ABU DHABI // Watching the two designers go to work transforming my beloved Jeep Cherokee with stickers and flags, to give it the full National Day treatment, gave me the jitters.
At Dh25,000 (US$6,800), it is the most valuable thing I own, my pride and joy. So I was nervous as the "sticker application technicians" scurried around it waving what, at first glance, seemed to be razor blades and blow torches. Large sticky-backed perforated transfers were planted all over the windows and bodywork, before the air bubbles were cleared and the stickers were trimmed and heat shrunk for a better fit.
In around three hours, the Cherokee's once conservative silver tones became a riot of colour, as half a dozen images of the country's leaders were attached and a giant flag was strapped to the roof for good measure. Today, National Day, cities across the country are drenched in colour, with flickering fairy lights draped from buildings and flags hanging from hundreds of lampposts and trees. In recent years, this national pride has spilled over on to cars, as thousands of eager motorists deck out their vehicles with elaborate images of sheikhs and national symbols such as flags and crests.
"We, as a people, love our cars and our leaders. This is the way we honour them," said Abdullah al Awlaqi, 25, as he stood next to his huge white Hummer H2. Standing more than 7ft tall, and with the bonnet at chest height, the Hummer is always an eye-catching spectacle. Now, dressed for National Day with more than 100 postcard-sized pictures of sheikhs and flags covering every inch of the bodywork, a 4ft-tall shrubbery on the roof and seven scarlet teddy bears to represent the seven emirates, the 4x4 is stopping traffic.
Next to such patriotic fervour, my Jeep looked relatively modest although this was the only place it looked modest. Mr al Awlaqi, the owner of the Terminator car body workshop near Salam Street, where my Cherokee was being transformed, admired his wheels while his colleague tried to put me at ease by telling me the apparent blow torches were only heat guns, used to shrink the stickers for a closer fit.
The razor blades, however, were real razor blades, used to cut the transfers to fit and to make sure that I could still open the doors and windows. For a few days around December 2, the police turn a blind eye to the law against changing the appearance of a vehicle as thousands of people drape their cars with patriotic paraphernalia. This level of adulation is not quite the norm in Britain, the country of my birth, so this year my boss suggested I have my car decorated to get a taste of life from the other side of the sticker-covered window.
I was not alone. All around me in the strip close to Salam Street, scores of vehicles big and small, expensive and cheap were jammed alongside one another as designers tied tassels and stuck stickers. Mr al Awlaqi's staff, usually numbering three but with two more added to cope with the rush, have worked until around 3am in the final days before today, just to keep up with demand. "We will have decorated around 600 cars for National Day," he said. "It is crazy. We are very busy. Everyone wants to have tributes on their cars."
Fahed al Mazrouei, from Abu Dhabi, spent Dh5,000 covering his white Lexus IS saloon with images of the faces of the seven ruling sheikhs and Sheikh Zayed, the founder of the nation, against a green backdrop. "I love my country and I love the leaders," said Mr al Mazrouei, 28, a safety and security officer for Adnoc. "I do this every year for National Day. It is my way of paying tribute to our leaders."
My tribute was a little more modest, costing just Dh700. Tonight, the capital's Corniche will be gridlocked as thousands of people parade through the streets in cars daubed in the black, green, red and white of the UAE flag, their horns blaring. Most spend only a few hundred dirhams to have parts of their cars decorated but others fork out several thousand on the tributes, which for some are more than simply an expression of national pride.
"I will take my car to Dubai," said Mr al Awlaqi, who spent Dh8,000 on the Hummer display. "There is a competition and a prize for the best decorated car. "First prize is Dh100,000 and second prize is Dh50,000. Last year I came second but this year, insh'Allah, I will come first." He certainly had nothing to fear from my car. I headed out to the Corniche feeling not a little conspicuous. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive, with some passers-by gawping and others stopping to take photographs as I cruised along the seafront.