London calling: Gulf elite caught in conspicuous consumption

Middle East billionaires

Critically acclaimed Scottish photographer Dougie Wallace has stepped on some well-heeled toes with his latest documentary project where he turns his lens to the rising economic power of the “one per cent”.  His current exhibition, entitled Harrodsburg, captures the ultra-affluent visitors that inhabit – albeit only seasonally – the super-rich residential and retail district of London’s Knightsbridge and Chelsea.  Most of his subjects hail from the Gulf states of the Middle East, and gauging from their reaction – they are not quite ready for their close-up. 

Middle East billionairesThe project is a powerful and timely exposé of the superlatively wealthy foreigners who have turned London into an investment opportunity with benefits the entire family can enjoy. In 2012, with the UK economy stalled by the global financial crisis, nearly $130 billion worth of property was snapped up in London without financing, ten percent made through secretive offshore holding companies.  Old communities are being displaced by opulent enclaves of resplendent homes for Middle Eastern buyers, in areas newly dubbed as Little Doha or Qataropolis.

This is not just a momentary trend. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Emir of the tiny island nation of Qatar, now owns more of London than the Queen, including investments in The Shard, Canary Wharf, Barclays Bank and supermarket chain Sainsbury’s.

Middle East billionaires

Wallace’s images hone in on the petrochemical mega-rich, a world of luxury cars, plastic surgery, and bling – the tangible perks of economic privilege. Qataris, Emiratis, and Saudis loom large in his series, or more specifically, their wives do, lugging armfuls of designer shopping bags between posh shops and chauffeured limousines. Wallace has coined a name for their elite habitat, Harrodsburg, after the store that serves as a commercial Mecca.

He said his series tells a modern-day fairy tale of “glut, greed and the wealth gap playing out on the streets of a city which has seen a 400 per cent rise in demand for food banks in the last year.”

Middle East billionaires

“It’s like a safari,” said Wallace. “I can spot the face lifts, the pumped-up lips, from the other side of the street. My hit ratio of someone with a bad face lift is one a day.”

The Glaswegian is unapologetic about his methods, telling the British Journal of Photography, “They come here because the rule is they can do whatever they want,” he says. “Well, the rule of law [in the UK] says that I can photograph them.”

Middle East billionairesThe pictures caused uproar in Qatar’s capital Doha where coverage by The Doha News prompted nearly half a million unique visits to the photographer’s website. That story linked to the hashtag #دوغي_والاس, where Qatari commentators were vocal, saying (via Google Translate), “No one has the right to photograph any person,” “May God curse him” and, perhaps most egregious to the Scottish artist, calling him an “English moron”.

CNN, ITV, the Wall Street Journal and London Tonight, all jumped on the controversy, eager to have Wallace talk about (in his words) “pissing off the Arabs”.

Middle East billionairesHe elaborates on his website, “Eid Festival, or what has become known in luxury retail circles as the ‘Ramadan Rush’, is marked by the sudden and conspicuous influx of dozens of wealthy Arab royals and businessmen escaping the extreme summer heat of home. Flocking to their London residences with their air freighted million-pound-plus gold-plated Bugattis, some encrusted with Swarovski crystals, they infuriate the remaining long-term residents as they cruise around the area with their ceaseless noise pollution.”

He said, “I’m just showing the wealthy, I’m taking pictures of them to highlight things like food banks in Glasgow.”

Middle East billionaires

The ever-widening global gap between the haves and have-nots is not limited to one zip code, but it is especially clear in current events specific to the Middle East where millions of people displaced by war and terrorism are migrating from the region, seeking safety and security in Europe. Meanwhile others also travel to Europe for bacchanalian reasons. Wallace’s art confronts these inequalities by providing a glimpse into the freak show of privilege.

Harrodsberg runs at the printspace, the UK’s leading fine art pro-lab, at their Shoreditch gallery, ending today. Dougie Wallace is represented by INSTITUTE.

All images from the series Harrodsburg © Dougie Wallace/INSTITUTE

 

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