For once, a tale of wretched excess is not ours

My father recently emailed me a story that ran in the Wall Street Journal. Seems that vanity license plates are the rage in the United Arab Emirates, a very pleasant, oil-rich, friendly country in the Middle East, next to Saudi Arabia. An Abu Dhabi businessman Saeed Khouri made the Guinness Book of World Records when he paid $14 million for a license plate simply reading: 1.

OK, fine. I get it. He's a businessman in an oil-rich country. He's going to have some money that I don't have, and maybe he made some better choices in life, perhaps, like going into business instead of writing. So he has a license plate worth more than my car -- and house -- and life's possessions. I'm not jealous. (Well, maybe a little.)

The article explains how low-digit numbers are a status symbol, and so even mediocre, but low, numbers can fetch quite a price. In 10 auctions that have been held, buyers spent $120 million for 900 plates. The money is going to go to build a new trauma hospital for traffic-accident victims.
The story finishes with this 15-year-old kid from the UAE who pays $530,000 to win the license plate that reads: 29. It apparently was very important to him. That's a little dizzying and depressing. Here the kid can't even drive yet, and he has the money to fork over for a license plate, during a time when a million houses in America are in the process of being foreclosed.

But there was one bright spot to reading all of this. There have been so many times the rest of the world has read articles about Americans' wealth and watched shows like Dallas and more recently The O.C., and you could almost feel the disgust wafting over the ocean from our friends from other nations. It's kind of nice for a change to read about some country doing stupid, reckless things with their money -- and it's not us!

Still, as my father quipped when he sent this to me: "Does this emphasize the need to reduce our dependence on the Middle East's oil or what?"

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale). He used to live in the UAE as a kid and, vanity license plates aside, has a lot of fond memories of the place.
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