Outside London’s five-star Dorchester Hotel sits a Bugatti Veyron. These 253?mph 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 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 Ramadan Rush.
Designed to stand out and be unique, the 1.6m Bugatti Veron known as L”Or Blanc or White Gold does just that
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. Forget the summer sales, 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.
The figures speak for themselves: some five-star hotels are reporting 80 per cent Middle Eastern occupancy.
The pre-Ramadan spending spree is boosting the profits of high-end stores such as Selfridges and Harrods
As for the stores, the average British shopper will spend 120 during a trip to the West End and an American 550. Compare that with the average Saudi spend of 1,900. What’s more, in the month before Ramadan, 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 per cent year-on-year, while visitors from the UAE have risen to almost 120,000 — up nearly ten per cent.
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 5million, driving prices up.
‘The Ramadan 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.
‘It is worth millions to us — last year there was about 120?million spent in the pre-Ramadan rush by Middle Eastern visitors, but it grows every single year. We expect it to be up ten 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 vacancy advert.
‘Arabic-speaking, experienced, talented makeup 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.
As a result the traditional summer sales in many upmarket London stores were brought forward to May and have ended early. They have now been replaced with tailored and often specially designed collections that will chime with the tastes of their incoming customers.
if you live in the right part of town, the sight of a Lamborghini Aventador is not that uncommon
‘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 targeting 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.
An Abu Dhabi-registered Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead seen driving around the streets of the expensive Mayfair area of London
Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest draws for the visitors is Harrods. Indeed, so popular is the department store with Middle Eastern travellers that the Ramadan 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 Herms.
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.
Arab women are no strangers to Harrods, and like to spend money on Louis Vuitton handbags and Hermes perfume
He says it is not uncommon for Middle Eastern families to exchange 3,000 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,’ said Mr Nawaz.
‘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 who cater for the rich and famous.
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.
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 ten 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 ten of London’s most iconic locations and swapping 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. Better than an open-top bus tour.
Karen Jones, editor of Citywealth, a publication aimed at ‘individuals of ultra-high net worth’ (the sort of people with 100?million-plus to invest), says that for her clients London is all about having a good time before returning home to observe Ramadan.
A Qatar-registered modified McLaren MP4-12C on the streets of London, it is worth around 200,000
‘Arabs love London because of the shopping and the fun,’ she says. ‘They don’t come to do business, they come and use London as a playground as we would Cannes or Monaco.’ One of her clients from Saudi Arabia told her that during a month in London he would expect to spend 100,000.
His daytimes will be spent shopping at Herms and dining at Scott’s, La Petite Maison, Le Caprice and Nobu, and in the evenings he will frequent the capital’s casinos.
‘He told me that one of his Saudi friends bought a 9?million flat opposite Harrods and then spent 1?million furnishing it,’ said Ms Jones. ‘The trouble was that he couldn’t get any staff to work in it or anyone to come and make him a cup of coffee, so he ended up going to stay in a hotel. He tried bringing maids to London but the minute they get here they disappear.’ Presumably into the black market.
The exterior of the Saudi-registered Bugatti Veyron L”or Blanc resembles an Everton mint. The car is seen here next to a Koenigsegg Agera
Even the weather isn’t off-putting. Ms Jones says: ‘They don’t get rain in places like Saudi, so running for a taxi in a shower is seen as a fun and exciting thing to do.’
Of course, the real high-flyers would not be seen dead in a taxi.
Instead they have their cars freighted over to London, generally by aeroplane, so that they can use them during their stay.
Take a trip around central London at the moment and supercars with Arabic-script plates can be seen — and heard — touring the streets.
Their drivers want to be noticed, and where better to be seen than outside Harrods So it was that in the space of ten minutes on Wednesday afternoon I spotted a Saudi-registered Ferrari 438 worth 170,000 performing three laps of Harrods, its driver revving the engine each time he passed the famous green doors. He was followed shortly afterwards by a Dubai-registered, 270,000 Lamborghini SV.
L-R: Bugatti Veyron, Koenigsegg Agera, Bugatti Veyron and Lamborghini Aventador in London, all Middle Eastern owned cars
Given the wealth of the owners, it is perhaps unsurprising that little notice is paid to the British rules of the road. Each summer Westminster Council is left with tens of thousands of pounds’ worth of unpaid fines as these visitors abandon their cars on yellow lines.
A list of last year’s most prolific offenders included the Arab owner of a 300,000 Rolls Royce who owed 2,000 for 18 tickets, and a Dubai-registered, 200,000 Lamborghini Murcielago which had racked up 24.
Meanwhile, the owner of a Bugatti Veyron L’Edition Centenaire — registration 444 — failed to pay 120 after he parked on a yellow line outside Selfridges (despite having managed to find 1.2?million to buy the car).
Town car: A Saudi-registered Rolls-Royce Ghost
A mile or two from Harrods, legally parked on the forecourt of the Sheraton Park Hotel are two Maybachs with foreign plates and a Qatar-registered McLaren MP4.
‘The MP4 is worth about 200,000,’ one hotel worker explained. ‘It’s been brought in on a private jet and then driven straight off the plane to here. The amount of money these people can spend is ferocious.
‘We had one chap here, the son of a Saudi prince, and he and his brother each had a Bugatti Veyron, which they had had shipped over while they stayed here. He told me he had just bought a fully crewed yacht and anchored it in Monaco. The thing cost him about 30?million and he had never even seen it.’
Even the super rich can”t evade London”s parking wardens – a clamped Saudi-registered Ferrari F430
Back at The Dorchester in Mayfair, the Veyron L’Or Blanc is attracting a crowd, even with its high-powered engine switched off.
The onlookers are discussing its vital statistics — kiln-fired porcelain inlay, eight-litre engine and acceleration of zero to 60mph in a touch over two-and-a-half seconds. As for fuel economy That’s seven miles per gallon in town. With petrol prices what they are, that’s enough to send a shudder through the wallet of even a very well-off Briton.
But for the car’s owner, an unknown Saudi said to be in his 30s, the cost of a tank of petrol wouldn’t even count as small change.
A Kuwait-registered Ferrari 458 makes its way through the back streets of central London
With a top speed of 268mph, it won”t take long for this Arab-owned Bugatti Veyron to catch up with the 36 bus
An Iraqi-registered Mercedes G55 jeep can be seen driving past a Bulgari store