Oud, sandalwood, and spices — the Middle East’s appetite for fragrances is voracious.
The size of Saudi Arabia’s perfume market reached $1.8 billion in 2023 and is expected to hit $2.6 billion by 2032, growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.1 percent, according to a recent report released by market research company IMARC Group.
The Middle Eastern fragrance market’s value surpassed $3.7 billion last year. From 2024 to 2032, the market is anticipated to grow at a CAGR of 7.5 percent to reach $5.4 billion within the decade, per data from Expert Market Research, driven by Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Saudi and Emirati consumers have the habit of matching personal fragrances to different clothing and occasions — which makes fragrance an essential product category in fashion lifestyle select shops and [gives them] high market demand,” says Reiting Lee, an intercultural communication consultant and founder of the PR agency The Oriental Hybrid.
Below is a closer look at Arab fragrance culture and how global brands can hit the right notes with regional consumers.
In the Middle East, fragrances are not just a nice-to-have. They’re an essential part of Arab and Islamic culture, dating back thousands of years to ancient incense trade routes that passed through the Arabian Peninsula, says Abdulrahman Al Abed, founder of Saudi design house Qormuz.
“The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, used to recommend the use of incense and perfumes,” he says. “Fragrances are an important aspect of cleanliness for Muslims, as it is part of the Muslim's cleanliness to have a pleasant fragrance. In Saudi culture specifically, it is rare to find a household without a complete collection of various types and forms of fragrances.”
Beyond grooming, fragrances are also symbols of hospitality and self expression.
“Fragrance is such a prominent part of the Arab lifestyle, from home to weddings, a way to get to know a person and a way to identify a culture as well,” says Lee. “The first gifts I ever received from my Saudi and Emirati friends were oud, bakhoor, and perfumes, which truly shows how much they highly value fragrances.”
“Fragrance is such a prominent part of the Arab lifestyle, from home to weddings, a way to get to know a person and a way to identify a culture as well.”
According to the IMARC report, Arab consumers continue to seek traditional scents rooted in local culture. “For Arab consumers, rose, oud, musks, amber, and saffron are some of the prevalent ingredients,” explains Dao Nguyen, founder of Essenzia ByDao, a boutique strategic marketing agency dedicated to fragrance and beauty.
Oud, also known as agarwood, is a fragrant oil extracted from tree resin, renowned for its woody profile and aromatic intensity. It stands out as one of the most expensive ingredients in perfumery, primarily due to the rarity of agar trees and the labor-intensive process of resin extraction.
Bakhoor, mentioned earlier by Lee, is an incense crafted from aromatic wood chips soaked in perfume oil along with other natural ingredients.
Notably, the Middle East shares some olfactive preferences with China, another market where consumers are highly willing to embrace fragrances.
“For Chinese consumers there are traditionally four primary precious ingredient, known for their scents, referred to as China’s ‘big four’ (四大名香): oud, musks, sandalwood, and ambergris. Over time, oud and musks have paved their ways into fragrances in both cultures,” says Nguyen.
“But at same time, you can also say [their tastes] are very distinct, especially in regards of heaviness — well-accepted with Arab consumers, much less so with Chinese consumers.”
Given this love for heavier, sweeter mixtures and musky, woody profiles, global bestsellers may not necessarily be to Arab tastes. As such, international brands have started catering to local consumers by creating region-exclusive scents.
In May 2023, the French perfume house Diptyque launched a Middle East collection, which included the Eau Rihla scent. This fragrance features pink peppercorn, Atlas cedar, iris, vanilla, saffron, and a leathery scent from Chinese cedar wood, all crafted to evoke the image of desert travel.
In 2021, Christian Louboutin released an amber woody fragrance named Loubiprince, packaged in a bottle resembling a pyramid and snake. Additionally, other global brands such as Frederic Malle, Creed, Le Labo, and Byredo have also introduced oud perfumes in recent years.
“It is very important to create localized, original, and most importantly high-quality products to both represent the brand and gain the customers' trust in each product,” says Ali AlOwais, founder of Emirati fragrance label 1Hundred Perfumes.
“Creating fragrances that are well thought-of and different and marketing them as originally based from a certain country will easily promote these brands as consumers nowadays are moving more towards unique, localized brands,” he continues.
However, in a region where fragrance use dates back to ancient times, local brands abound. The Middle East boasts a myriad of standout labels, including Ajmal Perfumes, Ahmed Al Maghribi, Al Haramain Perfumes, Arabian Oud. Some products, like Khadlaj Perfume's Hareem Al Sultan Gold, even went viral on TikTok last year for their complex profiles.
Despite the stiff competition, there is still room for global brands to flourish.
“Global perfumes have expanded rapidly in the past few years because of the interesting ingredients and blends most global brands use. The best advice is to work focusing on the identity of the brand and choosing high-quality oils or ingredients for a long-lasting scent,” AlOwais shares.
Al Abed echoes the importance of innovation: “The market is still thirsty for novelty and the allure of the unfamiliar, craving different scents such as the smell of black pepper, cloves, smoke, and rain.”
Not only are Arab consumers looking to experiment with different smells, but they are also in the habit of using multiple scents a day, creating opportunities for brands to fill the market with diverse options.
“It is not common to use only one perfume per day,” Al Abed says. “Instead, individuals prefer to mix different fragrances together. You will find that there are specific perfumes for winter, summer, and even different scents for the morning. Every occasion has its own fragrance. This exceptionally high demand from the society is not met with different offerings.”
“It is not common to use only one perfume per day. Instead, individuals prefer to mix different fragrances together. You will find that there are specific perfumes for winter, summer, and even different scents for the morning. Every occasion has its own fragrance."
From significant life events to mundane daily moments, fragrance is ever-present in Arab lives. International brands looking to expand to the Middle East would do well to satisfy local consumers' growing desire for differentiation and emotional resonance. As the scent market blooms, the allure of oud has never been stronger.