An entrepreneurial Emirati turned his passion for old Land Rovers into a booming business, writes Mitya Underwood.
Looking the part
In a large dusty shed in the middle of the desert around Falaj Al Mualla, in Umm Al Quwain, is something of a motoring gold mine.
Thousands of metal and rubber Land Rover or Range Rover spare parts are scattered on the floor of the shed or in cardboard boxes that bulge at the sides. Most are covered with a very fine layer of desert sand.
Outside the shed, there are about a dozen wooden shipping crates that have been imported from countries including Malaysia and Germany.
To an outsider, it is an unremarkable and fairly disorganised sight. But to its owner, Ahmad Mohammed Ghanem, it is organised chaos that earns him a monthly salary higher than his previous job in oil and gas.
“Finding the parts is like a gold hunt,” he grins. “This business came by chance. I didn’t do any strategic planning or anything, I stumbled into it by adventure. Now I love it. Even if I had a job for a hundred million dollars, I would still do this. But now it is a business more than a hobby. This is how I provide for my family. It has to be profitable.
“There’s no competition. I think I am the only person in the world with this collection.”
Regarding the competition, there’s a very strong chance that Ghanem is right.
The items that he sells, which range from small dials for dashboards to original clicker indicators and steering wheels, would not be easy to come by for the regular customer. Over the past few years, Ghanem, 40, an Emirati, has worked hard to create a network of traders across the world who alert him of any spare parts for sale.
The majority of the pieces arrive via a middleman from militaries in countries that once had a British army presence, for which the Land Rover was the main vehicle.
In the UAE, for example, the Trucial Oman Scouts – which was started by the British in 1951 – used Land Rovers to navigate the country’s tough terrain, so the UAE army, as it is now, has a lot of leftover parts.
“Most of the parts come from places like Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and Qatar. This week, I will receive maybe 50,000 items from a trader in Qatar. Originally they were from the Qatar military.”
Ghanem’s interest in the spare parts business came after he bought his first Land Rover, a dark green 1952 Series I, in 2006.
When he discovered it needed a lot of repair, the hunt for parts began. Although generally sturdy cars, Land Rovers do not fare well if they are not driven for long periods of time. He now owns close to 150 vehicles and runs the Classic Safari company, which escorts people into the desert in 1950s cars.
“If you are doing a restoration of a classic Land Rover or Range Rover, and there is a tiny part missing, it will not be complete. You will pay any price, because the car is not finished until you have all the parts.
“This is how I was with my car, and now I am helping other people do the same.”
Despite the country’s love of cars, the UAE is not a great market for the spare parts, and the vast majority of Ghanem’s business comes from the US and UK.
He works with two men, one in each country, who sell the parts on his behalf on the online auction site eBay.
Depending on the size and value of the parts, Ghanem, who has two young daughters and a son, will ship or fly them to his colleagues abroad, who then send them on to the winning bidders.
“I know exactly what is available. If I don’t see something on eBay, I know it is not out there in the market; this is a good thing for me.
“In the beginning, I was struggling to find a seller to sell them in the States on behalf of me. I purchased a car from a man there and found out he had a workshop, too; we agreed to work together.
“The man in the UK? I liked the nickname on eBay.”
The parts sold by Ghanem are almost all “ONP” (which stands for “old new parts”) and this is what makes them so rare.
The Land Rover Series I dates back to 1948, and the Series II to 1958, so over the years most of the spare parts have left general circulation. The only ones remaining are those owned by military organisations.
For Ghanem, this makes his job all the more exciting. When armies sell off warehouses full of army surplus goods – which can include uniforms, water bottles, old electronics (no weaponry) and, crucially for Ghanem, Land Rover spare parts – an opportunity arises for the parts to re-enter the market.
Whenever he is told of a possible stash, Ghanem either flies to inspect the goods himself or relies on the traders that he trusts to give him an honest price for the parts.
“With the Land Rover, each part has value. It’s not like: ‘This is expensive and this is very cheap’.
“There is one part that is very rare that you can’t find in the UK market: the mirrors for the bonnet; they look like Mickey Mouse ears. Two years ago, I found 250 pieces, but I didn’t know what they were and I was thinking: ‘Do I take them or not?’
“I had no idea how much they were worth. I spoke to a man in the UK and he said he would pay me £10 [Dh60] for one. I said: ‘I’ll get back to you’, because I wasn’t sure if that was the right price. Then my contact said £100. I put a pair on eBay just to check, and they went for £700.
“It went from £300 to £700 at the last second. I know the value of most things and the parts I buy can be cheap, so it is worth it. When I went to Saudi Arabia, for example, I was checking the top of the boxes and I knew the value. I didn’t continue to check the rest.
“I thought one part would cover the cost of all the other parts.”
There are some spare parts that have not lasted the years, mainly the all-rubber pieces, such as seals for the windows.
To solve the problem, Ghanem gets replica parts made that he can then sell as new parts. A factory in Jebel Ali – which Ghanem says is the same factory that made some of the material for the Burj Khalifa – makes the rubber seals and borders, and an America-owned factory in Pakistan makes aluminium panels.
“Maybe there will be a day when there will be no more spare parts, and if there isn’t any, there isn’t any,” he says. “I can always make the reproduction parts. But I would like my children to take over this business; we will see what happens in the future.”
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