TEHRAN, Iran, Feb. 16, 2008 — -- No, it's not made of solid gold -- just ordinary aluminum. But it does come with the swagger of being labeled no. "1." And that's evidently worth a record $14.3 million.
Today, a businessman named Saeed Abdul Ghafour Khouri was willing to pay 52.2 dirham -- the equivalent of $14.3 million -- for the local license plate labeled "1" at an auction at the 7-star Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi, making it the world's most expensive license plate.
The previous record was held by Abu Dhabi plate number 5, bought at auction for $6.8 million by stock broker Talal Khouri last year.
The oil-rich cities of the Persian Gulf are driven by car culture, with relatively few pedestrian areas or public transport options. Vanity plates are a matter of personal pride and indulgence.
The value of a plate depends on a a mix of math and emotional appeal. Normal license plates have 5 randomized numbers. From there, they get more expensive. Prices go up for fewer digits and cooler numbers. Number one is considered the most prestigious.
"From 1 to 10, these are the most expensive numbers," said Abdulla al Mannaie, managing director of Emirates Auctions. "Ten to 99 are the second category. On the other side, you look to numbers which is like 11, 22, 23 they are expensive because it carry [repeating digits].
"We are trying to link between car models and number plate, like a Ferrari 599 and the plate 599, as well as date of birth or anniversary," said al Mannaie. "They are looking to the number plate as if it is their identity, their personal identity."
Plates "5" and "7" sold for nearly 10 times the value of the luxury cars they adorn.
"Our job at Emirates Auction is to make an expensive car without a prestigious license plate worth nothing," al Mannaie told ABC News. "Owners will change their car, but they will keep using the same plate for life."
He has had the number "383" for more than 30 years. He has since bought a cell phone number to match.
Al Mannaie said vanity plates are good business -- an investment with more than a 20 percent annual return. Meanwhile, they're a status symbol on wheels.
"The value of the plate will increase while the value of the car will decrease," al Mannaie said. "So overall there will be zero percent depreciation."
Gulf Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates, home to Abu Dhabi, are swimming in cash after windfall profits from high oil prices. At this rate, the Gulf region will pull in $6.2 trillion in oil money before the year 2020, management consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates.
The auctions take place monthly, organized by Al Mannaie's company on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Police Department. The past five auctions raised $56 million across 393 plates, with all proceeds going to charity. Money from today's record sell will go to victims of road accidents.
Lara Setrakian reported from Tehran; Ron Bagnullo in Abu Dhabi and Maryam Shahabi contributed to this report.