Dubai, Abu Dhabi: When Fares Al Mazroui imported a Tesla Roadster into the UAE way back in 2008, customs officials weren’t quite sure what to do.
The Emirati businessman, 33, had purchased one of the first few dozen all-electric sports cars from the California-based auto firm — production number 86, to be precise.
“I went to customs, and they couldn’t register it as a Tesla, so they just put it as a Lotus,” says Al Mazroui. The British car maker Lotus shared several parts with the first Tesla model.
A week later, Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority officials added the Tesla brand to its database, saving Al Mazroui’s car from legal limbo.
Today, in a region where gas-guzzlers still rule the roads, electric cars are still rare.
Some UAE dealers do offer battery-operated models, such as Renault’s ultra-tiny Twizy and the larger Zoe, but models commonly found in America or Europe, such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt, are not yet on sale.
Hybrid vehicles, where a petrol engine and battery pack work in tandem, are a far more common sight.
For Tesla fans, the only way to own one of the cars — which cost anywhere from Dh240,000 to Dh425,000 — is to import one outside of the maker’s official channels.
Unlike almost all car brands, Tesla sells cars directly, breaking from the official maker-to-dealer business model. But the complete lack of formal presence anywhere in the Middle East means that if things go wrong, there’s no one local to turn to for help.
Just four months after getting his Tesla Roadster to the UAE, Al Mazroui found that its battery had died over the summer months. [An inexperienced mechanic had forgotten to keep the car charged.]
To fix it, the businessman, who runs ForwardIt, a shipping service firm in the US, had to pay to have the car transported to the UK by air.
There, as the car was under warranty, Tesla replaced the damaged parts for free.
Tesla’s firstborn, the Roadster, “was a nice car but the quality wasn’t there,” says Al Mazroui. Even Tesla founder, Elon Musk, has since admitted that his maiden machine “broke down all the time,” and “didn’t really work”.
But Tesla — and the make’s popularity in the UAE — have come a long way since then. A WhatsApp group made up of 29 Tesla drivers based in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait has seen steady growth since 2014.
The informal UAE branch even meets sometimes to take photos, exchange tips, and discuss the highs and lows of ownership.
And Al Mazroui believes there are more Tesla owners in the UAE, and hopes to reach out to them.
Fellow Tesla owners, he says, share some kind of spirit — perhaps of progress, or maybe just wealth. “You’ve seen them on the road and you have a Tesla, you get along.”
Tech lovers taken by Tesla’s vision of an all-electric age — and an array of on-board gadgetry found in all models — say that they, too, have seen the future.
“I look at conventional cars as being outdated, as an ancient technology,” says Abu Dhabi-based Ajlaan Saeed, who owns a Tesla Model S bought last year.
His car, which he got after selling his Audi, had already been imported into the UAE but never driven by the owner.
“It was like an unwanted gift,” the Emirati, 40, adds.
As well as his day job as a supply specialist at the state-run oil giant Adnoc, Saeed seems to serve as an evangelist for electric vehicles.
After his purchase, his brother and father were each persuaded to buy the cars — both of the same Model S line.
In Dubai, loyal Tesla drivers include members of the royal family, several car dealers told Gulf News.
Aside from the apparent regal stamp of approval, there has, maybe, never been a better time to own an electric vehicle in the UAE.
By the end of last year, Dubai’s Electricity and Water Authority (Dewa) had set up 100 electric-car charging stations across the emirate.
Owners of electric cars like Al Mazroui can sign up for a green charger card, which is inserted into the charging stations.
In June that same year, Dewa signed up the first green charger user — and held a small ceremony where they handed over the small credit card-sized plastic token to its beaming owner.
Less cash, more dash
To charge their cars, cardholders can either purchase credit from Dewa or link the power usage to their home bill.
According to Al Mazroui, a full charge for any Tesla costs only around Dh20 — around five times cheaper than the average tank of petrol for cars of a similar size.
However, to save an agonising wait at a hot outdoor plug-in point, electric car users should probably charge at home overnight, he advises.
Charging a car with completely drained batteries takes time.
Dewa’s smallest wall-mounted unit will take three to four hours for a full tank of electrical juice, while using one of only four fast-charging units in the emirate will take around 40 minutes.
As well as cheap — even if slow — electric car owners in Dubai can use better parking spaces, marked in green, at several locations.
City authorities plan to add more.
Yet electric car drivers living in other emirates should probably make sure there is plenty of electrical juice left in the tank before leaving home.
While Dubai is dotted with charging stations, Abu Dhabi has just one station, located at a multistorey car park in the Al Dana district. Officials in the capital said in May that regulations were being worked on to roll out stations across the emirate.
For electric car owners in the Northern Emirates, there’s a sole charging station in Dubai’s rocky exclave of Hatta. Question of range
The very cheapest Tesla on offer, the Model S with a 60 kWh battery pack, will take the driver around 350 kilometres on a full charge.
The figure assumes that the air-conditioning is turned off and the average speed hovers at 105km per hour — 15km below the UAE’s speed limit on highways.
Starting in Abu Dhabi city, a trip to the centre of Fujairah, the UAE’s most eastern emirate, would take four hours and around 400km in distance, making the journey out of bounds for the Tesla. For owners of lower-cost electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf or Renault Zoe, which have 135km and 210km of range, respectively, the same trip would be completely out of question.
And for the UAE’s countless apartment dwellers, where home charging is usually not an option, public charging stations are essential, Saeed says.
A far more pressing question for Tesla fans is likely to centre on autopilot, a controversial option that enables the cars to drive mostly without human assistance. Does it work in the UAE?
“It works 100 per cent of the time, in Dubai,” says Mazroui, who claims that he first had to sign a waiver from Tesla before using the formally unsupported autopilot in the UAE.
Abu-Dhabi-based Saeed confirms the same. “I’m practically driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi without really touching the pedal,” he says.
Despite their chic, luxury vibe and futuristic qualifications, a patchy network of charging stations are likely to keep them off the radar for most UAE drivers for the next few years.
There are also other obstacles, says Amit Benjamin, the editor of Wheels, a UAE car magazine owned by Al Nisr Publishing, which also owns Gulf News.
“The battery discharges much more quickly when temperatures are high, thereby reducing the driving range drastically. That’s the reason why manufacturers are not bringing electric cars out here.”
Though for electric-car enthusiasts, there is just no better way to get around.
“You can’t appreciate something like a Tesla until you own it,” says Saeed. He has already ordered the brand’s new Model 3, well ahead of its late-2017 roll-out.
The new model, set for release by the end of next year, costs just Dh128,000 — roughly the same price as a high-spec Honda Accord in the UAE.
“I remember the whole thing that was going through my head when I was buying the car,” Saeed adds.
“I remember thinking: ‘I’ve driven to Dubai without using a single drop of petrol.’”