ADVENTURES IN DUBAI: YOUR FAVOURITE NUMBER ONE BLOG BRITISH DESIGNER LIVING IN DUBAI TELLS (NEARLY) ALL
Friday, June 30, 2006
Axonsax has done an interesting post about watching footie in public places. I've been very fortunate up until now-ish, in that Dubaibilly has thrown open his doors and we can get a front-row seat in front of his quite large telly. But it's 20 clicks up the SZR to his place, and this evening I thought I ought to try out Jebel Ali Cloob as a viewing venue. The Cloob has a pretty good offer going for non-members (c'est moi). Dhs 50 gets you in, and Dhs 50's worth of booze or food. Very clever it is, methinks: they are guaranteed a minimum spend per head, and thereby can afford to pay the extortionate rates for public showing of the World Cup that monopoly provider ART demands.
The match I watched was Germany v Argentina, and it was a bit of a thriller that ended in one of those horrible penalty shootouts. Germany won. I can't say I enjoyed watching the match at the Cloob: I got there a bit too late to secure a table in the room of my choice (the ever-expanding Cloob has about 5 interconnected rooms, all containing a massive screen) and finished up sharing a table in the Red Room with a couple of strange guys - an Indian and a local who had apparently never watched football in his life. So there was a constant stream of explanation going on. In front of us was a large table full of Germans, all face-paint and flags. Surprisingly there were also people shouting for Argentina.
The view was periodically obscured by large opaque Germans jumping up and down, opaque everybody else heading off to the loo, and opaque, but small, waitresses doing their job.
So tomorrow is the last chance I get in this tournament to sit on DubaiBilly's sofa, hopefully watching Engerland thrash Portugal, because he and Mrs DubaiBilly are whizzing off to Greece a couple of days later.
If I watch any more games in this tournament (and I'm sure I will), it will either be at the Cloob or a secret venure that somebody told me about. Watch this blog...
What have they done now, our favourite (actually, still, our only) phone and interweb company? 1) Banned the use of Google Talk in Internet cafés
2) Launched a ludicrous mobile service for kids in association with SpaceToon Cartoon Channel.
Really, I simply cannot comprehend how the most advanced, ambitious, and otherwise liberal nation in the Arabian peninsula (that's us, the UAE) has got itself lumbered with the most restrictive, and, to quote Emarati 'Nazi' telecoms provider in the region.
I can undestand the monopoly aspect a bit. It seems that almost all countries start off with a monopoly telephone provider. The UK did (first the GPO, which was then spun off into BT, and God it was awful), the US did, Jordan, Saudi, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait - you name it, that's how you start your telephone system. Probably because the initial investment in the network was so huge that private investors would not take the risk. But there comes a time when officially-sanctioned monopolies cease to work in the consumers' favour. I think the UAE reached this point about eight years ago.
But the Government were very very slow to act. It not only owns a controlling share in Etisalat, it also gets 50% of their annual profit as a royalty. It is said that this money is enough to pay the entire payroll of the UAE Federal Government. So in a way, using Etisalat services, and paying their extortionate charges is actually an indirect tax. And Etisalat is the largest employer of UAE nationals in the country. Under pressure from the WTO, a new telecoms provider, Du, has been set up. But guess what? It's 50% owned by the Government, and will still have to pay the 50% royalty...
So, high prices as a hard-to-spot form of taxation aside, what are we left with? Well, Etisalat seems to have set itself up as some kind of moral guardian of the nation. While I can fully understand that some locals might want to be protected against porn, pork, beer, Israel and any criticism of the country, that still leaves hundreds of thousands of websites that are wrongly blocked by Etisalat.
Whats bugs me most about this are sites that compete with Etisalat in some way, or that are only marginally connected to the moral, social and religious beliefs of the country. Things like Flickr - may contain breasts, FriendsReUnited - links to a dating site. But companies the world over that offer competing services, such as VOIP (Skype, Google Talk etc) and bulk SMS gateways are also blocked and this has absolutely nothing to do with the usual reasons for blocking: it is purely to do with Etisalat protecting its precious monopoly. Or to put it another way, denying choice to its customers.
