Easy rider

Harley Davidson’s growth in the Middle East owes as much to culture as it does engineering
By Sara Anabtawi
Sun 23 Sep 2012 09:12 AM

On Paul De Jongh’s fifth birthday, his father took him for a ride on a motorbike, allowing him to instantly form a strong connection with the unique world of Harley Davidson. His love has only grown since then; De Jongh had his first motorcycle at just eleven years of age, and has been enjoying the freedom of the open road ever since.

His lifelong love affair with the marque culminated when De Jongh eventually took on a role as country manager of Harley Davidson in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA).

“When you buy a Harley, you instantly become part of a massive group of friends,” he says enthusiastically. “When I ride, I often pass another rider with his wife on the back. We have never seen each other and we have never talked to each other, but there is this automatic acknowledgement: ‘How are you, if you are in trouble, I will stop for you,’” explains De Jongh.

For him, and all the riders out there, it is a culture of brotherhood and camaraderie.

When De Jongh visits dealers and rides with customers across the region, for instance, he sees his brand as a tool of strength that crosses borders in a way that no political movement has ever managed.

“I have often heard politicians comment by saying that it is amazing how a motorcycle brand can unite people. There are people from different backgrounds, religions and races, all enjoying the same thing together at a rally and there is no divide. They have fun together,” he says.

Brisk business in the UAE itself is symptomatic of the brand’s wider appeal in the region, De Jongh goes on to add.

“The UAE business initially grew on an expat basis. [At first], there were a lot of expats that came into the region as the UAE developed, specifically Dubai, during the 90s and the early 2000s,” he says. “We are seeing a big growth in interest over the last five years, of not just Western expats, but also Arab expats, locals, as well as women.

“A lot of people misunderstand the concept that Harley is just for men, or just for Western expats,” he says. “But, across the MENA region, we are seeing a big increase in interest from women.”

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In the GCC, De Jongh finds that a lot of women ride only because their husbands do. In Lebanon and Jordan, however, he finds a much younger profile of women that love to ride independently.

De Jongh says that having a variety of people from different segments in society is all due to the efforts Harley Davidson has put into product development and to the dealers’ hard work in making the brand more and more accessible — an example of that is a developed product called Jump Start.

“It is a product that allows you to experience riding a Harley without having a licence. It is a standing platform, where the motorcycle runs, but it does not move forward. You can sit, feel how it rides,” he says.

“What we have found through our dealers that have that as a demonstration experience, is that a lot of women finally understand that they can ride a motorcycle. It is not too heavy for them, it is not too high for them, and I think that experience has allowed a lot of women to feel more comfortable with it instantly,” he says.

De Jongh points out that Jump Start can be found at any of the dealerships across the MENA region: “Anybody who wants to experience riding a Harley Davidson without a licence and without the fear of the weight or the two wheels, I say go to a local dealer and experience it.”

He confirms that it has turned many people’s doubts into confidence. In fact, De Jongh has seen an increase in individuals applying for licences, getting through the process and buying motorcycles.

“Our product development, and some of the bikes that we have introduced in the last two years, are a little more nimble, and a little bit lighter, which appeals to women as well,” he adds.

One particular aspect of cruising in the Gulf is the climate, which many might believe would make it impossible for Harley fanatics to venture outside in the warmer months. But De Jongh disagrees.

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“We have some good products, like hydration vests, which are designed and manufactured to keep you cool during the heat, but if you are talking about weather, the UAE has arguably got the best weather in the world to ride in for seven months of the year, which is a longer riding season that you find in most places,” he says.

“I have not really met any of our Harley owners that need convincing to ride their motorcycles though. We love to ride and discover new places together in a safe and controlled way, so the weather is not really that high on our agenda when planning a ride,” he adds.

De Jongh is quick to dismiss yet another obstacle, pointing out that the motorcycle giant sees no competition from the sports car industry.

“When you buy a Harley, you express your freedom. But when you customise your Harley, it is truly freedom of expression. What I am saying with that is, when you buy a Harley, you buy a blank canvas, and when you meet our customers, you will see that the motorcycle becomes an artistic self-expression of who they are,” he says. “That is why people buy the Harley, it is to experience that self-expression, to be part of that bigger family, there is a bigger purpose.”

To De Jongh, it is not really a question of competitiveness; it is more about individuals experiencing freedom of expression and freedom of the open road through a motorcycle ride.

“So, it is a different type of attraction than speed. We always say, we enjoy the ride, we do not rush it,” he says.

“We try and find new routes, so when the guys ride down to Fujairah on a weekend, for instance, they would go on a different route every time. It is about discovering new roads and meeting new people. We always stop at different restaurants to have a coffee break because we want to engage with different people,” he explains.

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And, with the political events swarming through the Middle East, individuals are now, more than ever, very motivated to adopt self-expression.

De Jongh seems to have everything under control. In fact, he confirms that Harley Davidson will be opening new dealerships in the near future.

“The new showroom in Doha opened its doors just over a month ago, and the new Abu Dhabi and Algeria showrooms will open in October,” he says.

But he has already expanded the regional operations further afield.

“We entered MENA in 1988 through Dubai, and since then, in the last 24 years, we have grown our presence across fourteen different countries and we are busy investigating three more countries to add to the family,” he confirms.

“We are hoping markets like Tunisia, Libya, Iraq and Pakistan will be future markets that we could have presence in. We know we have got customers in those countries. We see them during rallies. We hear from them often, asking us [when we will be in their countries],” he adds.

De Jongh admits that they are not restricting their vision for the future by ignoring those countries. In fact, he is looking at every possible opportunity to open more doors across the region and in turn, take the brand to more people.

 Why not? The motorcycle giant seems to be doing quite well in terms of numbers.

For the first six months of the year, Harley Davidson sold 132,991 motorcycles worldwide, of which 70 percent came from North America region (United States and Canada): “The rest came from outside the US, the region that we belong to, which is Europe, Middle East and Africa, contributing the most significant sales outside the US, with 27,977 motorcycles,” he says. “So, 70 percent is from the US, and 90 percent of the remaining 30 percent is from Europe, Middle East and Africa,” he continues.

As Confucius once said, “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” — and that is exactly what De Jongh has been blessed with.

“The freedom of the open road, with the sound of a Harley, with my wife on the back, there is very little that beats that,” De Jongh says with a smile.

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