shops in the region.
As well as an increasing number of larger chains, more small and independent coffee shops are opening in the Middle East, too. And with a growing focus on specialty coffee comes a different set of expectations for baristas in the sector.
To find out more about how the role of the barista has evolved in the Middle Eastern coffee market, I spoke to three local industry professionals. Read on to find out more.
You may also like our article on coffee culture in Iran.
A history of coffee & the Middle East
Before we explore the burgeoning coffee market in the Middle East, it’s important to take a look back at the rich history of coffee in the region.
Many historians agree that Yemen – which is located in the southern end of the Arabian peninsula – was the world’s first-ever commercial coffee trading hub. Although some believe that coffee was first discovered in Yemen by a Sufi monk around the 9th century, most experts claim that coffee was brought to Yemen from Ethiopia sometime between the 14th and 15th centuries.
Up until the 18th century, Mokha (a port city located on Yemen’s Red Sea coastline) was the biggest coffee marketplace in the world. As trade and production of coffee grew around the world – albeit largely through colonial and imperial structures – many coffee houses started to open in Middle Eastern countries.
Coffee houses quickly became important meeting spaces for local people, who would gather to discuss a number of social, political, and economic issues. Moreover, it was also customary for people to prepare coffee at home for guests – as it still is today in many parts of the Middle East.
When did specialty coffee first emerge in the Middle East?
Although the Middle East’s relationship with coffee dates back centuries, it was only recently that the region’s specialty coffee market began to emerge.
Wayel Al-Wohaibi is a co-owner of Sulalat Specialty Coffee Roastery in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He says that Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) was one of the first places in the Middle East where specialty coffee boomed.
“RAW Coffee Company was one of the first specialty coffee businesses to launch in Dubai in 2007,” he says. “I remember visiting their small booth in the Dubai Garden Centre when they first opened.
“I showed them my roaster, and in turn they encouraged me to start my own business,” he adds. “Between late 2017 and early 2018, specialty coffee began to explode across the Arabian Gulf, Qatar, and Kuwait, too.”
Milorad Sekulovic is the Head of Operations at Coffee Planet in Dubai. He tells me that over the past five years, he has seen firsthand how much the specialty coffee scene has grown in the Middle East.
“Dubai has been at the centre of this change,” he explains. “But growth across the UAE, as well as Saudi Arabia, has also been notable.
“However, there are more and more plans to invest in the Middle Eastern coffee sector, so this growth is far from over,” he adds.
Milorad notes that specialty coffee sectors in other countries in the region, such as Oman, are also expected to experience significant growth in the next five years or so.
Moreover, coffee consumption in countries like Egypt and Jordan has been increasing significantly in recent years – indicating potential for further growth.
The changing role of the barista
In specialty coffee shops all over the world, baristas play a key role in the customer experience.
Mariam Erin is a Q-grader and food technologist. She is also the 2023 UAE Barista Champion, as well as the 2022 UAE Cezve Champion and 2021 UAE Brewers Cup Champion.
She explains that responsibilities for baristas include:
- Knowing how to prepare and serve high-quality coffee
- Helping consumers make more informed purchasing decisions
- Providing excellent customer service
- Disseminating coffee knowledge
“However, there are also a lot of other duties that baristas need to focus on,” she adds.
As well as honing their technical and customer service skills, more baristas are focusing on roles in education, training, and management.
“Depending on the size and structure of a company, these roles can change,” Milorad explains. “But in smaller coffee shops, baristas are usually involved in most aspects of the business.
“This includes stock management, social media management, and content creation,” he adds.
However, one notable difference when it comes to coffee shops in the Middle East is that many baristas are expatriates.
“For many years, most baristas in the Middle East were Filipino, Indonesian, and Indian,” Wayel says. But as specialty coffee has grown in the region, he notes that the barista profession is becoming more widely recognised and respected.
“When the specialty coffee sector boomed, more Saudi Arabians started working in the industry,” he adds. “I would say that the majority of baristas in Saudi Arabia today are Saudi.”
Women in coffee
One of the ways in which Middle Eastern specialty coffee culture is changing is by becoming more inclusive. This is especially true when it comes to women working in the sector.
Over the past few years, more and more female competitors have been taking part in the UAE National Coffee Championships. Furthermore, in countries like Saudi Arabia, the number of women taking on barista positions has started to increase. In turn, this means women are able to gain more experience, and possibly look towards launching their own coffee businesses in the future.
“That’s what I love about the coffee industry – there are so many ways that you can grow,” Mariam says. “Whether you want to pursue a management, roaster, Q-grader, or educator position, opportunities for growth and gaining knowledge are becoming more accessible to baristas.”
However, Mariam points out that while more women are working in the Middle Eastern coffee sector, it is still very much a male-dominated industry. She adds that she believes more progress will be made in the years to come.
So, given the potential for such vast growth, how can we expect the role of baristas in the Middle East to change in the future?
Wayel thinks that competitions – especially the National Coffee Championships – will play a key part.
“Any barista that wins a competition, or becomes well known in the industry, will receive plenty of work offers from coffee shops or roasters,” he says.
The rise of “coffee influencers” and brand ambassadors is particularly apparent in certain Middle Eastern countries, as well as other parts of the world. These coffee professionals can attract large social media followings, and thereby help to shape trends in the wider industry.
“The more accepting people are of the barista profession, the more the specialty coffee sector will grow in the Middle East,” Wayel adds. “I think this is especially apparent with younger people who have different sets of values to older generations.”
However, Mariam tells me that although building a name for yourself is important, there also needs to be a “back to basics” approach when discussing the barista’s role in the Middle East.
“Being a barista is not just about making coffee,” she says. “It’s also about sharing a moment and creating an excellent experience for the customer.”
As specialty coffee has become more popular in the Middle East, it’s evident that baristas will come to play an increasingly important role in its growth.
And given that the Middle Eastern market is only set to grow, it will be interesting to see how the profession continues to evolve.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on specialty coffee in Lebanon.
Photo credits: Samantha Hernandez, Sulalat Specialty Coffee, Brewista, Coffee Planet
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