Friday, 9 September 2011

Macro Level Trends – UK Socio-Economic Boost – London's Arabic Car-nival

The numerics of '9/11' have been engrained into the global mindset, from New York to New Delhi. Today, on the verge of the 10th anniversary, whilst conspiracy theorists will debate the matter for years to come, the atrocities of that day coupled with Iraq's apparent WMD's launched the global 'War on Terror'. Led by the US and accompanied by its closest allies across Europe and Asia., this defiant action arguably either exacerbated cultural frictions or stymied equivalent large scale attacks.

Nonetheless, other attacks – which induced their own numerological phrases - temporarily scarred the psyche of London, Glasgow, Madrid, Mumbai and New Delhi (now once again). Whilst the population of Iraq has had to endure an everyday war and watched the disintegration of their homeland.

Through the actions of the 'complicit few' and the 'reactionary mighty', towns, cities and whole populations the world over were gradually converted toward metal and physical 'fortresses'; fear generated rumour and speculation fed by the emergence of observational technologies which at times appeared verge on state totalitarianism. The people's of both the east and the west led increasingly insular lives, where the term 'globalisation' meant little more than cheap imported goods from China, streams of Eastern Europeans and Mexicans respectively entering Western Europe and the USA and the arrival of 'Bollywood'. Yet beyond the usual 'pros & cons', globalisation was also conveyed by nightly TV depictions of the fall of the twin towers, the 'Shock & Awe', 'the fight for Baghdad', 'the capture of hearts and minds', 'Abu Graibe', 'Guantanimo Bay',etc etc.

The world-wide cultural implosion was immense and massively damaging.

Christians in the Middle East arguably experienced the same kind of disdainful treatment and general distrust as became the 'demonised' everyday norm for Muslims in the West. Equally, within India the early-mid portion of the decade saw a renewal of societal 'fault-lines' that had taken 50 years to nearly re-coupled. Wherever a person lived, if his/her name and face was that of the 'enemy' the basic aspects of everyday life shifted immeasurably; from the limiting of basic opportunities to the explosion of casually accepted blatant racism; so emphasising the notion of self-reliance. Many (but not all) indigenous people became blind to their actual everyday experiences with 'the opposite'. True empirical personal experiences – even for those living in major metropolitan areas – accounted for little, mentalities shaped by subtle word-play, soft propaganda rhetoric, social expectations and a sense of belonging.

The cultural differences became a 'them and us' thematic played and re-played. It may have made individual nations artificially feel more cohesive, united and stronger but the fact is that most people were simply observational bystanders to the real events, though themselves 'sucked in' by perceptional re-shaping and a technically enabled panopticon, an apparent 'all seeing eye' within one's own country, down-played by the likes of 'entertainment' series such as Big Brother. Ironically whether an Al Qaeda operative in the mountains of Afghanistan or a morning commuter in Birmingham, the personal-world was/is lost via the 'eye in the sky' military drone and city-centre CCTV. So simply by virtue of your name not 'fitting-in', that morning commute and indeed possibly whole working day made a person feel like a watched outsider.

[NB To those people their 'inside-outsider' experiences will probably never be forgotten and it is testament to their personal and group tolerance that far greater social 'spill-overs' have not indeed occurred. For ten years, by indigenous people and state alike they were made to feel like the 'enemy within' when perfectly innocent].

The Orwellian age certainly came. With it a (wrongful) near mass acceptance of the private becoming blurred with the public domain. In times of crisis national security does indeed necessitate greater observation of the populace. Yet after WW2 Churchill instigated the withdrawal of the wartime British identity card; and it should be hoped that similarly in what now appears a far less threatening external world that the costly apparatus of state security too can be gradually but dramatically scaled down.

Today, ten years on from that fateful day, the western world has been forced to undergo a tremendous re-shaping of itself, society additionally moulded by the long-reach after-effects of the 2008 financial crisis. As part of that broad-brush economic outcome clear and present dangers have surfaced in the form of the inter-connection - indeed seeming mutual dependency - between sovereign/public and banking-sector funding. Western household purses and national purses deep in the red, the re-capitalised banking purse is still viewed as extremely fragile and regulatory reforms chided as extra burdens.

