Visiting Saudi Arabia? Hope you like coffee
An American friend of mine told me he will be visiting Saudi Arabia and asked me about what to expect. After pausing for a few seconds, I told him, “I hope you like coffee.”
While Saudi Arabia is probably not the first country that comes to mind when one thinks of coffee the way Colombia, Brazil or Ethiopia do, it does play an important part in the lives of Saudis.
With a culture steeped in displaying generosity and hospitality to guests, those visiting any region in Saudi Arabia are likely to be offered coffee – and tea – repeatedly just about anywhere they go. While there is no shortage of coffee houses serving American, Italian or Turkish style coffee, it is Arabic coffee that Saudis take special care and pride in serving.
This coffee, which is also popular in other countries along the Arabian Gulf, looks, smells and tastes different than the coffee Westerners – and much of the world – are familiar with thanks in large measure to the global phenomenon known as Starbucks.
What is interesting is that while Saudis love their own coffee, many have also embraced Western-style cafes, especially Starbucks. In some way, this duality is emblematic of the Saudi Arabia of today: a country that is proud of its traditions and heritage but that is also open to new influences and that has embraced the idea of being a member of a wider, ever-more interconnected, global community.
Preparing and serving this beverage is a serious matter, and many follow a strict etiquette when serving it.
As a Saudi, I admit that Arabic coffee is something of an acquired taste. It looks and tastes different than American-style coffee, Italian-style espresso or even Turkish coffee. Preparing and serving this beverage is a serious matter, and many follow a strict etiquette when serving it. While it was traditionally prepared in the presence of the guest, it is now prepared elsewhere but the same method – boiling lightly-roasted green beans, as opposed to brewing them through a filter – is still used. Cardamom, cumin, cloves, saffron are often added. The coffee is also still served in a specially designed pot called a dallah and poured in a special demitasse called finjal or finjan.
While often served by the youngest person in the room, the first person served is usually the most senior. The dallah is held in the left hand and the finjan is given by the right hand. The server will often stand by until the person has finished his or her first cup. A shaking of the demitasse indicates that the person has had enough. While it is perfectly acceptable to have more than one, there is some pressure to drink that first cup rather quickly. That skill comes with time.
It is worth noting that in 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added Arabic coffee to its “Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” In 2016, a coffee museum opened in the Eastern Province.
Like other coffee shops around the world, cafes in Saudi Arabia have become places for friends or family to meet and relax. It is also a forum for cultural events, like meetings of book clubs, poetry readings and art exhibits. More recently, music has been added to the mix.
A number of Saudi sociologists have attributed the popularity of “coffee culture” in Saudi Arabia to millennials and their exposure to social media.
Visitors to the Kingdom will no doubt be exposed to both traditional Arabic coffee and Western-style coffee shops. In Saudi Arabia, the former is proudly preserved, while the latter is fully embraced.
• Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US-Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer