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Saudis want the world to wake up and smell their coffee

Coffee trade wars brewing: Saudi aims to increase its 300 tonnes of beans a year to 2,500 tonnes Creative Commons
Coffee trade wars brewing: Saudi aims to increase its 300 tonnes of beans a year to 2,500 tonnes
  • 400,000 coffee trees nationwide with 54,000 in Jazan region
  • Kenya, Ethiopia and Colombia are dominant traders
  • Water scarcity has plagued agricultural ambitions in the past

Did Arabica coffee originate in Arabia? Many say it hails from Ethiopia and then spread to Yemen and the rest of the Middle East. As coffee experts and aficionados continue to debate its history, Saudi Arabia is working to put a new stamp on the industry. 

Saudi Arabia has named 2022 the year of Saudi coffee. Launching the tagline in January, Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al-Saud said coffee “is an important element of our rich culture.” 

As the kingdom opens up to the world, tourism officials are emphasising its rich heritage. Coffee, which has flourished in the country for several centuries, is central to this national narrative.

This is especially so in the southwestern Jazan region, which is host to the highest proportion of the kingdom’s 600 coffee farms. There are 400,000 coffee trees across the country, and 54,000 in Jazan. It is here that the iconic Khawlani coffee bean is grown. Java coffee junkies have recently started flocking to Jazan, where a coffee craze has been steadily brewing for years.

10-year investment programme

Saudi Arabia is hoping to develop the cultural appeal of its coffee into a broader, lucrative business opportunity, with the country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF) recently announcing plans to invest $320 million into the industry over 10 years. The kingdom currently harvests about 300 tonnes of coffee beans a year, and the PIF is aiming to increase this to 2,500 tonnes.

News of the PIF’s investment plans followed an earlier pledge in November 2021 from the Ministry of Environment, Water and Agriculture to produce a ‘coffee development city’ in the Al Bahar province of the southwestern Hejazi region, where more than 300,000 arabica coffee seedlings will be planted over 15 years. 

Amid these announcements, expectations are rising for Saudi Arabia’s coffee industry. Could it become the next Kenya? Jordan Buchanan, a historian at the University of California San Diego and coffee researcher, says: “The kingdom has the potential to establish coffee production as a key export product for the economy, but it will take more time to develop the global trade networks that have allowed countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Brazil and Colombia to become the dominant coffee traders.”

He adds: “There are plenty of opportunities for expansion in the region. Several Arab nations are wild for coffee. Countries such as Kuwait have flourishing café cultures, owing to alcohol restrictions. And while there are some anti-Saudi perspectives in the West that could diminish trade, the general anonymity of most coffee that arrives on the market should provide the kingdom with an excellent opportunity to expand its sales around the world.” 

But it remains to be seen if this market anonymity will be guaranteed, with Saudi authorities instructing cafés in the kingdom to ditch the term “Arabic coffee” for “Saudi coffee.”

Water constraints

While its internal branding appears secure, questions have been raised about the environmental sustainability of the Saudi coffee industry, with water scarcity and irrigation issues plaguing the country’s agricultural ambitions in the recent past. The introduction of wheat production in 1983 was blamed for exacerbating the country’s water shortage, leading to a ban on growing the crop in 2015 which was partially lifted in 2018. 

Wheat cultivation has struggled to recover since its reintroduction, but environmental challenges elsewhere might dwarf the water problems facing the kingdom. Buchanan says that “several coffee-producing nations are struggling to produce the same quantities they used to and Saudi can insert itself into this gap.”

“Leading coffee producers, especially in East Africa, have been hit by the environmental challenges of climate change. But Saudi Arabia’s high-altitude regions offer zones that are less damaged by climate change for coffee production,” making the resilience of Jazan’s farms especially attractive for investors. Nearby Asir, home to the kingdom’s highest point, could also prove attractive to savvy coffee investors.

And while Kenyan and Ethiopian coffee farmers grapple with irreversible environmental barriers, the solution to Saudi Arabia’s water constraints might lie close to home. In Yemen, where higher-quality coffee has ensured resilient prices — often hitting $60 for a bag — and bountiful exports even amid the raging civil war, coffee producers have adapted to the semi-arid conditions through using different coffee varieties and farming methods.

Relying more on ‘natural’ processed coffee, which has been dried by retaining more of the bean’s pulp, farmers can prioritise water use for cultivation rather than production. The more common ‘wet-mill process’ requires heavy water use to wash and ferment coffee beans, stripping the beans of pulp and skin.

Research and technology

The PIF said its investment plans for developing the coffee industry include establishing a dedicated academy to train local talent, entrepreneurs, coffee plantation owners and farmers, as well as introducing new technology to improve planting, harvesting, roasting and marketing in Saudi Arabia. To maximise returns on that investment, funding could be diverted to researching new varieties that require less water to induce a full roast.

Christopher Feran, an independent coffee consultant, tells AGBI: “Coffee is an incredibly water-intensive industry for large-scale commercial production. A 2003 well-regarded study established that one cup of brewed coffee requires 140 litres of water input, of which 99% is for growing the plant itself.”

He adds: “The 2,500 tonne-goal is small on a global scale — it’s less than Hawaii’s output, which accounts for roughly 0.3% of global production — but it is a staggering amount of coffee for a desert nation. But [going from] 300 to 2,500 is less than a tenfold increase, with coffee running on a three to four year cycle from planting to harvest. With continuous planting for five to six years, it’s possible.”

If the kingdom hits its 2,500-tonne production target, where would it go? According to Feran, the coffee market is exploding in the Middle East and Asia: “Those markets are growing incredibly fast, the two fastest-growing markets for domestic consumption are China and India, with both countries increasing their own production.” Japan, which enjoys a close relationship with the kingdom, leads Asian coffee sales at $34.45 billion in 2020. Its market is steadily expanding, but China’s is seeing near double digit year-on-year growth.

Meeting that demand amid water shortages will be an enormous challenge for Saudi Arabia. While there are various coffee plants that do not require significant water for cultivation, such as the drought-resistant SL14 and SL28 varieties found across east Africa, Feran notes that “the kingdom is not focusing on any breeding centres” for developing these plants.