Monday, January 30, 2006

Happy New Year

Muslims are the only group of which I am aware who use a purely lunar calendar. Most calendars are solar/lunar, with each month starting around the new moon, but the year starting around some solstice or equinox. Before Islam, the Arabs used a solar/lunar calendar, with the new year starting sometime around the autumnal equinox, but Islam dropped the solar part, so a month is the time from one crescent moon to the next, and a year is 12 months.

And today is the first day of the first month of the year, New Year's Day, or Al Hijra, commemorating the Prophet's journey from Mecca to Medina.

However, Dubai will celebrate New Year's on the third. Rather like, if, when Jan 1 came on a Wednesday, the West celebrated on Friday, Jan 3 to get a long weekend.

Only the West doesn't do that. Jan 1 is Jan 1. Here, however, New Year's has been moved from 1 Muharram to 3 Muharram, a Wednesday, to lengthen the normal Thursday/Friday weekend.

So either today, tomorrow, or Wednesday, Happy New Year.

And, of course, yesterday was Chinese New Year, but when I called, the authentic Chinese restaurants in Dubai weren't doing Chinese New Year. Some of the faux Chinese had their idea of what a Chinese New Year should be, but I didn't bother. Still, happy year of the dog.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

"Abu Hassan"

Well, Google still considers me an 'adult' site (meaning a very puerile site) so I won't show up on most Google Blog searches, or even on the 'most recently posted' blogs. If I ever find out why, I'll try to fix the classification.

Today, Abu Hassan (real name, Farook bin Hassan) called me and said he had a business deal for me. I said I'd come right away. He called at 11:00 a.m. The meeting was for 3:00 p.m. I raced to his office, arriving at noon. Abu Hassan (or Farook, to be more accurate) received lots of calls, and tried to extract money from each one. Finally, he took me to lunch at a Yemeni restaurant. Usually, he shouts, This man 'American. Great Shatan!!' hoping some suicide bomber will take the hint, but not today. Today, he'd asked Muhammed Ali to join us for lunch.

When an Arab man has a son, he receives the honorific Abu (i.e., 'father'). Farook bin Hassan married very late, and needed the honorific long before he'd 'earned' it. So he started calling himself 'Abu Hassan,' (Hassan's Father) instead of his 'real' name, 'bin Hassan,' (Hassan's Son).

So today we had lunch with Muhammed Ali. Muhammed Ali handed me a contract last year. 150 workers, @ $1,500 each worker for a work permit. The $224,000 was to be split, 30% to Muhammed Ali, 50% to Muhammed Ali's local sponsor, 20% to Farook. No money was to be wasted on work permits. The investors were to get nothing. I was not inclined to invest.

Today, I was still not inclined to invest, so Farook felt like I was cheating him out of 20% of $224,000. Muhammed Ali asked me, 'What happened?' I said 'My partner got two Egyptians, and they can't meet on the days I'm free.' Muhammed Ali said, 'So the business is off?' I said, 'No, but very difficult. Maybe in 6 months.' I got a 'free' lunch out of the deal. Farook asked me, 'So you can stay until night?' I said, "No, I only have 3 hours today, and we've used them on lunch."

Even though Google doesn't allow anyone to read this blog, I still feel inclined to write it. So I had to get home to put a few words on blogspot. Which was why I told Farook I had to leave.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Site Blocked???

Dubai, being in the UAE, has all blogs (and everything else) considered offensive blocked from Internet access. As the sole Internet provider explains, they purchase a list of sites from somewhere (probably a US Nanny company) with each site classified, e.g., children, news, pornography, etc.

Certain categories (e.g. pornography) are blocked.

Dubai at Random is not blocked by the UAE; however, it is listed as offensive and inappropriate by Google, for reasons which escape me.

I tried to find Dubai at Random using BlogSearch, but kept getting 'No matches,' until I turned SafeSearch off. With SafeSearch off, I got lots of patently offensive sites discussing, in graphic detail, certain rather intimate acts (and I finally managed to find Dubai at Random).

