Saturday, July 29, 2006

Safe and Sound in Engerland

Phew, made it! Not that I didn't think I would, but it was an incredibly long trip. From leaving my apartment at 1 a.m. till meeting my buddy at Manchester Airport was fifteen hours - the first few hours of which were spent hanging around at Dubai Airport being awake when I should have been asleep.

Note to self: don't use Turkish Airlines on this route again. Not that there's anything wrong with Turkish - I've flown with plenty worse airlines. I hadn't realised that Istanbul was so far from Dubai - it was five hours, and then almost four for the second leg to Manchester.

I bought a beer at Istanbul Airport. Paid with a ten pound note. Got a five-dollar bill and some Euro coins as change (anything's better than a few million Turkish Lira!).

Arriving at Manchester almost killed me. I had to walk about a mile through non-airconditioned, airless corridors. No trolleys anywhere, and no travelators. Spoilt Dubai brat I am.

For the first time in many many years, UK Passport Control not only actually looked at my passport, they entered the number into a computer!

I was mildly astonished to see my suitcase turn up on the carousel at Manchester, and headed off down the green channel past swarms of customs officers and cops. The last one of this gaggle wanted a little chat. He wondered where I was going, and very helpfully checked my ticket to Spain to make sure it was OK. He completely overlooked the 2 litres of spirits in my Dubai Duty Free bag (I read on the way through that you are still only allowed 1 litre if you are coming from outside the EU, although for some peculiar reason the allowance is ten litres if you're arriving from inside the EU).

And so to Liverpool. A tour of a few pubs, a Post Office and a noodle house before I faded out and retired for an 'early night' - about 8pm GMT but midnight for my body clock.

And why the rush for the Post Office? My buddy needed to renew his Road Tax. All Brit motorists have to pay 125 quid a year for the privilege of driving on the skinny, congested strips of potholed tarmac that they call roads in the UK. Without an up-to-date Tax Disc you cannot renew your insurance. And without insurance, in Merseyside at least, this is what happens:

Your car is clamped. If you cannot immediately pay the release charges and fix your insurance status, the car is impounded. If the car is worth more than three thousand pounds, the Police sell it and keep the proceeds. If it is worth less than three thousand, they crush it! Amazing - no court proceedings, no appeal, no nothing. We drove past Merseyside Police HQ where we saw a collection of half-a-dozen impounded vehicles on display outside. Sadly today there were no crushed car cubes to be seen. Apparently the number of untaxed, uninsured vehicles on the roads has plummeted!

So, a full day in Scouserland today, and then an early flight to Valencia tomorrow.


Tuesday, July 25, 2006

It's A Teeny-Weeny World!

Fans of Little Yellow Duck might be getting a bit worried about MamaDuck, who hasn't posted anything for about three weeks. Don't worry, she's fine, seemingly having a great time as a volunteer worker on a remote Andalucian farm. But she can't get onto the Interweb at the farm: the nearest Interweb cafe is in the village, a one-hour uphill walk away. After a hard day's graft she tends not to fancy a long walk up a mountain. We do have a Google chat about once a week on one of her days off, and this usually happens when she's taken a two-hour bus ride into Malaga or Ganada.

There's a holiday cottage at the farm, and they had some guests a few weeks ago. A Brit couple from Dubai. That's fairly surprising in itself. But when the bloke sees MamaDuck he says

'You're Mrs Keefieboy aintcha?'

Turns out it was one of my drinking buddies from the Alamo. Incredible.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

More Fun With Etisalat

So it's nearly the end of the month and of course I haven't bothered to pay Etisalat so the barftuds cut me off. So I trundle down to their shiny new office at Jebel Ali and get pounced upon by an over-eager East European lady. She won't let me go to the cashier, and forces me to use the cash payment machine. Observing my age she assumes I'm a techno-moron and insists on standing beside me and telling me which buttons to press.

Now, I've used these machines before, and they are very clever, but a pain in the butt when you have four accounts to deal with. This particular machine has seen better days: the screen has very low contrast, and it is positioned so that it reflects the main entrance doors and the bright sunny scene outside. I can barely see anything on the screen.

