April 25, 2023

Is Dubai becoming the specialty coffee hub of the Middle East?


Dubai is the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – one of the most well-developed coffee markets in the Middle East. While traditional qahwa (also known as kahwa or Arabic coffee) is still popular in the country, the UAE’s specialty coffee market is also growing at an incredible pace.

Thanks to its rapid economic growth, Dubai has played a key role in driving the country’s specialty coffee sector forward. In particular, the city’s large expat population has helped drive innovation among its specialty coffee scene. In turn, it seems more and more international coffee companies are looking to invest in Dubai for a number of reasons.

This leads us to a pertinent question: is Dubai becoming the specialty coffee hub of the Middle East? And if so, what does this mean for the wider Middle Eastern coffee market?

To find out, I spoke with Cleia Junqueira, a coffee professional and consultant based in Dubai, and Nooran Albannay, CEO at Coffee Architecture and 2023 UAE Barista Championship finalist. Read on for more of their insight.

You may also like our article on what it’s like to be a specialty coffee barista in the Middle East.

A person pours coffee from a traditional Arabic coffee pot.

A history of coffee in the Middle East

Before we take a look at the growing specialty coffee sector in Dubai, we first need to briefly look back at the history of coffee in the Middle East.

The region has one of the oldest coffee cultures in the world. Up until the 18th century, the port city of Mokha in Yemen was the biggest global coffee marketplace.

“It was in the Middle East that coffee was given the name we all know today, derived from the Arabic word ’qahwa’,” Cleia says. “The trade and consumption of qahwa (or gahwa) then spread throughout the Middle East and Europe.”

In turn, as trade and production of coffee increased, many coffee houses started to open across the Middle East – including in the UAE.

Coffee houses had – and still have – a great deal of social and cultural significance in the Middle East. At these places, people meet to discuss a number of social, political, and economic issues.

Moreover, Nooran explains that coffee is often a staple of many households in the Middle East. 

“Many households in the UAE brew gahwa in the morning with family before going to work,” she says. “We then usually prepare coffee again for visitors and friends in the afternoon, which we typically serve with dates.”

Baristas in a coffee shop in the Middle East.

Qahwa vs specialty

The Middle East’s rich coffee culture means that qahwa and other traditional ways of drinking coffee are still popular in the region. However, at the same time, there is evidence that the specialty coffee market is growing in certain countries, such as the UAE. According to the UAEs Ministry of Economy, there are some 4,000 coffee shops in the country. 

Although not all of these cafés can be considered specialty, demand for higher-quality coffee is certainly on the rise.

Dubai has been a focal point of this growth, most notably because of its international travel links. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, several large coffee brands opened stores in the city – including:

  • Costa Coffee
  • Starbucks
  • Dunkin’

The emergence of specialty coffee

In the last 20 years in particular, we’ve seen a rush from specialty coffee brands – both domestic and overseas – to launch in Dubai.

“[In the early 2000s], Coffee Planet, Raw Coffee, Easternmen & Co, Boon Café, the Specialty Batch, Stumping Grounds and Mokha 1450 were some of the core roasters and coffee shops which helped to pave the way for more specialty coffee businesses in the region,” Cleia tells me.

Nooran explains that Dubai’s specialty market began to expand and diversify in the early 2010s. 

“Dubai’s specialty coffee market started to really grow around early 2014,” she says. “In the beginning, it was geared more towards educating people who were interested in specialty coffee, rather than a more commercial focus, or exploring different flavour profiles and varieties.”

Moreover, many “luxury” global beverage categories are often alcoholic. However, with the consumption of alcohol restricted in many parts of the Middle East, there isn’t a wealth of higher-end beverage options in the region – including in Dubai. In turn, more people are drinking specialty coffee.

Nooran adds that the pandemic also shaped people’s interest in specialty coffee

“Many people decided to buy espresso machines and other brewing equipment so they could make their own coffee at home,” she says.

World of Coffee Dubai attendees cup specialty coffees at a booth.

Why is Dubai such an attractive market for specialty coffee businesses?

