Throughout history Arabs have used fragrance as a form of art, a symbol of reverence and a token of beauty. In the 13th century the Sufi Arab mystic, Ibn Arabi, wrote in his masterpiece, Pearls of Wisdom, "of all the worldly goods, three things are dearest to my heart: perfume, women and prayer". Centuries earlier, the art of perfume-making was documented on the walls of the tomb of Petosiris by ancient Egyptians, who used different scents for everything from hygiene and prayer to animal sacrifice and mummification. When Tutankhamen's tomb was opened some 3,300 years after his death, the scent of perfume could still be detected there.
Today perfume still plays an integral, albeit more subtle, role in Arab and non-Arab societies alike. And, with oils and fragrances ranging in price from a few dirhams to thousands of dollars, it is big business. Revenue from perfume sales in the Middle East is an estimated US$3 billion (Dh11.01bn) a year, with the UAE accounting for one quarter of sales. "Unlike in other parts of the world the perfume industry here stems from the rich culture and heritage of the people of this region," explained Salim Kalsekar, the managing director of Rasasi Perfumes in Jebel Ali.
Perfumes are the highest-grossing products at Dubai Duty Free, last year earning $122 million, or 14 per cent of total sales. Leading perfume makers estimate that their profit from sales in the city of Dubai is between three and five times greater than any other market in the region. Industry professionals estimate that each person in the GCC spends an average of $334 on perfumes and cosmetics per year.
"Call it an obsession or a love connection with fragrances," said Abdulla Ajmal, the deputy general manager of Ajmal Perfumes. "In this part of the world it's about individuality. Men wear the dishdash and women wear abayas. Their faces, whether via make-up or grooming, and their scent, are the clearest ways to exert their individuality." The global perfume industry is in a period of expansion and diffusion, with new fragrances, a new emphasis on bottle design, and the use of celebrity endorsement to boost sales.
A 2008 Euromonitor International report showed that global fragrance sales were worth $30.5bn in 2006. The French perfume industry commands a 40 per cent share of a global market in which the world's emerging economies are becoming increasingly important. Latin America and Eastern Europe together accounted for almost one-third of global sales last year, nearly doubling in value from 2002, to an estimated $9.3bn. China is increasingly on the radar, delivering some $120m in revenue to major brands such as Chanel, Estée Lauder and Dior.
However, few of those perfume buyers would be aware of how this region is tied to the evolution of the fragrance industry. "Although today France is generally regarded as being synonymous with the finest fragrances in the world, it was Arab perfumers who developed the techniques and traditions and laid down the foundation of what is today known as the perfume industry," said Mr Kalsekar. "The growing awareness and acceptability of [Arabic] fragrances internationally has also given the industry a boost and growth appears certain in the foreseeable future."
Despite its ancient roots, the perfume industry in the Arab world is adapting, not only to international competition but also to changes in the region's retail sector. Once sold mainly in traditional souks, perfumes have migrated into the glitzy shopping malls springing up across the region. "The souk really isn't an option anymore; it's more of a wholesale option where people come to take perfumes out of the country," said Nader Adamali, the director of Swiss Arabian Perfumes. "Nowadays people prefer malls to souks."
Other companies have sought different routes to international markets, with the marriage between fragrances and the duty free segment increasingly strong. Ajmal Perfumes has signed agreements with several of the world's major airlines, including Virgin Atlantic and British Mediterranean, and has agreements pending with several North African carriers. "We are somewhere in between local industry and the international business," said Mr Ajmal. "This is the best and most obvious way to keep up with competition."
Smaller, local perfume makers are breaking into the market in increasing numbers - a significant change, industry insiders say, since the business was previously dominated by a few major players. "Despite our consistent growth pattern, these smaller perfume makers are eating away at our business," said Mr Ajmal, who added that his business had grown between 12 and 15 per cent annually. Perfume makers have also been adapting their products to the changing environment. Many admit that Arabic perfumes are an acquired taste, with customers either loving them or hating them. Arabic perfumes have traditionally been based on stronger, regionally favoured ingredients, such as bakhoor (incense) and oud. Oud, both the most popular and most distinctive of the Arabic scents, as well as one of the most costly, is extracted from a highly aromatic wood and used as perfume for both men and women.
Arabic perfumes generally tend to be a bit more expensive than their Western counterparts. For example, the product line at Ajmal Perfumes ranges from Dh60 for a bottle of one of its contemporary scents to Dh5,000 for a 12ml bottle of Arabic oil. This is explained partly by their composition: they contain a much higher proportion and higher concentration of natural essences than many of the big-name, high-volume international perfumes, which contain varying amounts of blended synthetics.
"Considering what perfume represents for some of our customers, they might say it is a bargain," said Mr Adamali. "It's not just the scent, keep in mind, it's also the packaging which is a major part of this business too." Regional perfume makers agree that their businesses are driven just as much by the appearance of their bottles as by the fragrances within them. Some companies invest significantly more money developing the bottles, with Arabic perfumes often packaged in far more decorative cases of gold and crystal than their Western counterparts. As a result, unique and often elaborate bottles make Arabic perfumes stand out from others lining the retailers' shelves.
In an effort to keep up with the competition from international brands, Arabic perfume makers have diversified their product lines as well, offering both traditional Arabic perfumes and lighter blends, in a more contemporary, international style. Mr Adamali estimates that 30 per cent of Swiss Arabian Perfumes' revenue comes from French-style perfumes that it makes in-house. "Trends have changed significantly," he explained. "You see that more GCC nationals, especially younger people, are wearing French perfumes, hence our focus on that area. In general, people tend to wear lighter perfumes these days."
One of the most significant changes in the region is a greater push by perfume makers to brand their products, in a similar way to western perfumers. In the past, according to industry leaders, local perfumers catered directly to consumers without considering the advantages of developing a brand with an inherent value that would boost long-term retail relationships. "It's all about building brand equity," said Mr Adamali. "Don't just look like a commodity. Distinguish your product. A lot of us have started branching out."