Each summer UHNW Emiratis descend on London to use its streets as a catwalk for their supercars. Willard Foxton sneaks into the secret hiding place of the most desirable models
'Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Sharjah…' This is not a slightly wonky tour of the Gulf, but a r’sum’ of the owners of the supercars I'm staring at enviously in a secret Knightsbridge location. Once a year, just after Ramadan, the nobility of the Gulf decamp en masse to London — it's a season as Jane Austen would recognise it — and the rest of London hears about it when a few young men roar their supercars up and down Sloane Street at midnight or get clamped outside Harrods. Of course, they need somewhere to store their cars — and that's exactly where I'm standing.
There are several secret garages, anonymously and unobtrusively underground, each of which contains dozens of priceless vehicles. I am lucky enough to get into one, on the condition that I never breathe a word about its exact location. There is no obvious street entrance, merely an anonymous, nondescript metal shutter. My guide opens the door with the press of a button and glides the Maserati Gran Turismo we are parking into the claustrophobic car elevator, a steel box which sinks smoothly into the garage.
All the luxury of the cars on show contrasts bizarrely with the run-down, bomb-shelter-like whitewashed concrete basement they are hidden in. It's like seeing a National Gallery show of Impressionists in Asda. Guiding me round, the duty manager excitedly reels off not only the particular makes and models of the gleaming hypercars, but also who owns them.
Of course, I can't print the names, but I can hint about the cars. All the old masters are present — the work of Enzo Ferrari and Ferruccio Lamborghini in particular evidence — but there are plenty of things I've never seen before, from exotic custom builds to classics from the 1930s.
During the season these cars await, royalty is everywhere but is barely noticed by British passers-by. However, if you wait in the lobby of certain hotels long enough, you'll see an unmistakeable spectacle: in will walk an apparently anonymous, middle-aged Middle Eastern man in a T-shirt and jeans, and every Emirati in the place will jump to their feet as a mark of respect.
The purpose of this season is simple: people want to be seen, to be seen with their trophies in particular, and to make connections, and London is the place to do these things respectably. Anyone who is anyone will be in London for the four to six weeks straight after Eid, the festival that marks the end of the holy month of fasting.
It wasn't always this way. One highly placed insider in the casino trade laments the old days: 'Forty years ago this place was rammed with sheikhs and emirs; not any more. They go to Monte Carlo or Beirut for the funny stuff — if they go at all. London is where you go to show off what a good Muslim you are, how well off you are — you pay your dues.'
Derek Picot, manager of the Jumeirah Carlton Tower, one of the most common haunts of season-goers, agrees about the sobriety: 'It might have been like that once, maybe in my father's day, but never in my experience. The younger generation are very well educated, pious. They are more conservative than their fathers, more family-oriented. Religious observance — such as halal — is valued.'
Picot is discreet. We sit in the lounge of his hotel, where he points out his aristocratic Emirati guests are far more likely to take coffee or tea than set foot in one of the hotel's bars. Nevertheless, it is the freedom they relish. 'In Emirati culture, patronage is important,' he says. The season 'is an important part of that. You can run into people in a place like this. It's an opportunity for young people to socialise more freely than they would at home. People come here to show off the strength of their lifestyle.'
And show it off they certainly do. It's all part of a complex code of what it's appropriate to show off and what is not: which hotel you stay at, how you invest in London property, where you watch horse racing and, above all, which cars you drive are the approved methods for a young man to show how eligible he is.
If you go to certain hotel coffee bars and watch the windows at the right time of year, you will see parades of supercars glide past that would put a Gumball rally to shame. Often, the cars are painted in family colours, no matter how garish those may be. The most famous of these are the ’1.2 million Koenigsegg CCXR and ’350,000 Lamborghini Murcielago LP670-4 SuperVeloce, owned by the ruling Qatari Al-Thani family, which are painted in the royal family's own 'baby blue'. The 249mph Koenigsegg is one of only six ever made. The custom-built supercar does 0-60 in 2.9 seconds, producing a staggering 1,064bhp — a similar engine output to most military helicopters.
A different Koenigsegg holds the record for the fastest speeding ticket ever, having been supposedly clocked doing 242mph in a 75mph zone.
However, these two baby-blue cars achieved their fame (or notoriety) not just by dint of being regal vehicles but also by being clamped outside Harrods in 2010. This brings up another dilemma for the owners of these vehicles: in a city like London, where do you store such a valuable piece of property — something which defines, with its curves, colour and power, your status? That's where the garages come in: secret locations, mostly in Knightsbridge. The one I visit is about a third full at the time but can accommodate up to 200 luxury cars. The owners tell me it's fully booked for weeks after Eid.
On top of the garage facilities, there are air freight companies who specialise in flying cars in. After all, not everyone wants to leave their car in London for the 46 weeks a year they are not there. I spoke to one company, TQ Express, which offers express supercar airfreight which, they proudly proclaim, means 'your car arrives in showroom condition and on time'. The going rate for getting your supercar anywhere in the world overnight is surprisingly inexpensive, at around ’6,000 (most supercars are light and low enough to fit on the lower deck of a jumbo jet, under the passengers' seats).
Boys will be boys
Of course, for all the social conformity and expectations of the family, there are still breaches of decorum — after all, these are young men. Notably, a Ferrari belonging to the son of the Emir of Ajman was seized by the Metropolitan Police in 2012 for having no insurance. On top of that, local residents around Sloane Street and several London squares tell lurid tales of illegal drag races in the dead of night.
The police are more sanguine. They tell me there are very few complaints — usually about noise when they do occur — and indeed they provide a 'very well attended' safety course to young Emiratis wanting to drive in the UK. 'Knightsbridge is certainly not a racetrack,' says one senior officer. The local bobbies come across as very on-message — and that message is: 'Come to London, you'll have no trouble.'
Of course, the aim of the season is not to show off your wealth for no purpose — the aim is to show off how well your family is doing. Many alliances and marriages are made in London over the summer; in addition to the unfamiliar world of showing off your supercar, there is plenty of the sort of social media and text-based flirting that would be familiar to any British youth.
Derek Picot enlightens me: 'Certainly, unmarried youths see better opportunities to socialise with the opposite sex in London, but things are still fairly formal. Women are closely chaperoned. As such, technology — electronic communication — plays a great part in it.' Glancing around the Carlton Tower's coffee lounge, I could certainly see many young Emiratis smiling as they texted, their faces spotlit by smartphone screens, just like the glow from their dashboards.
Pictured above: This ’1.2 million Koenigsegg (right) and ’350,000 Lamborghini were clamped in 2010 outside Harrods — and belonged to the Qatari family that owns the shop