Veganism in the Middle East: Traditional Movement or Tech-Investment?

By Theo Detweiler

On behalf of the Oxford Middle East Review, I sat down with Seb Alex, Lebanese animal rights activist and founder of the Middle East Vegan Society (MEVS). As a vegan myself, I spoke with Alex to learn more about the current state of the vegan movement in the Middle East and North Africa region. Though Alex has been a vocal animal rights activist for half a decade, he started MEVS in early 2022 because, “there’s amazing activists, but no organization doing specific work with animal rights” across the region. He attributes this to the lack of accessible locally-produced information on plant-based eating and animal rights, since most online content on veganism is catered to a Euro-American audience. Thus, the work of MEVS is twofold. First, the group’s members volunteer to spread awareness about veganism and create content in a “relatable way for Middle Eastern people”. Secondly, MEVS advocates for more vegan options with restaurants and food businesses based in the region. Such a project can rely only on “local and traditional dishes and recipes that already are plant-based”, rather than trying to “veganize” meat-heavy dishes. Whereas an English-language content creator might post a recipe for a vegan “tuna” salad, Alex thinks such recipes are both ineffective and unnecessary when so many regional dishes are already plant-based.

Even so, a challenge remains that little vegan content exists in the languages of the Middle East. For now, the group’s website is available in English, Turkish, and Arabic. However, translation and creation of plant-based content has its challenges. Alex — who grew up in the Armenian community of Beirut — spoke of the difficulty of translating “vegan” into Arabic. The word nibātī (literally “plant-ist”) is commonly used by vegetarians, while some vegans have proposed the neologism khaḍrī (derived from khaḍra, meaning “greenery”). Alex finds both words insufficient since they are “very diet-based and don’t necessarily base themselves on animal ethics”. Of course, the same is true of the words “vegetarian” and “vegan” in English. Yet, getting around the restaurants of Beirut, Alex does not use either word. He suggested, “Lebanese Christians actually eat fully vegan diets throughout the [Lent] fast in March or April. Most restaurants — whether they’re Christian or Muslim — know what the diet consists of. This is an easy way for vegans to explain their diet. You say, ‘I want it as if it’s for fasting’”.

Alex therefore sees the religions of the Middle East as compatible with plant-based diets and ideas of animal welfare. This extends not just to traditionally Christian groups, but the larger Islamic community in the Middle East region. He cited a hadith from Imam Bukhari’s Al-Adab al-Mufrad. In Hadith 373, a man tells the Prophet, “’Messenger of Allah, I was going to slaughter a sheep and then I felt sorry for it. He said twice, ‘Since you showed mercy to the sheep, Allah will show mercy to you'”. By tracing the discussion on animals in the Hadith, Alex reads the passage as a prime example of concern for animal welfare in Islam. Granted, despite passages like these, Islamic law specifically outlines the permissible slaughter of animals in dhabīḥah. Likewise, the holiday Eid al-Adha is commonly celebrated with the ritual slaughter (qurbān) of animals and the sharing of meat with all members of the community. Thus, though the Qur’ān and hadiths contain passages on animal welfare, Islamic law nonetheless permits the sacral slaughter of animals. Muslim members of the MEVS team recently started the “Vegan Islam Initiative” to open a dialogue among plant-based Muslims about how their diet fits into their religion. For example, to celebrate Eid, some Muslim vegans share their plant-based cooking with the community.

Thus, despite often being targeted with the claim that veganism is a foreign diet, Alex emphasizes that plant-based eating is compatible with Middle Eastern cultures. In fact, he claims veganism arose in the Middle East, mentioning 11th century Syrian poet Abū al-ʿAlā al-Maʿarrī. In a famous poem, al-Maʿarrī wrote,

“Do not unjustly eat what the water has given up, and do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,

Or the white (milk) of mothers who intended its pure draught for their young, not for noble ladies.

