Coffee merchants, Saudi Arabia. Credit: Eric Lafforgue Getty Images

Reform in Saudi Arabia: The Climate-Coffee Connection

The beans that power the kingdom’s coffeehouses, which are hotbeds of talk about social change, are threatened by diminishing water supplies


If the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s reform agenda is to succeed, this might well depend on protecting its ancient heritage of coffee drinking. But this heritage is under grave threat from the ravages of climate change.

Last year, a major study found that as much as 60 percent of wild coffee species are at risk of extinction “in an era of accelerated climate change.” This includes the most popular cultivated coffee species of arabica, which accounts for well over half of global production.

One of the largest producers of arabica coffee in the world is Saudi Arabia, which faces particularly acute challenges to its coffee production in coming years due to a combination of climate-induced water scarcity and groundwater depletion. 

This is not just bad news for coffee-drinkers. It’s bad news for the nascent social revolution quietly sweeping across Saudi Arabia—through coffee culture. The revolution is definitely not being televised. Instead, it’s being brewed in a new legion of coffee houses springing up across the country, where men and women are sitting with each other, chatting, laughing and sharing stories.

This is something they were only able to do since late 2019, when the Saudi government relaxed restrictions on men and women socialising in mixed spaces. Now coffee houses have become sites of never-before-seen social interactions. It’s a small but hugely significant win for individual freedoms in a country known for its conservatism.

But these seeds of social change could be undone if climate change continues at its current pace.

Saudi Arabia’s khawlani coffee bean is cultivated in the southwestern region of Jazan, a lush, mountainous landscape home to some 54,000 coffee trees, producing some of the highest quality coffee on the planet. 

The very unique, specific technique required to grow and cultivate the khawlani coffee of Jazan has been passed through successive generations strictly by oral tradition. Seeds are planted in mesh bags filled with soil for 3–4 months, in a cool, protected area. Once the seeds have reached full maturity, they are placed in the plowed fields along the terraced sides of mountains. 

After a growth process of 2–3 years, where the beans change color from green to yellow and finally to their ripe red, the coffee is picked from the trees, but with tremendous care. The beans are twisted off the branches so as to minimize possible damage to the trees. After the beans are dried on the rooftops of the farmers’ homes, they are stirred until they turn black. They are then ground with a stone mill, and the beans are roasted to perfection. Both shell and bean are utilized for consumption to avoid any waste. 

But this painstaking traditional practice is bound to come to an end if climate change accelerates. Arabica coffee yields are already declining due to climate change in regions like the East African highlands.

And within just a few decades, average arabica yields worldwide could drop by 20 percent. If we don’t change course on climate change, this will create significant losses for coffee farmers in Saudi Arabia, which is already one of the most water scarce regions in the world.

Despite its wealth, Saudi Arabia is one of the poorest nations in the world in terms of natural renewable water resources. Climate change is set to worsen this predicament dramatically over the next few decades. Not only will rainfall in parts of the country decrease, higher temperatures will lead to higher rates of evaporation in dam reservoirs and aquifers at rates of up to a 50 percent increase. Even an increase of just 1 degree Celsius would see substantial decreases in surface runoff from rainfall, which refills groundwater aquifers. Depending on the severity of climate change, this would drive an overall reduction in Saudi Arabia’s water resources of between 241 and 1,435 cubic meters per year.

At worst, looking solely at rates of groundwater depletion, agriculture across the entire Arabian peninsula could collapse within just 30 years, in a business-as-usual scenario—and that’s without factoring in impacts of climate change.

With both climate change and groundwater depletion threatening not just coffee production but wider agriculture, the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society has requested UNESCO to provide protection to Jazan and its coffee industry there as a site of international cultural significance. It is not just the geography that needs protection, but also the local population that has cultivated coffee in Jazan for centuries. 

Saudi Arabia could end up being one of the worst-affected coffee producers from these challenges. This is all the more significant given that although the coffee bean was discovered in Ethiopia, it was first cultivated and grown across the Saudi border in Yemen from around 1300.

Many don’t know that coffee began as an Arabian-world phenomenon. Ancient Sufi mystics in Yemen drank it to induce a caffeinated jolt of spiritual elation. Coffee could be regarded as the world’s truly ecumenical beverage, as monks and devoted Muslims used it to stay awake all night to engage in prayer and reflection. 

Traveling from the towering mountainous plateaus of Yemen, which are now ravaged by war, the coffee bean made its journey to the lush green wadis of the Jazan region. Preserving the history of coffee cultivation in this region is therefore essential to preserving the world’s ancient coffee heritage, which is inextricably entwined with the cultural identity of those living in the region. 

If we are to prevent this rich and vibrant history from vanishing, we must protect the ancient, irreplaceable techniques that bring us this wondrous caffeinated elixir. UNESCO’s recognition would be a step forward, but also, the world needs to act rapidly on climate change.

In doing so, we may also help preserve the rapid social change now sweeping across Saudi Arabia, as men and women, young and old, for the first time are able to meet each other over coffee —breaking decades-long taboos and overturning the conservativism that once defined the kingdom.