At The End Of The Day, It's A Business – An Interview With The Chair Of Fragrance Foundation Arabia

Most of us may think of Paris when the subject of perfume is raised, but the fact is that the Middle East has held fragrance at the heart of its culture far longer than Western Europe. The Bedouins of the Empty Quarter have been using rose oils, sandalwood, frankincense and, of course, oud, to scent their homes and their bodies for centuries, so it's not surprising that the souqs of the UAE, Kuwait and Oman have long been an excellent source of traditional, oil-based attars.

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 region's shopping outlets stock almost every brand that's 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 Dubai's 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 Dubai's 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, Bloomingdale's 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 Dubai's 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.

Shahzad Haider: The reason is that the industry has not been structured at all. We are, as a Foundation, struggling to make it structured. For example, we still don't know the worth or value of the fragrance industry in the Middle East. We don't know the market share. We don't know the size of the market. We haven't done any retail audits.

There's not been any structure because most of the businesses were happening on a family basis. There's 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, we've just commissioned Nielsen to do market research. We've just started doing standardisation. We've 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 hasn't 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 it's because there's no structure. It's not like somebody asked them for information and they didn't reveal it.

P: So what benefit do local companies get from being members of the Foundation?

SH:They're on the map of the world. They're going global. The Middle East region is done with. They're looking to the western world, big time. The Fragrance Foundation is a launch pad for them.

P: Does this mean we're going to see a greater movement of Arabian brands into Western markets?

SH: The transition was started over a decade ago, by Arabian Oud. They're 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 they'll get good quality, at a good price, with the right communication. Consumers will win.

P: Most Basenotes readers will be well aware that you're about to hold a Middle East fragrance summit in May. What will its focus be?

SH: This is the second summit. This year we're focussing on retail. For the first time, we're calling the Middle East the global retail hub of fragrances. We're covering topics like visual merchandising, online retailing, the shape of retailing in the Middle East. Roja Dove will be speaking, and Mohammad Al Fahim from Paris Gallery on the evolution of beauty retail in the Middle East. I'm very excited about it.

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. We've convinced them to start a campaign against counterfeit fragrances and cosmetics. We'll be launching this campaign at the summit.

P: Are counterfeit products still a problem in the region?

SH: Big time. And it's not only limited to international fragrances. It's big time with regional fragrances too. One of last year's FiFi Arabia winners – Kalemat from Arabian Oud – has been copied three times now.

P: It's an interesting subject, isn't 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, L'Eau D'Issey and Coco Mademoiselle.

SH: I don't think that's happening any more. They're now capitalising on their own Arab fragrances, which are top of the range.

P: You've 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: I'd say it's 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 don't 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: It's a very interesting debate. There are two or three criteria, and we're also learning as we go, because we now have so many Arabian fragrances made in the west: Tom Ford, Le Labo, By Killian. But we've now decided to look at which market segment each fragrance is targeted to. It's 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? I'm sensing even the US is tilting towards Arabia. I would say there's a global shift happening. To some extent, I'd say this is also because of the recession. You now have more spending power in the Middle East, rather than in the West. And there's the fact of usage. In the west, someone might have one fragrance. In the Middle East, they'll 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 don't think you're carrying any Arabic fragrances. You might be carrying some international fragrances in your bag, but on your dressing table, you'll have lots of Arabic fragrances.” And she said, “Yes, that's absolutely correct.”

P: Why does she keep the Arabian ones at home?

SH: Maybe it's a secretiveness. They don't want to reveal what fragrance they're using.

P: But it's okay to reveal the European ones?

SH: Yes, because they're 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, it's a business. It's all about the highest per capita spend on cosmetics and fragrances. That's why retail is so crucial at this time. Consumers are looking at fragrances and they're 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.

P: Are there any local perfumers creating products here?

SH: There's 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 it'll take a little bit of time for them to pop up. There are a few who might pop up within a year or two. There's 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 it's in the phase of development right now. I think it'll be successful in Saudi Arabia, because of women's 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 East's fragrance industry?

SH: I can't see the end. It's getting organised. It's 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 or by emailing him at persolaise at gmail dot com.

About the author
Persolaise is a four-time Jasmine Award winning writer with a lifelong interest in the world of fine fragrance. His perfume guide, Le Snob: Perfume, is published in English by Hardie Grant and in German by Süddeutsche Zeitung. He has written for Sunday Times Style, Grazia, Glass, The Scented Letter and Now Smell This, amongst others.

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