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Outside London’s five-star Dorchester Hotel sits a Bugatti Veyron. These 407km/h supercars are rare enough at the best of times, but this one is unique: known as L’Or Blanc, or White Gold, its exterior is inlaid with porcelain, giving it the appearance of a highly polished humbug.
In terms of conspicuous consumption that takes some beating – £1.6 million (R20m) for a car that is as delicate as a tea set.
But for the Saudi owner who has had it flown over to London for the duration of his visit, that is what life is all about. Like the first swallows of summer, the arrival of the world’s rarest supercars in the capital heralds the start of another, lesser known, season – the Ramadaan Rush.
This year the weeks leading up to the Muslim month of fasting, which begins on July 20, have seen millionaires and billionaires flock to London from across the Middle East.
They come to escape the oppressive heat back home, to relax, to party and, above all, to show off their wealth.
For upmarket shops, restaurants, nightclubs and hotels, it is bonanza time. These visitors want the best and are prepared to pay for it.
And so it is that Bond Street jewellers, West End designer outlets, casinos such as Les Ambassedeurs, restaurants such as Le Caprice, and hotels such as The Sheraton Park Tower have been instructing their (Arabic-speaking) staff to roll out the red carpet.
As for the stores, the average British shopper will spend £120 (R1 500) during a trip to the West End and an American £550 (R7 000). Compare that with the average Saudi spending £1 900 (R24 000). What’s more, in the month before Ramadaan, the amount spent by Middle Eastern visitors will be double that in other months.
Of course, it is not the first time the high-rollers have abandoned the fierce heat of a Middle Eastern summer for London. But this year the numbers are well up on before.
Saudi visitors are up 22 percent year-on-year, while visitors from the UAE have risen to almost 120 000 – up nearly 10 percent.
With the burka banned in France, many who traditionally holidayed in Paris can do so no more.
Furthermore, the shockwaves from the Arab Spring have encouraged many of the ruling elites to look beyond their own shores for a potential long-term safe haven.
As a result, while house prices in other parts of Britain stagnate in the recession, Middle Eastern buyers have piled in to London properties, particularly those worth upwards of £5m (R63m), driving prices up.
“The Ramadaan Rush is a total phenomenon,” says Jace Tyrrell of the New West End Company, the management company for retailers in Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street. “Last year there was about £120m (R1.5 billion) spent in the pre-Ramadaan rush by Middle Eastern visitors. We expect it to be up 10 per cent this year.”
In central London the signs of this flood of Arab money, and of businesses’ efforts to catch it, are everywhere to see.
“This stunning international fashion label is looking for an experienced Arabic-speaking sales advisor to join their upmarket concession within Harrods,” reads one advert.
“Arabic-speaking, experienced, talented make-up artists and skincare specialists needed for exciting positions in West End premier department store,” reads another, one of dozens posted online.
And it’s not just the staff who are hand-picked.The visitors from the Middle East are not interested in buying run-of-the-mill designer goods and have no interest in discounted items. Consider the fact that the value of a single Saudi shopping transaction in London averages out at £600 (R7 600).
As a result the traditional summer sales in many upmarket London stores were brought forward to May and ended early. They have now been replaced with tailored and often specially designed collections that will chime with the tastes of their incoming customers.
“They absolutely don’t want summer sales bargains, they want new season stock,” explains a Selfridge’s spokesperson. “They’re very keen on fine jewellery and shoes, and on recognised brands like Chanel. They’re very savvy shoppers and they want the latest, most fashionable, limited-edition products.”
One example of targetting by the brands is to be found in the use of Oud, a distinctive fragrance, in scents and beauty products.
“Oud is a particularly popular scent for Middle Eastern shoppers, so a limited edition of, say, an Oud-scented fragrance, whether it’s by Armani, Jo Malone or Tom Ford, is very popular,” says the spokesperson.
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest draws for the visitors is Harrods. Indeed, so popular is the department store with Middle Eastern travellers that the Ramadaan Rush has also been nicknamed the Harrods Hajj – a light-hearted reference to the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
Again, limited-edition items are popular: Louis Vuitton handbags; diamond jewellery; watches from Cartier; leather goods; silk scarves, and perfumes from Hermès.
Many of the purchases will be paid for in cash. Atif Nawaz works a stone’s throw from Harrods, at the Knightsbridge Foreign Currency Exchange. He says it is not uncommon for Middle Eastern families to exchange £3 000 (R38 000) a day during a three-day shopping trip.
“The family will go to Harrods or Harvey Nichols, spend the money they have and then send their chauffeur back to me the next day to exchange more money,” Nawaz said. “It is spare change for these people. But even though they are rich, they always haggle. They’ll spend thousands in the casino or at Harrods but come back and argue about the exchange rate.”
It’s not just shops that benefit from this deluge of dollars and dirhams, the currency of the UAE.
Companies providing chauffeurs, private chefs and close-protection bodyguards are all reporting a surge in business, as are concierge companies.
One such outfit, Quintessentially, is currently looking after a Saudi woman who is visiting London. She has requested that every week she is here she be hand-delivered a new handbag. So far she has had ones by Celine and Isabel Marant. For another client they arranged for a guitar signed by Damien Hirst to be delivered to a member’s son because he loved the artist’s exhibition at the Tate so much. The cost? £10 000 (R127 000).
Quintessentially also laid on a very special tour of London for a group of male clients from the Middle East. The brief was that it was to involve cars and that money was to be no object. And so they arranged for a fleet of 10 deluxe supercars to pick them up from their Mayfair apartment. They included a Bugatti Veyron, a Ferrari Enzo, a Lamborghini Gallardo and an Aston Martin DB9.
The men then drove around the capital, stopping at 10 of London’s most iconic locations and swopping cars at each. The drivers were equipped with wireless headsets through which a live commentary was given by a historian following in a car of his own.
Karen Jones, editor of Citywealth, a publication aimed at “individuals of ultra-high net worth”, says that for her clients London is all about having a good time before they have to return to their home countries to observe Ramadaan. – Daily Mail