- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2008

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Abdul-Rahman al-Nasser owns a gold store with case after case of glittering necklaces, earrings and bracelets. All it lacks is customers.

Shoppers are buying just one set of gold for weddings these days, instead of at least two for the bride and another for the future mother-in-law. The sets are now much lighter in weight. And few people are buying gold for other occasions.

As the price of gold has soared, people have felt its pinch across the Arab world, from Riyadh’s Thaiba gold market to ancient and modern gold souks. Gold in this region is not a luxury but a part of the culture, so its rise in price has triggered changes in tradition that could not have been imagined before.

Some Arabs are switching to silver, long disdained as a cheap alternative. Brides are renting - instead of buying - gold jewelry for the wedding ceremony. Mobile phones and perfume have replaced gold as favored gifts. And some gold shop owners, many of whom have seen sales go down by more than 50 percent, are seriously thinking of changing jobs.

“My neighbor who sells falafel makes more money than I make now,” complained jeweler Amer Khoury, 49, in Damascus, Syria.

Gold prices have surged since late last year partly because of demand from investors spooked by the weak U.S. dollar, fears of a recession and record crude-oil prices. Gold set a record of $1,038.60 an ounce on March 17, although it has fallen slightly since. Several analysts have predicted $2,000 gold ahead, as a global commodities boom pushes the price of raw materials further into record territory.

The price of gold is changing customs for some not just in the Arab world but also in Asian countries such as India, the world’s largest gold consumer.

At the Zhaveri Bazar, the gold hub of the Indian city of Bombay, jeweler Dayaram Kanti said women prefer to exchange their old gold sets for newer jewelry and pay the price difference rather than buy new gold jewelry.

“Earlier our gold gift sales for Valentine’s and Christmas or Hindu festivals was good. You would get a decent set of earrings for 1,000 rupees [$23],” Mr. Kanti said. “Now it will be so tiny it’s better to give cash as the gift.”

Gold in India is so deeply tied into the culture that sometimes people make provisions in wills to give gold to unborn grandchildren. Similarly, in the Arab world, babies are showered with gold from the moment they are born. Tiny crosses or verses from the Koran are pinned to their clothes, and gold ornaments are given for birthdays, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day.

However, the rising price of gold has coincided with high inflation in Arab countries and, in some cases, crashes in the stock market.

“Our sales are seriously down, up to 70 percent down compared to two or three years ago,” said Sami Haddad, 48, a gold shop owner in the oil-rich emirate of Kuwait. “More than 25 percent [of clients] leave the shop without buying anything and tell me they will … wait till prices go down.”

Demand for gold jewelry in the Middle East fell 19 percent in the first quarter of 2008, compared with the same period last year, according to the World Gold Council. The council said the drop was mainly due to high gold prices, although a minor reason was that the Eid al Adha festival fell at the beginning of 2007 by the Islamic calendar.

Those who buy get less for their money. Last year, Lina al-Masri spent $200 to buy one daughter an 11-gram gold bracelet. This time, the 59-year-old Syrian housewife paid $173 for a 6-gram pair of earrings for another daughter.

The toll of gold prices is perhaps highest at weddings. A bride’s shabka - jewelry financed with part of the dowry from the groom - has always been a must. These days, however, not every man can afford it.

Rami Maath, a 31-year-old Syrian executive, said high gold prices are “driving him crazy.” His wedding is in two months, and he has bought his fiancee only an engagement ring for $152.

Mr. Maath, who makes $750 a month, has put aside another $550 for the shabka. But that won’t get him a proper set - a necklace with matching earrings and a bracelet.

“It’s just my bad luck that gold prices have gone up before my wedding,” said Farah Maasarani, 25, Mr. Maath’s fiancee.

Jordanian government worker Soha Shahin, 24, earns $250 a month, and her fiance is a court clerk who earns much the same. She said they will skip buying her shabka until gold prices go down. Instead, she plans to buy a small gold piece, like a wedding ring.

If gold prices stay high, she may rent jewelry for her June 19 wedding party. If the shops won’t rent out gold, she will borrow from her mother and other relatives.

“I just can’t go to the wedding party not wearing gold,” said Midd Shahin.

At a silver jewelry store on Beirut’s Hamra Street, prominent signs in the window say “Silver,” next to imitations of elaborate gold sets. Store workers don’t want customers to think the jewelry is white gold.

“We don’t want to scare them away,” said saleswoman Iman Masri.

Mrs. Masri said business has gone up about 60 percent since gold prices began to climb. A silver wedding set at the store costs less than $1,000, a fraction of what a bride would pay for a gold set.

But silver is still a no-no in much of the Arab world. Ali Sergany, owner of the Sergany jewelry chain in Egypt, said Egyptian customers refuse to buy either silver or gold of anything less than 18 carats.

“No bride would accept to have her shabka in silver,” he said. “No way.”

In the northern Jordanian city of Salt, officials may have come up with a solution to the problem of gold shabkas, which used to run up to several thousand dinars. They have put out a written document called “The Salt Declaration.”

What it declares: The maximum price for a shabka is 2,000 Jordanian dinars [$2,800].

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