Thursday, March 30, 2006

National Bird of Dubai

The Guardian claims that Dubai has 20% of the world's cranes. Given the size of Dubai relative to the entire world, I doubted this claim; however, one of them just nested next to my window.

My view was formerly of a dirt carpark. Farook told me some time ago that he was trying to sell the dirt, and I believe him. Farook knows most of what's for sale in Dubai (and Sharjah) and tries to sell it, like the school mentioned in an earlier posting (the owner really wanted €9,000,000, but Farook thought she wanted €3,000,000, so he told me I could have it for a mere €6,000,000 cash, handed over to Farook). That he actually sold the carpark I rather doubt (he didn't have any luck at all with the school), but someone did.

When I moved into my apartment, there was a large, paved carpark out front which was never more than about 3/4 full, and the dirt lot was mostly empty, except for people dining at a cafeteria right next to the lot. My apartment building had a large 'For Rent' sign in front. Rent was €500 a month.

Now the 'For Rent' sign is gone, since my building is full with a waiting list. Rents are €1,500 a month. The carpark is always full. And the crane is hovering above the old dirt lot.

My hope is that, when the building is finished, my window will look into the window of an apartment inhabited by several attractive young women who don't like wasting money on curtains, but I live more in hope than expectation.


Meanwhile, the fire alarm in my building was going off all last weekend. There's a short somewhere, so one of the sensors (no one seems to know which one) is saying that the first floor is on fire. So they turned the alarm off. Solved the noise problem. As for actual fires, I guess the tenants will just have to sniff for smoke.

Friday, March 24, 2006

How to stop Incest

First, define 'stop.'

In the US, Dean Jane Martin of West Virginia (et al.) has 'proved' using recovered memory therapy that at least 100% of US fathers (and probably more) have committed incest with their children. Of course, pediatricians are required to regularly check all children for, and report, the slightest physical evidence of any abuse, and find such evidence less than 1% of the time; however, in spite of the fact that careful medical examinations carried out on a regular basis fail to show any of the trauma that should be a necessary consequence of sexual abuse, approximately 20% of women, even without recovered memory therapy, remember being abused; consequently, the American Medical Association estimates that 20% of all women have been subjected to incest.

The US attitude is that the 1% of fathers who leave conclusive physical evidence are more to be pitied than censured, it's the 99% who manage to rape their children without leaving any evidence whatsoever, presumably using sorcery to conceal their crimes, who deserve Salem-style retribution. Punishing this 99% might begin to bring an overall justice to the world, balancing what happens here.

In the Gulf, if a man commits incest, the woman is responsible. Two step daughters were recently arrested for incest with their stepfather, and their punishment is likely to be more severe than his, since, in this part of the world, it is understood that women tempt men, so all sex crimes are primarily the woman's fault.

Howver, if a woman who reports incest is guaranteed 180 lashes, as she is here in the Gulf, and if unreported incest is presumed not to have happened, then the UAE approach can greatly reduce incest.

I believe the problem was that one sister told her husband that her stepfather was having incest with her other sisters and the husband insisted they report the affair to the authorities. Unfortunately, only the other daughters will be lashed. If the law were extended so that the daugher reporting the incest would also be lashed for reporting the affair, I think we could stop all reporting of the crime, and the UAE could declare itself completely free of the scourge of incest.

And if we applied this approach in the West, I think Dean Martin would no longer recover memories of incest from 80% of her patients.


Again, in providing justice on balance, I heard a talk on not being afraid which focused on women who are afraid of being beaten by their husbands. The speaker said these women had choices, and should do whatever they could to avoid being beaten (as in, not angering their husbands). There's not much else they can do: there are no shelters (the Dubai shelter is being closed) and police are not allowed to interfere in domestic affairs. There is no place for the women to go, no way for them to support themselves, no real alternative to letting their husband beat them.

Meanwhile, in the West, only the criminal courts demand the medieval requirement of 'evidence' before a man can be prosecuted for beating his wife. Fortunately, Family Law courts do not. In approximately 48% of all Family Law civil cases (according to the New York Times), the Family Law court, concerned that the absence of any evidence is allowing a wife-beater to avoid the criminal justice system, will order the male domestic partner to pay more than 100% of his take-home pay. Under the Clinton law, he must then be gaoled for contempt when only 100% can be collected. No evidence, no proof of any kind is required. And the man cannot be released until he has paid in full. The new Clinton law does not allow the monthly amount to ever be reduced, or any amount forgiven, nor can the man be released until he has somehow handed over more than 100% of all his wealth and income.

