November 8, 2023

Are coffee shops becoming a new social hub for Saudi Arabia’s younger generations?


Saudi Arabia is the fifth-largest country in Asia and the biggest in the Middle East. Known for its rich regional history and unique landscapes, the country has changed significantly over the past few decades.

As part of wider growth in the Middle Eastern market, Saudi Arabia’s coffee sector is booming. Not only is the government investing heavily in coffee production through initiatives like the 2022 Year of Saudi Coffee Campaign, but domestic consumption is also rising.

With specialty coffee becoming more popular across the region, coffee shops are playing increasingly important social and cultural roles in Saudi Arabia. And given that the sale and consumption of alcohol is legally prohibited, third wave coffee shops are seemingly becoming new social spaces – particularly for younger generations.

To find out more, I spoke to Osamah Alawwam, co-founder of Roasting House, and Mazen Baset, business development manager and coffee specialist of Coffee Bean Supplies.

You may also like our article on whether Dubai is becoming the specialty coffee hub of the Middle East.

Decorations inside a Saudi Arabian coffee shop.

Saudi Arabia & coffee: A brief history

The modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded in 1932, but the country’s roots can be traced back centuries.

Like many other Arab countries, Saudi Arabia has a longstanding history of coffee consumption. Many people drink traditional Arabic coffee – known as qahwa – at home and in coffee houses. 

Prepared similarly to Turkish coffee, qahwa is brewed in a dallah, which is a traditional Arabic coffee pot. The coffee is boiled for around 20 minutes, before it is poured into fenjals (small cups with no handles)

In addition to serving qahwa in coffee houses and at home, many people also prepare Arabic coffee at social gatherings in Middle Eastern countries, including weddings and religious events. So given its cultural significance, in 2015, UNESCO added qahwa to its Intangible Cultural World Heritage list.

Moreover, preparing and serving coffee is a sign of hospitality for people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds in many Arab countries.

The interior of a café in the Middle East.

The emergence of third wave coffee culture

Compared to other countries around the world, specialty coffee is relatively new to Saudi Arabia. And the market began to mature in line with a wider period of social and political change.

During late 2010 and throughout 2011, anti-government protests spread across several Arab countries – with some resulting in civil unrest and governmental changes. This period of time is referred to as the Arab Spring.

In Saudi Arabia specifically, minor protests led to significant reform, especially in terms of expanding women’s rights in the country. Additionally, former King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud implemented a number of reforms which boosted the country’s economic growth.

As a result, Saudi Arabia’s middle class began to grow – which encouraged more specialty coffee shops and roasters to open.

Premiumisation in the Saudi market

Mazen works at green coffee trader Coffee Bean Supplies in Saudi Arabia.

“Ten years ago, you didn’t see any specialty coffee shops or roasters in the country,” he tells me. “Today, there’s huge demand for high-end or unique coffees, with a lot of competition between Saudi roasters to bring quality coffee to market.”

Premiumisation, as Mazen describes, is a process by which roasters sell more exclusive, rare, and superior quality coffee to drive brand appeal and increase prices. Ultimately, this adds a greater sense of value for the buyer, and makes them more willing to pay higher prices.

“There’s also been, however, a big move for roasters to sell quality coffee at affordable prices to B2B clients, so they can sell the coffee to end consumers at very low prices,” he adds. “The most in-demand coffee is Ethiopian, which is always popular in the Saudi market.”

Osamah co-founded Roasting House, which is one of the first specialty coffee roasters in Saudi Arabia.

“The first specialty coffee shop in the country opened in 2012,” he explains. In a little over ten years, the market has exploded – with an estimated 3,550 branded coffee shops according to data from World Coffee Portal.

A cup of coffee served at a Saudi Arabian coffee shop.

Are coffee shops becoming new social hubs?

As in many other markets around the world, larger chains like Starbucks helped to popularise specialty coffee in Saudi Arabia – and established coffee shops as the “third place” where people meet and socialise.

This concept, however, seems to have taken on even more meaning in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern markets. As the sale and consumption of alcohol is illegal in the country, many people drink more coffee – including at later hours in the day.

In turn, some coffee shops in larger cities like Riyadh, Jeddah, and Buraydah are extending their opening hours to become late-night social hubs, with some even open 24 hours a day. 

Drinking coffee at later hours is not uncommon in Middle Eastern countries, particularly during Islamic religious holidays like Eid and Ramadan (except during daylight fasting hours for the latter). In other cultures where people tend to drink and socialise in bars or pubs (which both serve alcohol) late in the evenings and at night, coffee shops are instead acting as these important social spaces – particularly for younger generations.

Additionally, gender-segregated coffee shops are becoming less common in Saudi Arabia, with more women also working in these businesses. 

There has been clear progress made in taking steps towards achieving gender equity in the country (although more can certainly be made), which is largely a result of the government’s Vision 2030 initiative. A key priority of the development strategy is to create 1 million jobs for women, as well as to improve access to education and promote active participation in competitive sports.

Naturally, more inclusive social policies are also encouraging more and more young people to socialise and mingle in coffee shops in Saudi Arabia.

Men sit outside a café in the Middle East.

Looking to the future

With economic prosperity and more progressive policies, the future of Saudi Arabia’s specialty coffee market is promising. As younger generations continue to have higher disposable incomes, it’s likely they will keep visiting coffee shops on a regular basis.

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of premium café chains launch in the country, including:

  • Most notably Japanese chain % Arabica – which opened its largest roastery in Saudi Arabia in 2022
  • Barn’s
  • Half Million
  • France’s Café Kitsuné
  • EL&N, which is a UK-based company

“Alongside a growing number of annual events, more and more young coffee professionals are also taking part in competitions,” Osamah says – which is likely to drive premiumisation even further.

As well as encouraging more domestic consumption, the Saudi Arabian government is investing significantly in increasing coffee production, too. Mazen explains that the government-backed Saudi Coffee Company has invested US $320 million to boost annual production from 300 tonnes to 2,500 tonnes by 2032 – an ambitious goal to say the least.

Men read newspapers and drink beverages in a hotel lobby.

Coffee has played an important role in Saudi Arabian culture for centuries, but specialty coffee is certainly shaping modern-day KSA in a truly unique way.

Market growth is exponential and shows no signs of slowing down. And with coffee shops acting as essential social spaces, we can expect to see Saudi Arabia become even more of a key player in the global specialty coffee sector.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on what it’s like to be a barista in the Middle East.

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!