x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Hard times loom for fine rug trade in UAE

Traders at the Blue Souq in Sharjah are trying to rekindle the love for handmade carpets, but diminished interest from young buyers and access to cheaper, machine-made products threaten to pull the rug from under them.

Abdul Hassan Qasim at his Iranian carpet shop in the Blue Souk.
Abdul Hassan Qasim at his Iranian carpet shop in the Blue Souk.

Traders at Sharjah's Blue Souq are desperate to reignite interest in the handmade carpets that once adorned every home, but are now rejected for cheaper machine imitations.

"Younger people never see the value of the carpets any more," says Abdu Hassan Qasim, who sits on a low stool in his small shop surrounded by carpets in every colour and design imaginable.

"It is only the older people and even now they don't want to spend the money. They buy machine carpets. It is very sad.

"Everybody says gold has a value and these carpets are the same. The value can change at any time but people don't see that. They never think that it will keep value, they only think 'they are expensive'."

Mr Qasim, aged about 65, started selling carpets in the UAE after moving from Aden, Yemen, in 1972.

He began as a door-to-door salesman, carrying one carpet from house to house in Abu Dhabi hoping someone would buy it so he could start the process again. This continued for five years until he set up a shop in Ajman.

Now he runs the Bukhara Iran Carpet shop in Sharjah's Blue Souq, also known as the Central Souq, which he opened in 1979 when the market was first built.

Over the years he has seen the popularity of the handmade carpet rise and fall, often depending on economic conditions.

But in recent years, many of the traders say the handmade carpets have been rejected in favour of the much cheaper machine copies, which are usually bought in supermarkets, regardless of the wealth of the buyer.

"Some people say Dh3,000 for a handmade carpet is expensive," says Mr Qasim. "Then they buy a machine carpet for Dh1,000 and throw it out after maybe one or two years. The handmade would last 30 or 40 years.

"With the expensive carpets, some local people don't understand why it is expensive and why it is worth so much. They don't understand that there are some carpets that take seven years to make, the makers lose their eyes after that carpet. Some of these have 500 or 600 different colours in them.

"The people will spend Dh500,000 on a car but think Dh10,000 is too much for a carpet, which is like a piece of art."

Most carpets sold in the souq are from Iran, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Each country has its own signature style and design, and uses different materials and techniques.

Generally the most expensive, which carry price tags upwards of Dh200,000, are 100 per cent silk Iranian carpets.

An easy way to tell the quality is to flip the carpet over and see how fine the knots are. The tighter the knots, generally the more expensive the carpet.

Most of the Iranian carpets are made as an extra source of income. But in recent years there has been a fall in production numbers as people have found more lucrative opportunities and the price of raw materials has risen.

Like many traders, Mr Qasim travels to India and Pakistan to buy a lot of his stock, including the Afghan carpets. The Iranian rugs are usually sold to the shops by a third party.

He has more than 3,000 carpets neatly rolled or folded, and stacked up to the ceiling.

As with any business, he is always keen to get rid of old stock to make way for new. This often means selling stock, at or close to, cost price to make room for items he hopes will be more popular.

But there are a handful of pieces he refuses to sell until their values increase. They include a carpet he bought 40 years ago that is now only worth only a fraction of its original cost.

"Let's just say it was expensive. I don't want to say how much," he smiles. "Now it's worth maybe Dh65,000 so I cannot sell. I sold it once, then got it back after 10 years. Maybe I will never sell it now.

"This is another problem with these carpets. People throw them away if they are dirty, but they can be cleaned and look like new again. They should never be thrown away. It is for a lifetime."

Most of souq's carpet traders are Yemeni and arrived in the UAE after the British left Aden and settled in other Arabian Gulf countries.

Another shop owner, Abdul Karim Ameen, 38, joined his uncle in the business 11 years ago and also runs an import/export business in the US.

Mr Ameen has also noticed a significant drop in the number of people prepared to pay for handmade rugs.

"There are the old people who appreciate the carpet but the new generations don't know anything about these things," he says.

"The people who are making them are wanting more money because the labour is more expensive, and life is more expensive. So the price is higher and the demand lower from many people. It is a difficult business."

Most customers in Mr Ameen's Persian Carpets Kingdom shops are European, Chinese or American.

The number of local buyers has fallen steadily over the past decade, he says, and he rarely sees a young local shopper.

"If you have had parents and grandparents who understand the carpets, the children might understand," Mr Ameen says.

"But now the knowledge is being lost. No one knows why they are special, how much effort was taken to make them."

Mark Dance, an antique carpet and rug expert at the London auction house Bonhams, says changing tastes could have led to the drop in appeal of the handmade variety.

"Essentially, the value of carpets is very dependent on the way people decorate their houses," Mr Dance says.

"What we have found here in the UK is things that were very popular in the 1970s and 1980s, while they were fashionable and people had them on floors and Persian carpets were very desirable, they are no longer desirable. Tastes have changed.

"People have slightly different interiors and decoration to their houses. It unfortunately makes some carpets deemed a little bit old fashioned, this includes the Persian."

Bonhams holds auctions in countries around the world, including the UAE. Last year a collection of 12 antique carpets was found locked in a safe in Europe and put up for auction in Dubai.

Eleven of the 12 went to buyers living in the Emirates.

"In the last few years at auction we have found that a certain look or quality of carpet actually has come up quite a lot in value, but they are still low compared to the prices 20 years ago," explains Mr Dance.

"I would never tell someone to buy for investment purposes. I would say carpets are relatively undervalued. Because I'm in the market, I can appreciate the amount of work that had gone into these things."

Twenty years ago a small carpet from Isfahan, Iran, may have cost about £10,000 (Dh57, 500). The same carpet would probably fetch only £4,000 in today's market, Mr Dance says.

George D'Costa, a salesman in Al Mashi Carpet for the past 20 years, agrees that on the whole carpets have lost their value, but that today's prices are still more than most people are prepared to pay.

"There aren't many workers doing it so the value goes up, but this means there aren't many carpets in the industry and a not a lot of variety," Mr D'Costa says.

"But it is like art. A painting is what you have drawn from your heart, a carpet is what you have made from your heart. It is a real shame that people are not understanding this any more. Maybe one day it will change."

Mohammed Saif, also from Yemen, has been in the carpet business for 35 years and says younger people are only interested in the handmade rugs if they have been "taught by their family".

"The tradition is being lost. The young don't know about these things," Mr Saif says.

"I'm not sure it will improve. It is not a good business to be in now."