x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Fortunes entwined: milestones for the UAE and Mercedes

There were no roads here in 1962, but Abdul Jalil Al Fahim brought Mercedes to Abu Dhabi anyway. Neil Vorano finds how his vision for the UAE paid off.

Sheikh Zayed in one of his many Mercedes in 1979, which was fitted with bigger tyres for desert travel.
Sheikh Zayed in one of his many Mercedes in 1979, which was fitted with bigger tyres for desert travel.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of Mercedes-Benz. It's a significant milestone, considering this is the company that invented the automobile. Perhaps there would have been others who could have made the first car, but were it not for the German brand, the face of personal transportation could have been completely different from what we know of it today. And you might not be reading these pages of Motoring then, would you?

Since that first automobile - Carl Benz's three-wheeled Patent Motorwagen - Mercedes has enjoyed a long and successful history, becoming one of the largest car manufacturers in the world.

Coincidentally, our little country here is celebrating a major milestone of its own. The UAE turned 40 years old yesterday; not as large an anniversary as Mercedes', but it's just as successful in its own right, considering the rapid growth and development the UAE has seen in such a short time and the presence on the world stage the country now commands. And though an astounding 85 years separates the beginning of both entities, it's worthy to note just how intertwined the UAE and Mercedes are. The car brand has become ubiquitous on the roads of the Emirates, but it began to show up here before the roads were even built - before the Union itself.

In the 1950s and '60s, Abdul Jalil Al Fahim was a local trader and businessman in Abu Dhabi, just getting his businesses going. At that time, the city was little more than huts and sand; there was none of the paved roads or infrastructure that we enjoy today. It was no place for a luxury car and, yet, Al Fahim became the first importer of Mercedes in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain in 1962. At first blush, it seems an almost incomprehensibly bad business decision.

Jump ahead almost five full decades to the present. I'm sitting in the cool breeze outside of the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr hotel in Abu Dhabi in late November, across from Al Fahim's son, Saeed Abdul Jalil Al Fahim. Saeed is now the executive chairman of the Al Fahim Group, a vast UAE business empire started by his father that, among other businesses, now includes the hotel we are at today, as well as the Emirates Motor Company that is the official dealership for Mercedes in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. Over tea and under the hazy sun, he talks about why his father took that seemingly strange step with Mercedes-Benz in the early days.

“The choice was based on needs,” he recounts. “Abu Dhabi, at that time, had nothing – no roads, nothing. There was no sense in bringing cars here at that time. But the issue is that my father was a good friend of Sheikh Zayed, and they shared a vision for Abu Dhabi. They envisioned that Abu Dhabi will develop, will change. And Sheikh Zayed emphasised on my father, who was a trader, ‘why don’t you start something?’ And, he didn’t know what to start. But with the consultancy of a banker friend of his, he went into the spare parts business, because of the oil companies that were here, from Europe, they needed service and parts. And it worked for him for a while.

“Then a gentleman from Mercedes was travelling around the Gulf, and he was looking for representatives. He met my father, and my father didn’t know what a Mercedes was then. I mean, there was no luxury service here for a Mercedes, and no roads here. But my father said, ‘why not?’ So he signed up for him and prepared for the future.” That was in 1962, and Al Fahim ordered two cars. But with a lack of roads to drive them on, sales didn’t exactly take off initially. “They had to modify the fenders and they put larger wheels to drive these cars on the sand,” says Saeed.

It would be another six years before Al Fahim would open a showroom in the city, at the bottom of the Corniche Residences in 1968. It was a modest venue, reflecting the modest sales of the brand in an area where Land Rovers and Bedford military vehicles were much more prevalent. But with the discovery of oil and the influx of foreign companies and expats, the 1970s brought huge changes for both the UAE and, consequentially, Al Fahim’s business.

“At that time, the need for those cars here was limited,” says Saeed. “But the real sales began to rise with the construction of roads in the UAE in general. It was a boom. In 1974, ’75, it really started to pick up. Also, in 1971, we opened our first service centre [at the site of the current showroom on Airport Road]. In the old days, we didn’t have a service centre, and they were serviced by a local mechanic, who I think he learnt at home how to fix a car. And even then, he knew how to fix a Land Rover or a Bedford, but not a Mercedes. So that was an attraction for our customers.”

Perhaps one of the reasons for Mercedes’ growth in the region was due to one of its biggest fans, a man who was known to be seen around the towns and dunes in one of his many Mercedes cars. “In 1968,” says Saeed, “Sheikh Zayed bought the largest order of Mercedes in the history of the Pullman [the limousine version]. I think 12 or 14 for him; those cars were special. And we still had no roads.

“At that time, Abu Dhabi was just starting, and Sheikh Zayed bought them for courtesy cars to receive dignitaries and for himself to drive around in. But those cars were a car for a pope or a king, for special occasions. Mercedes was surprised, and they were wondering ‘where is this Abu Dhabi?’ for 12 cars in a year.”

No doubt Mercedes wouldn’t be surprised at such an order from the UAE today. Last year, as a measure of its success, EMC opened the largest Mercedes-Benz service centre and second largest showroom in the world, in Mussafah. And both EMC and Gargash Enterprises, the Mercedes distributor in Dubai, have combined to make last month the most profitable for the car company here in the Middle East since the financial doldrums of 2008. “We’ve faced some difficult days last year and the year before, but it is picking up a little bit,” says Saeed. “I think it will pick up more. People always need to move. If you need a car, you can’t do without it.

“Also, due to the fact that Mercedes now has a long line of products; I think 34 different types. So we have everything anyone would need, and you can decide on a small car or an expensive one.”

With the growth of his father’s company and that of his own country so closely tied, the 40th anniversary celebrations were going to be very special for Saeed and his family. “We grew up under this theme of unification of the UAE, we grew up with that. And our late father is part of this – he was part of the establishment that did this, with Sheikh Zayed. So it is a big thing for us. We are lucky to witness such an event after 40 years, and to see how our country has developed so fast and we are now one of the top countries in the world.

“When you say ‘the UAE’ in Europe or anywhere now, we are recognised. In 1966, I went to Egypt, and they asked ‘where are you from?’ and I said ‘Abu Dhabi’, and they said, ‘Where is that?’ Now, everybody knows where that is.”

Abdul Jalil Al Fahim died in 1994, but not before he grew his little parts trading and Mercedes dealership into a successful, multi-industry business that his sons have since expanded on. So what does the next 40 years hold for Mercedes in the UAE?

“I think we’ve managed to put the Mercedes brand in the UAE, and Abu Dhabi specifically, as part of the culture,” says Saeed as he finishes his tea. “Wherever you go in the country, everybody knows Mercedes; everybody knows that this is the ideal car for everybody, whether you are rich or poor or medium. But, at the end of the day, people want a Mercedes.”