Ralph Debbas likes his cars like he likes his coffee: black and expensive. A coffee bar at the showroom of his Dubai company W Motors is almost as posh as the multi-million dollar limited production cars he builds in the UAE. And while Debbas’ favourite colour may be black, he makes an exception for the first car he ever produced, the $3.4m Lykan Hypersport in a pearly shade of white, often driving it to work, while the second car he produced, a grey $2m Fenyr Supersport, is saved for weekend drives around the city.
Debbas is clearly far from being at a loss for choice. He even has a “sickness”, he confesses, for collecting classic cars made between the late 1990s and 2000s. He has so many, he says, that he fears his wife “might leave me one day because of it”.
The founder and CEO looks the part of a car collector, too. He sports a grey suit and tie for our conversation in W Motors’ ritzy showroom in Jumeirah, but says he doesn’t “wear a suit when I’m driving the Lykan”.
“No,” he confirms, it’s not comfortable driving the 1.17m low Lykan in a slim fit blazer.
But if Debbas never wanted to suit up again, he could probably get away with it. After all, he has built the Middle East’s first and only privately-owned and financed automotive company designing and producing cars almost entirely in the Gulf country.
If you haven’t recognised W Motors yet, just press play on American action film Fast & Furious 7 to watch its flaming red Lykan being crashed through Abu Dhabi’s tallest skyscrapers Etihad Towers, with Dom Toretto [Vin Diesel] at the wheel.
The “ridiculously expensive” car, as Debbas puts it, boasts 420 diamonds, lights valued at $18,000, and even a hologram.
“People thought we were crazy”, he says. But it was the Lykan’s price tag and extravagant features that got the world’s – and Universal Studio’s – attention.
“If I had launched an affordable car from the Middle East, nobody would have talked about it… But when you create a shock by selling a $3.4m car – and back in 2013 it was the most expensive car in the world – people will talk, whether it’s negative or positive”, he says.
If I had launched an affordable car from the Middle East, nobody would have talked about it...
W Motors had its fair share of negative feedback, particularly from investors.
“I approached [a Lebanese bank] a few years before they invested and they said, “There’s no need for you. There’s no need for your company. There’s no way we’re going to invest in a company like this one”, he says.
But he doesn’t blame them. An automotive industry “doesn’t exist” in the Middle East, he says. So he set out to create one.
“We were criticised a lot when we started. People said, ‘who are you to compete with Lamborghini or Ferrari?’ But who were they 100 years ago?” Debbas says.
He’s no longer competing with either of the Italian rivals, however. Debbas has bigger plans than making supercars. He wants to revolutionise cars.
At the end of 2015, W Motors partnered with a Chinese firm to create an electric division called Iconiq, launching a level 4 autonomous car at the World Government Summit in Dubai in partnership with Belgium-based AKKA Technologies in 2016.
It is currently working on putting 10 of its fully autonomous cars on Dubai roads by Expo 2020.
The car, dubbed The Muse, will drive in controlled environments in areas such as Masdar City and Downtown Dubai. When it reaches a non-autonomous zone, it will drop a steering wheel to allow the driver full control.
W Motor’s Iconiq is even producing cars for Dubai Police, having built the ‘Ghiath’ SUV - named by Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum after his favourite falcon – as it plans to deliver 500 cars to authorities next year.
By the end of 2019, it’s also launching an electric supercar targeted at Europeans. It is set to be the UAE’s first locally produced electric supercar. Debbas calls it “affordable”, which in his dictionary translates into a $250,000 - $300,000 price range.
The car will be produced in the company’s new factory opening in November this year in Dubai Silicon Oasis, along with a research and development centre and tech lab.
I watch Formula E races more than Formula 1... There’s great potential to be in Formula E
“People knew us for the supercars, but we showed the world that we can actually develop mass production, electric vans, and be the complete opposite of what the world knew W Motors to be”, Debbas says.
W Motors might not exist in its current form at all, according to Debbas, as he predicts the market for petrol cars will eventually disappear.
“Of course”, he says, petrol cars will cease to exist.
Will his car collection suffer? He doesn’t seem too bothered.
