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DUBAI (Reuters) - Thursday evening at a luxury, Pharaonic-themed spa in Dubai. Emirati women, colorful eye makeup contrasting with their black robes, wait by a bronze statue of a smiling Cleopatra for their weekend beauty treat.
The mineral-based skincare range used at the spa is free of pork and alcohol derivatives. Supplier Charlotte Proudman hopes to register it as compliant with sharia, or Islamic law, tapping into a growing trend for "halal cosmetics" in the mostly-Muslim Middle East and among the world's estimated 1.6 billion Muslims.
"I really want to put this onto our packaging so that our clients can be reassured that our products are halal, and that they can feel consistent in their religious beliefs," Proudman said at the spa, which uses the range she launched in 2008
"I really feel that halal cosmetics have a future. I don't think that a Muslim man or a Muslim lady should compromise their beliefs for a skincare range that will work well for them."
The word halal, Arabic for permissible, is often used to describe meat slaughtered and prepared in line with Islamic law.
Halal beauty products, which comprise $500 million of the $2 trillion global halal market, are made using plant extracts and minerals rather than the alcohol and pork ingredients that are banned in Islam but often found in cosmetics.
The appeal of halal cosmetics mirrors a global trend for ethical beauty products that are not tested on animals and do not use animal derivatives, as well as booming demand for ranges based on natural ingredients that are kind to hair and skin.
It is a trend that could appeal strongly to Muslims living in Europe, where a buzz already surrounds all things green.
"It is part of the permissibility of cosmetics that they be safe. So substances that have heavy metal and other carcinogenic or otherwise harmful substances would be impermissible," New-York based Islamic scholar Taha Abdul-Basser said.
"Substances that are tested on animals in such a way as to cause unnecessary pain or that pollute the environment would be avoided by religious educated and conscientious consumers... There are significant overlaps between the halal consumer and the ethical and environmentally-conscious consumer."
Morocco's Amys Group is another start-up that smells opportunity in the exotic fragrances of halal beauty.
Its range is made in the Atlas mountains near Marrakech and includes exfoliating scrubs, hammam and sauna oils, as well as eucalyptus soap with Argan and sweet almond oil - products that combine the exotic appeal of North African steam baths with the ethical and religious appeal of sharia-compliance.
"The halal business is at the level where the Islamic banks were 20 years ago," Walid Mougou, general manager at Amys Group, said. "It observes double-digit growth every year and this trend will not go down at least during the next 10 years."
Amys Group plans to expand in the wealthy Gulf Arab region, Malaysia, Britain, the United States, France and Japan in the next three years, and is targeting 20 percent annual profit growth over the next 5 years.
Those are ambitious targets. The total value of cosmetic-related sales in the Middle East reached $2.1 billion in 2009, analysts say.
Beauty World Middle East, a beauty trade exhibition, found in a survey that cosmetics, perfumes and personal care products account for a growing share of the $150 million annual market for sharia-compliant products in the United Arab Emirates alone.
"Islam itself is a lifestyle and so the sharia-compliant lifestyle market represents massive potential in the next few years," Paul Temporal, Director for Islamic Branding and Marketing at Oxford University's Said Business School, said.
"There will be many more new and existing brands that will focus on women's cosmetics and beauty products."
One of the many problems that could restrict the growth of halal cosmetics is the lack of a unified global halal certification body to regulate the nascent industry.
Halal products are usually approved by local, regional or national certification agencies to ensure they meet Islamic rules, but there is little to stop some producers from labeling their products halal without an official seal of approval.
There are 138 different certification bodies around the world, according to the International Halal Integrity Alliance, a group based in the Islamic finance hub of Kuala Lumpur, which is also a magnet for firms seeking the halal stamp of approval.
In Malaysia, the halal certification body is a government department, rather than a private body as it is in most of the world, which avoids the marketing nightmare of having one halal board approve your product and another reject it.
Even in Europe, the European Halal Development Agency is trying to harmonize standards for halal certification.
"It's very hard to come up with a global standard as there is no single authority, there is no hope. The Muslim world itself is fragmented and there are various differences in interpretation of the holy text and modern technology," Darhim Hashim, the chief executive of the IHI Alliance, said.
"Those differences are unlikely to be resolved. If we are lucky, we might one day be able to live with three or four standards only."
And that leads to the next major problem for the industry; different interpretations of religious texts lead to radically different views on whether it is acceptable for a Muslim to beautify him or herself in the first place.
Many Muslim women wear the veil in public. Some conservative scholars frown upon physical adornment of any kind. While most Islamic legal experts are more lenient, they differ by degree.
"It is actually recommended... in Islam that both men and women do some kind of improvement to their appearance in order to look nice for their spouse," Muddassir Siddiqui, a sharia scholar and partner at Denton Wilde Sapte law practice said.
"The only thing that could be potentially not permissible is if make-up was used for the purpose of deception. And Islamically, women shouldn't beautify themselves for the admiration of strangers, but rather for their own husbands."
Despite the potential pitfalls, multinational firms, many of which already produce big-brand foods and beverages by Islamic rules, are also tuning in to the potential for halal cosmetics.
Colgate-Palmolive Co already makes oral care products, such as toothpaste and mouthwash, with a halal stamp.
Halal food and drinks account for $5.2 billion or 5 percent of Nestle's annual sales worldwide, suggesting that there is potential for growth in sharia-compliant products.
Whereas countries such as Indonesia, India or Pakistan are home to some of the world's largest Muslim populations, impetus could come from Gulf states with tiny populations but major spending power or from high-earning Muslims living in the West.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is also the world's largest oil exporter with per capita income above $20,000.
According to Cayman Island-domiciled Al Masah Capital, Saudi businesswomen have cash savings of more than $11.9 billion in Saudi banks, and $2.1 billion of funds in investments.
"The growth areas are naturally in those Muslim countries where there is greater purchasing power such as the Gulf. Here, it has been said that the beauty products market is growing in double digits annually, and that a woman's average monthly spend on such products can be more than $100," Temporal said.
"Western brands have to prove their commitment to the Muslim consumer."
Editing by Lin Noueihed