Against the backdrop of the Emirati coffee market’s explosive growth, we can see that Dubai plays a key role – especially for international businesses looking to enter the Middle East more widely.

This can largely be attributed to the opening of the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC) in 2002 – the UAE’s largest free-trade zone which serves as a commodities exchange. 

Cleia explains that the DMCC’s 7,500 square metre Coffee Centre has also helped to consolidate Dubai as a major trade hub for coffee in the Middle East. 

“Dubai has a history of trade, so the DMCC Coffee Centre is having a big impact on how coffee businesses operate in the region,” she tells me.

The centre provides full solutions to companies looking to launch their own coffee brand. This includes sourcing and roasting coffee, as well as warehousing and packaging solutions and a barista training facility. 

Effectively, this makes it much easier to open a coffee business in the UAE. For example, the logistics of opening a coffee business are also streamlined in Dubai, making it a very attractive market for overseas companies to enter.

According to the Business Registration and Licensing sector in Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism, there are around 615 coffee trade companies in the city. Furthermore, in 2021, there was a 148% year-on-year increase in the number of licences issued – a strong indication of growth.

However, that’s not to say that Dubai’s specialty coffee sector, as well as the wider UAE, isn’t highly competitive. But if international coffee companies are able to succeed, they can also gain entry to other markets in the Middle East – some of which are showing signs of explosive growth, too.

Specialty coffee events in the country

Since the opening of the DMCC and the growth of the branded coffee market in Dubai, the city has hosted several prominent industry events. Most notably, the first-ever World of Coffee (WoC) Dubai was held in January 2022, which attracted more than 6,600 attendees.

Following the success of the first event, the second WoC Dubai took place in January 2023 at the Dubai World Trade Centre. With over 10,000 people attending the expo and more than 200 exhibitors, the event is a clear indication that Dubai plays a key role in the Middle Eastern specialty coffee market.

“These kinds of events are crucial to Dubai’s coffee market,” Cleia explains. “They also help to show the level of innovation that is happening in the UAE coffee sector.”

This year’s WoC Dubai also hosted the 2023 UAE National Barista Championship, with winner Mariam Erin going on to represent the country at the World Barista Championship in June.

“I attended 2023 WoC Dubai and placed third in the National Barista Championship,” Nooran tells me. “It was great to see so many farmers, roasters, coffee shops, and competitors connecting over a shared passion for coffee.”

The top three 2023 UAE Barista Championship competitors at World of Coffee Dubai

How could Dubai influence the future of the Middle Eastern coffee market?

It’s impossible to ignore how instrumental Dubai has been – and continues to be – in the growth of the Middle Eastern specialty coffee sector. But just how much influence could it have in the years to come?

Well, firstly, it’s clear that the UAE’s specialty coffee market is showing no signs of slowing down. According to data from Project Café Middle East 2019, 88% of industry leaders believe that there is more growth potential for the UAE branded coffee market. 

Moreover, three-quarters of industry leaders agree location is a key factor for success in the market, but note that increased competition is the main challenge for branded coffee businesses in the UAE. There were an estimated 9,084 branded coffee shops in the Middle East in 2019, with more surely to have opened over the past four years.

Entry into other markets

Cleia explains that if coffee businesses are to find success in Dubai, there is a higher chance of doing the same in other Middle Eastern markets – including Saudi Arabia.

“If you have a solid business plan, you can replicate and adapt to the Saudi Arabian coffee sector,” she says. “If you can do this effectively, you have a good chance of success.”

Judges at the 2023 UAE Coffee Championships at World of Coffee Dubai.

Over the last few years, Dubai has established itself as an innovative, disruptive centre for specialty coffee in the Middle East.

By positioning itself as a trade hub for coffee and a gateway for overseas coffee business, it remains an appealing market to enter for brands looking to expand internationally. And while the competitive nature of the market is understandably a concern, it will clearly play a key role in shaping Middle Eastern specialty coffee culture in the future.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on qahwa coffee and how you prepare it.

Photo credits: Specialty Coffee Association, Coffee Architecture 

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