What I usually do with these machines if I'm paying several bills is to treat each one as a separate transaction. But I learned something today. If you press the button marked 'Select To Query', you can do multiple accounts! I point out to my companion that the phrase 'select to query' has no meaning in the English language - I certainly would not guess that it is supposed to mean anything like 'do another account'.

Anyhoo, we finally get to the screen where you decide how much you actually want to pay, I make a complete mess of it and then accidentally cancel everything. This debacle has taken almost ten minutes. I beg the woman to let me go to the cashier and she relents.

The cashier at his nice ergonomically designed workstation only has to tap in one of my phone numbers to get all of my accounts on his screen, decide the amounts, take the money and print receipts. Two minutes maximum.

Due to shortage of time I decline to give Etisalat the benefit of my wisdom as I pass the box marked 'Etisalat, are we any good?' on the way out.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Counting Down The Days...

...until I leave for my holiday.

Here's the plan: this Friday morning, wee small hours: taxi to Airport, fly to Manchester via Istanbul. My old buddy Brian is picking me up and taking me to his fancy dockside apartment in Liverpool. It'll be about 2pm when we get there so no doubt we will retire to the Baltic Fleet to drink lots of beer. This is not just any old beer - they grow it themselves on the premises.

Two days later, fly to Valencia and try and find BetterArf and Offspring who will have arrived there the day before after a nine-hour bus journey from Granada.

Day after that, begin intensive two-week Spanish language course. Then a few free days in Valencia, followed by six days in England visiting the Northern Rellies, and then back to sunny Dubai.

I've been working all hours for the last few weeks trying to get everything finished before I go. Achieved a major milestone on one project this morning - practical completion. This roughly translates as 'I think it's finished, and if you can't break it then it is finished and here's the bill.'

So I gave myself a few hours off. I went to Madinat Jumeirah and bought myself a big fancy Sony digital camera: a real one with a big fat lens that sticks out, not one o' they tiny jobbies that are smaller than a fag packet. And then I had fish and chips at Left Bank and played with the new toy. Actually, I just read the manual (I know blokes should never admit to doing stuff like that, but there ya go).

And now, if I can stop playing with my new toy...back to work. But only for five days!


Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Etisalat's Summer Slowdown

Well, I can't say I wasn't warned. I had an email from Etisalat a few days ago advising me that Internet speeds 'might' be reduced for a week starting today. And the reason? None of the one's I'd previously guessed at. But it is a corker.

They are relocating three submarine cables that come ashore at Fujeirah because of the construction of an artificial island off the coast. Gulf News quotes Abdullah Hashim, Ecompany's Assistant General Manager as saying that they had put in extra links to minimize the disruption caused by the work.

"People might not even notice any difference. We will try to manage the traffic. Many operators would not do this work to lessen the effects, but customer service is very important to us," he said.

I'm noticing it now, and have been for about the last hour.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

I Forgot The Good News!

Following on from the previous post - it was announced maybe a week ago that the UAE Federal Government is to launch a comprehensive review of sentencing in all courts in the UAE. This will hopefully ensure that sentences are consistent, realistic, and commensurate with the crime, even in Ras Al Khaimah. It will not be swayed by the preference of a particular judge's school of jurisprudence - there will be standard guidelines for all types of crimes.

Hopefully the possession of things like codeine and cough medicine without a prescription will be decriminalised (Dhs 100 fine maybe).

Diya Believe This?

A Ras Al Khaimah court has imposed the following sentence on a Pakistani heavy vehicle driver who collided with a car and killed two UAE nationals, according to Gulf News:

1) Four months in jail, followed by deportation.
2) Pay Dhs 200,000 diya (blood money) to the family of each victim.
3) And:

'The court also ordered the suspect to fast two consecutive months for each victim as the court evaluated the accident as unpremeditated murder.'

So, four consecutive months of fasting. He'll be dead after one month of that (if they give him water, otherwise it's only three or four days), without a doubt. And what, pray tell, is 'unpremeditated murder?' By definition, murder involves premeditation. If there is no premeditation then it is manslaughter, ie death by negligence or (sharp intake of breath) accident. So they're gonna kill the guy for this.

