By Rob L. Wagner
18 December 2015
Jeddah – Never did entrepreneur Abdelaziz Aouragh think he would be identified as a purveyor of halal sex products. But Western news reports, based more on froth than fact and a profound misunderstanding of marketing female luxury products, pushed Aouragh to educate his customers on the distinction between sex and sensuality.
Aouragh is the founder of Amsterdam-based El Asira, which is Arabic for “The Society” or “The Tribe”. His company sells luxury body care products to enhance the sensuality of the love lives of Muslims and non-Muslims. El Asira’s marketing plan provides “a unique blend of Agarwood and Argan cosmetics for body and soul” for women to “feel admired. Feel loved. Feel sensual.”
So, no, the image of seedy adult store does not apply. Think of the intimacy of Victoria’s Secret rolled into pharmaceutical-quality body oils and creams.
“We have leisure and body care products and some items are for intimacy like cooling and warming creams,” Aouragh said. “Our branding fits perfectly for Muslims living a certain lifestyle.”
Aouragh said he was in negotiations with a group of potential investors to open a concept store in Saudi Arabia. He consulted with Saudi religious authorities to ensure his products are sharia-compliant. The ingredients are halal and his products’ uses are permitted under Islamic law. He already has a distributor for his products to retail shops in the United Arab Emirates, Maldives and Malaysia.
“We are interested and we have the ambition to open a concept store in Mecca or another Saudi city,” Aouragh said.
By opening such a store, El Asira makes its appeal to a specific lifestyle. Aouragh can draw on his experience of producing female luxury products and put that experience to practical use to test the reactions of his customers on a micro scale, he said.
Aouragh sees the typical El Asira consumer as reflective of all demographics. “Muslims and non-Muslims appreciate our philosophy and our experience,” he said. “They are enthusiastic and a logical follow-up would be that they will talk about us in a positive way. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific demographic.”
Aouragh may be reluctant to say so, but his customer base is pretty clear. An estimated 52% of the 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide are under the age of 25, making young women potentially the largest consumer of El Asira’s halal cosmetics and body care products. According to Trade Arabia, a business newsletter covering the Middle East, Muslim consumer spending is expected to hit $2.6 trillion by 2020, a significant increase from $1.8 trillion in 2014.
To develop a strong customer base Aouragh is focusing on Islamic branding that targets the untapped Muslim buyer by offering products that adhere to sharia principles. Halal products are free of pork by-products and alcohol in make-up, shampoos, lotions, oils and creams.
The Halal Industry Development Corporation reported that halal-certified beauty product sales have reached $5 billion annually. Multinational companies such as Avon and Colgate-Palmolive are making forays into Muslim countries. In Saudi Arabia, the body care market is expected to reach $7.5 billion in 2018, according to analyst Euromonitor International.
For many companies, Islamic branding may be the next best thing to attract new consumers but it’s actually been practiced since at least the 1980s. The chocolate company Nestlé was an early pioneer in using sharia-compliant products with about 20% of its facilities producing halal Kit Kat chocolate bars and Nescafé. Wal-Mart in the United States has been selling halal products since 2008.
Although El Asira’s ambitions are big, it remains a small company only 6 years old. “In 2011-12 we were offered a store but we were too fresh, too young and too small to open a retail store,” Aouragh said. El Asira, which has no employees other than Aouragh, remains a minor player among the multinational companies that have more resources. To open a retail shop, companies must provide a line of products up to 200 items. El Asira has about 20 products.
Aouragh has solved that problem by working with Beate Uhse AG, a German company that specialises in erotica with a focus on women’s fashion and style. Aouragh said that he has the logistical support of Beate Uhse’s 700-member staff.
El Asira’s newcomer status has not intimidated Aouragh. He sees Durex, the United Kingdom-based company with an extensive range of body products, as his direct competitor. Admittedly, Aouragh says he has his work cut out for him. But he is slowly expanding his line to include lingerie and perhaps condoms, which is Durex’s signature product.
Aouragh’s goal is to carve a niche in Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries with his emphasis on Islamic branding.
Ehsan Ahrari, a foreign affairs consultant on the Middle East for the Virginia-based Strategic Paradigms, said Saudi Arabia’s relatively new membership in the World Trade Organisation would make it easier for multinational companies to do business in the kingdom.
“There are enormous benefits for Saudi Arabia’s economy stemming from its newly acquired membership in WTO,” Ahrari said. “However, the chief problems will revolve around its ability and willingness to open its economy, invite global capital… and most importantly minimise the conflicts between Islamic laws and laws of global economic community.”
With the religious community’s blessing, Aouragh doesn’t see that as a problem. He is charting an open path to Saudi Arabia. The country, he said, has a special place in his heart. An outlet in the kingdom would serve Saudi consumers well, he said.
“Saudi Arabia for me is a beautiful country — Ardh al Tawheed (Land of the unity of the Shahada),” he said. “I respect Saudi Arabia very much and my products are inspired by Saudi Arabia.”