A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

Archive for the ‘license plates’ Category

the value of platinum: the results of the mobile auction

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on October 5, 2008

Yesterday morning I opened my inbox and found a very welcome email from Qifa Nabki, who had been following my posts on the auction of “platinum” mobile phone numbers that the Ministry of Telecommunications was advertising in the local papers. The auction – which had a $200 + tax entry fee – was held Friday evening, and Qifa knew that I would be interested in the results.

Qifa’s email included the link to a story in Saturday’s Al Akhbar, an opposition-friendly newspaper that had covered the auction. (For those of you less wrapped up in Lebanese politics than some of us: the Ministry’s new head, Gibran Bassil, is a member of one of the opposition parties. Before he became minister, the Telecomm Ministry did … nothing. Absolutely nothing. So the question is now: is the new minister able to push through so many changes because he is so much better than his predecessor, or because the opposition blocked these changes when a majority-party minister was in power? The answer, of course, depends on one’s political leanings :).)

For those of you who read Arabic, here is the link to Akhbar‘s article. For those of you who do not, here I am as your cheerful translator!

According to the article, 32 “vacant distinguished numbers, of the platinum type” were sold at Friday’s auction, reaping more than $2,516,000. That’s a huge amount – an average of $78,625 per number. While I’m shocked that the auction actually drew so much money – and for “70” numbers! – I’m also amused by the paper’s description of them as “distinguished”. In Arabic, the word “distinguished” is used all the time to describe diplomatic ties: countries are often described as having “distinguished relations” with one another, and government ministers and heads of state send “distinguished greetings” to one another on holidays and birthdays. And apparently these distinguished figures need equally distinguished mobile numbers :).

The article suggests that this auction represents a “dangerous culture of consumption” developing in Lebanese society reminiscent of “what has happened in the Gulf”. I’m not sure that consumption culture generally can be blamed on the Gulf – after all, Lebanese were busily buying imported products when today’s Gulf states were still British protectorates – but certainly the license plate and mobile number auctions seem to have taken off there first.

Curious to know who made the winning bids on some of these numbers, and how much they paid? Al Akhbar and I are here to help.

Roughly 110 people signed up to participate in the auction – people Akhbar described un-euphemistically as “wealthy” Lebanese. But only 13 of them left with lightened wallets and new numbers – meaning that several went home with multiple purchases.

Bilal Bunduqji, one of the owners of the Petit Cafe restaurants, paid $855,000 for nine numbers (that’s an average of $95,000 per number). One of them, 70 77 77 77, cost the lion’s share: $400,000.

Salman Al Rayyes paid $450,000 for 70 70 70 70.

Muna Abou Hadeer paid $400,000 for 70 70 00 00, as well as $42,000 for another (unspecified) number.

Wadia Al Abssi (now there’s an eye-raising last name) purchased five numbers for a total of $142,000.

Bilal Bou Khalid purchased three numbers for a total of $81,000.

Sajad Khan bought four numbers for a total of $80,000.

Kamel Amhaz purchased one number for $170,000.

Mustapha al-Shabb purchased two numbers for a total of $69,000.

Zein al-Atat purchased two numbers for a total of $42,000.

Manal al-Ramah purchased one number for $40,000.

Ibrahim Qabalan purchased one number for $27,000.

Fouad Bou Khazen purchased one number for $80,000.

Karl Kassab purchased one number for $30,000.

According to the paper, the revenues raised from this auction are to be used for the “improvement of rural services” – meaning rural telephone services, I think. Let’s hope that they are put to good use – and let’s hope that the lucky 13 auction winners are all happy with their purchases. (I frequently suffer from buyer’s remorse, even on small purchases – so I say this sympathetically.) Akhbar‘s article ends with a quote from Bunduqji, who sounds pretty happy about his purchases. He’s planning to flip the numbers and sell them at a profit to khaleejis and other foreigners.

So: if you hail from the Gulf or anywhere else in the world and you are looking for a pretty number, dial +961 70 70 70 70 and ask the nice man who answers what he has for sale.

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Posted in advertising, Arab world, Beirut, Lebanon, license plates, vanity, words | 6 Comments »

more on platinum dialing: paying for a 70?

