Monday, July 16, 2007

Mercedes in the Middle East

If you get a taxi in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv it’s likely to be a white Mercedes-Benz - and a new one at that. It’s a nice way to travel as a tourist but one can’t help notice how few privately owned luxury cars there are on the road in Israel. Most people drive hatchbacks or other small European cars. This is not because of a lack of space – Israel, as part of its quasi-socialist economic system, imposes a 128% tax on European cars and 144% tax on Japanese cars. So how do cab drivers manage to drive such expensive cars? The rumor is that the German government gives them to the Israeli government as reparations for the holocaust and the Israeli government leases them cheaply as taxis. The taxis in turn are driven mostly by Israeli-Arabs.

On the streets of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, Israel’s less affluent neighbor, the proportion of Mercedes, BMWs and Porsche SUVs on the streets rivals that of any North American city. Many of these (especially in Aqaba) have Saudi plates, but who is driving the rest? Don’t get me wrong – I think Mercedes are great and I hope to own one one day. Seeing so many on the roads of Jordan though, I couldn’t help but think of those infamous African dictators who spend a large percentage of their country’s GDP on custom fleets of Mercedes. Everyone seems to say, though, that Jordan is becoming more and more prosperous all the time. Perhaps all those luxury cars are a sign of progress.

Part of this progress might be due to the fact that Aqaba is a tax-free zone. On the other hand, this has created a problem with smuggling. I found out about this from the customs police who wanted to know why we were stopped on the side of the highway. Just as the taxi (a Mazda) I was taking to Petra began climbing the hills outside of Aqaba, smoke started pouring out of the hood and through the dashboard and I had to wait for quite a while before help arrived.

Chris McClure

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

taxis here in israel are "public transportation" and therefore exempt from tax. they are either privately owned by the driver or by a taxi company. the license to operate a taxi is very expensive and there is a limited number of them.

i'm sure you noticed that the mercedes' used as taxis also run on diesel and have a manual transmission...very luxurious...