Land Rover’s ties to the UAE go back a long way and continue to flourish today

Land Rover’s connection with the UAE goes back to the 1940s – and the British car manufacturer continues to foster this bond with much-loved models that can be personalised from the inside out.

Land Rover’s popular 4x4 models are specially crafted to handle off-roading. Courtesy Jaguar Land Rover
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In the grainy black-and-white video, a young Sheikh Zayed, the founding President of the UAE, is enjoying some downtime in the desert with a group of friends.

“The desert is still home,” says the clip’s overtly British narrator. “In the desert, for a day or a week or a month, they can go back to old and simpler ways, to a genuine sense of comradeship that the modern world leaves no time for … there’s the sky, the heat, the emptiness and the infinity of time that they’ve always understood.”

The men are surrounded by all the essential accoutrements of desert life: a falcon, firewood, the traditional dallah for pouring coffee, and that most trusted of off-road companions: a Land Rover.

There are few brands as ingrained in the history of the UAE as this. The first Land Rovers are believed to have come to the region as early as 1948 (long before Land Rover was even a company and the UAE was even a country). This was the year that the Land Rover Series I was launched, and the cars were used to ferry people around Sharjah International Airport, at the time an RAF base. Then there is a photograph of Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al Nahyan standing at Al Hosn fort, in front of two Land Rovers bearing the Abu Dhabi flag. Sheikh Zayed owned a number of the vehicles during his lifetime, and Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum was also often to be seen touring the UAE in his.

Land Rover will go further and say that its cars were instrumental in helping the country discover its oil wealth. “Since the launch of the Series I in 1948, Land Rover has been there alongside the pioneering and visionary individuals who shaped the landscape of the Middle East,” says Salman Sultan, PR, media-relations and social-media manager at Jaguar Land Rover Mena.

“In the early days, Land Rover provided an essential mode of transport, connecting people and states when few roads existed. In fact, as the only vehicle that could handle the harsh environment, for many people a Land Rover was the first car they ever saw.”

According to an anecdote on the company’s website: “Seismic surveyor Edward Cox vividly recalls travelling the length of the UAE, studying oil-bearing rock formations, venturing deep into the wadis, prospecting far into the desert in search of likely structures. Their surveying journeys took the team from Abu Dhabi inland to Liwa, all the way north to Umm Al Quwain and Ras Al Khaimah, across the Creek in Dubai and up into the mountains around Hatta. There was no part of the country they could not eventually reach, and the Land Rover wheels were often the first to make tracks in the sand in these places.”

Of course, the brand has had a long list of high-profile fans, from Sir Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II to Muhammad Ali and Johnny Cash, not to mention the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Beckhams. But it could not have been born from more humble beginnings.

In 1947, Maurice Wilks, engineer and chief designer of the British car company Rover, drew a sketch in the sand on a deserted beach in Wales. He was looking to build a light agricultural and utility vehicle to replace the World War II Jeep that he used on his own farm. Quite literally “born of the sand”, the Series I was an unashamedly utilitarian car that was initially only available in army surplus green and came with a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, producing just 50bhp. To avoid the United Kingdom’s purchase tax, it was classified as a commercial vehicle – which meant that its maximum speed was limited to 48kph on the road.

The car would quickly evolve. It was reclassified as a multipurpose vehicle, the chassis grew to offer more load space, and a five-door version became available in 1956. One thing that did not change was its inherent practicality. There was nothing here that wasn’t absolutely necessary – even the front radiator grille could be removed and used for cooking food over an open fire. Thousands of variations would come into being, and it would eventually spawn Land Rover’s famed Discovery and Defender models.

It is worth noting that while Land Rover was the designation first given to the Series I (designed, as it was, to be a “Rover for the land”), Land Rover as a company did not come into being until 1978. It was only after Rover was absorbed into the Rover-Triumph division of British Leyland in the late 1960s, and the ever-popular Range Rover was born, that Land Rover became an entity in its own right.

It remains a quintessentially British brand – the cars are still made in the original Lode Lane factory in the West Midlands town of Solihull, as well as a production plant in Halewood in Merseyside county. Nonetheless, about 80 per cent of production is exported out of the UK, with the Middle East and North Africa counting as the company’s fifth biggest market worldwide.

As those early sheikhs so clearly recognised, Land Rover cars are particularly well-suited to the harsh climate and unforgiving terrain in this part of the world. “Land Rover vehicles are engineered to provide class-leading levels of both on-road and off-road capabilities, and they have the reliability to endure the high temperatures, driving conditions and desert terrain that we experience here in the Middle East,” Sultan points out.

