DUBAI: Upon the arrival of King Salman Abdul Aziz Al Saud in Indonesia on March 1, he is reported to have bestowed a number of gifts on his hosts, including ballpoint pens, an Arabian sabre, and Rolex watches.
Still to this day, such generosity is not uncommon for travelling heads of state, particularly those from the Gulf region.
The tradition of gift-giving in the Middle East, however, peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. A particular favourite for ministries and shaikhs across the region was personalised luxury wristwatches from makers such as Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe.
Now, these watches are making their way back on to the market.
Private jet pilots, oil and gas executives, and elite SAS commandos
“These pieces were created as gifts, often by a shaikh’s protocol department, who would commission these watches to give to police, heads of state, dignitaries, and ambassadors,” said Remy Julia, Christie’s Head of Watches for the Middle East, Africa, and India.
Watches were given to the private jet pilots of the Al Maktoum family, oil and gas executives, guests at honorary occasions such as anniversaries, and in one famous instance, as gifts to a group of elite British SAS commandos for their help in defeating a rebel uprising in Oman in the 1970s.
Malek Tarek, managing partner and co-founder of vintage watch shop Momentum, located in DIFC, said: “You can’t buy these in shops. They were never retailed, and they ended up coming on to the market because the people who were given them didn’t appreciate their true value. They just wanted to get the money for them, and that’s how they end up at auctions, or in watch shops.”
“A few of them are very collectible, a few are not,” he added.
Despite never being sold, these timepieces might not be as uncommon as they appear.
“This subcategory of watches reflects the sheer amount of money these countries spent on such things. They’re rare, but I can’t say there are hundreds. There are thousands,” said Malek.
Although many exist, Malek argued that most will remain in peoples’ lockboxes collecting dust, for sentimental reasons.
Resellers say that the majority of these pieces originate from foreign owners, where there isn’t a sense of patriotism stopping them from monetising the watch.
Some more valuable than others
The value of a vintage watch is typically defined by how many were produced, basically how rare they are; the wristwatch’s condition, and whether or not it comes with a box and papers; and provenance, so who gave it, who has owned it, and where it comes from.
According to Julia, some of the most sought-after watches from this era in the region include the Rolex Daytona and the Patek Philippe Nautilus, made for Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said of Oman, both featuring the Khanjar, a ceremonial Omani dagger, above the six hour mark.
This emblem makes the watch extremely rare, and important quality for collectors, and ensures that watch has “tremendous appeal,” said Julia.
A Patek Philippe Nautilus, made in 1978 for the Sultanate of Oman and featuring the Khanjar, sold for nearly $200,000 (Dh734,580) at a Christie’s auction in Dubai in 2016.
Also highly popular among collectors, according to Julia, are the Rolex models commissioned by either the UAE Ministry of Defence, or featuring the signature of His Highness Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of UAE and Ruler of Dubai, from his time as minister of defence.
These will often go for as much as $300,000, depending on how many were made.
These desirable watches from the UAE and Oman are not just appealing to buyers in the region, according to Christie’s head of watches, they’re appealing worldwide — “and they’ll continue to grow in value.”
Not all such watches are so popular, however.
“Vintage is a demand-driven market, and people aren’t crazy about collecting watches commissioned by the Saudi government,” said Malek.
Reclaiming history? Not yet
With a new found wealth, some locals are now trying to reclaim pieces of their history that might have gone abroad in 1970s and 1980s.
“We have sold watches that originally came from the royal family, back to young people from the same royal family. This new generation, who weren’t even born when those watches were given as gifts, can now afford them, and they want to own one because their grandfather has one,” said Malek.
“They want to buy back a piece of their history. They wear it with pride,” he added.
According to one Emirati, this was not always the case, however.
“At the time that these watches were being given out, they were not very popular. This has something to do with our culture,” said Adel Al Rahmani, the founder of the Dubai Watch Club.
According to Al Rahmani, the mentality was: “if I’m wearing a watch which has the UAE logo on it, everybody knows that it was a gift, so I’m not going to wear it, because people are going to think I couldn’t afford one myself.”
This explains why such watches are found now, 30 or 40 years later, in spectacular condition when they reach the market: many were simply never worn.
Even today, there’s still a bit of ego when it comes to these watches, said Al Rahmani, because they’re considered as gifts.
“First, we need to see others buying these watches, which we’re seeing now, and then we will take interest in them. And that may very well happen in 10 years’ time, and we’ll start buying back the watches that we’ve historically had very little interest in,” he added.