Are personalised plates vanity or a sane investment?

Peter Hellyer fails to understand why some people love special car number plates.

The recent auction of car plates in Abu Dhabi. WAM
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Every now and then, a news story prompts an OMG! moment, when I gasp, sometimes mentally, sometimes physically, at what seems to my somewhat staid mind to be a display of almost inexplicable folly.

I had another one of those moments over the weekend on reading the news that someone had just paid Dh31 million for a car licence plate, number 1 in the “50” category specially created to mark the 50th anniversary of the accession of the late Sheikh Zayed as Ruler of Abu Dhabi. The auction, run in collaboration with the Abu Dhabi Police, attracted several other bids in the multiple millions for other apparently less desirable numbers.

At a similar auction in Dubai a few weeks ago, an expatriate businessman splashed out Dh33m for another supposedly special plate, destined, he was reported as saying, for “one of his Rolls Royces”.

Government will, no doubt, have good and productive ideas on ways to spend the money being collected from the auctions – Dh99m alone from the most recent one in Abu Dhabi. Indeed, perhaps they deserve congratulations for having identified this fairly painless source of raising additional revenue.

Much easier than taxation and some of the money raised will go to good causes. I have yet to comprehend, however, why people are prepared to splash out so much cash on a mere number plate.

A few thousand dirhams, or perhaps a few tens of thousands, for those who can afford it, for a number that coincides with a birthday might make some sense, but millions of dirhams?

It was suggested by one bidder, or so it was reported, that such licence plates are now good investments, that can be flipped for a profit after a while.

Well, possibly, although I wonder how often such investments actually perform.

For many buyers, though, I suspect that the real reason for their purchases may be found in the description of such items as “vanity plates”. Is a desirable number really worth anything much beyond the satisfaction it provides to the self-esteem of the purchaser?

My astonishment, my OMG! moments, are probably, in part, a response to global inflation. A pursuit of personalised number plates isn't new, of course.

Back in the 1960s, a British politician called Sir Gerald Nabarro was widely known not only for his inordinately luxuriant moustache but also for his ownership of several special number plates, including NAB1, NAB2 and NAB3. I doubt that he paid tens of thousands of pounds for them, but they did relate to his name.

It's not only in the UAE that people are prepared to pay large sums for simple numbers.

In my other home of Jersey, someone paid £22,000 (Dh 99,600) for the number plate J004 last month, with another resident forking out £50,000 for J008 last June, though most plates there fetched between £1,000 and £5,000. I'm bemused by that, too.

It's not for me to lecture others on how they should spend their money – that's a matter of personal choice, after all.

Were I to be so fortunate as to have huge sums of surplus cash waiting around to be spent, though, I like to think I would seek satisfaction in a different way.

The building of several schools in a developing country, the launching of an important wildlife conservation programme, the endowment of a scientific research fund – all could be done for a few million dirhams, perhaps being named in honour of the donor, with the benefit long outliving them.

Perhaps I should just admit that, while there are many aspects of the way in which the world has changed in my lifetime that I welcome, there are others that I am unlikely ever to fully understand.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture