JAZAN, Saudi Arabia—I walked into Cali looking for a coffee, not knowing that I’d get a front row seat to a concert. Shortly after I sat down, ones of the baristas, Nawwaf, started belting out Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” The young Saudi staff working at the café were clearly all friends, and could clearly carry a tune.
Cali lights up an otherwise neglected street in this southern city. Its interior features “Made in Cali” graffiti at the entrance, two California state flags and a blown-up poster of the Time magazine cover featuring Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s smiling face.
Ahmed Za’aqan, a 24-year old graduate of Jazan University in industrial engineering, opened the café in early November. A gregarious businessman and a born marketer, he keeps Cali open 24 hours a day, and it often serves as a late-night hangout spot for his friends and other residents of the neighborhood. “To be honest, we don’t have any entertainment in Jazan,” he said. “People just go to school, go to mosque, go home to sleep.”
In the big cities of Riyadh and Jeddah, a café craze has been brewing for years, the forefront of efforts to push the envelope of social liberalization, allowing gender mixing and playing music in public, while also serving as examples of the sort of entrepreneurialism encouraged by the state.
Jazan’s first upscale coffee shop opened in 2019. Cove Specialty Coffee was an immediate hit, and its owners quickly opened a hamburger joint and an “American restaurant” serving greasy entrees nearby. Today, there are well over a dozen such cafes across the city, and another four in the nearby town of Samta. They are usually staffed by young Saudi baristas, often students or graduates of Jazan University, who sling flat whites, V60s, and pistachio lattes. Rather than blending traditional Saudi coffee culture with newer fare, most of them feature menus that would not look out of place in New York or Washington, D.C.
Saudi Arabia’s major urban centers provide ample resources to prospective entrepreneurs, including multiple start-up accelerators and a large public sector, which provides a sizeable customer base. The Riyadh region alone provides jobs for roughly 40 percent of all Saudis employed in non-security jobs in the country, according to the latest government figures. I came to Jazan to see if the cultural changes were reaching outside the big cities, and what sort of economic opportunities were available to would-be entrepreneurs here.
The inspiration for Cali’s décor comes from four months that Ahmed spent in San Diego when he was 19 years old, visiting an uncle who was a student there. That is a common story: Fueled by a massive government scholarship program, Saudis have completed over 500,000 academic years of education in US universities and colleges in the last two decades. Among the aspects of American society these students and their families brought back to Saudi Arabia was café culture. As we spoke, Ahmed flipped through an Instagram page called “californiaholics,” settling on an image of a pastel-painted building around a pool, complete with an inflatable pink flamingo. It was his dream, he said, to bring this scene to Jazan.
Ahmed is willing, however, to make some concessions to tradition. Cali’s upstairs area is reserved for families and women, while men are expected to sit downstairs. While the partition is no longer required by law and recently has been abandoned by many cafes in Riyadh and Jeddah, societal acceptance of gender mixing in Jazan lags behind. Ahmed believes it’s a temporary measure: “This is very new, and when you bring people together maybe you have some guys chasing a girl, or some girls chasing a guy, and that makes people uncomfortable.”
Ahmed was already planning how to expand his fledgling business enterprise. He was helping a friend open a restaurant in the vacant lot next door, and already eyeing the decrepit refrigerator repair shop across the street as a possible site for a co-working space.
Ahmed envisions Cali as the first step in revitalizing the neighborhood where he was raised—and credits Mohammed bin Salman for giving him the confidence to do so. While the multi-billion-dollar development projects haven’t come to Jazan and even the entertainment options elsewhere in the country are absent here, the crown prince has offered rhetorical encouragement to Saudis wanting to start their own businesses. Ahmed says MbS has given him the confidence to strike out on his own rather than deferring to his elders. “I love him,” he said. “He gives me power.”
However, such can-do attitudes often come crashing headfirst into the realities of the Saudi bureaucracy. In Samta, Abdellatif Madkhali, a 24-year-old with an amiable disposition that is a fitting complement to the name of his café, Lutf (meaning sweetness or kindness), has been trying to register his employees for insurance under the Ministry of Human Resource and Social Development. The paperwork is inexplicably stalled, however, and local officials came to the café recently to threaten a fine of 5,000 rials (roughly $1,330) due to his lack of registration.
