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In Saudi Arabia, Welcome Smells Like Coffee

By Michael Slage, Ventures Director at The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC)

According to Islamic tradition, glorifying guests is an essential duty of all Muslims. It is said to have been a practice of the prophets and is evident in the extravagant way guests visiting Saudi Arabia are treated. 

For many visiting The Kingdom and The Red Sea Project, their first experience with this tradition will be in the form of Arabic coffee served almost immediately when they arrive. The preparation and serving of coffee, also called the “welcoming drink,” is a time-honored ritual that has been passed down for generations. In fact, a traditional Saudi compliment for generosity translates to "he who makes coffee from morning until night." The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has even added Arabic coffee to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage because it is a symbol of generosity and hospitality. 

The first coffee beans are believed to have been roasted and brewed in the southern Arabian Peninsula almost 700 years ago. The word coffee comes from the Dutch word koffie which came from the Turkish word kahve which originated from the Arabic qahwa, meaning strength, because coffee was used to give energy and vitality. The evolution of the word reflects the spread of coffee along the Silk Routes from Southern Arabia into Europe in the 16th century. In fact, The Red Sea Project is home to the best-preserved shipwreck of that period. The ship was one of the Arabic merchant ships that brought goods like coffee, porcelain, and spices from China, India, and Southern Arabia to Europe by way of Turkey and Egypt and sank, either in a storm or during a pirate attack, in the mid-18th century.

Guests in Saudi Arabia are usually received for coffee and dates in the majlis, a room lined with sofas or floor cushions which exists for the explicit purpose of meetings and gatherings. Most homes (and even many offices and government ministries) have a majlis. At The Red Sea Project, we will have many of these lounges in our lobbies for guests to enjoy throughout their stay. We are also developing heritage villages where visitors can learn and experience local customs like traditional coffee preparation.



Traditionally, coffee is prepared in front of guests. Coffee beans are lightly roasted in a shallow pan over a fire, then placed into a brass or copper mortar and pounded with a copper pestle. The coffee grounds are placed into a large copper coffee pot; water is added, and the pot is placed on the fire. Once brewed, it is poured into an Arabic Coffee pot called a Dallah from which it is poured into a tiny handle-less cup called a Finjal. It is usually taken hot or warm and served with dates, chocolate, or other sweets because it is somewhat bitter and spicy. The most important or oldest guest is served first, filling a quarter of the cup, which can then be refilled. Good manners prevent the guest from taking more than three servings. The guest signals when finished by shaking the empty cup with rapid little movements of the wrist.

The difference between Arabic coffee and other types of coffee can be distinguished by the process of roasting (frying without oil). The roasting process is the most important in making changes in the chemical and physical properties of the beans which give a distinctive flavor to the coffee and its caffeine content. Arabic coffee is yellowish brown in color because it is only briefly roasted giving it a higher caffeine and water content.

Arabic coffee is always blended with cardamom and sometimes with cloves, saffron, cinnamon, and ginger. People in the Western and Central regions of the Kingdom prefer lighter, golden almost transparent brews. People from the north often cook their coffee for up to an hour preferring darker, stronger, more bitter and spicier brews. 

Drinking Arabic coffee has become one of the things I look forward to the most as I travel around Saudi Arabia, and I’m so pleased that future guests at The Red Sea Project will experience this delight. We could all learn a lot from the rhythm and ritual of the Arabic coffee tradition.  The importance of taking things slowly, appreciating the simple things in life, enjoying time with our friends and family, or making new friends. We look forward to welcoming you as a guest and serving you a freshly brewed cup of Arabic coffee!