Three years ago at the collapse of Lehman Brothers, certain 'backstop investors' rallied to the call to save the day. Warren Buffett of course stepped-in at Goldman Sachs - for a price. Whilst previously in late 2007 Citi Group was underpinned by Abu Dhabi Investment Co. shareholder, injecting $7.6bn; the second time it acted as a white knight within 10 years. Of course Buffet & ADIC recognised the long-term benefits of their actions, yet much of the (average) public would have been astounded to know that it was a mix of Arabic good intent and a willingness to wait for returns in the long-run, that saved the day in the midst of the ongoing 'War on Terror'.

In a similar manner here in London, the past 2 to 3 years has witnessed a marked surge of inflow of Arab monies from the private leisure and spending habits of elite families largely from the United Arab Emirates. An inflow that has helped to keep the wheels of the city's central area local economy spinning, which whilst somewhat hidden by the economic buoyancy of 2009 & 2010 became very apparent throughout the spring and summer of 2011.

It appears that with the general UK economy and financial services linked London economy markedly loosing traction, there has been a very real and meaningful effort by Arabic families to spent a lengthier time in London and as a by-product spend greater sums of personal wealth. This won't have been overtly recognised by the tourist or casual observer, but for those living and working in Knightsbridge and surrounds, the usual summer 'Arab Invasion' has been even more obvious this summer.

Obvious are the sightings of groups of Arab ladies in the Qatari owned Harrods, aswell as Harvey Nichols and Selfridges. Dressed in black or partial black: full covering Hijab dresses for the older and more conservative to simple loose khimar headscarfs for the fashion-conscious and more liberal younger generation - eager to show-off both their figures and designer clothes. With either themselves or chauffer-assistants carrying what appear as copious shopping bags on a daily basis; from the shop to the awaiting limousine to the London house, apartment or hotel suite. These big-ticket items bought on an almost daily basis for themselves, husbands, friends etc, all of which boosts store sales and pays salaries and overhead.

[NB There have typically been 'bemoans' from locals about the Middle Eastern arrival, typically stemming from the changed feel of a store compared to winter clientèle. Yet it should also be remarked that some Arab women can be 'short, sharp and discourteous', effectively looking down upon retail assistants, aswell as holding up traffic (esp black cab drivers) when crossing local roads; this typically an intentional sign of class/wealth de-markation. This of course may be the cultural norm at home especially with one's own servants, yet unfortunately earns a level of disrespect in London. Thus as ever, the guilty few 'indict' the well intentioned and well behaved many].

Less obvious are the spending habits of their teenage children, who whilst periodically clamouring over expensive store items are more likely to be seen effectively 'playing' around the area and in Hyde Park. Their favourite forms of transport being the Boris Bike scheme, upon which they ride seemingly 24/7, renting the hi-priced pedal-cabs for fun and errand trips and taking black taxis for the trip into the West End and back, aswell as a constant fascination with the 'peddlo' boats on the Serpentine lake. The per hour spend rate of these youngsters would undoubtedly shock even the most generous UK parents, but again that money for local services is going to TfL, the pedal-cab companies whose own riders recognise the tipping benefit of providing Arabic rugs and music, the Royal Parks franchisee providing the boats and a plethora of officially licensed black cab drivers who have seen a marked decrease in taxi-rides from domestic customers private and commercial.

(Often loose from parental restrictions or away from home, some children may have a tendency toward what will be viewed boisterous behaviour. The two most prolific are dangerous cycling amongst the younger teens annoying drivers and pedestrians and spitting to the floor amongst the mid teens, seemingly a combine of Arabic social nuance and the influence of urban street culture).

This more fractious side of the 'Arab Invasion' has been well aired, from a weekly anonymous column writer for a respect weekend broadsheet - providing a second hand account from his clients - to the locals and tourists who populate a near=by pub. Some locals even think it drole to intentionally leave empty packets of Camel cigarettes strategically placed – a far more childish act by those that should know better when compared to the unthinking escapades of peddling Arab youth.

