Journal Illustration by Nicholas Weir



Published: August 1, 2008

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — With oil near record highs, the Persian Gulf is awash in cash, stimulating a return to some very conspicuous consumption.

Ferrari SpA said that sales in the Middle East leapt 32 percent last year. BMW Group’s Rolls-Royce Motor Cars said that the UAE, a country with a population of just 4.6 million, is now one of its top five global markets. All those expensive cars clogging the roads have given rise to another must-have status symbol — a prestigious license-plate number.

“Everyone has a nice watch, a nice car,” said Abdullah Al-Mannaei, the organizer of the city government’s monthly auction of desirable numbers. “It’s not enough to just have a Ferrari anymore.”

Hundreds of men in starched robes descend on an opulent hotel to vie for the most distinguished digits. Earlier this year, Saeed Khouri, an Abu Dhabi businessman, made headlines and the Guinness Book of World Records when he paid $14 million for the tag simply sporting a “1.” His cousin, stockbroker Talal Khouri, paid $9 million for “5” — the second-largest sum ever paid for a license plate.

Abu Dhabi is hardly the first boomtown to be swept up in luxury license plates. Hong Kong has had a thriving auction for years, while high-rolling Russian executives have gone to great lengths to secure custom tags.

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