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A sunny Thursday afternoon in August and the cars circling Harrods need to be seen to be believed. Million-pound Bugatti Veyrons – normally a rare sighting, even on the well-heeled streets of Central London – are, around here, about as common as Ford Fiestas. Other cars, in a display that could rival anything in Monaco or Goodwood, drive round and round the block, pausing at the rear each time to see if their masters are ready for collection. In the cafes surrounding the department store, every single table is taken by people from the Gulf states and the Middle East — Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Dubai.
Welcome to Knightsbridge — or, as it is better known to locals, ‘Little Kuwait’. For British residents, the summer is all about anescape to the sun; a fortnight in the South of France, the Italian Riviera or Spain. We Brits want sand, sangria, heat and a swimming pool. Anywhere but the sticky, filthy city. For the mega-wealthy billionaire families of the Gulf states over here this summer will tell you that they come to London because, unlike in the U.S. or France, they are made to feel welcome,’ says Hussam Baramo, the Syria-born features editor at Al Quds newspaper, a daily paper widely-read by Middle Eastern people in London. ‘They like London because they think it’s safe and friendly.’
And here, they can bring their cars with them. Around the corner from Harrods, I saw one Veyron with every inch of its bodywork coated in gold; another, chromed all over. Behind it, I watched a Veyron in pearlised white with shiny chromium wings making a noise like a scalded Rottweiler. The Saudi number plate on this car was ‘999’. I watched the driver get out. He was around 25 and dressed like an off-duty Lewis Hamilton. I complimented him on his car and asked how he got it over to London. ‘In my plane,’ he said, grinning. The car was parked in a pay-and-display’ bay, but its driver did neither. The auto show continued with a Rolls-Royce Phantom customised with a stainless steel bonnet. The number plate on this car is simply ‘1’. Later that day I Googled this vehicle and discovered that a couple of years ago its Dubai-based owner paid £9 million for the registration number alone.
A long Maybach limousine, painted in distinct orange and matt black, purred through the melee. The letters ‘RRR’ are picked out on the vehicle’s boot in a diamond-studded font. A handsome young man and his friend, both dressed like aspirant R&B pop stars (faded jeans, Hermes belt, one of those Ralph Lauren polo shirts with the over-sized horse logo, pastel suede Hermes driving shoes, and bronze tint sunglasses) got out. This is Crown Prince Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, the incredibly glamorous and fun-loving son of the multi-billionaire HRH Sheikh Rashid Bin Humid Al Nuaimi of Ajman. Ajman, in case you didn’t know, is the smallest emirate in the United Arab Emirates, but has grand plans to become a mini Dubai. RRR is the banner for the Crown Prince’s vast portfolio of orange and black super cars — the letters stand for Rich in Real Estate Resources.
‘How do you go about writing tickets to these guys?’ I asked a traffic warden in Basil Street. ‘It’s impossible,’ he shrugs, showing me the computerised ticket machine he wears around his neck. ‘My machine only has numbers and letters on it. Their number plates are just . . .’ He tailed off, struggling for the right word. ‘Squiggles?’ I suggested. ‘Yes. There are no keys on my machine for those.’ Last week, the wardens seemed to arrive at a solution to the problem of ticketing cars with squiggles for number plates; they started clamping them instead. Early victims were a £1.2 million Koenigsegg CCXR (one of only six ever made) and a £350,000 Lamborghini Murcielago LP670-4 SuperVeloce which were illegally parked outside Harrods. But the traffic wardens aren’t the only ones ruffled by the fleet of supercars flooding the area.
Residents living near the Knightsbridge store say their night-time peace is being shattered by the owners racing their sports cars through the streets, describing it as being ‘like the starting grid at Le Mans’. They have now forged a campaign group and aired their grievances to Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, claiming that police and council have failed to act. Some of the Middle Eastern visitors keep summer-houses in London — there are said to be more than 100 billionaire Saudi families with second homes in the Knightsbridge area alone— while others prefer out-of-town locations such as Bishops Avenue in North London (also known as ‘Millionaires Row’), Coombe Hill in Kingston and St George’s Hill in Weybridge, Surrey.
Next summer, many of them will take up residence at the new Knightsbridge development One Hyde Park that occupies a plum position opposite Harvey Nichols and next to the Mandarin Oriental hotel, where appartments cost up to £100 million. Here, Arab summertime residents will be able to enjoy the super-luxe environment of heated floors and chilled ceilings, personalised entry systems that can include six levels of access, and a secure underground car park for their Rolls-Royces and Ferraris.