And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking their eggs; for injustice is the worst of crimes”.[1]

Crediting al-Maʿarrī as history’s first vegan, Alex remarked, “if this man more than 1000 years ago in the Middle East was an outspoken vegan, for someone to come and say now that veganism is a Western thing is to erase the history of this man and his work”. Indeed, al-Maʿarrī’s concern for animal ethics is not an anomaly. The poet’s contemporaries in Abbasid Baghdad, the esoteric Islamic society known as the Ikhwān al-Ṣafā (Brethren of Purity), showed similar concern for animal welfare in their epistle, “The Case of the Animals versus Man”. In the story, a rabbit laments that humans, “drink the milk of cattle as they drank their mother’s milk and…use animals’ wool and fleece for coats and upholstery, but in the end they slaughter, flay, disembowel, and dismember them”.[2] Reacting to the humans’ oppression of animals, one jinn even suggests that “to help the oppressed and free the enslaved is the best thanks for God’s blessing”.[3] While the Ikhwān do seem to imply that all humans were vegetarian prior to their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, their epistle does not call for mass abstinence from meat nor an end to the subjection of animals. Still, their work corroborates Alex’s point that the Middle East has a rich literary tradition valuing animal welfare.

Yet, the contemporary vegan movement in the region, like its counterparts in other parts of the world, lacks a cohesive philosophy. Activists like Alex see veganism as a movement for animal welfare — not just a diet. For others, the turn away from animal products is informed by ecological or financial interests. In fact, in the Gulf, veganism is growing into a multi-million-dollar, state-backed corporate industry. In March 2021, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) — the state’s sovereign wealth fund — led a $200 million investment round for Eat Just, a plant-based food company based in California. A few months later, the company finalized a deal to build a production facility in Umm al-Houl, which the Qatari government designated as a special economic zone in 2019. The QIA holds a $450 billion portfolio, including a 10% stake in the Volkswagen Group, a 20% in UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s, and the football club Paris Saint-Germain. It seems strange that the Qatari state is interested in a company whose principal product is a 350ml bottle of liquid vegan “eggs”. Yet, Eat Just is more than a food company. Headquartered in Silicon Valley, its industry is as much food as it is biotechnology. The company’s facility in Umm al-Houl will not be a farm but a “cultivated meat” facility, growing edible chicken meat from a cell culture without ever requiring the killing of an animal. Thus, for Qatar, investing in plant-based foods is an investment in the bullish sector of agricultural technology and a bet on the future of food.

The most noteworthy investor in plant-based foods in the Gulf region is Saudi prince Khaled bin Al-Waleed Al-Saud. Since going vegan in 2017, Khaled has built a plant-based empire. Through the company he founded and named after himself, KBW Ventures, his investments include the restaurant chain, Veggie Grill, Beyond Meat, and the media company, “PlantBasedNews”. In a partnership with American celebrity chef Matthew Kenney, Khaled has launched a series of vegan restaurants in Bahrain, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, and Riyadh, all at the Four Seasons — the luxury hotel chain partly owned by his father, Prince Al-Waleed. Like QIA, Khaled’s focus is what he calls “cell-ag”, i.e., meat grown from a cellular culture — a far cry from Alex’s emphasis on the region’s heritage foods. KBW Ventures is invested in a cell-grown chicken company, a cell-grown seafood company, and a company making pet food that is “brewed, not farmed”. Where companies like Beyond Meat use plant ingredients to resemble meat, these companies apply cutting-edge science to produce actual animal tissue from an initial cell culture. This meat might be called “vegan” since it was not slaughtered — but it is not “plant-based”.

Seb Alex (top) and Prince Khaled (bottom). Courtesy of Alex and KBW Ventures

For Prince Khaled, “cell-ag” is the future of food.  Explaining his investments in 2020, he told CNBC, “the third most impactful industry is the animal-agriculture industry. And we have to just find a better way to source protein for people”. In the Middle East and North Africa, more than 50 million people are undernourished, and food insecurity is projected to grow in the coming decades with climate change, desertification, and increasing population. Alternative meats could be the solution to this growing threat in the region. The prince thinks that cellular agriculture facilities, like that in Umm al-Houl, will inevitably outcompete and replace industrial livestock production. Eventually, growing meat in a lab will likely become more ecologically and economically efficient, even if consumers might be averse to such an artificial product. Though the Prince’s vision is driven by environmental concerns — not animal ethics — his investments are nonetheless furthering the Middle East Vegan Society’s mission in the region. Indeed, while the focus of the MEVS is to encourage people in the region to cook more heritage plant-based recipes in their kitchens, the group also pushes for more corporate solutions like the Prince’s.

