DUBAI // A few months ago, any one of them probably would have turned heads. Today, few people give them a second glance except, perhaps, to read the latest graffiti scrawled in the thick dust that has obliterated their lustre.
They are the abandoned cars of Dubai, among them Porsches, Mercedes and BMWs. Each was once someone's dream, but now they are unloved, unwanted and making a poor job of fending for themselves on the streets of the city. Take the BMW Z3 wasting away on a side street in Dubai Marina. There is little sadder than the sight of a once proud sports car slumped in the gutter, its top down, tyres all but flat and its gleaming black paint job lost beneath an ever-thickening layer of dust.
But in many parts of the city, such a spectacle is a common sight, and just another reminder that we are living through hard times. "I just think this fellow got hit by the recession, did a runner and left the car behind," says Tom Otton, 27, a Briton who works in marketing and walks past the neglected vehicle each day. There is something about dust-covered cars that brings out the graffiti artist in some people. "Police please wash me," says the message on one of the car's filthy windows.
"This one's been here for a few months," Mr Otton says. "I saw the police taking a look at it a few months go, but nothing since. It's a bit of a mess, really. They've got to get rid of these things." "These things" can be found throughout the city, scores of abandoned vehicles some only for the summer, perhaps, but others clearly forever and among them a surprisingly high number of expensive models.
Just down the road from the bereft BMW is a once-golden Volkswagen Bora, slumped in dust-blown contrast to the smart entrance of the Dubai Marina Yacht Club. The scrawlers have done their best to lower the tone even further, drawing lewd images in the dust. Nearby, an Audi A6 stands in a similar condition. In addition to the mildly offensive drawings, one dust-dauber has anointed the now distinctly unattractive Audi "Sexiest car of the year".
"It looks really ugly, it just looks really bad, you know," says Mohammed el Newishy, the administration manager at the yacht club. He is frustrated by the situation. "It's a problem for the image, because you come to the yacht club and you see these dusty cars in front," he says. The club has called the police to have cars removed, but is still waiting for several to be towed away. "Basically," he says, "if a car is in front of the club for more than a couple of days, we report it to the police."
Like stray dogs, some cars do find their way to police pounds. In one police lot partially hidden behind trees and billboards opposite the Mall of the Emirates, several thousand corralled cars can be glimpsed, waiting in ranks. Abandoned cars can be found almost anywhere. A tour of car parks in Dubai Marina, Downtown Burj Dubai, Tecom, The Greens and the free parking areas behind DIFC turns up more than 60 neglected and apparently abandoned vehicles.
A check on some of the number plates on the Roads and Transport Authority website reveals that many cars have been abandoned after their owners racked up thousands of dirhams in traffic fines; 19 of the 63 vehicles account for 144 fines, to a total of Dh20,879 (US$5,685). The worst offender is a white Mercedes E320 that has been parked for months near The Residences, Downtown Burj Dubai. In addition to collecting a lot of dust, since 2005 it has accumulated 79 fines totalling Dh11,390.
The remains of a notice from the Dubai Municipality Waste Management Department still cling tenaciously to the windshield. Although most of the writing has been worn away by the elements, this statement survives: "Under the authority of local order No 11 of 2003 you are hereby requested to remove the vehicle/machine as it is disfiguring the public view and beauty of the city. Kindly ensure that necessary action is taken within ( ) from the date of the notice."
A few spaces away in the same car park stands another white Mercedes, a C200 Kompressor, in a similarly derelict state. Its owner has three oustanding fines from last year, totalling Dh430. The ever-present, if not particularly inspired, artists have struck: "Please wash me don't have money" adorns the dusty back window. Dubai Police declined to comment, but it seems probable that many of the cars were left by people who walked away after losing their jobs, unable to pay off outstanding loans or find a buyer. Used-car dealers say a wave of unwanted vehicles has flooded the market since the financial crisis struck last year, causing prices to plummet.
One issue facing the police is how to decide whether a vehicle has been abandoned, as opposed to having been simply left for some time in one place. Dubai CID is believed to have a unit dedicated to tracking down cars after being alerted by banks. Nevertheless, Chris Caley, 28, a Briton who lives in Tecom, wonders why one particular silver BMW M3 has gone for half a year without being towed away.
"It's just been left there," he says. Over the months, bits of the car, such as the petrol tank cap, have disappeared. "As you can see, it's been raided for parts." His theory is that the authorities may have overlooked the car because it has foreign number plates. A couple of other cars were taken by the police not long ago, he says. "Maybe they're not taking this one because it's a Saudi plate."