Yet for all the accidental faux-pas of the Arabic community they have not only helped prop-up the central London economy, the influential Al-Thani's have demonstrated their interest in maintaining and boosting London traditions, so as to add to the social fabric of the city.

Two Harrods' related transport elements 'old' and 'new' seek to maintain and develop local tradition.

Firstly is the iconic horse-drawn delivery van. Although it may well be 'part & parcel' of the store owners 'obligations' (very possibly written into the contract of sale) nevertheless, the franchise holder who stables the beautifully kept horses 'plys his wears' 8 days a year adding immeasurably to the grandeur of the SW1 surrounds, providing a truism to the nearby road of South Carriage Drive, aswell as of course underpinning the character of the Harrods brand.

Secondly, since April 1st 2011 has been the creation of a Harrods' London Tour Bus, which unlike the usual modern tour buses uses a classic Routemaster model to evoke the spirit of London, a model now only seen on the 2 London Heritage routes (Nos 9 & 15). Three buses operate in conjunction with Premium Tours and their green and gold livery and open top deck make for a 'sterling sight' around town.

However, most obvious aspect of the Arabic annual arrival is the influx of imported super-cars and limousines bearing Arabic script registration plates. These tend to accompany other London-housed vehicles kept all year round, the UK cars typically wearing personal number plates relating to the car model or owner, or a 'Q' identifier in the middle of the plate representing 'short-stay' registration or a 'D' identifier which indicates diplomatic issue.

However, even by previous annual standards, 2010 and 2011 were significant years for the amount of Arabic owned cars brought to London.

In essence, a true 'Car-nival'.

Reports estimate the value of those imported cars in 2011 alone reached £80m, this a very real possibility when one considers that given that models such as the Bugatti Veyron are priced at £1m+ each with special editions £1.3m+. Add the large number of various personal cars, family sedans & 4x4s and staff cars aswell other items such as motorcycles and 'toys' such as quad-bikes etc: the overall value is sizeable indeed.

Whether exaggerated or not, the very fact that the cars have indeed been transported from those GCC countries to the UK has meant significant income for those companies which offer premium vehicle transportation services.

Moreover, when inside the country the cars typically require scheduled valeting and with the super-car models typically undergoing 'top-to-toe' servicing and parts from respected UK dealers across: Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston Martin, Koenigsegg, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Porsche, Mercedes, BMW & Audi.

Furthemore, a plethora of black (typically security staff) Range Rovers are strewn around the SW1 vicinity, cars which may dominate the street-scape elsewhere become liitle more than an (intendedly) anonymous backdrop to the league of extra-ordinary machines.

This year offered the following, no doubt only a fraction amongst a larger contingent
Been more visual play than other years

Two Bugatti Veyron's (including a L'Edition Centenaiire, its white pearlescent paint a nice reference to Gulf pearl divers of old)
McLaren-Mercedes SLR Convertible
Rolls Royce Phantom convertible (matt white)
Two Maybach Coupes
Two Maybach 57 Limousines
Two 'Gullstream' adaptions of the Mercedes SLS by FAB Design
Various Porsche GT 2 & 3
Various Bentley Continental Flying Spur saloons
(the most entertaining of which appear in matt pink body-finish, see Post Script).
(investment-auto-motives nick-named these the 'Flying Painted Ladies' in a nod to the Ealing Comedy film)
Various Porsche Cayennes

Conspicuous by their absence – at least to investment-auto-motive's – were the Al-Thani's own Royal fleet of powder-blue cars, its Koenigsegg CCXR and Lamborghini Murcielago which caused such a stir last year. “Discretion...” no doubt seen as “...the better part of valour”.

[NB Conversely, unlike the 'Flying Painted Ladies' it must be said that some of the highly adapted vehicles that have undergone expensive but insensitive cosmetic alterations do border the ungainly and gaudy, the 'designwork' less than sensitive to the original design intent of the cars. However others, such as one Cayenne witnessed (in white & black) far more restrained and thus pleasing].