Still, the Gulf countries’ investment in vegan products raises practical and ethical questions. While locally made vegan products certainly exist, the firms in which QIA and KBW Ventures invest tend to be Californian biotechnology companies whose products are sparsely sold in the Middle East and North Africa. While access is growing across the region, vegan products remain expensive and impractical, particularly outside of the hyper-wealthy Gulf countries. Even so, vegan meat products — whether plant-based or lab grown — raise questions about the application of kosher and halal dietary guidelines. Likewise, one might see these Qatari and Saudi investments as another instance of “greenwashing” their intensive oil production and obscuring the monarchies’ ongoing abuses of human rights with an eco-friendly or moralistic vegan face. For instance, NEOM, the planned smart city of Saudi Crown Mohammed bin Salman, includes a project to build the future of food and “foster a shift to alternative proteins to create healthier and more sustainable eating habits”. Yet, the megaproject has already garnered criticism for evicting and executing members of the local Howeitat tribe. Similar concerns exist in Israel, which hosts a burgeoning vegan industry including cellular agriculture companies Redefine Meat and Aleph Farms. On their YouTube channel, the Israeli Defense Forces proudly pronounces itself the “The Most Vegan Army in the World”. Likewise, such moralizing of the military’s treatment of animals seemingly obfuscates its own violations of the human rights of Palestinians. Such strange weaponization of animal rights and plant-based eating in Israel and the Gulf could certainly induce scepticism among Middle Easterners about the motivations of the local vegan movement.

Of course, veganism is not limited to the technological investments of MENA’s wealthiest states. Among Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, veganism looks starkly different, relying on heritage foods rather than hedge-funded laboratories. Khaled Safi, for example, opened a vegan bakery in the al-Jalazone refugee camp in 2016. His brother, Ahmed, who founded the Palestinian Animal League in 2011, asked The World, “What good is it if an Israeli soldier is vegan and wears leather-free boots if his gun is aimed at Palestinians?”. For the Safi brothers, vegan food is not a technological innovation or a financial investment, but ultimately a project for animal rights. Thus, they reject the plant-based eating of the IDF by instead reorienting towards more politically engaged animal activism. The current state of the vegan movement in the region exposes these frictions. The movements for human and animal rights can be aligned or incongruous, but perhaps also re-aligned. And the label “vegan” itself is increasingly up for debate — caught between plant-based foods and advancing cellular agriculture.

Animal rights centre in Sin al-Fil, courtesy of Seb Alex

Certainly, the scope of the Middle East Vegan Society straddles these two visions of veganism — one based on grassroots animal activism and the other on corporate investments in agricultural technology. While the group’s work is just beginning, and their focus is animals, they have worked at the intersection of animal and human rights. In the aftermath of the 2020 Beirut explosion, Alex assisted the Lebanese Vegan Social Hub in opening an animal rights centre in Sin al-Fil, just outside the city. The centre offers free vegan meals to those in need, while also staging educational workshops on animal rights. The project particularly seeks to feed refugees and migrant workers who are often overlooked by non-profits whose work is often limited to Lebanese families. Likewise, during the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, MEVS has used its platform to help support the rescue and care of affected animals. Alex sees these movements for animal and human welfare as complementary, not contradictory. Likewise, while motivations of vegans do not always line up — whether monetary, ethical, environmental, religious, or otherwise, the Middle East Vegan Society works to bridge these differing motivations to promote animal welfare and plant-based diets however it can. As a frequent lecturer on animal rights in Europe, Alex says his critics often remark that veganism is not an important movement when “people are dying in the Middle East”. Of course, he notes that these same critics are often unaware that Alex is from the region himself. Instead, he asks, “who are you to use our struggles to justify what you’re doing to other animals?”.

Special thanks to Seb Alex, Dr Febe Armanios, and Dr Fitzroy Morrissey

[1] Nicholson, Reynold. Studies in Islamic Poetry. England: University Press, 1921. 134.

[2] Goodman, Lenn Evan, and Richard J.A. McGregor. The Case of the Animals versus Man before the King of the Jinn: An Arabic Critical Edition and English Translation of Epistle 22. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 14.

[3] Goodman, 130.