“Electric cars’ performance is even better than normal cars. I was against electric cars at first, and now I’m producing mass production autonomous cars in China”, he says.
But an electric division, despite the industry’s potential, was not enough to keep up with the costs of developing limited production supercars – and sustain the business.
So Debbas opened another division. This time, a consultancy.
He doesn’t laugh when we refer to the common joke that consultants borrow your watch to tell you the time. And we soon realise the joke is on us. W Motors’ consultancy division makes up a whopping 70 percent of the firm’s business, with supercars and hypercars now the “façade that keeps us alive and excited when we wake up every morning,” says Debbas.
He declined to share profit figures despite our relentless efforts, but laughs when asked whether the company is profitable.
“Of course”, he says, chuckling.
People said, ‘who are you to compete with Lamborghini or Ferrari?’ But who were they 100 years ago?
“I never looked at it as product per product or profit per profit”, he says.
“The mistake that companies do, especially SMEs and start-ups, is look at the profit margin from the first product launch, which is impossible. I can’t tell you we made any money on the Lykan. But in the long term, you’re gaining credibility from clients and getting more clients. We have the government as a client, the Chinese as clients, and this gave us the opportunity to establish organic growth”.
The growth rate from 2017 to 2019 is 400 percent, to be exact. The company is also expanding its offices in Shanghai and Beijing from 270 employees to 1,000 by the end of this year. Its biggest markets are China and the US, with a big boom in hypercar customers from Germany and Switzerland.
But when it comes to the region, Debbas is holding off on expanding. He’s been approached “many times” to build a factory in Saudi Arabia, but claims it’s “difficult to attract international talent to live in Saudi Arabia…”
“Now is not the right time, but we’ll get there soon”, he says.
Yet he’s unlikely to ever expand in his homeland, Lebanon. It “doesn’t let you dream”, he says, referring to the country’s political conflicts and economic challenges. “In my line of business, I have to dream all the time…”
As if his dream of setting up the region’s first car producer wasn’t enough, Debbas wants to build the Middle East’s first automotive design academy by 2021, where students will be taught virtual reality (VR) classes by robots.
“In our field, [education] still doesn’t exist. We have people coming in for internships because they can’t find a decent mechanical engineering or automotive design internship which doesn’t exist…”
We’re getting robots to train people... you put on a VR mask and it teaches you how to assemble [cars]
“We’re getting robots to train people within a week. Let’s say you have car assembled in front of you, you put on a VR mask and it teaches you how to assemble each part. So you’re learning and you’re doing. Within a week, you’ll get used to the process and become expert just by having VR teach you”, he says.
Debbas’ plan to build a “full ecosystem” by 2021 will be completed when he can train and export talent from the UAE to the world, “which has never been seen before”, he says.
But consumers can expect many a surprises in the automotive industry, such as the extinction of car brands, Debbas claims.
“You’re not going to have car brands in the future. [Car] brands will not exist”, he says.
Even W Motors, we ask? “Even W Motors”, he says.
His reasoning? Suppliers will take over.
“You’ll have two or three brands, and suppliers that are like airplane suppliers. Airbus and Boeing are the main dealers but you have thousands of providers such as Emirates, Turkish Airlines and Etihad Airways that are using these airplanes. When you go on an airplane, you never ask who or where the airplane is manufactured. You just say, ‘oh, Emirates, great!’ and you take it. You don’t ask if it’s a Boeing or an Airbus. That’s what will happen with cars. This is the shared mobility of the future”, he says.
Debbas refers to a quote by André Calantzopoulos, CEO of Marlboro maker Philip Morris International.
“He said a few years ago that his mission is, ‘to destroy Marlboro’. So he launched [electronic tobacco heating device] IQOS. He is revolutionising cigarettes. We’re doing the same with cars”, Debbas says.
Himself a former smoker who switched to IQOS, he wants to convince people to switch to autonomous ride-sharing.
You’re not going to have car brands in the future. [Car] brands will not exist
“The reality is that my son, who is three years old, will never own a driving license or a car. When he’s 18, he won’t know how to drive. It’s happening much faster than we think. Technology for autonomous driving is here today. Infrastructure is getting there. The only missing link is the psychological factor for human beings; that they will ride cars with no humans in them or human interaction. It will take a few years to start accepting that fact”, he says.
