Scent of the Gulf: Why Oud has become more precious than gold

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Burning oud and bukhoor has become synonymous with hospitality in the Arabian Peninsula.

While Asian and European markets have traditionally favored softer floral and citrus scents, global consumer tastes are moving toward those derived from the aromatic oils of oud, sandlewood and amber long associated with the people of the Gulf.

Oud, known in English as agarwood, originates from the barks of trees that only grow in parts of South East Asia.

For thousands of years, it has been used in the Middle East and Asia in the form of wooden incense chips, body oils and fragrance, becoming synonymous with hospitality in the Arabian Peninsula.

Its smell varies from person to person, and is known to be an acquired taste. Some smell a burning oud as spicy, while others may sense softer woody notes.

‘Wood of the gods’

“The most preferred oud is from India, known locally as oud Hindi and followed by those from Cambodia and Malaysia,” Layana Mohammed, an oud salesperson in Dubai, told Al Arabiya English.

A tola – 12 grams – of low-quality oud Hindi in Dubai can go for up to $272 (AED 1,000) while a kilo can go for up to $9,528 (AED 35,000).

A tola, or 12 grams, of Indian oud is shown. Usually has a more spicier smell. (Ismaeel Naar/Al Arabiya English)

Known as the “wood of the gods” by ancient cultures, it is one of the world’s rarest commodities.

“A kilo of oud can be as expensive as a kilo of gold, sometimes even more depending on the rarity of the tree it was cut from,” said Siraj Hassan Gawai, a branch manager and sales supervisor at Arabian Oud in Dubai. “I witnessed a kilo of Indian oud being sold for nearly $129,316 (AED 475,000).”

One of the main reasons for the rarity and high cost of oud is the depletion of the Aquilaria tree.

The tree is really valuable only if infected with a fungus that causes the creation of a resin that produces the agarwood. It takes at least 40 years for a tree to harvest a good amount of oud.

In a bid to conserve what remains, most South East Asian countries have made it illegal to cut and harvest agarwood-producing species.

Countries such as Malaysia and the main exporter Indonesia have introduced export quotas.

Siraj said restrictions from countries such as India and Malaysia have reduced supply, while demand is at an all-time high.

In India’s Assam state, where agarwood was first introduced to visiting Gulf traders, it is now illegal to export the product without government permission.

Siraj Hassan Gawai, a branch manager and sales supervisor at Arabian Oud in Dubai demonstrates the burning of the oud.

Just a few months ago, Indian customs arrested a man attempting to smuggle $180,000 of agarwood out of the country.

Siraj says restrictions from India were so strict a few years ago that its oud had all but disappeared from the market, leaving many customers with lower-quality trees from Cambodia and Indonesia.

“After a while Cambodia started restricting tree-poaching and harvesting, and Indian oud started making a comeback, but for many, Indian oud remains the crème de la crème of the industry,” said Siraj.

Europe’s increasing fascination

Another reason behind the hike in oud prices is the number of European brands using the scent as a base for their perfumes.

It is hard not to walk into a perfumery shop these days without seeing some Arabic calligraphy and oud on bottles from Italian Gucci to Spanish Loewe.

Gucci Oud

“A lot of the brands from France and Italy, such as Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana, first started the trend, but we’re seeing other countries such as Spain taking the lead now,” said Mohammed Sabbagh, a salesman and perfume expert at the Faces franchise.

“The trend has been on the rise for the past five years. While most of the customers buying oud-scented perfumes are from the Gulf, a close second have been Western expats living in the Gulf and tourists.”

The West’s fascination with the scent started with fashion and luxury mogul Tom Ford.

“With his enormous sense of fashion and taste, [he] started to work oud into his private blends, and it is this more than anything that has exposed Westerners to the use of oud,” fragrance historian Roja Dove told the Lux report.

Scent of home

Oud holds a special place in Gulf Arab traditions. Walk into any Gulf home, especially during the Eid holidays, and one is welcomed with the scent of burning oud throughout the house, and the oil-based oud that adorns men’s traditional thoub dress and females’ abayas.

For many Emiratis, says Emirati oud buyer Mohammed Ismail, the scent is not just about tradition, but also “part of the DNA that makes up the people of the Gulf.”

“When Khaleejis [Gulf citizens] greet each other, most do the handshake as well as the nose-to-nose or cheek-to-cheek kiss.

“It’s part of our culture, so when you greet another man you want to make a really good first impression, and the oud you choose gives you status.”

However, for Bahraini student Sheza Khalid and her husband Mishal studying abroad, oud holds a more sentimental place.

They missed the scent so much that “we went looking for oud the first thing after we landed [from Ohio], as we can’t find the same quality in America,” Khalid told Al Arabiya English.

“We usually stock up before we leave for the United States, or ask anyone who’s coming back to bring some for us.”

Whether the trend continues in the coming years remains to be seen, but Siraj says the wooden chips “have the ability to truly bridge East and West. Through the rise of oud’s popularity, Gulf countries are exporting part of their culture to the world, and many are very proud of that.”

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