In Saudi Arabia, coffee is more than a beverage; it’s an ancient tradition of hospitality, and as the country opens up to tourism, it’s also one of its most intriguing attractions.
J Jabar Al-Maliki climbed a stone bluff and surveyed the expansive landscape. At 1,600 metres above sea level, he surveyed the jagged mountain peaks that cascaded into terraced coffee, banana, and corn plantations. The steep slopes of the Sarawat Mountains, which extend from Saudi Arabia’s Jazan region into Yemen just a few kilometres away, were dotted with colourful homes and stone fortresses. He whistled at a scurrying hyrax, the high-pitched echo reverberating throughout the valley’s otherwise silent floor. Then, he said with a glint in his eye, “It’s time for qahwa [coffee]!”
In the 15th century, it is widely believed that coffee beans were first roasted and consumed as the beverage we know today in the Sarawat Mountains. Historically, the entire region was a part of Yemen, at a time when borders were far less significant than tribal and familial ties. During this time period, Arab historian Abd Al Ghaffar documented for the first time that Sufis (Islamic mystics) used an infusion made from roasted, ground coffee beans to stay awake during religious recitations. Over time, public cafés known as maqha sprang up throughout the region, where men would gather to drink coffee and exchange ideas.
However, despite being an integral part of local Arabian culture for hundreds of years, Saudi Arabia’s coffee has only recently been recognised as a significant part of the country’s cultural and historical heritage, with 2022 being designated as the Year of Saudi Coffee.
Al-Maliki, whose farm dates back more than 130 years, stated, “Coffee is part of my heritage and ancestry.” “My grandfather, father, and I carried coffee cherries on our shoulders while ascending and descending these 2,000-year-old terrace rock steps in the sun’s heat,” Now, he teaches his sons his methods.
The journey to Al-farmhouse Maliki’s had been especially nerve-wracking: a slow, winding drive up and down steep mountain roads with continuous hairpins and groups of hamadryas baboons positioned along the roadside. We were rewarded for our daring adventure with breathtaking views and the opportunity to explore Saudi Arabia’s largest coffee-growing region.
While we observed, Al-sons Maliki’s roasted coffee beans harvested from their fields in a cast-iron pan over an open fire, stirring them gently with a long, flattened metal stick. The beans are typically lightly roasted, ground, and added to boiling water. Occasionally, the brew is infused with cardamom, ginger, and cloves. We sampled a lightly roasted version as well as a bitter, robust, and spice-free dark roast. Both beverages had a delicate flavour, more reminiscent of a cup of tea than a cup of coffee.
The Jazan region is renowned throughout Saudi Arabia for its prized Khawlani coffee, which is named after the ancient Khawlani tribes that once lived between modern-day Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Grown at an altitude of more than 800 metres above sea level, Khawlanii is distinguished by its high-altitude, fertile growing conditions, bean quality, and degree of roasting. Regardless of how it is prepared, the coffee here represents the cultural identity of the farmers. They view its cultivation as a 300-year-old art that has been passed down through generations, and they view the hospitality surrounding it as a time-honored custom that strengthens social ties throughout the remote valleys. Small cups of piping hot coffee necessitate constant attention and re-filling, enabling hosts to demonstrate respect and concern for their guests.