Diplomatic drives: three ambassadors to the UAE talk about their cars
In 2012, then-Canadian ambassador to China, David Mulroney, posted online photographs of his official car – a modest silver Toyota Camry hybrid. Mulroney probably hadn’t been expecting his posting to cause such a stir in the local society. The Chinese public were shocked to see a diplomat with such a low-status wagon. On the streets of Beijing, government officials would be seen in black Audi A6s – the classic Chinese bureaucrat car – or BMWs and Mercedes SUVs, but certainly not in a Camry.
Mulroney explained to the thousands who commented on his post, on the popular Twitter-style microblogging site Weibo, that cabinet ministers in Canada have a budget of just 32,400 Canadian dollars (Dh92,455) for their official cars, and only minister or deputy minister-level officials have government-subsidised vehicles.
Although this happened four years ago, the story is cited by a representative of the Canadian Embassy in the UAE as one reason why the latest ambassador, Arif Lalani, was reluctant to reveal to The National which type of car he uses, before moving on earlier this summer. “Such a question can cause some cultural misunderstandings,” he explains.
Most ambassadors in the UAE have an official car for their ambassadorial duties, which are chauffeur-driven, freeing up the ambassador’s time for emails and phone calls en route.
They also have a personal car, which is usually bought from their predecessor when they first move to the country.
It tends more often than not to have been produced in their home country (or by a brand synonymous with their country) as a way for the ambassadors to demonstrate their support for their country’s economy. Here, three ambassadors in the UAE tell us about their vehicles.
Blending high-class luxury with vintage pleasures
British ambassador Philip Parham has been in his post since 2014.
“Most of the time during the week, when I’m going between Dubai and Abu Dhabi for meetings, I’m very lucky to be driven about in a Jaguar,” he says. “It is, of course, very nice.”
Jaguar has been manufacturing its cars in England since 1922. Although now owned by Indian company Tata Motors, the brand is as quintessentially British as fish and chips.
It also makes cars for the British prime minister, the most recent of which being an armoured Jaguar XJ, custom-built in May 2010, which boasts more security features than a James Bond contraption, including a 13-milimetre explosive-resistant steel plate underneath the body, bulletproof glass and even a self-contained oxygen supply.
Outside working hours, Parham leaves his Jaguar in the garage and drives around the UAE in a very different kind of vehicle.
“When it’s either me or my wife, Kasia, driving – and I have to say, normally she does all the driving – we have a 17-year-old jeep. We bought it from my predecessor, and he bought it from somebody else when he came [to the UAE].”
If the ambassador turns up to any social engagements on a weekend looking rather sweaty, it could be because the jeep doesn’t have the luxury of air conditioning. But the family continues to use the car throughout summer, he tells us.
“I’ve only ever seen two other people in Abu Dhabi driving an old car without any top on it, as we do,” Parham says. “It has a frame over the top, but we don’t have it enclosed. During the summer, we have the roof on the top, so we don’t have the sun shining directly down on us, but we don’t have anything on the sides or the back. We just rely on the breeze that’s created by driving. In the winter, we take the top off because the sun is not so strong.”
Parham admits that the car is worth very little money, but it does offer some historical insights. “I suppose [by using this car] we can relate to people who lived here many years ago, when Abu Dhabi was first being developed.”
Supporting the South Korean national car
Kwon Hae-ryong, who was South Korean ambassador until April, had a Hyundai Centennial for work-related trips and a Hyundai i30 for personal driving.
“The Korean automobile brand Hyundai offers the best value for money,” he says. “I have been choosing Hyundai cars for decades as their quality makes them a luxury brand of cars, yet they are still affordable.”
Kwon also drives a Hyundai when he’s back in Korea. “I usually drive a sedan in Korea, because it has greater fuel efficiency,” he says.
The former ambassador’s choice of a Hyundai is perhaps not surprising given that Koreans are known for being staunchly patriotic when it comes to their brands. More than seven out of 10 vehicles sold in Korea are made by Hyundai, which also owns Kia.
Kwon’s Centennial, which is now used by current ambassador Park Kang-ho, boasts a number of safety features that he finds interesting.
“It has an autonomous emergency brake, which stops the car when anything is sensed in front, as well as an alarm that warns me when the car is out of its lane.”
In the future, Korean ambassadors may not have to rely on the services of a driver to get them from A to B. In March, it was announced that Hyundai had received a licence from the Korean transport ministry to test autonomous cars on local roads.
Borrowing Scandinavian quality and practicality
When Finnish ambassador Riitta Swan started her posting in Abu Dhabi in September last year, she inherited a white Volvo XC60 from her predecessor. Finland’s official ambassador’s car, in which Swan is driven for work, is a black Audi.
“My Volvo is four years old, but it was almost like new when I bought it because my predecessor had only driven 5,000 kilometres in it,” she says.
The XC60 has been Volvo’s bestselling car since 2009.
“I like my Volvo because it’s not too big. I’ve had bigger cars and I have found them very difficult in big cities because there might be small streets, and it’s tricky to park a big car. So the size suits me. I like it also because it is Swedish and I rely on the Scandinavian quality. Volvos are very safe; they have good test results. We have had many Volvos in my family.”
Swan shares her car with her husband and her 21-year-old son, and hopes the Volvo’s spacious trunk will come in handy when she brings over her golden Labrador, Laku, from Finland.
“It’s a good car to transport a dog in,” she says of the car, which has a 495-litre boot.
Swan’s previous posting was to Budapest, Hungary, which she says she found a much more complicated place to drive in than Abu Dhabi.
“When I first arrived here, people told me not to drive because it is very dangerous and difficult. But I have been driving in all my posts, so I decided to do it anyway. People drive quite fast here and I have to be careful, because drivers here are quite spontaneous. You never know who is coming in front of you, so you have to be alert. But otherwise, the roads are excellent, there are enough parking places and the only problem is trying to find where you’re going.”