Contrary to Islamic stereotyping, lingerie sales are extremely healthy in the Middle East. However, Paul Cochrane reports from Beirut, the brand is less important than the style.

There is lingerie openly on display that in Europe would usually be confined to sex shops. In Syria for instance, 'alternative' lingerie such as see-through bras, panties with fluffy additions, lights, even attached ringing plastic mobile phones are on sale in the covered markets and upscale lingerie shops.

Who buys them? The mohajiba (the veiled, conservatively dressed women) and soon-to-be brides, since wives - according to the Koran - must dance for their husbands.

"In Arab countries there are no sex shops, so lingerie shops double as this to sell such items," says Nassib Ghossoub, owner of Lebanese brand Vaness. With approximately 50% of the Middle East under the age of 25, according to UN reports, the sector looks to have a bright future.

"Lingerie fashion is not what it was like before. TV, advertising and lifestyle promotions have increased sales. And as women are increasingly freer to buy what they want, women will buy lingerie," says Ghossoub.

Last year, for instance, Saudi Arabia issued a law requiring all lingerie outlets to be staffed by women instead of men. Outlets have two years to make the switch, and the move is expected to create 2,500 job opportunities and boost sales, as women will feel less inhibited buying lingerie from other women.

Ghossoub suggests that to break into the Syrian and other Arab markets requires a strong female marketing manager to address regional sensibilities.

Strong growth
There are no statistics or figures on the lingerie sector in the Middle East but manufacturers and retailers agree growth is strong, particularly in the Gulf countries, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Ghossoub estimates growth at 30% to 40% in Lebanon over the last five years, and double-digit growth in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

"But no one knows for sure, the governments or manufacturers. It is all very secretive," concedes Ghossoub.

Lingerie sales in Saudi Arabia, the region's biggest market, were estimated at over US$41 million last year. Chinese-made lingerie accounts for approximately 12% of Saudi Arabia's import market, with American companies controlling the lion's share of the mid- to high-end brands.

But according to Ghossoub, only 10% of sales in Saudi Arabia are high-end labels, as many women buy this kind of lingerie whilst travelling in Europe or the US.

However, international brands such as Victoria's Secret, La Perla, and Wonderbra have been making inroads. La Senza has also been expanding regionally. Following booming sales in Saudi Arabia, the brand has opened outlets in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Morocco and Lebanon.

Regional brands
Regional manufacturers and retailers have also experienced growth in the past few years.

Dubai-based company Nayomi has expanded in the past two years from 58 regional outlets in 18 cities to 90 stores in 26 cities, of which 11 stores are in the UAE.

The Emirati market is growing, boosted by its reputation as a shopping haven and tourist hub. "Sales are good, and we have just introduced men's underwear. It is a growing sector," says a representative from New Zealand's Bendon line in Abu Dhabi.

Also, Brazilian lingerie manufacturer Scalina has been slowly breaking into the market over the past two years, now operating in six Arab countries.

But according to export manager Gilberto de Lemos Ribeiro, the Middle East still only accounts for 5% of overall exports.

Brazilian style lingerie - particularly g-strings - are popular in the Middle East, with Lebanon accounting for the greatest variation of Scalina products in recent years.

Lebanon's four million population is a small market, but is generating strong sales, particularly in mid- to high-end lingerie, says Ghossoub.

His firm, Vaness, was established in 2003 and has aggressively expanded to include 399 shops and outlets in Lebanon, and branches in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Morocco.

Struggling amidst conflict
But with Lebanon currently besieged by Israeli forces and transport routes effectively cut off, the sector is struggling, particularly as sales were expected to be high due to the tourist summer season, estimated at 1.6m visitors this year.

Syria is one of the region's major lingerie exporters and has weathered the situation in neighbouring Iraq and Lebanon by producing low-end lingerie.

But with no brand loyalty and fake brands - labels removed and replaced with a brand name - Syrian lingerie's long-term prospects do not look so assured, particularly as Syria's economy is also opening to outside markets.

"Syria produces large quantities, but often not pure cotton. I don't think Syrian lingerie manufacturers will last for long as they are cheating and not creating a market," says Ghossoub.

Cheaply produced synthetic lingerie manufactured in China vies with Syrian produce in terms of regional sales, but Dubai's current role as a major lingerie re-exporter to Russia and Africa seems to be in jeopardy as buyers are increasingly dealing directly with manufacturers in the Far East.