x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Gulf 'blingmobiles' hit the streets of London

Arabs flock to Britain in July to socialise, shop and cruise the streets in their Gulf-registered supercars, but also bringing with them the camaraderie of the region.

Abdullah Al Otaiba steps out of his UAE-registered Rolls-Royce Phantom in London's affluent Knightsbridge area. Stephen Lock for The National
Abdullah Al Otaiba steps out of his UAE-registered Rolls-Royce Phantom in London's affluent Knightsbridge area. Stephen Lock for The National

At the Sheraton Park Tower hotel in London, no one bats an eyelid at the black and red Maybach, the silver and white Bugatti Veyron and the white Rolls-Royce Phantom parked on the forecourt.

Collectively their Dh14 million worth would not only buy an apartment in this exclusive enclave of Knightsbridge, one of the English capital's most well-heeled districts, but leave enough change for several thousand Ikea sofas.

One hesitates to call them cars - blingmobiles is a moniker that has been thrown about of late - but these three motors with their Saudi and Qatari number plates, all belonging to the same family, rather leave a grey Abu Dhabi-registered Aston Martin in the shade.

Then again, this is "the season", the time of year when Gulf Arabs flock to Europe for a few weeks, before returning home for Ramadan. Packed kerb to kerb with supercars, the streets around Harrods, London's most famous department store, Knightsbridge and neighbouring Mayfair are to motoring buffs what the city's Clapham Junction station is to trainspotters.

At the Lanesborough Hotel near Park Lane, two Abu Dhabi-registered red Ferraris and a black Rolls-Royce convertible have just departed.

Meanwhile, in the hotel's underground car park, where closed circuit television cameras and iron gates keep out intruders, Victor the valet is putting the final touches to a polish of a black Maybach from Kuwait.

Back on the streets, Abdullah Al Otaiba, 21, a business management student from Abu Dhabi, seems oblivious to the effect his Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupé has on passers-by, but loves the car so much, he has flown it to London for the second year running.

"Usually I change my car every year, but I love driving it in Abu Dhabi, so decided to bring it over again," he says.

He has spent every summer in the UK since he was a child and this year is no exception. His six weeks in the British capital are filled with shopping and cruising the streets around Knightsbridge, where many fellow Emiratis have come to see and be seen.

"I enjoy the weather and taking walks in the park. It's a great place to shop," he adds.

Then there are the new affluents, the Indian and Pakistani expatriates to the UAE who have made their fortune and are eager to emulate Arab society.

Muhammad Awais, 28, is in London for the sole purpose of looking after the two cars his Pakistani boss, the head of a property empire, has transferred to the city.

His prized Rolls-Royce Phantom was flown over earlier, but he had to wait 21 days to get his hands on his Rolls-Royce Ghost again. No matter; he has another 18 cars on the forecourt of his home in Pakistan, including Lamborghinis and Ferraris.

"We are here for four months and you just cannot buy a Rolls-Royce in London," he says. "I don't own any myself, but I get to drive them and look after them. You can keep them in the UK for up to six months.

"It is not a case of showing off; it is a hobby. We do worry about the cars getting damaged. My boss has already hit a post and the bumper came off; I did the same thing last year. We constantly get stopped by the police but we have insurance and pay our parking fines."

Camera-snapping tourists might love the spectacle of supercars but they have been giving officials in the English capital something of a headache.

Last year, the new owners of Harrods had a rude introduction to Britain's strict parking laws. The sleek blue Koenigsegg CCXR and Lamborghini Murcielago LP670-4 SuperVeloce belonging to the Qatari royal family were clamped by a traffic warden when parked illegally outside their new store.

Westminster City Council has also said foreign drivers owed about Dh24m in unpaid parking fines, but admitted it was powerless to enforce them, as the cars were not registered in the UK.

Nevertheless, officials came up with an ingenious way to track down one well-connected Saudi offender - when his car was featured in a London newspaper with the Sheraton Park Tower in the background, they sent his Dh72,000 parking bill to the hotel.

The hotel forwarded it to the Saudi Embassy, which promptly paid it.

"They come here for a month before Ramadan, go back for the fasting month, then return for the last few weeks of summer," confides one hotel worker.

"They fly the cars over for convenience; when they stick them on a plane, they get to practically drive them straight off the runway."

The Mercedes and Ferraris clustering outside the Berkeley Hotel nearby transform the area. "At night, it all comes to life," says a doorman.

"By 9pm, the owners tend to drive around with the windows wound down ... they like to be noticed."

Hamza Alnaem, 29, the Syrian chef at the popular Iranian restaurant Masgouf House, says the atmosphere during the summer months gives him a taste of his native region.

"Residents from all over the Gulf countries love coming here. They feel London is home and most have heard of our restaurant in their home country," he says.

"If you stand on the street outside, hear the music pumping and smell the food from our kitchen, you feel like you are in Abu Dhabi. It is a totally Arab neighbourhood without an English face in sight."

But as in most Arab countries, the fun does not start until late. At midday, the streets are relatively deserted.

By 4pm, however, the coffee shops and streets are packed with groups of sunglasses-clad, slick-haired youth. Even torrential downpours are not enough to keep them away from the promenade where fellow Gulf holidaymakers gather.

Rashid, 19, has taken refuge from the rain in Noura coffee shop - where the staff all speak Arabic - with his student friends Buti and Ahmed, 21 and 24, Khalid, 23 and Ahmed, 31.

They are staying for the summer in Ascot and are driven into town every day to wile away the hours in Knightsbridge.

"All my friends are here," says Rashid. "We come here every summer."

Outside, a Saudi student looks morose as he huddles under a shelter to escape getting drenched while waiting for a bus.

"Not all of us can afford Ferraris," he says through chattering teeth.