x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The start of a bumpy love affair

Ever since his father bought a rugged old Land Rover, Arif Al Yedaiwi from Dubai has had a passion for the classic all-terrain vehicles. He has now built up a collection – and even tracked down his dad’s first one rusting away in the Omani desert, and restored it. Mitya Underwood reports

For some, there simply is no other vehicle. Ahmad Mohammed Ghanem, driving a Series One Land Rover, above, is just one of several Land Rover enthusiasts in the UAE. Another is Arif Al Yedaiwi, whose fond memories of his dad’s Land Rover inspired a life-long passion. Antonie Robertson / The National
For some, there simply is no other vehicle. Ahmad Mohammed Ghanem, driving a Series One Land Rover, above, is just one of several Land Rover enthusiasts in the UAE. Another is Arif Al Yedaiwi, whose fond memories of his dad’s Land Rover inspired a life-long passion. Antonie Robertson / The National

Father-of-seven Arif Al Yedaiwi has fond memories of his father's hardy Land Rover.

Growing up in Umm Suqueim, in Jumeirah, it was the only vehicle the family could buy sturdy enough to handle the bumpy sandy tracks that stretched from their home down to the beach, where his father Essa Al Yedaiwi worked.

"My father was a fisherman and the Land Rover was the only car at the time," he recalls. "We used to go and collect the fishing nets from the shore, and we would collect wooden logs that had washed up and take them to the farm to repair fences for the sheep.

"There were no roads then, just tracks. My younger brother and I used to sit in the back of the pick-up. We also used it to go into the desert. We would collect the wild grass that grows there and put it in the back of the Land Rover. We would cover it with clothes and sleep on top of it. It was very fond memories for me."

Mr Yedaiwi's father sold the much-loved car when his son was 16, by which time the love affair with the iconic car was already in full swing.

Over the years the businessman, who works in IT, has collected various models of the British-made car.

Three years ago, then aged 37, he decided there was still one vehicle missing from his fleet - his father's beige Land Rover Series One which had been sold almost 25 years ago.

"I asked my brother who bought the car from our father then I tracked it down from guy to guy. I found it in Oman, it was wrecked and kept out in the open, " he says.

"I was prepared to pay anything, of course, it is priceless. He sold it to me, and now I have it back. I am not sure what my father would say."

Mr Al Yedaiwi has spent the past few years making repairs and replacing parts to make it roadworthy again, but admits there is one important element missing.

"I drive it in the winter, but it doesn't have air conditioning," he says, laughing. "My children love it too. I want to pass on my love for the cars and the memories to my children."

As well as the priceless first car, the collector also has a 1951 Series One, a 1974 Series III station wagon, a classic 1982 two-door Range Rover 3.5 V8 and a Defender 90 V8.

His favourite, of course, remains the family vehicle-cum-desert camping truck.

"My children love the cars too. I would hope that they feel the same way as I do about my father's car, which is priceless to me, it has big sentimental value," he says.

While nowadays the Range Rover and Land Rover - which are both part of the Jaguar Land Rover group, a subsidiary of India's Tata Motors -may be associated with nothing more challenging than a trip down Sheikh Zayed Road between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they were not always symbols of speed and wealth.

It is believed the first Land Rover vehicle was imported to the Middle East 65 years ago this year, in 1948, by Al Zayani dealership in Bahrain.

It was also used at RAF Sharjah - which opened in 1932 and was the first international airport in the UAE and GCC - as the main support car. Many of the vehicles eventually ended up in the hands of private owners and were specially set up for falconry or desert hunting.

One of the UAE's most famous owners was the founding President ,Sheikh Zayed, who owned several during his lifetime.

The early versions were also the main vehicle used by the Trucial Oman Scouts, the military unit started by the British in Sharjah in 1951 and staffed by a mixture of British Army officers and Arab soldiers of different nations.

The vehicles were perfect for negotiating the tough desert and mountain terrain and feature in hundreds of archived photographs documenting the history of the Scouts.

For Ahmad Mohammed Ghanem, 40, his love of the old Land Rovers has turned from a hobby into more of an obsession - and a very lucrative one.

Since buying a dark green 1952 Land Rover Series One in 2006, which he shipped in from Germany and decorated with a "1952" number plate, the number of cars he owns has reached triple figures.

"I thought one car was enough, but then it was 'this is green, we need blue, and a beige one'. Then when you have a lot of cars, you need spare parts, so I started buying them, " mR Ghanem says.

"Even though it's a business, it is a hobby first. If I sell [the parts], I sell, if I don't, I don't, but I will still collect."

The cars, most of which are dark green or beige, from their days in the military, are kept on a large plot with a huge indoor warehouse near his family villa in Falaj Al Mualla, Umm Al Quwain. Along with a mechanic who stays on site, Mr Ghanem takes time to restore the cars to their former glory, scouring the world for the original parts.

To an untrained eye many of the cars look more suitable for the scrap heap than a tarmac road but for fans such as Mr Ghanem, the vehicles command respect and care, even if it takes years and a large amount of money to bring them back to life.

He also uses some of the vehicles to provide tourists with "a real 1950s experience" through his company, Classic Safaris. In keeping with the theme of the decade, guests also get to see some of his staff dressed up in full Trucial Oman Scout uniform - a collection he started because of his love of the Land Rover but also the history of his country.

"In the UAE in the 1950s and 60s there was only the Land Rover," he smiles. "There was nothing else, no roads either. Each house that had a car had a Land Rover parked in the front. There were no Toyotas or Suzukis like today.

"They were used by the Trucial Oman Scouts because of the British. They were very tough cars and did everything they needed to for the men."

Mr Ghanem worked as a procurement supervisor at Abu Dhabi National Oil Company before dedicating himself to his safari and spare-parts businesses in 2006. Now all his time is spent travelling to hunt out parts for the old vehicles and buying old Land Rovers. A lot of the spare parts are sold in countries that once had a British military presence.

"I'm not interested in new cars," he says with conviction, "they are different. They are not built the same anymore. I can drive a Land Rover Series One to Abu Dhabi easily, but through the desert, not the road. It's more enjoyable."

He relies on his spare-parts business and safari tours to provide for himself and his family, which includes three young children.

A large portion of what he makes is reinvested in his Land Rover collection, which he says attracts fellow fanatics from as far away as Canada and the UK.

"They are a different car to drive, he says. "There is no other car that comes close."