I'm not sure what triggered BlogSearch to put me in the 'adult' category, since I've found sites with rather more explicit content than Dubai at Random that can be found by BlogSearch with SafeSearch on.

At least that explains why no one (except for one spam engine) has ever found my site.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Until the wind shifts...

On Sunday, the wind was blowing from the Southwest, bringing a fair part of the Arabian Desert, or Empty Quarter, with it. On Sunday, it shifted to the Northwest. So temperatures in Dubai are now 25 by day and 15 by night. For Americans, that's 75 by day and 60 by night. Visibility has returned, and one no longer needs a bandana in order to breath. In other words, the weather is back to being perfect, as it usually is in January. Lamentably, only in January.

I was invited to a 'farm' today. I think of farms as places where food (or some other raw material) is produced, but this 'farm' is just off a major highway, and is marked by a sign that says (in Arabic) 'mosque.' It has no cash crops, only shade trees, so I don't know why it's called a farm. In summer, people climb up on a raised platform; in winter (i.e., now) they cluster around a fire. When I arrived, they gave me a bowl of flour and a bottle of water. I kneaded the flour until it was ready to be baked into bread, then they put it over the fire. Then the Muezzin gave the call to prayer, and they all left to pray while I watched the bread.

When they came back from praying in the mosque, they ate the bread and gave me the name Abdullah, (literal translation: 'Slave of God'.)

Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

They call the wind Al Riakh

It is easy to forget that Dubai is in the desert, since the authorities have spent quite a bit of money planting greenery (and then watering the greenery so that it actually stays green). Summer, of course, with its 47 degree days tends to remind visitors where they are, but winter in Dubai is usually like a normal, temperate summer, with 25 degree days and 15 degree nights.

Today, however, Dubai residents were reminded of where they live by a Western wind that carried the desert, called the Empty Quarter, across Dubai. Visibility: non-existent. Breathability: same. A bandana might have been helpful. Or staying inside, though the wind was strong enough dust was coming in around the edges of the windows.

Great for flying kites, if they weren't sand-blasted to oblivion, except that, while they're up, no one can see them.

Thursday, January 12, 2006


My rent was due today.

When I first come to the UAE, my employer gave me a four bedroom apartment in a four-plex in Al Ain. There was a maid's room (the door locks from the outside, not the inside). I have no idea how much it cost. That job didn't last very long, so it's just as well I only bought furniture for two of the rooms. My next job gave me a two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise in Abu Dhabi, but that position was of even shorter duration.

Then, jobless, I came to Dubai in 2002, looking for an inexpensive place to live. Near the bottom of the market is a neighbourhood called Satwa, where one could obtain a small, bare cinder-block room for about $250 a month. Out in another neighbourhood called Al Qusais, there are also some cheap, traditional style houses--i.e., just a hole for the plumbing facility, a nice courtyard for the goat, etc. for about the same price.

I elected to take what looks like a normal, Western one-bedroom for $600 (then, €700). After I found a job, I discovered most of my colleagues were paying almost twice that much for luxury two- and three-bedroom apartments, but I couldn't see why I needed any more apartment than I had.

From the British influence, rent is paid quarterly, so, every three months, I took $1,800 to the rental office. This lasted just over two years.

The Ruling Family owns all land in Dubai. Sometimes (rather frequently, in fact) they give permission for a member of their tribe to build an apartment building, in exchange for a percentage of the rent. Before 2004, rent was set at a level to give a reasonable return on the initial investment, and remained mostly fixed, with the occasional 10% rise. Rent controls lead to results which basic economics says are rather predictable.

After I had been living in the building for awhile, I met some of my neighbours, and discovered that they sub-leased by the month, rather than by the quarter, and paid almost $2,000 a month. It seems that several enterprising businessmen leased apartments at $600 and sub-leased at $2,000. There was plenty of demand, even at $2,000 per month, and the building was filled. But those of us who leased directly from the owner's agent only paid $600 a month.

