On Tuesday H and I had lunch at the new Tabkha (well, new since mid-summer) in Hamra. It was a socially symmetrical lunch: as we sat down, we each realized that we knew someone else dining there.
H’s restaurant acquaintance was Raed Rafei, a local journalist who works with the LA Times. I don’t know him, but he has kindly commented on this blog before, and he writes for “Babylon and Beyond”, the blog published by the LA Times‘ Middle East-based journalists.
Raed wrote a post for B&B early Tuesday, commenting on a Gulf News story about the most expensive license plate in the world. I had read his post during a morning news scan, and was delighted to meet him in person.
License plate auctioning has become a major fundraiser for charities in the Emirates, as this Gulf News article published in advance of last week’s auction suggested:
Dubai: License plate No. 1 is expected to set a new Guinness World Record for the most expensive car plate in the world when it goes under the hammer at the much-anticipated auction on Saturday at 4pm at Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi.
“Expectations for Plate No. 1 are high”, said Abdullah Matar Al Mannaei, Managing Director of Emirates Auction, the official auctioneer for Code 5 distinguished number plate auctions.
“We are confident that we will set a new record,” Al Mannaei said, adding that Emirates Auction has registered with Guinness World Records and will supply them the required material to issue the certificate if the record is broken.
The record-breaking event is creating an international media storm – CNN’s coverage was the top downloaded video from their website the weekend of February 1, 2008.
“We wish Emirates Auction all the best with the Number 1,” said Damian Lawson, Auctions Marketing Manager for the UK’s Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA), the government agency which sells personalised plates in Britain.
Emirates Auction already holds the records for the top six most expensive plates worldwide.
Plate No. 1 is only the third one-digit number plate to go on sale so far, and by far the most prestigious.
Plates No. 5 and 7 sold for Dh25.2 million and Dh11 million respectively in 2007 – almost 10 ten times the value of the luxury cars they now adorn.
Both were snapped up by Abu Dhabi businessman Talal Ali Mohammad Khouri, who has signalled his participation in the upcoming auction to media outlets.
“In a short period of time, Emirates Auction has grown to be a leader in the Gulf region’s auction industry”, said Tommy Williams, President of the U.S.-based National Auctioneers Association (NAA), one of the largest trade associations for auctioneers.
“The quality and professionalism of their work can be witnessed by the remarkable returns of their auctions,” Williams added.
The last five auctions raised $56 million from 393 plates, which went towards the support of special needs projects and victims of road accidents.
All proceeds from Saturday’s auction will go towards building a national rehabilitation centre for traffic accident victims – the first of its kind in the UAE.
It will be run along the lines of the most advanced rehabilitation centers in the world and will provide physiotherapy, and other medical, psychological, social, occupational and recreational support.
Along with Plate No. 1, a total of 90 distinguished license plates will be on offer at the Saturday auction, including special numbers such as 96, 100, 212, 1111, 2001 and 31313.
The word “distinguished” is used much more frequently in Arabic than in English. Countries are always described by state news agencies as having “distinguished relations” with one another, as opposed to the less elevated “diplomatic relations” that countries have in the American and European press.
For license plates, I think the term more often used in Lebanon is the same one used for mobile numbers: pretty. Having a “pretty” number is a sign of wealth – or at least of connections with those in power.
Why? Because license plate issuing works differently in the Arab World than it does in the US. In Lebanon, you can register with the state and receive an ordinary, six or seven digit plate – which costs next to nothing. Or you can use your connections and your money to buy a much more expensive one, two, three or four digit plate – and preferably a pretty one.
What makes a license plate pretty? Its not the paint job – in Lebanon, the plate is white, with black numbers and a blue vertically oriented rectangle at the left-hand side. But the white color varies from white to cream, and the blue can be anything from royal to teal, depending on what private company has created the plate.
What’s special about the lower-number plates is that they appear more distinctive with their fewer digits. And what’s “pretty” about them is either the way the numbers look, or the patterns they form. A symmetrical plate, like 212, is pretty. So is a serial plate, like 7878, which in Arabic looks like a V followed by an inverted V, repeated.
And when you see a pretty number, you know it wasn’t issued for a nominal fee – it was purchased, for a sizable amount, or it was given to someone as a favor.
I first learned about “pretty” plates (and mobile numbers) on a weekend trip to Lebanon in 2002.
Its ridiculous, this focus on “nice” numbers, my hostess told me. Its a number – as long as it functions, who cares how it looks? But she is an academic – she can afford to have an off-beat point of view. Her son was more practical.
Listen Diamond, he told me, you have to understand. A pretty number says that a guy has real money. For a woman in this country, she needs to know that the guy she might marry is financially secure. He might drive a sports car, but it might be rented.
But if she sees that he has a nice nimra [license plate number], he continued, she knows that he is for real.
My friend’s perspective helped me see the expensive license plate phenomenon in a new light: that spending $100,000 on a three-digit license plate was a means of communicating solid wealth.
But $14.5 million for a license plate … my goodness!