Yet the 'Sloane Street Pageant' is not all about imported foreign 'bling' vehicles. The periodic appearance of a classic British vehicles creates a counter-balance, whether in the form of a local Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud III, Series 1 Jaguar E-Type, Speed 6 Bentley, Alvis TE21, or even the stark shape of a Series 1 SWB Land Rover. There is even a retrospective conversion of a stock Mini adapted into a mock-Radford Mini.

In its own subtle manner of less conspicuous modern-age consumption, there is a local Bristol Fighter in orange, which elicits a 'Pavlovian' head-turning reaction.

Of course it was precisely amongst this vehicular throng that McLaren Automotive sited its flagship London viewing room space at 1 Hyde Park: positioned the top of Sloane Street in the commercial and touristic heart of SW1.

All these cars then make for a wonderful contrast and compare exercise, and add a layer of automotive interest to the equally mixed architecture. In effect, a 'rolling showroom and museum' which allows interested passers-by to take a close-up viewing not available to most; a wonderful combination of the London MotorExpo, Beaulieu Motor Museum and Salon Prive.

A left-leaning oppositional argument posits that during this dour economic time, such display of hyper-consumerism may appear out of kilter and possibly insensitive. Indeed a true realisation of Guy Debord's 'Society of the Spectacle' (1967): in which “the history of human life can be understood as the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing...the historic moment in which the commodity completes its colonization of social life”

From the philosophical standpoint, the case (by Debord) is well made, and he effectively posthumously states “j'accuse” to the participants and viewers of the 'Arab Car-nival' alike.

Yet this is also precisely why this informal everyday summer pageant must be viewed as playing a far more important role than simply one of 'peasants ogling the elite'.

The parked and moving vehicle processions not only add a much needed up-beat relief to Londoners themselves, with colour, glamour and sophistication; but add an expected 'London-zing' for those UK citizens visiting the capital on holiday or business.

Whatever age and whether from Southport or South Yorkshire they consciously or sub-consciously seek to immerse themselves into an upscale experience, one that otherwise for the most part only tends to exists for the majority of the population in a very manufactured form via TV or the local premium gym or golf club. Not to say central London is the only monopolistic enclave of wealth and sophistication, of course most cities and counties have their own special quarters, just that London given its size and central draw should indeed match the oft hyped expectation.

And in this manner the Arabic supercar owners are presenting a form of street-scape theatre.

However, there is also a far more serious aspect which relates to Britain's own industrial future.

investment-auto-motives believes that the vehicles of the 'Arab Influx' offer an automotive 'dream-scape' which has for the most part been lost, especially to the young.

The previously rising wealth of the nation allowed families to place new or nearly-new cars on their driveways. Hence, the yesteryear lived desire for the luxurious, sporting and glamorous has been largely lost, satiated (even now) by credit-boosted sales incentives and the creep of premium badges into compact car territory. Equally what was once behind the hallowed glass of the smart dealership and made all the more remote by the wait for a driving licence, has become 'available' through the virtual (ie hyper-real) video game console and produced TV shows and music videos. Ever more involving driving games and the cyber-ability to instantaneously upgrade the model 'owned' on screen. In cyber space everyone is driving an Enzo or Zonda. Although physically unreal, the game experience mean that the teenager (indeed now the 20-30-something 'kidults') partially feel that he/she has 'been there'. This perhaps a substitutional necessity because real-world ownership or involvement with an Enzo or Zonda feels so remote. More so than that Jaguar or Rover saloon sat behind 1960s plate-glass. Thus whilst the hyper-real evocation of supercars has both raised their aspirational quotient, the process itself only serves to demonstrate that the real is in reality far further away; hence reliance on the superficial..

The real-world 'Car-nival' then makes the typically virtual truly tangible..
And in a way this 'materialisation' of the virtual could be a future consumption trend that affects our socio-economic foundations.

