Watch out for Baghdad's Rolex shop

On the corner of Baghdad's rich Mansour neighborhood, a shop displays a giant green Rolex logo. But this is no ordinary Rolex shop.

While the shop is an imitation of a typical Rolex store, owner Ali Abodi says the timepieces for sale are genuine. Hadeel Al Sayegh / The National
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On a corner in Baghdad's rich Mansour neighbourhood, a shop displays a giant green Rolex logo. But this is no ordinary Rolex shop.

Inside, the Swiss watches are on display behind glass cabinets, along with other expensive brands such as Patek Phillipe and Raymond Weil.

The store's owner, Ali Abodi, says the timepieces for sale are genuine.

But the store itself is not. Mr Abodi hired a contracting company to create a replica of a typical Rolex store.

In the West, his actions might be interpreted as an infringement on Rolex's rights.

But in Iraq, as violent attacks and car bombs hamper business activity, merchants are hailed for their risk-taking while international brands are still reluctant to have a presence. Several fake shops have opened in the neighbourhood in recent months - among them a Facebook cafe, a Pizza Hut and a "KFC Krunchy Fried Chicken".

"I buy my watches from Dubai," says Mr Abodi. "I also deal in rare watches and sell them to my clientele here in Iraq and Amman."

An official at the Swiss watch company said Rolex "was aware" that Mr Abodi was running his store under its brand.

"It's difficult for us to undertake any action," the official said, noting the deteriorating security environment in the country.

Last week, Mr Abodi said he had sold a US$9,000 Patek Phillipe watch encrusted in diamonds to a young woman who had just completed a university degree in pharmacy.

His store sells antique models as well as expensive modern timepieces.

A Roskopf pocket watch, engraved in Ottoman Arabic calligraphy with the name AbdulAziz Al Saud, the first monarch of Saudi Arabia, is up for sale. Mr Abodi said the king wore the watch during a brief trip to Iraq in the 1920s.

In one cabinet is an alarm clock that Mr Abodi claims stood at the bedside of Iraq's King Faisal I. The clock's display has a picture of a sailing boat.

"Look at the sailboat carefully," he says. "You will see the figure of the boat carefully says the word 'Allah'."

Mr Abodi thinks the time and money invested in creating his store will help to secure a local franchise agreement with Rolex.

Rolex says it does not plan to establish a local partnership in Iraq anytime soon, citing security concerns. "We absolutely depend on secure facilities to import valuable goods," the official said.

Rolex had a presence in Iraq in the 1960s, when its flagship store was located in Baghdad's banking district on Al Rasheed Street, and it had several local franchises in the country before its relationship with its Iraqi partners ended in the early 1990s.

Back then, the local partner was an Iraqi called Elias Thomas George who had an exclusive partnership agreement for Rolex at his store Swiss Watch Company.

Mr George's son, Hakim, now in his 50s and living in London, says: "Baghdad's high society liked these watches. They were seen as prestigious and used as a status symbol."

He says his father had links to Saddam Hussein's regime, and the business thrived as the government ordered Rolex watches with Saddam or his signature on the face.

"They were used to reward captains of the industry, exceptional students at schools, my father would supply big numbers of them to the government."

As the volume of sales grew, his father opened more stores in Baghdad.

But after the 1991 Kuwait invasion, it was impossible to import watches, Hakim George says.

Eventually the spare parts from the old store and the equipment used to maintain the watches were sold on the street and Mr Abodi spotted an opportunity - he bought the parts and set up his own shop.

"Everyone has a hobby," Mr Abodi says, "Mine was Rolex watches."