“The work our Engineering Test Centre conducts in Dubai includes extreme hot-weather vehicle research, development and testing. With temperatures in the desert typically reaching 48 to 50 degrees Celsius in the summer months, the centre offers a comprehensive range of tests, including durability, calibration and hot-weather testing for heat and humidity.”

This is reiterated in a video for #MYLAND – an initiative that celebrates the adventurous spirit of the Mena region and the long-standing relationship that Land Rover has had with this part of the world. The video shows cars that are equally at home criss-crossing sand dunes, splashing through wadis or traversing Dubai’s city streets.

At its essence, Land Rover is a brand synonymous with adventure, reliability and trustworthiness. Much of its success can be attributed to the fact that it values solid engineering as much as style, and to the way that it has remained loyal to its core DNA. Look at a Defender, Discovery Sport or LR4, and you can trace their lineage back to that sketch in the sand.

The same can be said of the Range Rover, which was launched in June 1970. Land Rover had long been playing with the idea of creating a more luxurious 4x4, something that would give farmers and outdoor workers an added layer of comfort, without sacrificing on ruggedness or practicality. Gordon Bashford and Spen King can be credited with creating one of the most distinctive cars on our roads today.

The first Range Rovers came with two doors and interiors that, in true Land Rover style, were decidedly spartan – a far cry from those to be found gracing the most recent iteration of the car.

The fourth-generation Range Rover comes with a new, lower, gently tapering roofline, distinctive wrap-around LED headlights and revised side vents on the doors. It promises improved aerodynamic efficiency, which will reduce fuel consumption on-road, while an overall reduction in weight is designed to improve agility and performance off-road. A 510PS V8 supercharged engine gets you from 0 to 100kph in 5.4 seconds.

The challenge, as ever, was to create something that was new and exciting, but still respectful of the Land Rover heritage. “When designing the new Range Rover, we really had to be careful about how far we stretched,” admits Gerry McGovern, design director and chief creative officer at Land Rover. “If we’d taken it too far, we would have ended up diluting that DNA and being generic. If we did not go far enough, we could be perceived as being retrospective. It was all about striking the right balance.”

Perhaps most exciting for the region’s legions of Range Rover fans is the plethora of customisation options on offer, including colour themes, veneers and headlining choices.

Customisation has become an increasingly important feature of the Jaguar Land Rover experience, with June 2014 marking the launch of Jaguar Land Rover Special Vehicle Operations, a division that caters to clients who want something a little out of the ordinary. It is responsible for classic car programmes, branded goods and vehicle-personalisation services.

In addition, the division is responsible for rolling out halo cars, vehicles that act as figureheads for the brand – ones that might sell in smaller numbers, but are designed to speak volumes about the manufacturer’s abilities and aspirations.

One such Special Vehicle Operations model is the Range Rover Sport SVR, which offers an eight-speed transmission with sharper, faster gearshifts, a switchable Active Sports Exhaust system with electronically controlled valves, and 16-way Sports Powered Seats made from perforated leather.

The Range Rover SVAutobiography, meanwhile, has been dubbed “the most luxurious and powerful series-production Range Rover in the model’s successful 45-year history”, and offers the option of a 550PS 5.0-litre V8 supercharged engine and a unique duotone body colour, combining a “Santorini Black” upper body with nine colour choices for the lower body.

The success of the Special Vehicle Operations division is probably best measured by the fact that a new 20,000-square-metre, £20 million (Dh97.5m) Special Vehicle Operations Technical Centre was inaugurated in the UK in July. Inspired by a Formula One engineering centre, the new facility is home to manufacturing, paint, technical and VIP commissioning and presentation zones. Customers are able to visit the Technical Centre’s Bespoke Commissioning Suite by invitation.

“The Middle East consumer is known to have an appetite for luxury vehicles, customisation and personalisation,” notes Sultan. “One of our Mena customers ordered a one-off Range Rover, for example, with a full stealth exterior and interior – all black with carbon-fibre veneers throughout the interior.

“We brought the Special Vehicle Operations services to the region to enable both brands to enhance their ability to offer bespoke products and deliver exceptional products that our customers can have a true bond with – and ultimately love for life.”

Land Rover embarked on the latest chapter in its evolution at the end of September, with the world premiere of its all-new Discovery. The full-size, seven-seat SUV offers all the Land Rover trademarks – ultimate comfort, exceptional styling and extreme functionality – and will no doubt reinforce the brand’s long-standing popularity in the UAE, and beyond.

Read this and more stories in Luxury magazine, out with The National on Thursday, October 6.