I had discovered that, in the days of fixed rents, almost every apartment building had several apartments leased by entrepreneurs who illegally sub-leased, sometimes to another entrepreneur who sub-sub-leased. I met a real estate broker who tried to convice me to move, so he could rent out my apartment for $1,000, and sub-lease me an apartment for $550 that he had leased for $350. Since other sub-lessees were paying $2,000, whoever got my apartment would be grateful, and, he felt, I should be grateful to save $50 a month (though for a smaller, older, shabbier place). I didn't move.

Landlords eventually complained to the Rulers that they were losing money, as in, 'The brand new luxury building next to mine charges $1,100, and I'm only getting $700 for the apartments in my old, rather run-down building, so I'm losing $400 on every apartment every month.' And the landlords didn't seem to know about the sub-lessors, who were charging $2,000, or they would have been losing $1,300 on every apartment every month. So the freeze was lifted, and landlords were told they could charge 'market rates.' They weren't sure how much would cause their building to empty, so some started by raising rents just 10% to see what would happen. Braver landlords raised rates 85% or more. But there were no cheaper places to move, anywhere in Dubai. If the current tenants moved out, there were lots more ready to move in. So the higher rates not only held, occupancy increased as more people flooded into Dubai, and landlords asked even higher rents.

Eventually, the rapid increase in rent made the BBC World Service, and the Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced a 15% cap on rent increases. Some landlords started offering 3-year leases, fearing a collapse. Others plan to increase 15% at every opportunity. A few have tried increasing more than 15%, threatening to create problems for any tenants who complain.

The broker who wants me to move and give him my lease keeps telling me about Saudi Arabia. I remember, in the '70s, I was looking for a job and was told that jobs in Saudi Arabia paid $75,000. 'So how much is rent?' '$100,000 per year, but that's paid for you, you get to keep the entire $75,000.' I said I'd go, but they only wanted petroleum engineers, which I wasn't. Today, that $100,000 per year apartment goes for less than $10,000 a year. Granted, it's 30 years older and hasn't been well maintained, but still.

Given the high rents, the Government of Dubai is 'selling' apartments and villas. Many of these villas initially 'sold' for less than $120,000 (€140,000) and are now 'selling' for more than $270,000 (€225,000). Since there are no laws regarding real property, other than the ones that say the Ruling Families own all real property, no one really knows for certain what these 'sales' mean. Some people have made a lot of money, and others have lost.

There are only two ways people have lost money: Several people purchased property that was not actually being sold, similar to buying a Brooklyn Bridge (the deeds certainly looked legal). If the seller was related to the ruling family, the payment was declared legal, but only as rent, not as a purchase; if the seller was not related to the ruling family, the sale was declared a fraud, and the seller was sought to 'help the police with their inquiries.' Such sellers as were found are now in gaol, but most were faster than that.

The other way to lose money was to put 10% down, then try to re-sell. The problem is that all re-sellers must have permission from the original, government-authorized seller, which hated to sell something and see it re-sold the next day for 25% more than the original sales price. So the 90% balance came due, but the permission to re-sell did not. If the buyer could not raise the 90%, the properties were foreclosed (then re-sold by the government-authorized seller for much more than the original offer price), and the buyers lost their 10%.

So far, the two leading builders, Emaar and Nakheel, have sold out all their properties within days of putting them on offer, sometimes within minutes, and all their properties are selling at large premiums to the original sales prices. Whether this will continue is anybody's guess.

One broker I know tells all property 'owners', 'It will be just like Saudia. Properties will fall 90% within two years. Sell while you can, take any offer you can get.' He tells all non-owners, 'How can you afford not to own property? Dubai property is only going up. You can't fail to earn at least 25% on anything you buy, even at current prices. And you're just throwing your money away if you're renting'

I'm sure that broker will be proved correct.

But today I had to pay the rent, and I'm now paying $1,200 a month for my $600 apartment.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Eid Al Adha

Eid is Arabic for 'holiday' or 'festival.' Christian Arabs have the Christmas Eid. Muslims, however, are only allowed two Eids every (Islamic) year, one, called Eid Al Fitr, marks the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan, and this Eid, Eid Al Adha, marks the climax of the Hajj. (The Western year 2006 will have three Eids, because the Islamic year is slightly shorter than the Western year, so we'll have two Islamic year-ends in 2006.)

