DUBAI (Reuters) - Walk through any of Dubai's immaculate, air-conditioned shopping malls, and the scent of spicy perfume becomes an integral part of the shopping experience.
From boutiques to sales clerks offering samples, there's no shortage of fragrances lingering in the air, part of a tradition dating back thousands of years.
"I don't count the layers my wife puts on every day, but her smell always blows me away," says Mustafa al-Muhana, a Saudi Arabian visitor to one of the specialist perfume stores.
Per capita consumption of perfumes in the Gulf region is among the highest in the world. Men and women equally enjoy applying layer upon layer of scents which linger long after the wearer has disappeared from sight.
"If a perfume doesn't leave a trail, it's not good enough," says Abdulla Ajmal, deputy general manager at Ajmal Perfumes, a United Arab Emirates-based fragrance manufacturer.
That belief is providing healthy sales for foreign makers of perfumes in the Gulf and also supporting a growing fragrance manufacturing industry within the region, which is struggling to diversify away from its traditional reliance on energy exports.
Saudi Arabia is the Gulf's largest regional market for fragrances, accounting for $827.5 million last year; the UAE was in second place with $205.8 million, according to consumer research firm Euromonitor International. By 2014, it expects fragrance sales to have grown 14.4 percent in Saudi Arabia and 16.5 percent in the UAE.
Some predict even faster growth because of tourism and business travel to the region, in addition to rising competition as an increasing number of international players move into the Middle Eastern fragrance market, including Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent and Guerlain.
"The growth of the Gulf perfume industry will be exponential," says Shazad Haider, chairman of Fragrance Foundation Arabia, the regional outpost of the Fragrance Foundation, a group which represents the industry's interests globally. "We will see a minimum twofold growth over the next three years."
The people of the Arabian Peninsula have used oud, a perfume resin from the agarwood tree, as well as sandalwood, amber, musk and roses for over two thousand years; they are still the dominant ingredients in local perfumes.
Perfume is repeatedly mentioned in the Islamic hadiths, which record the actions and words of Prophet Mohammed, and it is reported that he himself never refused perfume, intensifying its significance for all Muslims.
Many perfumers say they have identified a trend in which traditional Arab fragrances are starting to attract broader, global interest.
"We have a strong line that uses other Western notes but the interesting point is that our European, American...customers are looking for the oriental notes, especially the oud oil," says Shadi Samra, brand manager at Saudi Arabia-based Arabian Oud, which has flagship stores in London and Paris.
In Dubai's warehouse district, Ajmal Perfumes operates a $10 million, 150,000-square-foot (14,000-square-meter) factory that makes around 50,000 bottles of Arab and French fragrances a day.
Abdulla Ajmal said the turnover of the family-owned business in 2010 was $200 million; sales were dampened by the political unrest in the Arab world this year, but Ajmal said he still aimed for 6 percent growth in 2011.
For now, however, many local manufacturers may struggle to achieve their international ambitions because they do not comply with global industry standards covering restricted ingredients and quality control.
"If you want to export to anywhere else, not just to the West, but also Asia, you are going to have to comply with IFRA standards," said Stephen Weller of the Brussels-based International Fragrance Association (IFRA). He added that the association currently had no Gulf members.
And while Gulf Arab perfume manufacturers seek growth abroad, they face stiff competition from French and global players on their home ground.
L'Oréal Middle East, the regional arm of the French cosmetics giant, accounted for 9.6 percent of fragrance sales in the UAE in 2009, the biggest share, followed by Ajmal with 9.2 percent, according to Euromonitor International. The three largest domestic makers, Ajmal, Rasasi and Designer Shaik, together accounted for 21 percent.
"Most of the international houses work very closely with consumers here in the region...They adapt and introduce something customized, or they modify some of their product ranges to fit the taste of the region," said Mohamed al-Fahim, chief executive of Paris Gallery, one of the largest regional fragrance retailers.
At the store's Dubai Mall branch, Arabian-style glass bottles now carry the names of brands such as Guerlain and Clive Christian. Armani Prive and Tom Ford, among others, have developed ranges specifically for the region, and others plan to follow.
A 50 ml bottle of French brand Kilian's Arabian Nights collection retails for about 1,500 dirhams ($410). In an acknowledgement of the heavier-than-average use of perfume in the region, a refill sells for half-price.
Global fragrance houses which can adapt to brand-conscious Gulf consumers still enjoy hefty advantages over most local perfumers in the form of bigger marketing budgets, technology and general experience of the industry.
"We still have a way to go to produce something of the same level or even better than what is produced in Europe or the U.S.," Paris Gallery's Fahim said.
Editing by Andrew Torchia