The other dumb thing Etisalat did this week was to launch a mobile phone service that targets kids in the 6-12 age group. In collaboration with SpaceToon cartoon channel, kiddiewinkles will be able to download stuff and upload stuff, and Etisalat is trying to say that it is 'educational'. My ass. Most developed countries explicity forbid the direct targetting of very young kids by marketers for the simple reason that the kids don't know enough to make a judgment and if a TV ad tells them they have to have something then they will pester their parents until they get it. The parents, of course have to pay for it. In the case of this new abomination from Etisalat, they will have to pay, and pay, and pay, every month.
And as a follow-up, Emirates Today carried a front-page story today in which a senior Ministry of Education official said that the ban on mobile phones in public and private schools may be lifted because 'mobile phones can be used for educational purposes'. (Can't link to the story in the Toady 'cos of their lousy website, sorry).
BetterArf left for Spain via Istanbul and Manchester at 2.30 UAE time this morning. We've just had a GMail chat and she's now safe and sound in Mancunia, while her luggage, of course, is still in Istanbul.
I don't know how she does it - this is the second or third time her luggage has gone astray - but it's never happened when she's travelling with me, and I have never ever had luggage go missing. But there's always a first time...
Yesterday we went to Binned Potato Maul to do some last-minute shopping, and she disappeared into Magrudy's giving me orders not to enter. (Ooh, a prezzie!). Just before she left she gave it to me: the third Chris Stewart book. If you're not familiar with his books (Driving Over Lemons, A Parrot In The Pepper Tree, and the new one The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society), beg, steal or borrow them now (but not from me!). They describe how this impoverished one-time drummer with Genesis, itinerant sheep shearer and ocassional travel writer moved to the Alpujarras region of Andalucia. The books are very funny, and largely responsible for our infatuation with the country.
So, at Manchester Airport, BetterArf bought some time on an internet kiosk thingy, checked her email and her blog (Little Yellow Duck, you know the one), and then tried to click through to mine but it was blocked because it has 'unsuitable content for the young'.
Ach, it's that time of year again. BetterArf finishes work for the summer and a nanosecond later she jumps on a plane and leaves me! So she's off to Spain on Thursday, doing voluntary work with OffSpring on an organic farm in Andalucia, no less, and I will catch up with the pair of them in Valencia at the end of July. BetterArf and I are going to do an intensive Spanish course for two weeks and then visit rellies in England for a week.
Before I leave I have a mountain of work to get through, and I'll have to buy lots of new clothes because it amuses me to pretend that I don't know how to work the washing machine and iron.
OK I know, we beat Ecuador 1-0, we're through to the quarter finals, and we ungrateful England supporters should be deliriously happy. But it was another deeply depressing, frustrating, boring, uninspired, untalented, unskilled and just plain lousy performance by Sven's boys. Sven himself appears to be utterly clueless, playing a barely-fit Rooney as the sole striker in a bizarre 1-4-1-4-1 configuration.
How tedious was it? Well for much of the time the commentator was talking about anything but the game in hand: the presence of strange-looking insects in the commentary box, the excellence of the German railway system, the weather. Yawn.
I still have this fantasy that England will play Germany in the final. The score will be 2-2 after 90 minutes. And somebody will win 4-2 after extra time.
I was doing the weekly mini-shop at Choithram's in Jebel Ali Village this morning. Somebody has to, and BetterArf always comes back with useless stuff like rutabaga and sprouts and aubergines and okra, so it's better if I do the shopping 'cos I actually buy stuff that
a) I know how to cook, and b) I will eat.
I got to the egg fridge at Choithram's and reached for our usual six-pack of 'Golden Eggs' produced by the chickens of Al Jazira Poultry Farm LLC. They are splendid brown eggs, and they cost Dhs 3.25 for six. I was a bit surprised to find that the six-pack was somewhat shorter than usual. In fact it was a four-pack. And it was priced at Dhs 4.50.
Let's do some maths: six eggs at Dhs 3.25 is Dhs 0.542 per egg. Four eggs at Dhs 4.50 is Dhs 1.125 per egg. That's a little bit more than a 100% increase. A chat with the store manager elicits the usual shrug of the shoulders and 'head office controls the prices'.
I've lived in Dubai too long to be particularly outraged by this; I more or less expect to get screwed on everything I buy, more or less all the time. I will never buy Golden Eggs again, and they won't notice. Regrettably, plenty of other idiots will buy these cute little four-packs, and Al Jazira Poultry Farm's Marketing Manager will be promoted and hailed as the person who got the punters to pay twice as much for their eggs.