Another changing reality is that of global racing event Formula 1, once one of the world’s most anticipated happenings. Debbas, like many others, has lost interest in the races.
“[W Motors] participates in the Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix every year, but we do it just for fun. Every year for the past 4 years, we have our own yacht, where we invite all our international partners and friends. Seventy people come and we spend three beautiful days”, he says.
Debbas claims he has sold more cars at Formula 1 by socialising than by watching the races.
“Nobody goes [to Formula 1] to watch the races, unfortunately. They’re just there to socialise, have fun and enjoy it. We sold many cars just by socialising there instead of having our cars sitting there physically. We realised that there’s no point in pretending we go there to watch the race. Let’s just go and have fun”, he says.
The motoring enthusiast is leaning more towards electric-powered car races, Formula E.
“In the late 1990s, beginning 2000s, [Formula 1] was fantastic. Now, it’s beginning to be very monotonous. The cars are the same and there’s nothing exciting. Formula E is becoming much more exciting. There’s interaction with the viewers and you can actually vote for who you want”, he says.
“I haven’t watched a single Formula 1 race in the past few years. It just doesn’t excite me anymore. I watch Formula E races more than Formula 1, to be honest. There’s great potential to be in Formula E and it’s growing even further globally”, he adds.
He is even planning to form a Formula E team through Iconiq over the next two years, having already been approached to rebrand some teams.
[Philip Morris] wants to destroy Marlboro. We’re doing the same with cars
It comes as no surprise given Debbas expanded his small Dubai firm to a global name that counts everyone from the UAE government to China and Hollywood as its clients.
Is he planning to feature more of his cars in more Hollywood movies? “Maybe. But we’re not pushing for it… It’s difficult to top off being in [Fast &] Furious 7”, he says.
The film played a vital role in Debbas’ worldwide success, placing the Lykan - and W Motors - on the global automotive stage. But at the time of its production, it saw American actor Paul Walker lose his life in a California car crash on November 30, 2013. Walker died alongside driver and businessman Roger Rodas in a red Porsche Carrera GT.
“It’s game over [for W Motors]”, he says.
“When we got the news about Paul Walker, we thought it was one of our cars he was driving. The cars we made [for Universal Studios] were all red.”
“And some of them had Porsche rims because the cast used to drift and do stunts. So when we saw pictures of the crash, we didn’t recognise the car. We saw a red car with Porsche wheels. I thought that he took one of our cars out…” he says.
But in his warehouse in Dubai, Debbas keeps a token from the movie that saw Walker give his final performance.
“Sometimes it’s in the showroom, sometimes the warehouse… We put up a sign on it that says, ‘In memory of Paul’”.
“We get a lot of requests from collectors to buy it, but this is not a car that you want to sell. You can’t put a price on it”, he says.
Perhaps the critics that doubted Ralph Debbas’ Dubai firm could compete with the big boys of supercars can acknowledge that what he has achieved for the region’s automotive world is also priceless.
W Motors CEO Ralph Debbas urges entrepreneurs to “understand the mentality” of businesses, consumers and investors in the Middle East.
“People think they can come to the region and the money’s there [because] people love cars. It’s completely the opposite of what people think. It took us a long time to understand the mentality here in Dubai and even the rest of the Middle East. They’re very careful with everything. They promise a lot, so you have to be very careful to manage your expectations, but the only way to succeed is to do it, prove it, show it and it will work…” he says.
It is particularly key to be patient when building a business in Dubai, Debbas says.
“I do understand that lot of people, especially the locals, think we’re here because of opportunities and to take advantage. There’s a trust issue which is very important. I’m not saying they don’t trust us, but there’s a mentality that because they’re dealing with foreigners, they always think foreigners are trying to take advantage of the situation, which isn’t the case 90 percent of the time. But there’s a 10 percent of the time that creates a bad image. So we have to do to ourselves and you either have the patience to do it or not, it’s very simple.”
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.