Smell the Coffee: Middle East Women Brew Silent Revolution - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Smell the Coffee: Middle East Women Brew Silent Revolution

Saudi coffeepreneur, Sara Al Ali, during a World Coffee Event.

Smell the Coffee: Middle East Women Brew Silent Revolution

By Tania Bhattacharya


From baristas to roasters and judges to quality experts, women are reshaping the industry in the conservative region.

By Tania Bhattacharya

  • From Saudi Arabia to the UAE to Iran, women are breaking the shackles of traditional gender identities to make their mark in the coffee industry.
  • Facilitated by the region’s shifting demographics and economic priorities, they’re pioneering coffee innovations and even drawing male trainees keen to learn from them.

Fans of specialty coffee are spoiled for choice in the United Arab Emirates, where artisanal cafes are everywhere. Step into Coffee Architecture in Mamsha, Abu Dhabi, for example, and you’ll be greeted by warm coffee aromas mixed with milk, spice and brownies. But what you probably won’t expect is a woman in an abaya, whipping up orders or expertly guiding aspiring baristas in thobes (Islamic men’s dresses) on how to prepare the perfect cuppa.

This is Nooran Al Bannay, a former engineer who quit her job at a major oil company to pursue her coffee dreams. She’s the Middle East’s first female Q grader — trained and licensed by the California-based Coffee Quality Institute to evaluate specialty coffees. Al Bannay is not the only one, though.

As the region’s monarchies try to wean their economies off their dependence on oil, countries that for decades have depended primarily on migrant workers are increasingly turning to their skilled domestic labor while encouraging entrepreneurship and wooing investment from abroad. Slowly, they’re looking to increase female participation in the workforce — it has risen from 11 percent to nearly 18 percent over the past decade in the UAE, and more marginally in Saudi Arabia, according to the World Bank.

Those shifting desert sands are evident in a silent revolution that’s brewing across the region, with Middle Eastern women making a mark as baristas, roasters, quality graders, sensory judges and trainers. They’re pioneering innovations and even receiving requests from male baristas who want to learn from them. Cleia Junqueira, a longtime coffee professional who is now a World Barista Championship judge, a rare Q-Robusta grader and Coffee Planet’s roast master in the UAE, attributes this to the so-called third wave coffee boom in the region, which focuses on high quality specialty coffee. “Women in the Middle East are keen to entrepreneur and learn more about this beverage that has so much local history,” she says.

Men started calling me and asking, ‘Why are you only training women? We want to train with you!’

Sara Al Ali, Saudi coffeepreneur

Indeed, the Arab world’s relationship with coffee goes back several centuries. Its popularity grew from Yemen and coffee is an essential part of Arab culture, whether through home roasting and brewing or in the form of the innumerable cafes that dot the region’s cityscapes. The most common brew is the cezve/ibrik or Turkish coffee — a potent combination of dark-roasted beans, spices and sugar. But as specialty coffee grows in popularity, thanks to globalization and the region’s increasingly youthful demographic, ideas about the industry are also changing.

“My family drinks Turkish coffee and I don’t like it because it has a lot of cardamom and sugar and it’s dark-roasted,” says Sara Al Ali, a Saudi coffeepreneur and a Turkish coffee specialist. Drawing on her coffee training from the Specialty Coffee Association, Al Ali has brewed competition-winning Turkish coffees using beans from Panama, Ethiopia and Mexico. “I simply reintroduced this brew in a different way by applying quality standards,” she says.

Al Ali has pioneered much of the specialty coffee movement in Saudi Arabia — a status that has meant an unlikely reversal of gender equations for her in the otherwise ultra-conservative nation. “People are so encouraging because they want to learn,” she says. “When I started, I was conducting women-only training sessions in Saudi Arabia. I was surprised because men started calling me and asking, ‘Why are you only training women? We want to train with you!’” 


Dalia Jaffal of Kalei Coffee.

But for many women, dealing with patriarchy and conservative ideals has been more challenging. Raha Shahsavar, an Iranian roaster and quality controller, was an artist in Tehran before she chose a career in coffee. Today, she helms Crack Roastery in Dubai. Shahsavar says her male counterparts are more likely than she is to land contracts because people think men are better at working on machines, like a roasting machine or an espresso machine. There’s also the social perception that working in a café in any capacity is not prestigious enough. “When I started, it was very difficult to convince my family to let me work in this field,” says Shahsavar. “Now they see all my certifications and realize being a coffee professional is not just pushing buttons to make a drink, so it’s better.”

In Beirut, Kalei Coffee’s Dalia Jaffal has struggled to recruit female baristas in her cafes, although key positions like store manager and head chef are occupied by women. “It’s disappointing because when we started I was excited about having a lot of women on board,” says the roaster and coffee trainer. “A barista job is seen as unskilled labor.” Coffee shops have historically been male-dominated spaces in the region, so westernized concepts of cafes are slow to permeate Arab societies.

But part of what is allowing women in coffee to break through despite these odds is the balancing act they’re performing. Their brews and cafes retain a distinct regional flavor so as not to lose cultural ties to the beverage. This includes Turkish coffee or gahwa (Arabic coffee) brewed with high-quality beans and spiced infusions (think cardamon- or saffron-infused cold brews) that don’t overwhelm the senses. Al Ali’s soon-to-be-opened That Café will boast more than 80 varieties of beans, while offering traditional Arab hospitality.

It isn’t just the Arab world, though. Over in Iran, Shylee Mosalli — possibly the only female coffee roaster in Tehran currently — is optimistic. “Regionally, the number of women is on the rise in every aspect of the coffee value chain, from farmer to roaster to barista,” she says.

And it should get easier. Women in coffee just need to be heard, says Blanca Castro, a relations manager at the International Women’s Coffee Alliance, a network of female professionals in the industry. The alliance has a chapter in Yemen and is planning to expand into Iran and the UAE. “More and more women are willing to get organized,” Castro says. “If women get organized, everything is possible.”

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