You don’t have to go to Dubai’s Souk Al Bahar, The Mall of the Emirates, the Dubai Mall on Financial Center Road, or even Riyadh’s old Alzal souk and Cairo’s Khan el-Khalili bazaar to discover the best Arabic perfumes. Remotely will do.
As yet, there are no perfumes with names like Avicenna, Yusuf Yaqub bin Istaaq al Kindi, Jabir, or Ibn Sina. This is surprising since these men from ancient times (ninth century) virtually created the perfume by themselves and incense industry by using woods, spices and capturing the essences of orange blossom, violet, water lily, Bulgarian and Turkish rose petals, frankincense, myrrh, and oud – resin from the Aquilaria tree.
Egypt and Mesopotamia (which consisted of modern-day Iraq, northern Syria, and southeast Turkey) produced the first scents based on incense.
Popular perfumes in ancient Egypt were “Susinum” (based on lily, myrrh, cinnamon), “Cyprinum” (henna, cardamom, cinnamon, myrrh, and southernwood), and “Mendesian” (myrrh and cassia with assorted gums and resins).
Perfume use was expected at public gatherings. In the Islamic tradition, the use of the best perfume is not an extravagance but rather as a “sadaqah” (voluntary charity) to other people because the good scent emanating from the user has a beneficial effect on others.
Frankincense was used by doctors, dentists, chemists, and beauticians from as early as 3000 BC Frankincense, myrrh, and oud all changed hands for Bahraini pearls in the market places of Baghdad, for silk as far afield as China, and for gold in the medieval royal courts of Europe.
Despite this heritage, it was not until 1974 that the first modern Arabian perfume company was founded by Yemeni Hussein Adam Ali. “Swiss Arabian” was the first perfume manufacturing company in the Gulf region. Working alongside Givaudan, a France based Swiss company and the world’s largest and most respected manufacturer of exclusive fragrance ingredients, the company has its WAAW (unity) collection which includes Ishq and women’s perfumes Mutamayez and Khaveer. They have a male fragrance called Primal Code. Perfumes like Nouf, Layali, and Kashtha come in beautiful ornate bottles.
Ne’emah’s “Laya” was perhaps the first Arabian perfume to go mainstream. Kuwaiti Mohammed Ne’emah, founded in 1997 the company which has grown into – in the company’s own words – “an international prestige fragrance phenomenon”. It produces other fragrances like Desert Ros, Shahla, and the $150 Ne’emah Oud.
“Rasasi” founded in 1979 by Abdul Razzah and now run by his six sons, works with over a hundred fragrance bases. From their huge range of quality perfumes, standouts are probably Hawas, Junoon Velvet, and Blue Lady. Imran Faziani’s “Afrnan” produces Mirsall, Modest, Naseej, Her Highness and His Highness ranges, Majestic, Supremacy, Provoke, and the oriental 9 pm.
Top-of-the-line “Riif” makes luxury (“haibah”) scents like Bella Rouge, Incense Gold, La Femme Bloom, Sillage Oros, and Musk Malaki.
The most expensive Middle eastern perfume ever sold was the $1.3 “Shumukh” in 2019. But the bottle was encrusted with 24kt gold m pure silver, 3,571 diamonds, and other precious stones. It was made of Asghar Adam Ali’s “El Nabil” (meaning noble) perfume house.
Yas is named after the Bani Yash tribe from which the royal household descends. It has a perfume called Al Hareem. Kuwait’s Sheikh Majed Al-Sabah founded “The Fragrance House”, working with the nose Christian Carbonnel to produce the excellent TFK range. It sells scents like “War of the Rose”, “Pass The Amber”, “Youth Memory” and “Mister Danger”.
Emirati Mohamad Hila makes cultured, sophisticated scents” and “blends of love” like Rose of the Desert, Dalal Anfasic Dokhoon (breathing incense), and Kheneen Al Fekr while, in Saudi, Al -Rehab offers roses of Taif scents (ghalia), attars (perfumes) and musks like Arooq Al Aroosha.
Sadly, not even a 100ml bottle of the best Arabic perfumes will last you 1001 nights.