In a very unstructured notion, investment-auto-motives believes that - in the Jean Baudrillardian sense - whilst in the 20th century, cinema, TV, gaming etc blurred the subject (person) and object (screen) boundaries through a one-way absorption of person into the screen, the 21st century could see a reversal of the process. Whereby that which is apparently pluralistic yet ephemeral on-screen becomes - through a process of personal decision-making – leads to a singularly chosen or designed virtual item that is assembled to produced a tangible 'self-designed' product &/or service.

It of course already happens in a manner with internet-based car retailing, colour choices, decal graphics and options & accessories can be built-up on screen and viewed before placing a personal order system; though of course it represents a small percentage of sales compared to the usual inventory-based sales system.

But such methods have been emerging, and the likes of ebay, on-line retailing, open-source networking, mass-personalisation, and even hands-on make-do-and-mend attitudes to personal repair and re-creation those trends which combined are the component parts of this seemingly emerging new era. When coalesced, a future 'Arcadia' developed by social and technical structures ranging from: altered vintage clothing (enabled by the individual) to localised character batch-built production (enabled by 'associate' employees) to rapid prototype produced items (enabled by advanced systems & materials).

This a reversal of contemporary 'throw-away' consumption, allowing for greater media-enabled participation of the 'discerning' consumer. Thus a future western world of less rabidly bought and consumed 'clutter', and more infrequently purchased but better considered and detailed 'special pieces'.

The supercar represents exactly this, akin to Savile Row tailoring: the limited edition or bespoke. And whereas Roland Barthes gave the (then) modern car [ie original Citroen DS] the mantle of representing man's supreme achievement by stating the 'Car as Cathedral', that honour now goes to the Supercar. NASA of course surpassed the DS by placing man on the moon, but the Bugatti Veyron supposedly has greater (self regulating) computing power than the Apollo missions.

Thus the Supercar espouses and marries both technology and craftsmanship; the Morgan Aeromax upholding that maxim at one-tenth the price of the Bugatti Veyron.

Unlike most modern cars, they are items which not only absorb the emotion they absorb the intellect, something that supercar brands have long appreciated and traded upon. You won't here a Vectra, Mondeo, Megane or 308 driver discussing vehicle mass-distribution, pendulum forces, the importance of unsprung weight or indeed the technical heritage of their brand, but the like is learned and passed-on by supercar and sportscar drivers – whether the pub bore or not is another matter!

For most 20-somethings, 30-somethings and definitely 40-somethings - unless financially able to afford to join the supercar club – personal interest diminishes to little more than a passing interest on a TV programme or car magazine; the necessities of 'making ends meet' and 'getting by' instilling the 'dis-illusionment' of adulthood.

Conversely and critically though, for unencumbered, imaginative youngsters & teenagers the visual and technical exoticness of supercars can be wholly absorbing: items like gull-wing doors, air-brakes, exposed-view mid-mounted engines, over-sized brake callipers, gas-filled tyres and general packaging-led (or not) unconventional aesthetic and styling.

The informal 'Arab Car-nival' then is important precisely because it wows the 'wide-eyed' little boy or girl and intelligently enchants the teenager who views a Veyron, Aventador, MP4-12C, SLR, Vantage or 599. To them it is not purely as a spectacle, as is to the adult, but something spectacular.

All this makes for a wonderful day out and memories for children and parents alike, and for car-mad and tech-savvy teenagers & 20-somethings wielding camera-phones and video cameras, a type of automotive safari seeking out the next 'catch'.

This all undoubtedly adds to future generation's interest in vehicles, engineering and technology

And it is here that such cars – scientifically advanced in so many ways – should be viewed by policy-makers and educationalists as central hubs for STEM subjects learning. These cars and brands can acting as an enjoyable intellectual portal into various sub-disciplines from general physics to biologically inspired engineering, to materials science & chemistry and nano-technology and so far beyond.

Furthermore, business studies and perhaps even the oft dry realms of academic economics could be made real by reviewing and considering the commercial aspect of supercar manufacture and retailing & after-sales service.

Cars and supercars in particular should be better used as case-study materials, and much of the modern scientific and commercial world made accessible through these 'entry portals' for young minds.