RAK - get a grip!

Sitting On The Fence?

The UAE blogosphere looks like it's ignoring the ongoing madness in Israel / Palestine / Lebanon. Several of the bloggists have stated their reasons for their silence, generally a professed ignorance of the political ins and outs of the situation. I will add my voice to the silence. I have no wish to get drawn into arguments that I cannot even begin to comprehend.

But I will say this. While I'm not a fan of Hamas and Hezbollah, I do think Israel's current actions are insanely disproportionate (and I never thought I'd find myself agreeing with anything Jacques Chirac ever said, but there you go). How does blowing up Lebanon's infrastructure and dozens of innocent civilians solve anything? And how long before Iraq and Syria get involved? And for God's sake when is America going to stop congratulating Israel for every little brain-fart and give it a good slap upside the ear?

I had thought that Olmert might be a bit more sensible than Sharon, but it's now clear that he's a mad bugger too. What a mess. Oh, and it's all Britain's fault because of something our idiot colonial Government and that cretin Balfour did 60 years ago.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Blocked By Etisalat!

My thanks go to an anonymous reader for emailing me a heads-up about my previous post. It was displaying just fine on this main page, but if you tried to view it on its own, in the archive or to add a comment, it was blocked! I never thought I'd see the day. This article was only posted a few hours ago, and the supposition is that the combination of a synonym for 'no-cost' and a synonym for 'extremely warm' were to blame.

May I take this opportunity to extend my most humble apologies to Etisalat and, indeed, to the brave and noble population of the UAE for having offended their religious, cultural, political and moral values. And it only took two innocent little words to do it!

So I removed the offending words from the post, and instantly the page is available again. Which means that Etisalat have an extremely crude set of filters that look for banned words in page titles. Think I'll try a few experiments...

...a bit later. Right then, if your page title contains the phrase 'free hot', it triggers the 'site blocked' page. How chuffing pathetic is that?

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No-Cost Extremely-Warm Water! Offer Ends October...

Secret Dubai blogged about the perennial summer phenomenon of hot and cold taps being reversed. I just couldn't believe this report in today's Gulf News:

'Very hot tap water has been causing major discomfort for people, who complained against unsheltered water tanks on rooftops of buildings and villas in the city.'

For goodness' sake, you get NO-COST EXTREMELY-WARM WATER for four months of the year, and you complain about it! All you have to do is turn off your water heater and it'll cool down and you'll get cool water coming out of your hot tap. I seriously hope we don't get municipalities panicking about this non-problem and ordering landlords to build insulated rooms around their rooftop storage tanks.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Mr. Happy

Today's papers all carry stories on a report by the UK's New Economic Foundation. I love this snippet from 7Days:

"Out of 178 countries, the UAE came a satisfyingly crap 156. Of course, we were never going to beat Russia for sheer discontent (a truly dismal 172), but we are indeed a bunch of miserable gits."

Miserable gits indeed. Even the UK beat us, at 108th! And the UAE blogosphere is apparently no different. I frequently come across posts in other blogs that throw a blanket across all other blogs and blindly accuse them of being whingey and negative. I don't know, and don't much care, whether those kind of sweeping statements are ever supposed to include this blog. I hope not. On the odd occasion when I do write something negative (and frankly how can you not when we have the likes of Etisalat and our cute local banks to write about?), I try to balance it with something positive. I don't want a depressed readership!

Back to the report - it measures three indicators: the amount of the Earth’s resources a country uses, the life-expectancy of the population, and the happiness of their lives. So the UAE would certainly score a big fat zero for resource-use. As far as general happiness is concerned, the report is based on interviews - I have no idea how many interviews and what the demographic profile was, but I imagine the demographics could skew (or screw) the results quite dramatically in the UAE.

