A passion for perfume is deep in the region’s psyche
Long part of Middle Eastern culture, luxurious fragrances have a deeper effect on human behavior than many of us appreciate
Last week, a Dubai-based company launched the world’s most expensive perfume. Costing a colossal Dh4.3 million for one bottle, the fragrance is named Shumukh and is made by The Spirit of Dubai, part of the Nabeel Perfumes Group. Meaning “deserving the highest”, Shumukh is said to last for up to 12 hours on the skin, and features notes of musk, sandalwood, amber, Indian agarwood, Turkish rose, ylang-ylang, patchouli and that old-time favourite, frankincense.
The hefty price tag is mostly explained by the gem-encrusted 1.97-metre-high container it comes in, comprising almost 2.5kg of gold and close to 6kg of silver, all of which is set with diamonds – a full 38.55 carats – topaz and pearls. While this scent is way beyond most budgets, many people across the Gulf are quite happy to spend several hundred dirhams on high-end fragrances. A quick glance at Google Trends also confirms a particularly strong regional interest in them.
Google has attempted to log the time, date and location of every search made since 2004, so it has a pretty good idea of what the world wants, where and when. In that time, the majority of searches related to perfume have come from the Arab world. The Middle Eastern region accounts for seven of the top-10 nations searching this topic, and the UAE is currently ranked in fifth place. Breaking the data down by city tells a similar story, with Jeddah, Riyadh and Dubai occupying the top three spots. Big data doesn’t lie – perfume is a passion here.
The history also stretches back much further than 2004. In the 16th century, William Shakespeare had Lady Macbeth lament that “all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand”, a line that speaks to the region’s long-established reputation as a centre for the trading and production of fragrances.
Further illustration of the Middle East’s reputation for luxurious scents can be found a couple of centuries earlier, in the writings of the celebrated North African explorer Ibn Battuta. He described the women of the Arabian Peninsula as making "great use of perfumes… When one of these women goes away, the odour of the perfume clings to the place...”
Going back further still, the Romans referred to parts of the region as Arabia Felix, or Happy Arabia. That happiness was in part attributed to the abundance of frankincense and myrrh, which were widely prized for their use in perfumes and medicines. Referring to these aromatic products, the ancient Roman author, Pliny the Younger wrote of the vast amounts of money the Roman empire spent on smelling good, detailing that “the Arabian Peninsula takes from our empire 100 million sesterces every year”.
With all this interest in fragrances, it is perhaps not surprising that the nose itself gets a lot of attention in the Arabic language. In fact, there are a large number of phrases dedicated to describing different nasal shapes. One of my favourites, “sallat al saif”, is used in Emirati poetry to characterise a nose that looks like a drawn sword – a straight bridge, narrow nostrils, and a pointed tip.
More recently, the sense of smell and the effects of different fragrances on human behaviour have received a growing amount of scientific interest. The interface between the study of scent and that of psychology has become known by some as aromachology. It’s an exciting new area of research that the Gulf region, with its long-established interest in perfume and commitment to the sciences, seems well situated to contribute to in the future.
One of the field’s most remarkable finding is that even barely perceptible odours – referred to as subliminal scents – can significantly influence our social judgments, particularly how likeable or attractive we perceive a person to be.
A study published last year in the journal Psychological Science found that the degree to which participants rated faces as likeable varied according to the exposure of participants to a pleasant, neutral or unpleasant subliminal scent when shown them. Faces that were accompanied by a pleasant odour tended to receive the highest ratings, even though participants reported being unaware of any fragrance in the room. So, it seems that beauty may be in the nose, as well as the eye of the beholder.
Dr Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University
Updated: March 18, 2019 10:36 AM