Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

December 18, 2015

El Asira’s Sharia-Compliant Sensuality

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By Rob L. Wagner

The Arab Weekly

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.”

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