And the thing you're dying to know: is Keefieboy a happy camel? Well, on the whole, yes he is. He has a wonderful wife, a genius child, a nice apartment, good health and a successful business that keeps the wolf from the door. He also has an 'escape the UAE' plan that makes him very happy indeed. So whatever you may read here about the daily trials and tribulations of Britpat life in the UAE, do not be deceived. There are many much worse places to live, and frankly, I don't think I could be happy living on Vanuatu, apparently the world's happiest country.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Buyer Beware

I don't know if any of you are aware of Philip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy. They are wonderful science-fantasy books allegedly aimed at older kids. I read the first in the series last summer, intended to get hold of the other two and then completely forgot about it. But something reminded me last week - I think I heard that they're making a fillum of it - and I set off in search of the full set. My local second-hand bookshop had three books by PP that all claimed to be part of the Dark Materials trilogy, so I bought them. I got 'Northern Lights', which is Book I, 'The Subtle Knife', which is Book II, and 'The Golden Compass', which is Book I.

Did you spot the deliberate error? No, me neither. What I've actually got is two versions of Book I - the UK version and an American edition. For some unfathomable reason the American publishers have changed the name of the first book. Why they think 'The Golden Compass' is a better title than 'Northern Lights' is beyond me. Why the author and copyright holder let them do it is something else again.

I remember that 'Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone' was published in the US as 'Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone'. I can possibly understand that because 'Philosopher' is a very big word, and it is spelled incorrectly. If 'sulphur' is 'sulfur', then surely 'philosopher' should be 'filosofer'. But I digress.

I'm halfway through Book II, and enjoying it immensely. Wonderful stuff.

Who's Insulted?

The front page story in today's 7Days carries the banner headline 'The Final Insult'. The story concerns pardoned drug-offender Dallas Austin who, it seems, owes his Bahraini and Emirati advocates $440,000 for getting him off. It's a tragic story, a real heartbreaker.

"...last night his UAE legal team slammed the celebrity, saying they have barely received a dirham."

But they have been paid $40,000, which works out at quite a bit more than 'barely a dirham' (146,922 of the little blighters in fact). Now these hot-shot lawyers claim the deal is worth $440,000, and they want the rest of the money. There's a small problem, though. There is no written contract between the hot-shot advocates and their client. Not to be deterred, Al-Reda says there is an email that mentions the amount and the method of payment, and he reckons that emails are admissible as evidence. Yeah, right, it's impossible to fake an email. He plans to file a case in Dubai if payment is not forthcoming.

“'We were sure that this money is not too much for a celebrity like Dallas,' he added."

Just for the record, in case you ever need a local lawyer, the names are Mohammed Al-Reda (UAE) and Qais Al-Zubel (Bahrain).

File under: priceless: you couldn't make it up.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Blues v The Blues

Oh my God, what a game. What a game! France scored first from a doubtful penalty, but Italy equalized shortly thereafter with a beautiful goal. Les grenuoilles then spent the rest of the game trying to break through the solid Italian defence. Italy had their chances but failed to score. Almost inevitably it went to extra time and then the dreaded penalty shootout.

Zidane - hero to zero. Unbelievable. What on earth was he thinking of when he head-butted an Italian player off the ball?

Next time out, Italy will need XXL shirts to fit the four gold stars on (one for each time they've won the World Cup).

Forza Italia!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Psst, Wanna Credit Card?

Scarcely a week goes by when I don't get a phone call from a bank wanting me to 'avail' of their latest offer on credit cards. Had one this morning, from HSBC, my own bank.

HSBC: 'ulloooooo
ME: yes, who is this?
HSBC: 'ulloo, Mr Keefieboy?
ME: yes, who is this and what can I do for you?
HSBC: this is HSBC, do you have two minutes?
ME: are you trying to sell me a credit card?
HSBC: no sir, not sell, it's free!
ME (on the floor laughing): free! you mean no annual subscription but massive interest calculated every nanosecond?
HSBC: yes sir
ME: thank you but no
HSBC: but sir, it's free!
ME: bye bye and have a nice life

I've learned two things while living in this town:
1) As an expat, do not take on debt unless you are 200% sure you can clear it before you want to leave
2) I am not 'creditworthy'

The first point should be fairly obvious. The second might be surprising. But as the owner of a tiny business I am regarded by banks as 'self-employed'. Which they seem to think means that I just invent my earnings. My accounts are not audited, some of the income never actually goes into the bank, some of it goes in as cash, and if you had a suspicious mind (a given if you are a banker) you might think that I was just circulating one chunk of money from one account to another. So it always tickles me to talk to credit card salesman in the certain knowledge that if I did decide to apply for their product, my application would be declined.

