No visit to the kingdom is complete without a whiff of oud. This warm, woody scent — also known as aoud or oudh — is derived from the heart of the agar (or aquilaria) tree. When the heartwood becomes infected with mold, it produces a dark, oily, scented resin known as oud. It is sweet and sharp — and, because of its scarcity and how long it takes to produce the resin (about 300 years), it is very pricey. The annual oud market earns around US$6 billion, which is why it is sometimes referred to as “liquid gold.” Fortune has reported that it can cost US$5,000 per pound.
Both oud resin and the oil distilled from it figure prominently in Saudi life. “In every typical Saudi house, you’ll find a tolah [small bottle] or several of oud,” says Abdullah Bahabri, founder of the fragrance company Nota Nota. Oud wood may also be given as a gift at weddings and engagements. In fact, it is customary to include a beautifully shaped piece of oud wood in the gift box presented to the parents and close relatives of the bride. During Eid, it is common to burn oud wood chips — a practice called Bukhoor — and let the fragrance fill the house while receiving visitors. During the Hajj, when Muslim pilgrims from around the world come to Makkah and Medina, they will also encounter the scent of oud, which is burned in the Great Mosque. Small packets of oud chips are a common souvenir to bring home from the Hajj.
Owing to its widespread use and multifunctionality — some even believe oud oil has aromatherapeutic benefits, strengthening the body and mind — agarwood is also known as the “wood of the gods.” Trade in agarwood and its products dates back to ancient times; some texts even report that traders used the famous Silk Route to transport agarwood from China to the Middle East via India. Traditionally, oud came from South and Southeast Asia (India, Bangladesh, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam), and it was consumed by markets primarily in Japan and the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and United Arab Emirates). Presently, however, there has been an expansion both in supply centers (including Australia and Sri Lanka) and in demand (largely throughout Western Europe). Still, the Gulf market continues to be the biggest oud importer, according to a business report from 2008, with people in the region using two-thirds of the oud produced in the world. Saudi Arabia alone consumes 60 percent of what is produced for the Gulf market.
And, of course, many men and women simply wear oud as their perfume, layered on their skin or clothing. If you’re looking to create scent memories from your time in the kingdom, check out Arabian Oud, Ajmal Perfumes, Nota Nota Oudh, and Abdul Samad Al Qurashi. Several prominent Western perfumers have also begun using oud in their blends, including Tom Ford Oud Wood, Giorgio Armani Privé Oud Royal, Dior Oud Ispahan and Musk Oud by Kilian.
Read about the kingdom’s other ubiquitous aroma, the Taif rose, here.