It is traditional for Arabs to greet each other on Eid by saying 'Eid Mubarak.'

This is Dubai, so, while many small shops close so the owners and staff can spend the day in prayer and with their families, the Malls are all open for people to shop. What better way to celebrate Eid? As a reminder, the Malls have signs up saying 'Eid Mubarak.'

Eid Al Adha commemorates the day when the Prophet Abraham (or Ibrahim, as he is called by Muslims) took his son out for a sacrifice (Christians and Jews will be familiar with this story.) The son had to carry all the equipment for the sacrifice, not knowing what (or, in this case who) was to be sacrificed. At the very last minute, God provided a Ram who took the place of Abraham's son.

So, today, Muslim fathers are supposed to go out early in the morning, after the 7:00 a.m. Eid prayers, with their children. The oldest son is supposed to carry the equipment for a sacrifice. At the last minute, someone (a younger son?) is supposed to show up with a kid goat.

In the village of Al Ain, on the night before Eid, anyone taking a constitutional walk around the neighbourhood will hear kids bleating inside all the villas. Tonight, the same walk will be conducted in the Silence of the Lambs. In Abu Dhabi, most people live in high-rise apartment buildings, so, last night, outside the buildings, tied to trees or lampposts, one would have seen a herd of kid goats. By now, they are all gone.

Every Muslim father with any money must buy a kid and, after the early morning sacrifice, give 2/3 of the meat to the poor, taking the remaining 1/3 home for Eid lunch and supper. (I saw one truck proceeding from the livestock market with a calf in the bed, for one family who prefer veal to lamb.)

But in Dubai, killing animals at home (or anywhere else) has been declared illegal. Good Muslims should have gone yesterday to select their kid (or calf) from the livestock market. Today, they should proceed, after the Eid prayers, to the meat processing plant, where the kid (or calf) will already be dressed, the 2/3 already distributed to the poor, and the 1/3 ready to take home. Not quite traditional.

A Saudi friend was planning to drive over to the processing plant this morning and pick up his 1/3 of a kid, but his boys insisted on doing things the traditional way. He had found, in his villa, a strange room, the purpose of which had previously eluded him. In this room was a large, oval marble container with water taps and a drain. This marble fixture was large enough for a person to lie down in it, and there was a plug for the drain hole, so it could be filled with water, but he wasn't sure what any of this was for. Then he realized that this room was for Eid, so he purchased a kid yesterday, brought it home in his new Jaguar, and confined it in this strange room, which is, apparently, only used twice a year.

Before he came to Dubai, he never drove. There are two kinds of people who don't drive, the poor who can't afford a car, and the rich who have chauffeurs. This particular Saudi was not poor. But his chauffeur is having trouble getting a visa to come to Dubai, so now he drives.

He does not, however, sacrifice a kid for Eid: A professional will come over to make sure the job is done correctly. Muslims have a concept called halal, which is kind of like kosher-lite, but the basic principle applies: if the kid is not dispatched correctly, a good Muslim can neither eat the meat, nor get credit for giving 2/3 to the poor. So my friend will leave the gruesome deed to the pro. All in this strange little room which, I believe, Westerners would call a 'bathroom'.

Then they will have a very nice Eid lunch and supper, and the pro will take care of seeing that the 2/3 donation reaches the poor. Probably the poor pros family, but that's OK.

So I hope everyone, both Muslim and infidel, has a great Eid.

Eid Mubarak.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Psst. Secret.

Now, and for all of January and February, Dubai is perfect. Temperature is 25 by day and 15 by night. A hundred kilometers of beach, with 100% sun, no clouds, no rain.

The people who have to sell holidays will tell you this in July. 'Sitting indoors, wasting your vacation because of the cold and rain? Come to Dubai, where we guarantee cloudless skies and sun.' The tourists arrive and wilt like a leaf of lettuce in a steamer. There's plenty of sun, as promised. More sun than the tourists imagined possible.

Temperature 47. In the shade. Of which there isn't any.

