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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Coffee in the UAE: An Ever Evolving Staple

Coffee in the UAE
Night-time light show illuminates the sky in the shape of a Dallah (traditional coffee pot) pouring liquid into a cup in Ain Dubai, December 29, 2021. Giuseppe CACACE / AFP

Whether served in the dallah (traditional coffee pot) or a modern ceramic cup, the UAE‘s coffee culture has evolved in tandem with the country’s development. As humble homes gave way to skyscrapers and top-of-the-line vehicles replaced camels, coffee too has taken on new roles. No longer reserved as a welcoming brew by Bedouins in the desert, coffee is now enjoyed in all segments of society, regardless of income or cultural orientation. And its popularity is only increasing.

For its distinctive coffee and tea drinking culture, the UAE has earned the title of “Melbourne” of the Middle East. Coffee is consumed in the region at a rate of $7 billion per year, with new brands being introduced on a daily basis. The average yearly coffee consumption is estimated to be 3.5 kilos per person. The UAE spends $630 million on coffee each year, according to figures.

Additionally, around 4,000 cafés can be found around the country. With over six million cups consumed per day on average. But these are only the numbers. On a more sentimental note, the UAE has been able to create a unique coffee culture of its own, blending Arabian aura with modernity.

In Dubai, coffee and tea are so prevalent that almost everyone can relate to the different types of cafés in the city. While there is no doubt about the country’s love for food, it doesn’t beat the Emirati’s love for coffee.

“Coffee is a universal language – it makes people feel comfortable,” Joe Dunnam, a longtime businessman, and visitor of the Emirates, told Fanack. “Additionally, it is affordable and socially accepted by all members of society.”

Back in the 1970s, when Joe first came to Dubai, the city was only beginning to bloom. At that time, coffee shops didn’t exist in the manner they do today. Over 50 years later, every time he comes to Dubai, Joe finds it to be very different from what he remembers.

“Everybody is more worldly and sophisticated,” he said. “There are so many things to do during any time of the day or night. And coffee shops are one of the most prominent features of this changing city.”

From Rags to Riches:

Mohammed El Fahim, first Vice President of the Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, provides some insight into life in the UAE prior to the 1960s in his book “From Rags to Riches: A Brief History of Abu Dhabi.”

The writer’s tale depicts life in the UAE’s impoverished and wealthy districts, where all shared the same Arab and Emirati hospitality. El Fahim’s father was Sheikh Zayed’s – the Founding Father of the UAE’s – close friend when he was a child, playing barefoot in the palace while coffee was being served in the dallah. The author lived in terrible poverty in the years before extraordinary oil wealth transformed his country forever, according to his book. As such, El Fahim is a vivid eyewitness to the transition of a Bedouin society into a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world in about 30 years.

Coffee had a certain etiquette that the server, guest, and host adhered to. The dallah is held in the left hand by the server, with the thumb pointing to the top, while the cup is held in the right hand. In turn, guests would take the cup with their right hand and return it to the server. The eldest receives the first cup, which is only one-quarter of the way filled – and can be replenished. Full cups of coffee were often warm, as they were kept in the ashes of a fire or on the dallah itself.

“Coffee’s social status in the Gulf remains unique. It had no real competitor for centuries, save for tea,” Lamya al-Aziz, an Emirates-based student and coffee aficionado, told Fanack. “It served as a ‘luxury good’ to tribal sheikhs and guests alike.”

Today, the scene has changed. Coffee shops have become popular social hubs and provide a place to meet friends and listen to music. The traditional dallah remains present, however. In fact, in all parts of the UAE, it is still presented as an option for serving coffee.

The local craftsmanship of coffee equipment has been transformed as well. From hand-crafted metal pots to ceramic cups and fancy machines for espresso or filter coffee, there is an artistry in every cup brewed today in the UAE – especially when it comes from one of Dubai’s many specialty shops.

The ‘Third Wave’:

What is currently known as the Emirates ‘third wave’ of coffee started back in 2007 when New Zealander Kim Thompson of Raw Coffee, started roasting green beans. Coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity, thus Raw’s beans are always ethically sourced and fair trade. The company is also credited for promoting single origin beans, and specialized equipment.

More indie coffee shops have recently opened, attracting the attention of the local and expat communities, although international coffee shops continue to expand in the UAE. Costa Coffee, a global coffee brand founded and blended in London since 1971, established its first international location in Dubai in 1999 at The Aviation Club. “Years later, the Costa brand continues to thrive with 150+ locations operating across the Emirates,” the coffee company writes in “Our History Behind the Beans.” Costa’s choice must have been influenced by the importance of this market in terms of coffee culture and customer desire for the product.

Since the mid-2000s, the UAE has seen huge growth in both domestic and foreign-invested specialty coffee shop chains, and the UAE is considered one of the most developed coffee shop markets in the Middle East, with Dubai serving as a focal point for the region’s coffee innovation, according to the World Coffee Portal.

In a qualitative analysis of consumer experience across the Emirates, the Dubai Department of Economic Development (DED) revealed in 2019 that coffee shops were rated the highest. However, the report fails to note that this consumer base now encompasses a greater segment of society.

As the coffee culture evolved over time, so have the United Arab Emirates’ cultural norms. Emirati women now frequently gather in coffee shops at any time of day or night – a stark change to what was once off limits a few decades ago. Al Wasl Road in Dubai is only one example of numerous hotspots in the UAE that include coffee shops. Another is Abu Dhabi’s corniche, where Arabica, one of the city’s most famous cafés, is located. Al Bateen, a posh apartment structure with cafes overlooking the marina and boats, is yet another example.

Emirati women have always loved coffee, but today rather than solely serve the brew as a welcoming gesture to guests, women are meeting over coffee for work, for pleasure, for coffee dates or even to study. Women organizing work meetings in cafes or visiting a cafe in al-barr (remote desert) at 2:00 am is no longer out of the ordinary.

“It was unusual to see Emirati women dedicated to coffee shops only a few decades ago,” Aisha, a middle-aged mother of three and businesswoman, told Fanack. “But today, it would be almost impossible to imagine an Emirati woman not drinking or enjoying a good cup of coffee with her friends or colleagues.”

Women in the UAE are rising as early as 6 a.m. to drive to Starbucks or Feels Coffee on the way from their home to school or office. It’s usually a double-double, a Spanish latte, or an Americano with sugar – followed by a bagel for breakfast.

According to Lamya al-Aziz, a social media expert, “the increase of sites such as Instagram has played a huge role in the evolution of coffee culture here. Women now have the chance to share and explore their passion, which is coffee.” Instagram has enabled all kinds of coffee shops to become a part of city life, with women sharing their photos and socializing in coffee hubs. “Now, it is common to see Emirati women in coffee shops talking about family life, fashion, and travel,” Aisha said.