By Mark Seaman
The Introductory bit
Your author is British, living
and working in the hot and sunny Middle East, specifically, the island kingdom
of Bahrain (more about that shortly).
Though rapidly approaching my
40th birthday many (including my wife and 2 daughters) would say, perhaps not
altogether complimentarily, that I remain a kid at heart – long may that be
I try to behave responsibly
while undertaking my ‘proper’ job as an advisor to the Bahrain Government.
Whilst not doing that I do a little watch trading and collecting and at
weekends, try to recapture a little sense of home by playing cricket, badly.
The Geography bit
For those without an atlas at
hand, Bahrain is a small archipelago of 36 islands in the Arabian (or Persian)
Gulf, covering approximately the same area as another island state, Singapore.
It is small, low-lying and mainly desert like, with one rapidly expanding city,
the capital Manama. A 25-km causeway connects Bahrain to the east coast of Saudi
Arabia. The population of Bahrain is only approximately 650,000, with two-thirds
of this number being nationals. The remaining third are expatriate workers,
mostly from the Indian sub-continent, though with a few other nationalities to
liven things up.
Those of you desperate for more
info can surf around, with the following sites useful –
The Socio-Economic bit
Since independence in 1971,
Bahrain has historically been an absolute monarchy, with laws being passed by
decree by the hereditary ruler, the Emir. Significant steps towards a transition
to democracy are now being undertaken, with the country being declared a Kingdom
and parliamentary elections scheduled for October 2002, a fairly novel concept
for this part of the world.
Bahrain faces a challenging
future, being the first Gulf state to discover oil in the early 1930’s, its
dependence on oil production and refining has been great. Now the oil is about
to run out and the country must diversify. Banking, aluminum production, ship
repair and tourism are the main areas of business now and Bahrain continues to
open itself to the business world.
Though not yet reaching the
ubiquity of some cities, new McDonalds, Burger Kings and Starbucks etc are
opening regularly. It may be 105 degrees Fahrenheit outside, but in the
air-conditioned shopping malls you can sip a Café Mocha with whipped cream,
listening to Madonna coming out of the background music loudspeakers and read
the latest copy of Wristwatch International. If it wasn’t for the background
hubbub of Arabic and the number of people wandering past in national dress you
could be anywhere!
The Watch bit
Seventy years of the oil
industry has of course created a great deal of wealth. In 10 minutes of driving
on a Bahrain highway, you will see the wares of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche and
Lexus prominently. Exotic Italian machinery from Ferrari, Lamborghini and
Maserati are not uncommon. Behind the wheel of all these cars are sophisticated
shoppers who enjoy good food, regular travel and more often than not a nice
Five dealers basically satisfy
the market for fine timepieces in Bahrain. Some of these have two stores though
one dealer, dealing solely in Rolex, Tudor and Longines has one store only.
There is no competition for brands in the fine watch market – a sole agency
agreement has existed for many years. Therefore, if one wants an IWC, Cartier,
Zenith or Panerai one visits dealer X, if one wants an Audemars Piguet, Patek
Philippe, Omega or Breguet one visits dealer Y and so on.
Whilst on first consideration
this may appear to be problematical for the watch consumer, in reality for
commonly available watches competition is generated by the close proximity of
other countries, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and Kuwait particularly. Discounts
can be significant if you are proficient in the traditional Arab art of
Also important are the number
of high quality duty free establishments in these countries and the frequent
trips abroad people in this region typically make.
One very interesting area of
watch purchasing in Bahrain is the availability of ‘hot’ new releases.
Although in many ways, this country is a quiet backwater, demand for the latest
‘must-have’ watch is just as high here as anywhere else. One of the first
words of Arabic I learnt when coming to Bahrain was ‘wasta’, which
translates approximately as ‘influence’. This is a vital component in all
walks of life in Bahrain, though I can confirm that if you wanted to be the
first on the block with a Patek Philippe 10-day power reserve, it was vital that
you built up your reserves of ‘wasta’ with your friendly dealer!
As with every rule comes an exception, not all watches popular in the West are as popular here. This lesson was hammered home to me
during a casual visit to the local IWC dealer one day in 1999. I had just
obtained a second-hand yellow gold IWC meca-quartz chronograph in very bad shape
and took it to the dealer, so that he could ship it off to Schaffhausen for them
to work their magic. After browsing through their showroom display for the
umpteenth time, the dealer told me that he had some old stock in the safe and
asked if I’d like to see it. Of course, with nothing better to do I said yes.
After rummaging through a number of Portofinos, two Romana perpetual calendars
and a couple of Novecentos I was happy enough, however, the dealer told me he
had one more watch, a big old, uncomplicated platinum watch that I probably
wouldn’t be interested in. Seconds later I was looking in awe at a brand new,
pristine 1993 Jubilee Portugueser, one of my absolute favourites!
Suffice to say, though my
personal funds would not allow me to pick the watch up for myself, a little
investigation found a gentleman in the USA who was only too happy to oblige.
(And no – the dealer doesn’t have any more!)
An area yet to be properly
exploited in Bahrain in my opinion is the second-hand high-end watch market.
There are a couple of stores carrying sad, uninspiring assortments of 20 year
old Longines and overpriced Rolexes, but no-one has yet been able to offer
anything approaching the type of service I have found in certain areas of New
York, Singapore or on Bond Street in London. There is certainly a small but
viable market, which appears to be currently filled by a couple of people
trading in watches from the boot (or ‘trunk’ for our American friends) of
their car. Whilst I participate in this to a very small degree, I can state that
there is a guy driving around in Bahrain, who has on average, at least $200,000
worth of watches in two old suitcases in the back of his Nissan!
The annual highlight of the
watch scene in Bahrain is the Watch and Jewellery exhibition held in October /
November. This is like a mini-Basel, with representatives of all the major
brands showcasing their products. Visitors in the last two years have included
Mr. Stern of Patek, F.P. Journe, Svend Andersen and also the very interesting
100 Years of Watchmaking exhibition by Antiquorum.
This exhibition has been very
interesting for me in the past, meeting some interesting people and viewing some
fabulous watches, including minute repeaters and tourbillons from various
manufacturers. This year’s exhibition will take place in late October, I’d
better start saving!
The concluding bit
Well, thanks for reading this
far. As is apparently so often the case in expatriate workers, I originally came
to Bahrain for three or four years. Eight years later I am still here and see no
reason to return to the vagaries of the British climate.
During my time here I have met
some fascinating people and been lucky enough to talk with watch collectors with
fantastic collections who have extended my knowledge and understanding of fine
timepieces by generously allowing me to lust after their treasures. Couple this
with compulsive viewing of the Internet watch sites we all know and love and
what used to be a minor interest of mine has become a consuming passion.
I hope that all of you enjoy
our shared interest as much, wherever in the world YOU might be.
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