When a line of four gold-plated and wildly powerful sports cars turned up in London this week, Instagram and other social media were soon overrun with images of the expensive vehicles, which belong to a young member of the extended Saudi royal family.
Given that the oil-rich House of Saud is widely agreed to be the richest gene pool on the planet—the late King Abdullah was said to have amassed a $28bn fortune by the time of his death—it is perhaps predictable that the gaudy Arab playboy’s playthings, which comprised a six-wheel drive Mercedes jeep, a Lamborghini Aventador, a Rolls Royce, and a Bentley Flying Spur, are thought to be among the most expensive cars on the planet.
So the fact that the cars were ticketed after overstaying a two hour time limit in a central London parking bay outside the Jumeirah Carlton Tower Hotel, in Knightsbridge, incurring parking penalties worth “hundreds of pounds” as the London Evening Standard reported, is unlikely to be of huge concern to their owner.
What’s likely to be much more important to him is the crazy amount of publicity that the gold supercar fleet has earned.
Because just as tricking out sports cars and flying them to Europe has become something of a national hobby for the mega rich youth of Saudi Arabia, rather like hunting or shooting would be for their counterparts in the UK, it is in press coverage and social media attention that the kids who own the cars measure their success.
In this case the owner of the cars has been identified as Turki Bin Abdullah, a rich young Saudi with a heavy footprint on Instagram, where there are dozens of pictures and videos of his life, including shots of him posing with a pet cheetah in his car—but most of the wealthy Saudi playboys who flaunt their cars in London are difficult for outsiders to identify.
They come from deeply conservative families, and are often explicitly forbidden from speaking to the press by their families back home before they depart for London. We may think of them as liable to be involved in debauched partying but many of the ‘playboys’ are said by those close to them to be shy, naïve and immature.
Much of the work on the cars is done by the Dubai branch of West Coast Customs, the LA-founded firm made famous by the MTV show Pimp My Ride, which has opened a branch in the Emirate to cater for the enormous demand from young Arabs keen to impress.
The London supercar season, which usually kicks off in July, appears to have started early this year. Some sources are blaming an unseasonably humid spring in Saudi Arabia, others are saying that the political and fiscal situation—the oil price crash has seen very public edicts to citizens to tighten their belts and senior royals have been warned off flashy displays of wealth—is to blame.
But Daniel Hallworth, a UK-based fixer who organizes the temporary importation of many of the Arab supercars seen on London’s streets every summer, told the Daily Beast: “It’s definitely happening early this year but exactly why that is, is impossible to say. It could be a whole variety of factors, anything from the timing of business deals to the weather.
“There is also increasingly a desire to be here when London is not so crowded. There is also a sense that if they come now, they can make a bigger impression with the cars and really set the bar for 2016. Later in the year, London can start to become a bit like an Arabian car park and it’s harder to get noticed.
“This fleet really has set the standard for 2016. I don’t think anyone is going to be able to beat these, unless someone comes with a car that actually is solid gold, which is not impossible. For these guys it’s all about who can steal the show.”
Hallworth says that the idea of a spring break is gaining ground, and coming to London twice a year is now not uncommon for the richest young Arab playboys, and that the cars travel each way too.
Qatar Airways is among the preferred shippers—they have one entire Dreamliner devoid of seats and devoted entirely the business of shipping luxury cars to and from the Arabian peninsula.
“Back and forth twice now is more common,’ says Hallworth.
He says that while his clients are “not especially demanding,” they don’t like unexpected changes of plan. “They just like things to happen the way you say they will happen. They expect details—such as when the car will arrive—to stay the same.”
Hallworth has seen his luxury import business grow as he has built up a stable of loyal clients via word of mouth recommendations. “When you have dealt with one of these guys, and done a good job, all his cousins will come to you too.”
However, many now feel that the Saudis might do well to rein in their ambassadors of bling.
The writer Robert Lacey, author of The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Sa’ud, told the Daily Beast: “I came across the gold Bentley the other day in South Audley Street. It made my jaw drop. How naive and idiotic these guys must be not to imagine the impact this has on the Saudi image abroad—and at home where ordinary Saudis are being told to tighten their belts. It plays up to the worst stereotypes. But it’s probably the worst stereotypes that they are seeking to attract.”