I have this Calvinist thing in my head. Say I want to buy a brand-new Beemer. It costs Dhs 200,000. Look in wallet. Somewhat less than Dhs 200,000 in there. Check bank account - close to zero. Dang, ain't got the money, therefore can't have the product. Easy-peasy.

Had a call a few weeks ago, from Dubai Islamic Bank:

DIB: 'ulloooooo
ME: yes, who is this?
DIB: 'ulloo, Mr Keefieboy?
ME: yes, who is this and what can I do for you?
DIB: this is Dubai Islamic Bank, do you have two minutes?
ME: are you trying to sell me a credit card?
DIB: yes sir, the world's first Islamic credit card!
ME (on the floor laughing): you jest, surely!
DIB: ?
ME: well credit cards are the highest form of riba (usury) after loan sharks are they not?
DIB: ??
ME: go on then, tell me, but I'm not buying
DIB: there is no interest on the outstanding balance, only a monthly fee...
ME: how much is the monthly fee?
DIB: dhs 15
ME: great! So if I have an outstanding balance of Dhs 20,000, I only pay dhs 15 per month?
DIB: ah, no, it would be quite a bit more.
ME: so what you're saying is the monthly fee is a bit like interest, but you just call it by a different name?
DIB: yes sir
ME: that makes me feel so much better. Thank you and goodbye

Dallas Who?

I couldn't let this pass without throwing in my twopennyworth. US hip hop producer Dallas Austin (sorry I'd never heard of him before - apparently he is personally responsible for producing an awful lot of music that I simply cannot stand) has spent the last three weeks in a small room with a thick, locked steel door at Rashidiya Police Station. The reason? He brought a bit over a gramme of cocaine into the UAE 'by accident'. He admits he knew it was illegal to do this.

A few days ago there was a trial (very speedy by Dubai standards); he was sentenced to four years in jail, and a few hours later he was pardoned by a higher authority.

Today's Gulf News carries a story about an Omani who was picked up on arrival at Abu Dhabi from Bangkok. 'Traces of hashish' were found in his wallet. He was acquitted by the Abu Dhabi Criminal Court, but the Public Prosecution appealed and the Court of Appeal sentenced him to four years followed by deportation. A pardon is not expected.

The UAE, of course, has the sovereign right to do whatever it likes, and I am but a humble guest here who nobody listens to. But I'll say this anyway.

The UAE is now sending out very mixed signals about its attitude to narcotics. We will likely see more people bringing in illegal substances because they think they can get away with it (as long as their wasta/bling factor is high enough). But many visitors to this country are ending up in jail because they are not experts in UAE law.

One example: did you know that the UAE system can prosecute you for offences committed outside the country? You might expect that to be up to the legal systems of the country where the offence took place. But there are numerous cases of people who have been jailed because residue of banned drugs was found on their person, their clothes or their possessions. The Omani guy mentioned above is a case in point. He had no actual useable hashish on him. He may have had some in Thailand, or it may have been planted on him by some Kuwaitis, as he claims. And he gets four years. Residue of some drugs can be detected in your bloodstream for months after the initial consumption. I might add that hashish is a drug that is generally considered less harmful than tobacco.

Another example: who knew, before the Tracy Wilkinson case last year, that possession of readily available medicines containing things like codeine or tamazepam without a prescription, can get you locked up? I certainly didn't, and I've lived here twelve years! It should be noted by the cops and the courts that people generally take their prescription to the pharmacist, who keeps it in exchange for the medicine and the money. Expecting visitors to make a copy of their prescription, translate it into Arabic and keep it with them when in the UAE is just ridiculous.

And then there's this...

Increasingly we are seeing more and more examples of wildly inconsistent sentencing, especially for rape and drug cases. This needs to be looked at by the powers that be. If one guy gets four years for actual possession of cocaine but is let off, and another guy gets four years for possession of traces of hashish and will not be let off, what are we supposed to think?

I'll give you my view of Wasta in a future post if I don't get banned/blocked/deported for this one.


Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Forza Italia!

