As UAE cafe culture booms, so does thirst for traditional beverages

DUBAI // Dina Rashid can feel the discomfort among her elders when they travel Abu Dhabi’s streets. They see an “unending spread” of cafes serving coffee – but not gahwa, or Arabic coffee.

“Among fashionable cafe culture, they also want to preserve national culture, which is somewhat missing among the new wave of coffee and tea cafes around us,” the 33-year-old mother said of her family.

“Today you can see lots of vans selling karak tea and coffee, but have you ever seen a gahwa cafe?”

Changing lifestyles and an increasingly common cafe culture has led to a surge of cafes in the UAE. More than 2,200 have opened nationwide in the past two years, and 90 coffee shops and roasters are in the planning for the next two, according to industry analysts.

Sarah M, a 34-year-old Emirati media professional in Abu Dhabi, said she misses traditional gahwa cafes on the street but realised that it was a result of a diverse population, with many expatriates and tourists.

“When the world has become the global village, one should not judge the country’s tradition and culture based on its business and street cafes,” she said.

“The roots of any cultural values lie at home, not on roads. Even when we go out and meet friends at the cafe, we also drink coffee and karak. But when we are home, we only drink gahwa.”

As long as gahwa remains an essential for Emirati homes and a traditional drink served to guests in every household, it will be part of the local culture, she said.

The UAE’s cafe, coffee and tea business is estimated to be worth between US$350 million to $400m, said Anselm Godinho, managing director the conference company that organises the International Coffee and Tea Festival in Dubai.

Last year, the UAE spent $121m on coffee, a sum that is expected to grow by 35 per cent over the next five years.

“The habit of drinking tea and coffee is predominantly social and these social networks have moved into cafes that offer an ambience that allows people from different walks of life to sit in a common area and feel that the space around them is theirs,” Mr Godinho said.

Gibraltar Francis, who sells coffee at Travelers Cafe in Dubai’s Barsha area, typically serves 80 to 100 cups of coffee per day.

He said the love of coffee transcends nationality.

“Most of my customers are tourists and executives working in the nearby offices,” said the 31-year-old Filipino, who has served coffee for more than seven years.

“Even when it is 45 degrees outside, people still prefer strong coffee over a cold drink, which is something very amazing in Dubai.”

But some believe that beverages more traditional to the UAE, such as karak, a strong Indian tea with milk, or zafrani tea, a saffron tea with milk, could gain as much popularity as western-style coffee.

Foreigners often choose traditional beverages, said Amit Kumar, operations manager of Cha Cha Chai, a chain of tea cafes that opened three years ago.

“Although locals have been drinking gahwa over the years, these days, it really isn’t surprising to see a Filipino or an Arab enjoying a cup of karak chai or zafrani tea, as different cultural habits have integrated extensively in the UAE,” he said.


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