This report is based on the presentations and discussions during the UAE Security Forum 2019, “Reshaping the Future of the Horn of Africa,” held on December 12, 2019 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
Kuwait has had local traditional coffee shops, or maqhas, since its early years, starting with those in its local market, or souq. However, similar to Kuwait’s famous gathering halls, or diwaniyahs, these places were usually restricted to men. Over the last two years, Kuwait has experienced a boom in local coffeeshops, which are breaking barriers within its society and additionally giving back to the country. This new wave of local coffeeshops has increased networking and socializing among youth immensely due to their open space, board games, and organization of social events. They also provide support for other local businesses and new ideas. AGSIW reached out to the founders of three coffeeshops that are considered to be part of the modern and positive local Kuwaiti coffeeshop wave: Bader Al-Sayyed, partner of WILD Coffee Bar; Mariam Al Shatti, founder of Be Cafe; and Jarrah Al Buloushi, founder of Richard’s Coffee Bar.
Bader Al Sayed
AGSIW: How did you come to be involved with WILD Coffee Bar?
Bader: I recently joined WILD. Sarah Al-Ameri and Sarah Al-Rukhayes opened the coffee shop in 2014 and found this location in late 2016. Sarah Al-Rukhayes wanted to impact society in a way, and Sarah Al-Ameri had a passion for coffee.
AGSIW: Through social events like game nights and external networking and collaborations, how do you think your coffee shop has impacted society?
Bader: Basically, our game night was for our regular customers and friends to come and chill and get to know each other and get to spend some time together. They usually all come separately and play games like Enhash or Kout [traditional Kuwaiti board games] so we thought we should organize something to get people together so they could mingle and talk to each other. I want WILD to be a second home for others. I want them to feel safe; I want them to feel like they are equal to everyone else, in terms of gender, nationality, race, and all of those things because we believe in equality.
At the same time, we care about our community and I want to highlight the word community because we are one of the few coffee shops that have a community and people are actually proud to come to WILD. Sometimes they say that we will not go to another coffee shop because we have loyalty to this one. We try to make everyone feel special and at the same time we try to give them a safe space to do whatever they want – mingle, stay alone, read, listen to music, play Pictionary – you name it.
Part of our vision is to help people outside Kuwait – to go global to do things for other people.
We are in a partnership with Ox Adventure – we do exclusive trips and we will sign a contract very soon to do at least two to three destinations per year. We believe in their work and we support what they do and their cause; they serve our cause too. It is not only helping in terms of community service, it’s helping in terms of people who want to do something in life …
AGSIW: Your coffee shop is dog friendly. How do you think the rest of the society has reacted to that?
Bader: We believe that animals also deserve a chance. In Kuwait, for example, if you go to the Friday market and a cemetery or whatever they see dogs as being against Islam. In terms of people and how they react to us being dog friendly, actually the people that come with their dogs, they all trained their dogs and they know the dynamic of people around them. They know if you own a dog, it’s more of a responsibility to take them outside because they know people see them as not being sanitary, or haram, or people are afraid of them. But our people, thankfully, all understand and are dog friendly.
Mariam Al Shatti
AGSIW: With all of the competition for coffee shops these days, what do you think makes Be Cafe special?
Mariam: I was born and raised in Kuwait. Then I went to Australia; that’s when the idea of Be came up. I focused on it during my bachelor’s degree and I thought about bringing that concept back to Kuwait because I felt that Kuwait needed a space for people to simply be.
I think we offer a lot more activities as well, allowing people to just come and making them feel free to express themselves. We have art classes, a retail shop. Everything we have is healthy. In the beginning I was even contemplating whether to serve coffee; but in the end, I decided to do so – coffee was just a way to branch out. Also, meditation is a big aspect of what Be is. The whole concept revolves around positivity and wellness – wellness of the mind so we offer meditation and yoga. It’s like a multipurpose wellness space.
AGSIW: Your menu is completely vegan. Have you ever had any customers ask, “Where is the meat?” since the vegan concept is relatively new to Kuwait. How do you respond to such clients?
Mariam: I do not force veganism on any clients; I just introduce it as a different way of living. The food that we offer you will give you energy or will make you feel good, and I just encourage them to try it. So, I’m trying to make the food as good as possible to them, so they say “Oh, you know vegan food is not that bad and it’s not just like, grass.” The team in the front is actually amazing too like Thuraya and Aziz and Sarah. None of them are vegans actually but they believe in it and they explain what the dishes and drinks do for you.
AGSIW: What do you count among your successes?
Mariam: The intention behind Be was that everyone there kind of have the vision of giving back. For example, all our chefs are meditators as well, and all the staff too. We’re like a family. In the beginning we put a lot of good energy into it and we did not allow ourselves to stress. We tried to make the place as positive as possible when we opened. The amount of people who have spoken to me to say that they feel something different, they feel like they can relax or they feel a different type of atmosphere, is amazing to me. The fact that they’re actually feeling the result of what we actually aimed for is amazing. I end up having amazing conversations with the customers and I don’t even think of them as customers. Like everything that Be is, what made it really easy for me is that I don’t feel like it’s mine – I feel like it’s everyone else’s; it’s a community.
Jarrah Al Baloushi, founder of Richard’s Coffee Bar
Jarrah Al Buloushi
AGSIW: You are an industrial engineer. What made you decide to open up a coffee shop?
Jarrah: I love coffee and learned in Berlin how to roast coffee. I spent time there just for coffee, the chemistry behind it, the technical aspects, so I’m a certified roaster from the Specialty Coffee Association. I love coffee, there is an art in it.
AGSIW: How do you think the aspects of your coffee shop work together toward positive change for Kuwaiti society?
Jarrah: Our strategy is coffee, culture, and community. So, merging these three things together is giving the vibe that we are living now in Richard’s. From the beginning, from our first pop up, March 2016, we were focused on those three things, that we were providing good coffee, bringing communities to promote whatever they have, let them be artists, chefs, street wear designers, any startup. We still support all these startups.
The other thing is that here at Richard’s now you can talk to any stranger. We built this you know, our team at Richard’s, we talk to everyone. This makes it welcoming to the customer. This should culturally be okay everywhere. But sometimes if you go to any other place in Kuwait you can’t really talk to anyone. So why is there a barrier? There shouldn’t even be a barrier. The Richard’s team has agreed to communicate with all our clients. We jump from a table to another just to open conversations.
The other thing is that we try to make them feel like this is home. There are people that, for example, partner together in a business. There are people that, for example, employ people part time or full time, through our coffee shop. There were meetings on this table, people have planned startups on this big shared table. Originally, if you go back, the history of the coffee house is considered of having specific communities come together to talk about specific things and leave after their coffee … For example, yesterday, some university students wanted to talk about business. They had a topic and they wanted to come here to communicate about it. They said, “Let’s meet up at Richard’s!” This is a nice thing. Anyone could jump in and walk in.
AGSIW: Richard’s is also known for its events. Which one of your events do you think has been the most successful?
Jarrah: All our music events! Whether it has to do with singing, DJs, any music or arts event! Our coffee shop revolves a lot around music, skateboarding, surfing, chilling. We are very, you know … I don’t want to say it this way … but you know, hipster (giggles)!
This post is part of a series on food culture in the Gulf.
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