From their €300 a night hotel room window, facing the ocean, the tourists can see a newer hotel under construction blocking their view, and can awaken to the sounds of construction. The once pristine ocean is murky from the construction, and the murk looks decidedly unhealthy. Dubai is building four major (as in, visible from the moon) land reclamations. Three are to look like palm trees, creating beachfront property for thousands of villas. The fourth is to look like a map of the world. (Official Slogan: 'The Palm puts Dubai on the map; the World puts the map on Dubai.')

Depending on whom you believe, the increased coastline will provide (eventually) much more estuary, and many more colourful tropical fish to see once the sediment settles and the oceans return to their pre-construction crystal clear state; or, the construction will kill off all the fish, and the dead fish will wash up for the tourists to nose out. We'll see.

Irate tourists, returning to Europe in July, have gotten Dubai listed on various 'Holidays in Hell' lists. But that's in July.

Now, the weather is perfect. Dubai has many parks (a new one of just opened on 27 December 2005, and many more are planned), and (for now) all are lovely to walk about in. Flowers abound, and the aroma is delightful. The gardeners have been quite artistic in their floral arrangements, and the flowers are all removed and replaced frequently, always in new patterns and designs, each one more original and aromatic than the last.

Birds have gathered here for the winter from all over the northern Eurasian continent, and Dubai has several bird sanctuaries, and blinds with scopes for bird-watching types.

Meanwhile, Dubai is also about shopping. A business here must have a special license to offer products on sale. And most seem to have that license, because everything is 75% (or more) off. It's your lucky day, today is the biggest one day sale of the year. And that's no matter which day you are in Dubai. There is no VAT in Dubai, so most things are much cheaper (25%-40%) than Europe. And Dubai is malls.

There is ibn Battuta Mall. 'ibn Battuta' means 'Son of Battuta.' We don't know who Battuta was, or what his son's name was, but we know that his son wanted to make the Hajj, and then he wanted to see where all the highways leading to Mecca came from, so he wandered from Morocco to Egypt, then to Mecca (skipped because it's too sacred to mention), then Persia, India, China, and Andalusia (the name for Muslim Spain before the reconquista of 1492, and, again, for Muslim Spain after the re-re-conquista planned for sometime in the near future.) His mall goes on for more than a kilometer, and each section is strictly authentic, with traditional Egyptian stores like the Gap in the Egyptian section, and traditional Persian stores like Starbucks in the Persian section, etc.

There is the new (opened Fall, 2005) Mall of the Emirates, largest mall in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and with a recreation area that boasts the world's third largest indoor ski area (mis-represented in the Guardian as the world's largest indoor ski area). Weather prediction: for the rest of the Gulf, sun. For Mall of the Emirates, snow.

And there are all the older Malls, at least a dozen of them, all having 75% off sales, today only (no matter when 'today' is).

For hotels, there is the 7-star Burj al Arab, the world's tallest hotel, where rooms can cost more than €10,000 a night. Or €50 just to go in and see the place. The height is 1/2 spire, rather than actual hotel, and there are building with more hotel floors than the Burj, but these taller buildings are disqualified by having floors devoted to non-hotel activities, so the Burj is officially the world's tallest hotel. And, officially and otherwise, one of the world's most expensive hotels.

If it's nothing but unlimited shopping you want, Dubai is great even in Summer: go from your air conditioned Hotel room to the air conditioned hotel bus to mall after mall after mall. And there are raffles, with the lucky winners getting a car, or kilos of gold, or hundreds of thousands of Euros.

But if you're not a shopper but a beach person, now is the only time to be in Dubai.

I've seen a few tourists so desperate for the beach that they bake themselves in July, returning home looking like the lobsters for sale in most Dubai restaurants, but mostly in July the beaches are almost deserted (certainly, they're deserted by me).

But for now, the beaches are lovely and cheap. For beaches with lifeguards, there is a fee of about €1. Beaches without life guards are free.

Hotels are available for less than €30 a night, for the budget minded, with busses to the beach. And the night life is, if not filled with famous performers, at least filled with competent musicians and DJs (except during Ramadan).

But the traffic is terrible, and the people already here don't want any more people hearing about Dubai and coming here. So this post is a secret.