I had no plans to watch the Germany v Italy semi-final last night. It was an 11pm kick-off and I had been up since six yesterday morning. But 10.15 came and I was still awake so I went down to ye local club. It was full, they said, but they'd just re-opened J-Blues, a failed nightclub-type place attached to the main building. So I went in there and had my pick of the seats - there were only two other punters in the room. That soon changed as more people arrived and by the time the game started it was full, but not uncomfortably so.

And what a match! Although goalless until the dying minutes of extra time, both sides played proper football. It looked like we were going to have the almost-inevitable penalty shootout, but miraculously Fabio Grosso found the net in the last minute of extra time, and seconds later Del Piero did the same. Unbelievable!

So Germany are out, but they can be proud of their performance.


Monday, July 03, 2006

Who's In Charge Around Here?

There's a bit of a bitch-fest going on between Gulf News and 7Days at the moment. It's all to do with the recent announcement by the Labour Ministry that they intend to replace all expat HR directors and managers, and all secretarial staff with locals within 18 months.

This sparked a barrage of mail to 7Days from Brits and other Westerners currently employed here in those roles.

Yesterday the eminently sensible Nick Coates wrote a blinder of a piece in Gulf News pointing out the harsh reality of the deal for expat workers: 'We come, we work, we go'. We all know that that is how it has always been, and that is how it is now. It may change in the future, but I'm not holding my breath.

"...I point out that if, in your own country, you were outnumbered 3:1 by foreign nationals, you would feel disgruntled with government policy.
Even more so if the foreigners were employed and you weren't. So perhaps, for a change, expatriates should pause for reflection before making calls for "rights" that do not exist and never have existed."

Today's Gulf News carries a piece that orginally appeared in Al Bayan, GN's Arabic-language sister, written by Ayesha Sultan, presumably a local. 'They insult us in freedom's name'

She is upset that opinions have been published that oppose the Government's policy. She seems to think that expats have no right to express themselves at all. In fact she would like to see the raggedy edges of the English-language press reined in somewhat. She concludes...

"Hence, those who like our laws and rules, are welcome, but those who do not must try to understand and respect them. At the same time, they are not allowed to oppose, insult or be impolite.
Strangers should always be polite and this is the dominant golden rule followed everywhere in the world."

Being a Libran, I can see both sides of the argument. It is imperative that more locals are squeezed into the workforce. But I don't think this is the right way to do it. Similar attempts in other GCC countries have failed. You cannot take a whole chunk of the employment spectrum and expect that almost overnight you can replace highly-qualified and experienced people with folk who've just come off the dole queue. How is that supposed to work? Some of the jobs in question are far from trivial - a company's HR Director is one of the key players in a very senior team alongside the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Operating Officer, the IT Director and the CEO. The proposal is that initially, only companies with more than 1,000 employees will have to comply. It'll all end in tears.

So, politely, I would say, 'excuse me, I think this needs a little bit more thought.'

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Agony And The ...

Regrettably this year's World Cup yielded no ecstasy and plenty of agony for England supporters. Tonight's quarter-final match against Portugal was one that England should have won without too much difficulty. And indeed they played better in this game than in any of their previous World Cup clashes. And for most of the game they outplayed Portugal. But could they accomplish the seemingly simple task of putting the ball in the net? No, they could not. Wayne Rooney's inexplicable sending-off did not help, and the removal of Beckham by Eriksson sent the whole team into discombobulation.

That the game would end in penalties seemed fairly clear toward the end of normal play. Neither team was able to take its chances, however much they tried. England's performance in the penalty shoot-out was abyssmal.

And the shit goes on - it seems that Sven's assistant, whose name I simply cannot remember however much I try, has been confirmed as the new manager of England- I had thought that he was supposed to be a stand-in until the English F.A. found a superstar to take on the job. But no, this is the guy that has advised Sven on the touchline for the last few years, and thus can be at least partially blamed for the numerous tactical errors that have brought nothing but shame on the national team. But at least this one jumps up when we score a goal and runs up and down the touchline when he feels like it. Oh, Steve McLaren it is. So no prospect of England winning anything ever again.

Please prove me wrong.