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Dubai becomes the centre of the Rolls-Royce universe

The Gulf's long love affair with the elite motor car is made official

Adult, Male, Man AGBI
Living in hope: Frank Kane at the new Rolls-Royce showroom in Dubai

Anybody seeking confirmation of the Arab world’s never-ending love affair with Rolls-Royce should have been at the official opening of the elite motor car’s new showroom on Sheikh Zayed road in Dubai last week.

Arrivals approached the entrance to the glittering refurbed dealership – part of the AGMC conglomerate – with a sense of wide-eyed wonder, almost awe, to be in the presence of the illustrious vehicles on display inside.

The cars themselves – sparkling under an almost psychedelic lighting system – were treated like priceless works of art, or religious relics. Could you touch them, let alone open a door and sit in one?

The Gulf’s long-running romance with Rolls-Royce – still regarded as the pinnacle of British engineering excellence despite the fact it has been owned by Germany’s BMW for two decades – is well documented.

TE Lawrence (“of Arabia”) helped lead the revolt against the Ottomans in a fleet of Rolls armoured cars, and rode into newly liberated Damascus in 1918 in a blue open-top Silver Shadow he had “requisitioned” from a diplomat in Cairo.

In 1946, Sir Winston Churchill gave King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia a Phantom as a mark of personal gratitude for support during World War II – and possibly as a sweetener in a forlorn attempt to edge the Americans out of the Saudi oil industry. The car is still on display in Riyadh.

That was the beginning of the long association of Rolls with royalty in the Gulf. In some countries, it was illegal for a while for a non-royal to buy one of the cars. The stupendous Phantom, in particular, was “the car of kings and presidents”.

That has changed, of course, and now anybody who can scratch together around $500,000 (including a bare minimum of luxury bespoke extras) can buy a Roller.

I did not notice any kings or presidents at the SZR event. It was mainly elite car enthusiasts, luxury goods aficionados and jealous journalists (like me), who will never be able to afford one.

I was told there has been another, more discreet event for sheikhs and other plenipotentiaries earlier in the week. 

Over the past two decades, the Rolls-Royce image has changed significantly. Once regarded as a “chauffeur’s car”, it has become a driver’s delight. The owner of a Rolls-Royce these days is just as likely to be a female bitcoin billionaire in her thirties as a captain of industry nearing retirement age.

That transformation – and the commercial success that went with it – was the work of Torsten Müller-Ötvös, who recently retired as global CEO of Rolls-Royce, having hit company retirement age.

I have met and interviewed Torsten – first-name terms – on several occasions, and a good guy he is.

In 2022 he invited me to attend the launch of the first electric Rolls-Royce, the Spectre, at the group HQ in Goodwood, Sussex UK. I had my picture taken, in best C-suite pose, alongside a prototype of the car, and a couple of days later received a copy from Torsten with the note: “You look like the next CEO Frank!”

Incomprehensibly, I was passed over for the job in favour of Chris Brownridge, a BMW lifer who was also in Dubai last week.

Not the next CEO: Frank Kane with the first electric Rolls Royce, the Spectre, in 2022AGBI
Not the next CEO: Frank Kane with the first electric Rolls-Royce, the Spectre, in 2022

My grumbles at the unfairness of all this were assuaged by the sight of the Spectre in its full glory. Rolls’ first electric car has been a long time in the making, but the 40 plus owners who have bought one since its Dubai debut last November must think their time on the two-year wait list was worth it.

It is simply a super-car at the top of the range of elite super-cars, and with electric cachet on top. The green and white model in the showroom just oozed class, luxury and power. I can’t wait to test drive one to give a proper assessment of its performance (hint, RR).

The Spectre was the big attraction, but the full current Rolls range was on display, from the brooding majesty of a Blackbadge Cullinan, the SUV that has been a big hit in the Gulf, through to the elegance of a Ghost and a special Phantom liveried in Chinese dragons to celebrate the current lunar year.

Mamdouh Khairallah, director of Rolls-Royce Dubai, gave a little inauguration speech for the new showroom, and let drop the petrolhead bombshell that Dubai had won the “World Dealer of the Year” title for 2023, meaning among other things that it had sold more cars than any other Rolls dealership in the world.

So step aside Beverley Hills, Shanghai and Mayfair – Dubai is now officially the centre of the Rolls-Royce universe. An entirely appropriate consummation of a long-running romance.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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