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How Saudi Arabian farmers are trying to preserve traditional coffee production

Climate change, water shortages and newcomers are challenging the traditional coffee culture in Saudi Arabia, which has the 10th largest per capita consumption in the world.

An ambitious group of Saudi Arabian farmers is trying to preserve traditional coffee production in the face of cultural shifts and climate change.

Jabir Ahmed Ali Al-Salmi Al-Maliki says his family has been growing Khawlani, a type of Arabica coffee, for nearly 300 years on the terraced hillside slopes of Jazan in southwestern Saudi Arabia. 

"We use traditional farming techniques … to collect rainwater. If collected properly, the farm can store enough rainwater to last for three months," he told Al-Monitor.

While preserving tradition, Maliki admits that coffee can prove to be a problematic crop to grow.

"The hardest part of being a coffee farmer is the manual labor," he said, which may be why he has increasingly sought to diversify. His farm has tried to blend traditional techniques with modern approaches. His son markets the coffee on social media platforms and has helped to build a brand that has attracted buyers from the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait.

Small picnic areas are set up where guests can picnic amongst the coffee, fig and banana trees. Half a dozen or so groups visit the site each day — a recent visitor hailed from the Ivory Coast.

A 2017 article from The Telegraph ranked Saudi Arabia the 10th largest per capita consumer of coffee in the world. 

Traditionally, Saudi coffee culture centered on the dallah, a parrot-beaked coffee pot being produced well into the 1960s that is placed on a spit over an open fire. Sometimes referred to as white coffee, it is consumed in multiple servings at receptions and as part of restaurant hospitality in small finjan cups — usually with dates. Traditionally, the coffee is flavored with cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and saffron, which gives it a golden hue

The verdant Jazan region is home to over 79,000 Khawlani coffee trees that cling to its hillsides. Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, the region began to turn away from coffee as a source of economic sustenance as another black substance with its own Midas touch — oil — began to dominate the economy. As farmers became soldiers or bureaucrats, the number of those farming coffee dropped to the low hundreds.

Today, the Saudi Arabian government and the government of Jazan province is seeking to revive the industry. Farmers are being encouraged to plant trees on terraces that have in some cases been neglected for decades or given over to herding. Coffee production has continued elsewhere, but often at artisanal levels of production. To revive the industry, experts from Brazil and elsewhere have been flown in to share contemporary techniques. While Maliki does not worry about water access, other farmers complain that drilling boreholes is a significant expenditure.

"Only 15% of terraces in the mountain that have the potential for coffee production is being used," said Nayef bin Lebdah, the emir of Al-Dayer governorate who is seeking ways to solve the water challenges. He told Al-Monitor, "I am amazed by the passion of our farmers as we try to reclaim our heritage." 

Part of efforts to preserve these ancient coffee techniques is a push to give Khawlani coffee production UNESCO's intangible heritage status — a campaign Saudi Arabia officially launched in March 2019. 

The region produced a modest 336 tons of coffee in 2019, but the governor explains the region has bigger ambitions. Saudi Arabia seeks to produce 5,000 tons of quality coffee per annum under the terms of the economic diversification goals of Saudi Vision 2030. The goal is to become self-sufficient in Arabica production. Then, by 2040, they hope to start exporting the coffee they produce. Saudi farmers point to the example of Vietnam, which has become a global player in coffee over the past few decades.

But not all the Khawlani beans and Saudi coffee production will end up served in dallahs. Consumers of the world's most popular stimulant may well embrace the new supply. A report published in 2016 by Fairtrade Australia & New Zealand argued climate change could threaten to cut global production in half.

Saudi Arabia is home to numerous Western-style coffee shops. Since 2000, 150 Starbucks branches have opened in the country, and the American company boasts openly of having met the goals of "Saudization" with a number of Saudi nationals in senior positions.

Efforts by Saudi Arabia's coffee culture to stratify micro-roasteries began in Riyadh in 2014, and one Saudi coffee startup even exported cold brew to the United Kingdom.

"I personally am not a fan of Starbucks," said Adeeb Mathari, who agrees that the American corporate chain tends to over-roast its coffee beans. Mathari loves coffee served the traditional way but is also a fan of cold brew and exotic coffee concoctions, he told Al-Monitor.

Mathari founded Cove — the first local coffee shop in the southwestern port city of Jazan — last spring. The line at the coffee shop is longer than that for Al-Baik — the Saudi fried chicken chain that has emerged from Jeddah in the last decade as a cult favorite. Cove serves traditional coffee as well as local adaptations of international favorites. Cafe con leche is marketed as a Spanish latte.

The Cove is located two hours from the coffee farming region, and Mathari dreams of being able to provide his consumers with fresh farm-to-cup coffee in the near future.

"Knowledge is a big challenge for farmers; some farmers are old and do not know about modern techniques," Mathari said.

Khawlani (Khoulani in English) coffee is of high quality, but sustainably maintaining production standards remains an issue. While some farmers can have near-perfect conditions one season, water scarcity can be an issue.

Saudi Arabia has sought to maintain gender segregation in coffee shops and restaurants for decades. That policy began to ease over the previous three years before being repealed in December 2019. As recently in 2016, a Starbucks in Riyadh received international attention for briefly banning women from the premises while it was under renovation. Elsewhere in the country, a few daring cafes have begun testing their boundaries in recent years. Mathari says indignantly that from the beginning, they never sought to separate male and female customers.

"My dream is to sell a variety of Saudi coffee to all of my customers, and I think … with some work, we will get there soon," Mathari said.

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