The growth of international trade in the 50s and 60s saw the introduction of western perfumes to the Arabian market. Now, amidst the record-breaking skyscrapers and six-lane motorways, the regions shopping outlets stock almost every brand thats on sale at the main retail hubs of the USA, the UK and France, as well as a few which are unavailable elsewhere. Until recently, these countries perfume industries successfully operated on a somewhat informal basis, dependent largely on the efforts of family-run distribution chains and independent boutiques. An individualised approach was key: jaded old-timers fondly recall the delights of the long-gone Abaya Perfumery on Dubais Dhiyafah Street (now re-named 2nd Of December street) where the finest offerings from the likes of Dior, Chanel et al were showcased in an intimate, small-scale setting.
Those days have vanished as irrevocably as Dubais public beaches. Paris Gallery which started life as a tiny outlet in the Sharjah Souq is now a powerful, multi-national retail empire. The behemoth that is Sephora is an important player in the area. And the ubiquitous malls contain outlets of Harvey Nichols, Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue, amongst others.
It was probably inevitable that a professional association would be set up to try to filter and analyse the activities of this unique retail environment. It emerged just over two years ago in the form of Fragrance Foundation Arabia, a branch of the well-known, global organisation which oversees the FiFi Awards and aims to further the cause of the perfume industry. I recently met its Chairman, Shahzad Haider, at his offices in Dubais Ritz Carlton and I started our conversation by asking him why, in a region that has happily been buying and using scent for centuries, it was decided that a body such as FF Arabia would be beneficial.
Theres not been any structure because most of the businesses were happening on a family basis. Theres no corporate thing happening. And another reason is that everything was booming and progressing. So nobody felt the need to be more structured. But since the Foundation came into being, for example, weve just commissioned Nielsen to do market research. Weve just started doing standardisation. Weve just started doing a campaign on counterfeit perfumes, with the Dubai government. I think people are now listening. The response, I would say, is incredible, especially from Arab manufacturers.
Persolaise: You mentioned that market information hasnt been available. Is that because retailers have been reluctant to reveal it?
SH: I will not blame one sector of the industry, but I would say that its because theres no structure. Its not like somebody asked them for information and they didnt reveal it.
P: So what benefit do local companies get from being members of the Foundation?
SH:Theyre on the map of the world. Theyre going global. The Middle East region is done with. Theyre looking to the western world, big time. The Fragrance Foundation is a launch pad for them.
P: Does this mean were going to see a greater movement of Arabian brands into Western markets?
SH: The transition was started over a decade ago, by Arabian Oud. Theyre already in the UK and Paris. Last month, we had a delegation of Arab fragrance reps visiting London and Paris, through Fragrance Foundation Arabia, UK and France. They met the top multi-brand retailers. They met the top distributors. And yes, to my understanding, this is a transition time.
P: Are you able to say which brands are planning to expand to the west?
SH: Yes. You will definitely see more of Arabian Oud, into multi-brand stores. You will definitely see Abdul Samad Al Qurashi, Ajmal, Swiss Arabian.
P: How do ordinary consumers benefit from the Foundation?
SH: When competition increases, when quality is being judged, new brands, techniques when all these things are put into the market, the market is bound to raise the standard. When standards are raised, consumers benefit, because theyll get good quality, at a good price, with the right communication. Consumers will win.
P: Most Basenotes readers will be well aware that youre about to hold a Middle East fragrance summit in May. What will its focus be?
P: Could you say more about the anti-counterfeit campaign you mentioned.
SH: Yes, this is very, very recent. In fact, the agreement was signed this week. The Dubai Authority Of Economic Development has a Customer Protection department which works on anti-counterfeit products. Weve convinced them to start a campaign against counterfeit fragrances and cosmetics. Well be launching this campaign at the summit.
SH: Big time. And its not only limited to international fragrances. Its big time with regional fragrances too. One of last years FiFi Arabia winners Kalemat from Arabian Oud has been copied three times now.
P: Its an interesting subject, isnt it, because one of the main retailers in the area, Ajmal, has a whole range of tourist-oriented perfumes which have been inspired by Western scents such as Cool Water, LEau DIssey and Coco Mademoiselle.
SH: I dont think thats happening any more. Theyre now capitalising on their own Arab fragrances, which are top of the range.
P: Youve held two FiFi Award ceremonies here so far. What would you say are the main differences between the sorts of perfumes which win prizes here and those which win abroad?
SH: Id say its a huge difference. None of the western FiFi awards have two different lines of fragrances competing. We have two different lines: western and Arabic. The two dont compete against each other. But there is still a grey line, like the My Favourite Perfume Of The Year category, which is open to online voting. We basically have to do everything double here.
P: How do you define what makes a fragrance western or Arabian?
SH: Its a very interesting debate. There are two or three criteria, and were also learning as we go, because we now have so many Arabian fragrances made in the west: Tom Ford, Le Labo, By Killian. But weve now decided to look at which market segment each fragrance is targeted to. Its like the confusion with premium or popular appeal or masstige or prestige.
P: Stereotypically, people tend to think that the main preference in this part of the world is for heavy, dense, oud-based perfumes. Is that idea accurate?
SH: Yes, the tastes are still for heavy Arabian perfumes. And western tastes are tilting towards Arabia, right? Im sensing even the US is tilting towards Arabia. I would say theres a global shift happening. To some extent, Id say this is also because of the recession. You now have more spending power in the Middle East, rather than in the West. And theres the fact of usage. In the west, someone might have one fragrance. In the Middle East, theyll have three to seven.
I was with a local lady yesterday a top official from the federal government and I just said to her, In your bag, I dont think youre carrying any Arabic fragrances. You might be carrying some international fragrances in your bag, but on your dressing table, youll have lots of Arabic fragrances. And she said, Yes, thats absolutely correct.
P: Why does she keep the Arabian ones at home?
SH: Maybe its a secretiveness. They dont want to reveal what fragrance theyre using.
P: But its okay to reveal the European ones?
SH: Yes, because theyre very evident.
P: There are now many more niche brands available in the UAE than there ever were before. What would you say has brought them here?
SH: At the end of the day, its a business. Its all about the highest per capita spend on cosmetics and fragrances. Thats why retail is so crucial at this time. Consumers are looking at fragrances and theyre spending a lot of money on fragrances, especially in a country like the UAE, where you have a multi-cultural society with a huge visitor population.
SH: Theres a brand called Hind Al Oud made by an Emirati gentleman. His perfumes are at Galeries Lafayette [at Dubai Mall]. There are many more examples, but itll take a little bit of time for them to pop up. There are a few who might pop up within a year or two. Theres a huge home industry, where the families mix these fragrances and they pass them on to each other within the family. These perfumes are not being retailed or sold at the moment.
P: Is there an online perfume community here?
SH: I think its in the phase of development right now. I think itll be successful in Saudi Arabia, because of womens interest in fragrances and their limitations on commuting. But in the UAE the trend is not yet mature.
P: And finally, what do you see for the future of the Middle Easts fragrance industry?
SH: I cant see the end. Its getting organised. Its getting structured.
You can find out more about the Middle East Fragrance Summit here.
About the author
Persolaise is a Jasmine Award winning writer and amateur perfumer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His book, Le Snob: Perfume, is due to be published later this year. You can find out more about his work at
www.persolaise.com or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com.