I wimped out of watching last night's match between England and Sweden due to a combination of general tiredness, the lateness of the hour (11pm kick-off), and the expectation of a seriously boring game that neither side would be particularly trying to win.
As it turned out, I wasn't tucked up in bed by my usual 9.30, but BetterArf still didn't want to go out at that late hour. So about 1115 I texted DubaiBilly to find out if there was any action, and he very wonderfully texted me every time a goal was scored. So I ended up going to bed at about one a.m. anyway.
So I was a total zombie when the alarm went off at 6.30.
Well done England. The next match, against Ecuador, *should* be a walkover.
Well thank you fans for a pathetic response to my quizette! To put you out of your misery, it's a children's playground in Valencia. The figure is Gulliver with his hat and sword. There's a marvellous park in Valencia which is basically in a wadi. As in, there used to be a river, the Turia, that wiggled its way around the historic town centre. But after major flooding in the 50s, the river was diverted and the riverbed was turned into a long and winding park. Gorgeous it is. Gulliver's Playground is in there, and just to the right is the City of Science and Technology, featuring some wacky architecture that would not be amiss in Dubai.
I was eight years old the last time England won the World Cup. Being highly impressionable at that age, I more or less assumed that it was normal for England to win the World Cup, and that we would keep on doing so every four years. So imagine my continuing disappointment when it keeps on not happening.
Last night's performance against 'plucky' Trinidad and Tobago was nothing less than appalling. England did not deserve their two goals in the final eight minutes. I have no words to describe how badly they played. They did not look like a team, easy-looking chances were squandered, and can somebody please explain to me why Peter Crouch is allowed to play?
Etisalat's Summer Slowdown seems to be with us once again. For the past week, possibly longer, their ADSL 'service' has been crawling along like a slow crawly thing. I've been scanning the papers for news of storms in the Indian Ocean causing not one, but two ships to sink and snap their subsea cables. To no avail.
Mind you, they probably wouldn't use that excuse again. No doubt their PR Officer/Tea Boy is scratching his head trying to come up with something more plausible - hence the delay in any kind of announcement / non-apology.
I know! 'It's the Atlanteans. Not dead, just resting. Recently awoken and roaming the sea-bed ripping up fibre-optic cables'.
Or: 'Underwater Tsunami Snaps Cables'. Or: 'Alien Spacecraft Crashes Into Indian Ocean: Cables Snapped'. Or: 'You Whingeing Expats Are All Going On Vacation: Why Should We Pay For Bandwidth That Won't Be Used?'
Oh the joys of motoring. Yesterday I left my office at about one o'clock, and noticed that my car seemed to have a bit of a lean to it. Yupp, flat tyre. Flat. As a pancake. I opened the boot, got out the jack, the socket wrench, and the spare wheel.
Then I consulted the handbook to find out where you're supposed to stick the jack. I've always wondered what those discs on the sills of BMWs were for. Now I know; they cover the holes where you stick the arm of the jack in. Very neat.
I played with the jack a bit, and then removed the wheel cover and had a go at undoing the nuts. Bugger! The socket wrench is a couple of sizes too big! I had a rummage around in the boot, but couldn't find another wrench. Sod it. I was dripping with sweat, covered in muck and not an entirely happy bunny.
I developed a plan. Get a cab to Geant, buy a car toolkit, go to the pub and return early the next day to do the business. Sounded like a good 'un.
The only thing that Geant could offer me was a 100-piece toolkit. Made in China. Dhs 30. Yes, clearly a whole pile of crap that would not be up to the job, but I bought it anyway. I'm exaggerating, of course. The hammer works.
Up at 5.30 this morning, and back at the car by 6.10. Pull off the wheel cover, select the right-sized head for the feeble little torque wrench. Apply to nut. Exert effort. Absolutely no movement whatsoever. Scratch head. Borrow wrench from watching taxi driver. Too big. Approach several vehicle owners over the next half hour. Nada. All too big.
Call garage. Wait while their laughter subsides. They'll send somebody to change the wheel and take the busted one back for repair. About an hour later my buddy Babu shows up (having done a tour of TECOM that sounds a bit like the one I did the other day). Being a pro, Babu has a torque wrench with a two-foot handle. He has the old wheel off and the spare on in about three minutes and has not even broken into a sweat.
We have a look at the old tyre - there's a chuffing great nail in it. Bloody hell.
