Apparently, it was a slow night. "Just two?", said the 20-year-old sheikh as he removed a couple of small sheets of paper tucked under windscreen wipers of his Ferrari. He handed me over the two pieces of papers dismissively as he checked over his car for any scratches. "Sometimes people get jealous of such beauties and leave a mark," he explained as he carefully dabbed at an imaginary fleck of dust.
I strained my eyes in the poorly-lit car park in one of the Abu Dhabi malls to read the scribbles on the paper. One of the sheets was signed "Wardat al-Jazeera" (Flower of the Island), whom I naturally assume is a girl, and a mobile number. The other sheet had three names and one mobile phone number, and a sentence or two about the young sheikh's "nice ride". "I usually get at least four new mobile numbers each time I park at a mall," he beamed with a wink.
His friends, an Emirati and a Lebanese, who came to the mall in their own cars, were not so impressed. "I have a great car but no one leaves me their mobile numbers," sulked the 25-year-old Lebanese, who owns a beefed up and very sporty, white BMW. The 27-year-old Emirati, Ali, from Abu Dhabi, smiled and said: "It is not about the car, but the numbers on the licence plates; the fewer the digits, the more important the person, and the more he gets noticed." Ali owns a Pathfinder with a regular plate of five numbers.
"No one ever notices me," he laughed. Just a few weeks ago, a young businessman from Abu Dhabi bought the licence plate with the number "1" in an auction and broke all records by paying Dh52.2 million ($14.5 million) for it. It is safe to say that nowhere else in the world are there people bidding millions to win a chance to get "noticed" by parading licence plates with low digits. The numbers "5" and "7" have already been snapped up, sold for Dh25 million ($6.75 million) and Dh11 million ($2.97 million) respectively, and even "unlucky 13" went for Dh4.25 ($1.15 million) when it was auctioned off in March.
The young sheikh has a double-digit plate, and while it helps attract admiration, it also attracts unwanted attention. "You lose your anonymity," he explained. "The royal families and the authorities know who you are — and they can always find you." He craved a little anonymity from time to time, he said with a wry smile. "I would like to know if people, or rather girls, like me for me, or like me because of my title and my car."
Just for kicks, I asked if I could call this "Flower of the Island" person and see what happened. When I dialed the number, the voice of what sounded like a young girl answered: "Salam alaykum." I responded politely: "Wa alaykum al-Salam" and said: "You left your number on my car." Click. Drat. I actually wanted to talk to her and find out what drove her to leave her number on the sheikh's windscreen. Was it the expensive car, the fact that it obviously belonged to someone very well connected, or a combination of the two? Or was it simply a dare?
I tried to call her again to explain myself, but she had switched off her phone. She probably felt embarrassed. "Did she sound cute?" asked the sheikh, adding: "You better have not lost me my future wife here." As we all prepared to leave the mall and drive off in our separate cars, two helmet-wearing bikers came to a sudden stop right next to the Ferrari. They paused, looked over, nodded in approval and zoomed off.
"What was all that about?" I asked. "A whole other story," said the sheikh with a broad smile. firstname.lastname@example.org