By – Saeed Khan
Special to News Talk Florida
Saudi Arabia is, of course, synonymous with oil, the commodity that drives the global economy and modern society. Its transformative impact on this desert kingdom are indisputable; within less than 90 years, the country has gained a prosperity that was unimaginable, and has leveraged that wealth into a kingdom ascendant.
But there is another extraction that is less familiar to the outside world, perhaps somewhat of a mystery to many Saudis as well: the coffee of Jazan, the southwestern province of country that is gradually emerging as a coffee epicenter.
Black gold may keep the world moving, but it is brown gold that gets people ready for the day with their first morning cup. It is the ultimate social beverage, enjoyable in societies and by ages for whom alcohol is off limits or inappropriate depending upon the time of day. Versatile by being equally at home in a business meeting as in a social setting, coffee doesn’t just adapt to cultures; it is a culture unto itself.
Jazan is a port city on the Red Sea, across from Eritrea, and close to Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen. It is the kingdom’s third busiest port on its western coast, behind Jeddah and Yanbo. With a population of 1.6 million, Jazan still has a pace of life that merges the bustle of a city at rush hour with the tranquility that a seaside town can offer. Jazan is also the gateway to the mountains an hour to the east, where coffee is, as yet, more heritage than industry.
But beyond the bustle of the port city of Jeddah, the shining skyscrapers of Riyadh and high speed rail service connecting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, there is still a side of Saudi Arabia unknown to most in the outside world, in fact, even within the kingdom.
The Coffee Festival of Ad Dayaar runs for a week in late January/early February. It coincides with the yield of the previous year’s cultivation as well as the start of the new flowering season. As with many village festivals, the Ad Dayyar occasion brings the entire community, as well as that of surrounding locales to a celebration that has presentations, performances of traditional dancing and costume displays, as well as several booths of coffee farmers, distributors and vendors.
Hassan Mohammed Hassan is a local farmer who was selling his farm produced coffee at the festival. Hassan runs a family operation with his three sons, and sells approximately 1000kg of coffee a year, at a price of 200 Saudi Riyals per kilogram. He has an Italian coffee supplier who is his main client. Hassan has been a coffee farmer since the age of five, and is proud of his product, saying it is 100% natural and pure. He makes a point of mentioning that he spaces his trees 1.5 meters apart for maximum efficiency and production. This distance also allows for each tree to maintain its ideal health.
Like many farmers, Hassan’s biggest challenge is finding enough water for his coffee production. He says he requires 25 liters of water for big trees and 10 liters for the smaller ones each year to optimize cultivation. When he was younger, Hassan could rely on wadis and streams for water supply, though now theses sources have dried up. He spent 250,000 Riyals to dig a deep ground well, to supplement the tanks he uses to collect rainwater.
Hassan is a gregarious and passionate person, eager to share stories about his coffee heritage. He wants to ensure his grandchildren, including Sultan and Iffa, who had accompanied their grandfather to the festival, can have the same livelihood he has enjoyed throughout his life. His key to life as a farmer is to not overthink things, sage advice for someone who has spent decades at his trade. He recalls how his coffee business was once part of a farmers’ network with Yemen, a mere 5km away. This trade network was created and maintained via tribal connections that existed for generations, but were severed as a result of the Yemen civil war in the 1960s.
Ad Dayyar is not the only location for coffee festivals within the region. In honor of one of its most famous products, Jazan hosts a stylish coffee festival promenade along its corniche on the Red Sea. Each coffee producing village and area has an established booth, offering samples and an overview of their respective traditions. There are also coffee stands that showcase a new breed of young, enterprising Jazanis who are taking their chief product into new and exciting directions for a new generation of Saudis.
Adeeb Mathari is the co-owner, along with Salman Dureb, of Cove, a modern, boutique café, which had a booth at the Ad Dayaar Festival. Cove is the first specialty coffee shop in Jazan, established in April 2019. It currently has over 15,000 followers on Instagram and takes its name from the location of Jazan forming a natural cove along the Red Sea by the Corniche. It seeks to use only Saudi, especially locally grown, coffee beans. It currently operates one shop in Jazan, the largest café in southern Saudi Arabia, and has signed on to open three more cafes. It employs 23 Saudi workers, with other workers from a host of different nationalities. This reflects the current trend around the Kingdom for more local employment.
Mathari’s biggest challenge is obtaining sufficient and steady volumes of locally grown coffee, given current production amounts. He says Cove currently obtains 60kg of specialty, high quality beans, the Min Milla variety, per month, while its monthly requirement is half a ton of beans. Mathari seeks to offer a premium coffee experience, and regards outlets like Starbucks as, “Commercial beans, commercial café.”
Cove actively engages with local coffee farmers to encourage them to produce more of the specialty beans it requires for its café. Mathari says that for farmers, their biggest challenge is knowledge and the learning curve of passing coffee producing techniques to younger generations. At the same time, the age gap also can impede older farmers from learning new techniques that could enhance and expand their coffee output.
Jazan is on the threshold of the world learning about and experiencing its most precious product: a high quality coffee that is grown with tradition and heritage. A new international airport planned within the next five years, along with the greatly streamlined visa process for Saudi Arabia, will allow coffee tourists from the kingdom and the world over to travel to this magical region and savour the delights that come from the mountain terraces nearby. For those lucky enough to have a cup of “Jazan Java” where it is cultivated, it promises to be a memorable tour of coffee delight that touches on all five senses.
Professor Khan is a Senior Lecturer, in Classical, Modern Languages and Culture in the College of Liberal Arts and Science at Wayne State University.