Now I'm waiting for the garage to call to tell me they've fixed the old tyre (or not). And I can't wait for the wallet damage report.
Today's Gulf News reports on a UAE Labour Ministry official explaining that it is, and always has been, illegal for employers to keep the passports of their employees.
This practice has been going on for as long as I've been in Dubai. The first company I worked for refused to give me my passport once they got it back from Immigration with my residence visa stamped in it. The second company I worked for would have liked to take care of my passport for me but I kicked up a total stink about it - pointing out the phrase printed in it that says the passport belongs to Her Brittanic Majesty, not me, and I am not allowed under any circumstances to surrender it to another Government or individual. Car hire companies have, in the past, tried to keep my passport as 'security'.
Which brings me to a story. Whilst residing in the UK, I had to leave the country at short notice, and my passport had expired. So I went in person to the passport office in Liverpool, and queued for half a day to get a new one. I didn't get it there and then, but they said it would be in the post later that day. And thanks to the marvels of the Royal Mail, it arrived the next morning. With my name spelled incorrectly. I called them about this, and they said they'd make a new one, but I had to promise to return the other one. So the new one arrived the next morning, and like an idiot I posted the old one back to them. Had I known then what I know now, I would certainly have kept it.
Anyhoo, back to the original story.
Isn't it ironic that this article has appeared in the Gulf News, when it is a fairly well-known fact that GN keeps the passports of its employees?
For the uninitiated, TECOM is the Free Zone Authority that manages Internet City, Media City and Knowledge Hamlet. These cities and the hamlet are all on the same very large campus which has now been split into several islands by the new roads that have been built. One cluster of buildings in particular is extremely hard to get to - the home of Cisco, Microsoft, HP and Oracle to name but a few. I had occasion to visit one of these buildings a few days ago, and I am pleased to present the Nice And Accurate Directions Of How Not To Do It.
1) Coming up Sheikh Zayed Road (from Abu Dhabi/Jebel Ali), ignore the half-concealed-by-tarpaulin signs and take the New Pink Underpass. This takes you under SZR.
2) On emerging from the New Pink Underpass, ignore the little unsignposted country lane on your right and continue for another kilometer.
3) This brings you to a roundabout in Knowledge Hamlet, and you go all the way round and head back the way you came from.
4) There are no u-turns whatsoever until you are at the end of Media City Phase 2. Here you will find a roundabout beside the Radisson Hotel, and you can go all the way round and head back the way you came from.
5) As you approach the New Pink Underpass once again you recall that you tried this before and it did not work. So at the last minute you follow the fork to the right.
6) As you glide inexorably over the beautiful new bridge across the SZR, you realise that you have screwed up bigtime, and it is likely that you will have to go as far as the Maul of the Emirates before you can turn around.
7) But no! You are wrong, after only three or four kilometers you can take a new bridge back over the SZR.
8) You come to a set of traffic lights, and a left turn puts you on a road that you have never seen before. You have the option of doing as I did, and wandering up and down little roads that ultimately lead nowhere. Or follow the signs for Knowledge Hamlet.
9) You crawl through Knowledge Hamlet, sedately bouncing over the numerous speed-bumps, and eventually you arrive back at the roundabout that you were at about ten minutes ago.
10) Turn left here. There are no u-turns whatsoever until you are at the end of Media City Phase 2. Here you will find a roundabout beside the Radisson Hotel, and you can go all the way round and head back the way you came from.
11) As you approach the New Pink Underpass once again you recall that you tried this before and boy did you mess up.
12) Plunge headlong into the underpass.
13) On emerging from the New Pink Underpass, do not ignore the little unsignposted country lane on your right. This is your destination. You have arrived.
14) Almost: now find somewhere to park the damned car.
Ok, so we won our first match in that World Cup thing. England 1, Paraguay 0. We hardly deserved to win. The only goal, a Beckham free kick that was helpfully deflected into the net by the Paraguayan captain Carlos Gamarra in the fourth minute, was a superb starter. But it was all downhill from there. England were all over Paraguay in the first half, but nobody could be arsed to score another goal. Paraguay were somewhat more on the case in the second half, and it was nailbiting stuff.
I hate this. England seems to believe that a 1-0 victory is good enough. I disagree. We want goalfests, we want excitement. We don't want to see these outrageously highly-paid chaps not doing their job (I define their job as scoring as many goals as possible, not the boring Eriksson definition of just score one more than the other team).