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 28, 2008

Those of you who were intrigued by my post about Lebanon’s introduction of “platinum numbers” might be interested to know what digits are available at next Friday’s auction. Here’s a list, courtesy of last Tuesday’s Daily Star:

More information about the auction can also be found on the website of MTC Touch, one of Lebanon’s two mobile phone carriers. MTC Touch seems to be sponsoring this auction, meaning that the numbers will all be required to subscribe with MTC. (The charges and services for MTC and Alfa are almost exactly the same, thanks to the government’s stifling of any attempt at market competition, but it is still odd to me that the numbers would not be divided between the two companies.)

In my opinion – and I must admit that I’m not really one for numbers – these numbers are fine, but I wouldn’t pay $200 just for the privilege to bid on them. And what mature government decides that 696969 is an appropriate set of digits for a mobile phone? I hope that number goes to some person with international business or political dealings, whose overseas contacts’ laughter will soon shame him (I’m guessing) into buying a more generic line.

I noticed something else about all of these numbers, which the Lebanese phone users among my readers will also have noticed. They all begin with “70”.

Historically, all Lebanese mobile numbers began with the prefix 03. When the Telecommunications Ministry introduced “70” in 2005 (?), the new prefix was greeted as warmly as the 646 in Manhattan. 212 was for New Yorkers; 646 was for arrivistes.

When I arrived in Beirut in early 2006, I didn’t realize that there were two prefixes, and I bought a card with a 70. What is this number? friends would complain, looking peeved. Do you mean 03 70 xx xx? others would ask. No no – I want your Lebanese mobile, not your foreign one, some people said.

I’m a snob. And a fast learner. So I exchanged my number for a 03 and we were all much happier.

But I’m guessing that after another two years, the 03s are really almost used up. And 70 has won a grudging acceptance from Lebanese dialers – or at least it has become normalized.

But the idea that people might actually consider 70 numbers “pretty” – and be willing to pay a premium for them! – still boggles my mind a bit.

Posted in advertising, Beirut, economics, fashion, Lebanon, license plates | Leave a Comment »

from gold to platinum

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on September 25, 2008

I am still still still furious about the Obsession DVD, and deeply grateful to the many of you who have written and commented so thoughtfully about the issue, from all sides. And I do have an “update” post to send out tomorrow morning – but today I just couldn’t resist posting about this very light, very Lebanese advertisement:

What is a platinum number? you might be wondering to yourself.

I’ll be honest: its a new term for me, too. But I can figure out what it means.

In Lebanon and around the region, “golden numbers” are phone numbers whose digits are particularly “pretty”. They might be easy to dial, like the “212” of the New York area code. Or they might be memorable, like (03) 033 033. Or they might just be meaningful to the user – like the story of one Lebanese guy in Dubai, who asked for a number that spells out his name. (“Diamond” would be 342-6663.)

Unsurprisingly, the mobile phone companies and re-sellers often try to sell “golden numbers” for a higher price. (They do this with license plates, too, as I noted earlier this year in this post on license plate auctions in the United Arab Emirates.)

And now, apparently, there is a new category of pretty numbers: the platinum ones. They must be beyond pretty, and into the realm of truly beautiful, super-model mobile phone numbers.

I’m poking fun a bit, but I’m also quite impressed with what Gebran Bassil has been doing with the Telecommunications Ministry since he took it over. I wasn’t expecting to be impressed with him – for the most part, I was expecting him to be a total twit, and was actually looking forward to a double-dose of twitiness from him and, of course, Talal Arslan.

And I do think that his presence at Aoun’s right-hand weakens the FPM’s anti-nepotism position. (For those of you less engrossed with Lebanese politics than me, Bassil is Michel Aoun’s son-in-law, and his rise in the party has caused tensions with long-term FPM supporters.) But he has really taken charge of the Telecommunications Ministry, and has been pushing through much-needed changes, from the controversial (reducing phone rates) to the mundane (adding much-needed pay phones).

Of course, I wouldn’t pay the money to enter the auction, let alone the price of each “platinum number”. But then again, I’m American – and I just can’t appreciate beauty the way that Lebanese can :D.

Posted in advertising, art, Beirut, Lebanon, license plates, vanity | 2 Comments »

I’ve got your (plate) number

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on February 22, 2008

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!

Posted in advertising, Arab world, Beirut, economics, friends, Lebanon, license plates, words | 2 Comments »