[NB This is why investment-auto-motives was so keen that the educational remit of the BBC retain its links with Formula One motorsport even after the hand-over of race coverage rights to Sky].

Simply by enjoying and displaying their expensive and enthralling cars, the Arab gentlemen (and indeed many ladies) are very probably already having a marked effect in shaping young minds.

And is is by virtue of their innate level of wealth that – whilst not careless - they are not overtly protective of their vehicles (as so many regular premium car-owners tend to be, keeping the car parked away from crowds and the possibility of minor damage). As a result the cars are 'available' for people and especially children and teenagers to get close to them; the very antithesis of the barrier-defended motorshow stand in which only the select few can walk up to the cars.

Thus whilst most viewers show respect to car and owners – mostly out of positive 'shock & awe' – those small children who are unaware yet still enthralled are not lambasted by owners as hands (sticky or not) roam over the paintwork. In short there is not any of the stuffiness or intentionally inferred class-divide on the streets of SW1 as would be found in other supercar environs.

By far the best thing has been the humour and goodwill is accompanied the cars, infact created by the cars. So it is little surprise that whilst creations like the afore-mention Bentley 'Fast Painted Ladies' may be viewed as ranging from unorthodox to 'not the done thing' to downright tacky, the fact is that cars reflect the 'entertainment value' of the light-hearted Arabic 'show'. Moreover, owners have shown themselves to be more than willing to have their cars photographed by fans and tourists alike, and today (perhaps unlike the past) try to both entertain the crowds whilst typically trying to stay within the bound of the law.

[NB whilst there have been undoubtedly a few moments of over-exuberance, the owner drivers have during day-time hours at least been largely courteous drivers keeping well within the general driving laws. There appears to have been a year on year evolutionary change in attitudes, for the far better].

Whilst there may be a few bad instances it seems that as a group their has been a commensurate effort to try and dispel the image of the careless, irresponsible Arab playboy who throws money at problems to make them disappear. Instead today wanting to contribute to the look and feel of Sloane Street by way of a glamorous parade of cars that well match the glamorous parade of shops, and some of the GCC's most high profile investment pieces.

The emergence of this summer-time show did not escape the notice of PSA's senior management when they had the road-going concept car 'GT by Citroen' built and paraded around Kensington's 'Arab-circuit' last summer. This then is an understandable PR act by Citroen, so as to try and elevate their brand perception through on-street demonstrate directly to high-net worth shoppers and tourists alike.

But it would indeed be a great shame if the 'Arab Car-nival' were to be commercially high-jacked by automakers vying for public profile. Such efforts over-done only serve to ultimately undermine the enjoyment of the social phenomenon that has emerged. A direct comparison to say that of the Notting Hill carnival is plainly ridiculous given the Afro-Caribbean event's scale and varied demographic, but the notion of spoiling the general organic spectacle with obvious commercial overtones is prescient. Fortunate for Citroen that they arrived early with their visual coup, and by doing so re-animated Barthes phrase.

So the annual car-nival did indeed come to London, and still can be viewed albeit in a more muted manner as the GCC visitors return home now that temperatures have become more amenable.

But for those who don't live or visit London, investment-auto-motives hopes the following youtube clips offer an enjoyable insight.

Let's hope for a similar show again next year....”inshallah!”. After all, the London economy may very well still require such 'off-set spending' from the GCC, and more importantly, such a wonderful melding of (previously distorted) cultures is undoubtedly all for the good.

Let us then hope, whilst the victims of 9/11 and Iraq will never be forgotten, the that everyday world should not be allowed to once again dramatically falter socially nor economically through inter-regional misrepresentation and so misapprehension.

Post Script:

The emergence of alternative matt-finish colourways (eg pink) have been deployed to 'cock a snook' at the now very passé black matt re-spray treatments which came into being about 4 years ago, then trickling-down into the wealthier suburbs. Here, the typical example is that of an older premium car with personal plate and matt-black colour used to 'pep-up' the vehicle and disguise its real age. As such it has become a distinguishing feature (economic indicator) of the declining 'arriviste' hit by the financial crisis.