Game Changers The Challenging Stereotypes Issue

Ali Al Jaberi: A nose for international success

Creating a perfume is akin to painting, according to Ali Al Jaberi, the self-taught perfumer and founder of the first Abu Dhabi-based luxury perfume brand, Widian AJ Arabia.
Ali Al Jaberi. Courtesy.

Creating a perfume is akin to painting, according to Ali Al Jaberi, the self-taught perfumer and founder of the first Abu Dhabi-based luxury perfume brand, Widian AJ Arabia. “You need something to inspire you – sometimes it’s a place, or a person or a feeling – which I then try to translate into a scent,” he says.

When the Emirati entrepreneur decided to launch his own niche perfume brand five years ago, he had, it is fair to say, plenty of doubters. “I had so many sleepless nights. I was a leaving a secure job for something unknown, with people questioning my idea, my decisions and the whole project,” he says.

After graduating with a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Missouri in the US, Ali worked in the gas industry for seven years. While studying for a Master’s Degree in Management, Marketing, Communication and Media at the Paris-Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi, he began thinking about launching his own brand.

“My idea was not making perfumes – the idea was creating a UAE brand with international vision,” he recalls.

In late 2012, Ali quit the corporate world; without any contacts in the fragrance industry, he started researching perfumery and formulating his vision for the brand. While searching for funding, he pitched his business plan to the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, which supports new small and medium-sized enterprises by providing interest-free loans of up to AED 3 million. “I felt like they were not enthusiastic about it, so I started working by myself on the design and finding the right manufacturer,” he says.

After plunging his own money into creating the first production samples, Ali went back and convinced the fund to invest in his embryonic venture. “It was a long process, but I don’t think any successful journey is easy,” he says.

In February 2014, Ali launched his home-grown brand, originally called AJ Arabia, at Harrods in London. “We initially tried to launch in the UAE, but there are lots of local perfume brands all trying to find their place in the market. So we thought, ‘we’re not going to be able to differentiate our brand if we just push for the local market,’” he says.

It proved a fortuitous move. After a January 2016 name change to Widian AJ Arabia – “we found people were calling it AJ, so the brand was not going to come up [in natural search] in Google,” he explains – the niche brand can now be found in high-end stores in 35 countries, including Russia, France and the US.

Of course, fragrances are deeply rooted in Middle Eastern culture. Throughout the Arab world, fragrances are part of a revered ritual that involves layering attars and perfumes and infusing one’s hair and clothing with bakhoor (incense). In recent years, traditional ingredients such as oud and frankincense have become popular with Western perfumers, even appearing in mainstream offerings from the likes of Tom Ford, Gucci and Hugo Boss.

Niche brands are also booming. According to the 2016 edition of Fragrances of the World (the world’s most comprehensive fragrance guide), niche and artisanal perfume is the fastest-growing sector of the multibillion-dollar fragrance industry, with new launches up 55 per cent year-on-year. Major fashion houses such as Chanel, Dior and Givenchy have all expanded into the niche market, which is sometimes referred to as ‘haute parfumerie,’ and niche perfume houses such as Creed, Diptyque and Jo Malone have opened stores in the Middle East, joining local players such as Amouage from Oman.

“What we’re seeing is a major shift whereby consumers want to know more about the artistry, creativity and inspiration behind their favourite fragrances,” explains Ahmed Pauwels, CEO of Messe Frankfurt Middle East, the organizer of the annual Beautyworld Middle East trade fair in Dubai. “They want to learn about the nuances of perfume families such as amber, gourmand, fougere or chypre, or how oriental scents mix with oud. The niche segment answers this demand.”

Meanwhile, per capita, the UAE is one of the biggest spenders on perfume in the world, according to Euromonitor International. In 2016, the global fragrance market was worth US $46.5 billion; in the UAE alone, the market for fragrances was estimated at US $642 million.

 “With the global expansion of perfumes, many countries have converted to the idea and culture of wearing perfumes, but the UAE and Middle East for many years already had this culture, which is why it is such a big market now, similar to France, Italy, the UK or Germany,” Ahmed says.

Ali believes authenticity is vital to Widian AJ Arabia’s success. “Our Arab customers must endorse our perfumes as being authentically Middle Eastern, while appealing to Westerners, and it’s hard to satisfy both tastes,” he says. The company counts Russia, the UAE and Germany as its top three markets.

Widian AJ Arabia’s product line comprises four collections – Black, Gold, Velvet and Limited Edition – with nine total perfumes, ranging from fresh florals to sensual oriental scents. The perfumes cost around AED 1,000 each. The perfumes are mostly numbered rather than named, and they are all packaged in similar bottles that are inspired by the majestic domes of Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque; this encourages fragrance aficionados to collect them all.

“The idea was creating a UAE brand with international vision,” recalls Ali.

Ali works alongside renowned ‘noses’ such as Jean-Claude Astier to create the perfumes, which are manufactured in France by Givaudan and Firmenich, two of the top fragrance firms. Creating a new blend can take anywhere from six months to three years. Like many niche brands, Widian AJ Arabia produces gender-neutral perfumes. “I don’t believe in men’s and women’s; if you like the scent, just wear it. Your perfume is your unspoken personality – you have to really feel it,” Ali says.

By applying the same instinct to business, Ali hopes to expand the brand’s product line and enter new markets. He advises other aspiring entrepreneurs, “You have to keep learning something new every single day.”

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Lara Brunt is an Australian/British journalist.