These kinds of hurdles may seem mundane, but businessmen routinely cite bureaucratic inefficiency as a major barrier to economic growth. It is no coincidence that Neom, the $500 billion mega-city that is Mohammed bin Salman’s brainchild, is being built in the sparsely inhabited northwest of the country—and with its own legal framework.
“[The government] says we are with you, we want you to start these businesses,” one Saudi entrepreneur said. “But then when you try to do it, you feel like they’re opposing you. It’s this mentality, ‘I want you to know I’m the one in charge.’”
Abdellatif had the bad fortune to open Lutf at the beginning of the pandemic in March. His brother and other partners invested 580,000 rials ($154,600) in opening the café and had just paid the first six-month rent installment of 30,000 rials ($8,000) before they were forced to shut down. When I asked him about his goals for the café, he laughed and said he was really just concerned about paying next month’s rent. He takes solace in the fact that like in Riyadh, customers seem to have no inhibitions about entering a crowded café. New coronavirus cases have been declining in the kingdom since the past summer and appear particularly low outside the major cities, including in Jazan. “I don’t think Saudis care about COVID anymore,” he said.
The pandemic also brought to light the problems of Saudi’s oil- and import-dependent economy. The World Bank estimates that the Saudi economy contracted 5.4 percent in 2020, forecasting that it will grow by only 2 percent in 2021, as oil prices came crashing down due to the global economic slowdown. The country also ships in practically everything it consumes: Pointing at an Italian-made espresso machine, Abdullatif remarked that it had gone up in price from 9,000 rials ($2,400) to 13,000 rials ($3,460) with the beginning of the pandemic, as importers jacked up prices due to fears of disruptions to their supply chains. Even Lutf’s coffee beans come from thousands of miles away, despite the fact that there are local coffee farms just a couple hours’ drive away up the nearby mountains. While other shops do use Saudi beans, Abdullatif said, much of the supply was only appropriate for the light traditional Saudi coffee, not his strong espresso-based drinks.
Like Ahmed, Abdellatif is extremely internet-savvy. He “became famous,” in the words of one of his friends, by posting Instagram and Snapchat videos of espresso drinks that he made at his home. He started to sell his products as he gathered a following, posting messages on Snapchat that he’d send a delivery to a certain neighborhood or nearby village after reaching a certain number of orders—a way to bypass the high per-item cost of delivery apps. He reached a point when he was filling orders of 400 cups of coffee from his home.
Unlike Cali, there is no partition separating families and singles at Lutf. Abdullatif laughed ruefully when I first mentioned it—it had been the subject of much debate. At first, he offered a practical justification: It cost more money to have a partition because you have to hire separate staff to serve both sides and it cuts the space you have in half, making it feel more claustrophobic and less welcoming. He returned to the topic later, giving a more ideological reason for his decision. The social trend in Saudi Arabia was toward gender mixing, he argued, and he didn’t want to make concessions to more conservative older generations if he could avoid it.
In five years, he said, no one would have a problem with men and women drinking coffee side by side. But here and now, he acknowledged, some don’t accept it. “There are some people who walk into the café, check it out and walk right back out again.”
He credited younger generations’ familiarity with the online world for increasing acceptance of gender mixing. However, he didn’t describe the impact of seeing lifestyles in the United States or Europe, pointing instead to the fact that the internet has opened Saudis’ eyes to how Arabs live in other parts of the Gulf where social norms are less restrictive. “We can see what’s happening in Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait, and they’re not falling apart.”
I walked into these cafes with questions about whether the government’s top-down social liberalization agenda was reaching Jazan, but emerged wondering about their economic future. Sitting in Cali and looking out on the street outside, I thought about the massive task of transforming the area and the obstacles Ahmad would face. Café culture is undeniably tapping into young Saudis’ desires for avenues of entertainment and expression they have long been denied. At the same time, the root of their appeal for entrepreneurs–their manageable size and low start-up costs—make it hard to imagine how they can fuel a larger urban renewal. Then Nawwaf moved on to Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and finally finished with a rousing chorus of Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” and it was time for me to go.