Oud in the UAE
Known as “liquid gold”, oud is the most expensive oil in the perfume industry. In the Middle East, its significance goes far beyond its monetary value, however. Oud oil has been used as a fragrance for the body and the wood chips as a purifying smoke since it was first introduced to Gulf traders in India's Assam state.
Since then, the bark from the Agar or Aquilaria tree, native to Southeast Asia, has become even more precious. The dark, sticky resin secreted by the Aquilaria is used to protect itself from a parasitic mold. Fewer than 2% of the wild trees produce it and it takes at least 40 years before a tree accumulates a good amount of oud for harvest.
Most importantly, oud holds a particular cultural significance. The sweet, rich scent has become synonymous with the Gulf where it is infused into daily life - from the scent of the wood being burnt at home to the breath fragrance as greeting with a cheek-to-cheek kiss. It is an important signifier of status and wealth as the cost of the oil increases with the complexity of the scent and the rarity of the source.
Oud is further linked to religious rituals of Islamic purification. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have held the tradition of fumigation with Agarwood, the English name for the tree, and it is now a central practice in the Islamic world.
The changing market for oud
Globally, there is strong evidence that consumer tastes are moving towards fragrances derived from aromatic oils including oud, amber and sandalwood. The enigmatic nature of oud, which can be spicy, woody, balsamic and amber-touched all at the same time, make it a far more engrossing fragrance than the classic florals and citrus scents of Asia and Europe.
The sharp rise in the popularity of oud has been linked to Tom Ford, who first began incorporating oud into his private blends and exposed Western markets to its convoluted characteristics. A number of French and Italian brands followed suit, bringing oud firmly into the mainstream. Contemporary fragrances often seek to create fresher blends, incorporating bergamot, green neroli, ginger and citrus. This has helped to establish the scent in a wider market, reaching consumers who ordinarily may not be attracted to darker aromatics.
The rising trend of oud outside of the Middle East has also been linked to the global movement of people. Western expats working in the Middle East may be introduced to the fragrance, encouraging its introduction and acceptance in the West. As more people are exposed to the heady scent of life in the Gulf, they seek to recreate the intoxicating sensory experience back home.
In turn, more brands have begun incorporating oud into their perfumes, ranging from Versace's Oud Noir to Ormonde Jayne's Elixir range, reinterpreting the brand's best-known scents with a splash of oud. In 2020, some of the leading oud fragrances on the market are Atkinsons' The Other Side Of Oud, Creed's Royal Oud and Acqua Di Parma's Colonia Oud. In response to this upwards global trend, the prices for oud have continued to rise sharply thanks to increased demand and rarity, cementing its position as a luxury product.
Why measurement matters
In Dubai, the raw material of oud is brought and sold on a massive scale. As one of the most important oud trading centres in the world, measurement matters for the UAE. The tula system has been in use for trading oud and aromatic oils in the country since 1833, when Indian merchants began trading on a larger scale. This historic use has continued unchanged until this year, but globalisation has made it increasingly problematic. Crucially, the tula system is not compatible with the metric system - 1 tula equals 12 millilitres. A challenging conversion for any consumer.
The most recent standardising move by the Emirate Authority for Standardization and Metrology (ESMA), changing overnight from tula to gram/millilitre measurement, is intended to make the export of local products easier. By removing unit barriers, the UAE hopes to improve the competitiveness of oud products globally by ensuring that oud can move uninhibited across their borders.
Standardised global measurement for fragrances ensures that sellers and buyers have transparency, with no conversions needed. To help merchants, suppliers and retailers in the UAE adjust to the change, ESMA has set up a website to educate consumers, as well as workshops for merchants. Overall, the change has been welcomed with the hope that it will promote continued growth of the oud trade into the future.
Oud in 2020
Brought from Southeast Asia to the Middle East by Indian merchants, oud has become embedded into the culture of the Middle East. It lingers on the skin and in the mind, so much so that one almost craves the woody warmth of the scent after periods of absence.
Now oud is spreading beyond its historical limits once more to become the new favourite of global perfumery. With a market valued at approximately £5 billion annually, the enduring influence of this impenetrable scent doesn't look to be dwindling soon.