And I seriously hated the Brazilian referee: he looked like some kind of vampire, he had more oil on his hair than Saudi Arabia pumps in a month and he was totally biased against some of the England players (especially the midget Crouch). This guy made free with the yellow cards for perfectly acceptable tackles while ignoring the blatant prima-donna-ish acting of the SAmericans.
I've just read a piece in the online Grauniad - Eriksson and Beckham said they were crap because it was too hot.
To quote Gaspode The Wonder Dog: Pull one of the others, it's got bells on.
Summer arrived a few days ago. It's a bit early for heat like this - I seem to remember a more gradual ramp-up to extreme summer temperatures, reaching their peak in July/August. But what do I know, I'm only a blogger and part-time rocket scientist and brain surgeon.
Today's Gulf News carried a report on the weather. They say that the temperature in Al Ain last Sunday hit 50° Celsius. The other Emirates hit about 48°. They quote a meteorologist who said that all of their measurements are taken in the shade, and the actual temperature is about 3 degrees higher than what they report.
This is a perennial wossname. It is never ever reported that temperatures in the UAE have exceeded 50°C. And it has always been believed here in the UAE, that somewhere, in the Geneva Convention or one of those human rights thingies, if the temperature is 50°C or more, then you must stop work. But today's Gulf News poo-poos that ridiculous pinko-commie-bastard idea, and a quick trawl through Google-land doesn't find anything to support the idea. The Google-trawl does bring up a lot of common sense though - heat exhaustion / stroke begins to happen at temperatures as cold as 42°C.
The 4-hour afternoon rest period for labourers on building sites is being scaled down this year: a break from 12.30 to 3.00 throughout July and August is on offer. The poor sods.
So we went to see Rick Wakeman and Jim Davidson the other night. It would have been good if Jim Davidson hadn't shown up and if he (as promoter) had provided Rick with somewhat more equipment than a grand piano and a crappy Roland keyboard.
But this has been eloquently blogged about already by Little Yellow Duck. Ah, the joys of being a two-blogger household!
Hard on the heels of the launch of Etisalat's feeble Two Cabbage Leaves logo, I had occassion to visit their Jebel Ali shop. As the end of the month approached I thought I should give them a huge amount of money to pay for services rendered, 'cos, you know, they need it much more than I do, poor things. So I headed off to the nearest cash payment machine which quite happily accepted money for mobile and landline, but really was not interested in my broadband account. It refused to recognise the account number, even though it has done so in the past.
So I jump in the car and head off to the wilds of Jebel Ali. On entering the hallowed portals of Etisalat I was accosted by one of three young ladies in smart black uniforms.
Young lady: Hello Me: Grunt (thinking: get out of my way) Young lady: Are here to pay bills? Me: Grunt Young lady: Are you paying by cash or credit card? Me: Cash Young lady: Do you have more than five bills? Me: No (thinking: get the &%$^ out of my way) Young lady: Then you can use our shiny new Cash Payment Machine! Me: Can't Young lady: Sure you can, and look! There's no queue! Me: Doesn't work Young lady: Of course it does. It's very easy. I'll show you how to do it 'cos your obviously a bit thick Me: Please get out of my way
Head off to cash counter. Wait ten minutes. Pay money.
I'm sorry, but if you're trying to do customer service you should not block the way of people in a hurry and subject them to a five minute grilling. What a relief to hit the cash counters and find that nothing at all has changed: the indolent old staff still wearing their their own old clothes (competition idea: design a uniform for Etisalat staff, and no, dishdashas are not allowed), still grumpy and grunting, still think that customers are like criminals.
Compare and contrast: Etisalat's new way of describing themselves...
We enable people to reach each other, businesses to find new markets and everyone to fulfil their potential. Across the UAE, we provide telephone, TV and Internet services for everyone, and much more for businesses. We are increasingly present in international markets. Our customers enjoy the latest services and technologies, as well as a choice of great entertainment.
And the reality.
We're only a phone company and ISP, but we behave like a totalitarian dictator. We charge enormous fees for our services. We only give you half the Internet and criminalise access to the other half. We lie to you when things go wrong. We really do think you are stupid. We will never let you use VOIP until we can find a way to make you pay at least as much as you are paying now. So just give in and give us more money.