Eyecatching: The £1.2m Koenigsegg and £350,000 Lamborghini clamped outside Harrods
‘Our Middle Eastern customers are usually looking for flats with between three to five bedrooms and a 24-hour porter service, usually with a view of Hyde Park or Kensington Gardens,’ says Paul Hyman, sales manager at Kinleigh Folkard & Hayward’s Bayswater branch. ‘Properties of this type are hard to come by, but wealthy Arab businessmen can generally pay over the asking price.’ During August, whole floors of hotels around Hyde Park are block-booked for Middle Eastern oligarchs, while staff up their game by flying in topnotch Arabic entertainers for private shows in the biggest suites, adapting restaurant menus and parking the guests’ flashest cars out in front.
During the days, the men sleep in, while the women have their drivers drop them in Hyde Park where they walk in giggly groups, stopping to soak up the coolness and cloudy skies on the benches or lying on the grass in large circles with their friends. To them, London is a welcome vacation from the restrictive, repetitive, stultifyingly predictable drudge of blandly luxurious life back home. Many of the younger, more frustrated Saudi girls strip themselves free of the restrictive burka altogether, whooping and shrieking with delight as they change into tight jeans and vertiginous heels on the plane, as soon as Gulf state airspace is cleared.
Once in London, the girls go round either in large groups or chaperoned by Mum, who is normally clad in a headscarf and big shades — think Joan Collins does Jumierah Beach (one of the most exclusive resorts in Dubai). The boys like to sit outside Knightsbridge cafes all gussied up in Arabpreppy finery, two or three mobile phones each, keys to Ferraris and Lamborghinis chucked down next to their napkins. The young females from the more liberated countries, such as Bahrain and Dubai, are dolled up like big-eyed, honey-skinned Jennifer Lopez lookalikes. The girls who choose to keep wearing their burkas — mostly Saudi Arabians — I am told often sport the kind of make-up that hasn’t been in fashion in the West since the end of the silent movie era. Bright red lipstick, generous helpings of cranberry rouge, eyes kohl-lined in the style of Dusty Springfield.
A spokesperson for luxury concierge service Quintessentially says: ‘About 20 per cent of our clients are from the Middle East. ‘One member requested Quintessentially Travel arrange a weekend break to Ibiza on a private jet, with a fully chartered yacht waiting for their use. Another wanted a personal shopping experience requesting that two designer stores be closed for their private viewing.’ Many others prefer to shop at home. ‘During August, we will often be asked to take a selection of our most expensive diamond necklaces, rings and bracelets to a suite at a hotel in Knightsbridge,’ says jeweller Stephen Webster, whose shop is on Mount Street, in nearby Mayfair.
‘Arab customers like to shop late, but our store isn’t permitted to have late-night opening . . . so we are happy to take the store to them.’ Another famous London jeweller, who would not be named, said: ‘They like big pieces and coloured stones. The sums they are prepared to pay for them are incredible. It is not unusual for Middle Eastern customers to spend £20 million in a single visit.’ When they are not shopping or tearing around in their cars, the Arab billionaires go to the Derby, Royal Ascot and the Berkshire Festival of Falconry, sponsored by the Abu Dhabi based Emirates Falconers’ Club and attended by His Highness Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan.
Of course, London — especially during these credit-crunched times — falls over itself to court Arab business. Middle-Eastern shoppers are expected to spend £250 million in London this summer, an increase of 11 per cent on last year. When the people at Harvey Nichols discovered that the amount of money Middle Eastern people in London were spending was rising so dramatically, the department store decided to start using Arabic advertisements in-store. Summer opening hours were extended to 9pm all week, and all cafe menus were modified to include Arabic translations and a Halal food offering.
Harvey Nichols’ Fifth Floor food hall now even offers a smoking terrace for customers that comes with the shisha pipes so beloved of Middle Eastern people. One Harvey Nichols advert showed a picture of a single Lanvin shoe. The words, written in Arabic, read, ‘The English are known for having bad teeth, that is why they need beautiful shoes’. It doesn’t matter. Very few Londoners can read Arabic, and very few Middle Eastern people fraternise with British people anyway. They’re just here for August, then they disappear, like ghosts.
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