So, for all the wife-beatings taking place in the Orient with complete impunity, Western men who have never touched their domestic partners are being sent to gaol for life without the possibility of parole. Thereby is global justice served, on balance.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

UAE Justice and the Newspaper Police Report (con't)

The newspapers recently reported the imposition of Sharia law in the UAE: amputation for a thief (in absentia). A few months ago, they reported the death penalty was imposed for drugs (in absentia). Of course, newspapers here only print official government press releases, so we have no idea of the actual arrest rate, conviction rate, or sentences. [Before coming to Dubai, my local newspaper back home had a daily Police Report, which reported every arrest, every conviction, and every sentence.]

The normal story that appears in the UAE papers is that unruly guests in this Disney Dubailand are ejected by the bouncers: 'Murderer sentenced to deportation. Rapist sentenced to deportation. Thief sentenced to deportation. Etc.' [Sometimes, for serious crimes (murder of a prominent Citizen) the sentence is 'Life, followed by deportation,' but this is becoming unusual.]

But these are only the official stories.

I was watching Sharjah TV a few years ago, when they had a program about understanding Islam. The host asked the audience, 'Would you prefer to be robbed every time you step out of your house, or would you prefer that thieves have their hands chopped off, and be able to walk in perfect safety? Be glad we have Sharia law here in the UAE.'

Since there was nothing in print (then or now) about hands actually being chopped off, only a mention on a single late-night TV show, I wondered (and still wonder): What is the real crime rate, conviction rate, and actual sentencing?

An acquaintence who spent a month in gaol for fencing stolen mobile phones said about half the inmates were thieves and murderers, but the rest were in for nothing that would be illegal in the West (e.g., talking to a member of the opposite sex, failing to sell items purchased on credit and being unable to pay the debt, fencing stolen mobiles, etc.). But only one or two arrests get reported every day, not nearly enough to account for all the people he saw in the gaol.

Another acquaintence was sentenced to 180 lashes just for drinking beer. OK, he was driving while drunk, but there's nothing in Sharia about driving, so he was sentenced for the drinking. He wanted to go on Oprah and show what his back looked like, but I assured him Oprah would fully approve of the law, if it were for drunk drivers.

But nothing was in the newspapers about 180 lashes for drunk driving.

So (if you believe the newspapers, which I don't) harsh, Sharia sentences are now being imposed only in absentia, which pleases everybody: Islamic fundamentalists approve of the imposition of strict Sharia law, and Westerners approve of its only being imposed in absentia.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Daily Stock Report (and Stock Report Report)

The morning newspaper had a very small item on yesterday's very small decline. It stated that the government would, in fact, intervene to stop a stock market crash, but did not bother to intervene on something as trivial as yesterday's 0.7% decline.

Today the Dubai stock market was up 1%. Note that, of the 39 stocks on the Dubai Financial Exchange, only 20 are actually traded, and most of the shares can only be bought or sold by Citizens, though a few are available to ex-pats. Daily, 297 million euros are traded, which may seem like a lot, but every day, the UAE pumps about half that much in oil, all of which is cash flowing into the UAE, while the stock market is just cash being shuffled around inside the UAE.

A local column on stocks explained that most stocks (especially here, where many shares are restricted) are never traded, that the traded shares are just like the froth on top of a cup of cappuccino, and don't really amount to anything. A sentiment which wasn't heard when the froth was getting bigger, but which is being spread now that the froth is dying away leaving: (Choose one) a) an empty cup; or b) a cup full of the real wealth; or c) some wealthy sheikhs and some poor relations (and ex-pats); d) all of the above; e) none of the above.

But maybe it's just an attempt to align with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and reduce the birth rate?

Monday, March 20, 2006

Etisalat (and WTO) strike again

I fear I'm in trouble: a couple of days ago there was a raid of a building with a satellite dish on the roof. By law, all TV should be supplied by the local phone company, Etisalat, or, more generally, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) (which is starting a second company, du, to cooperate, not compete, with Etisalat). Also, since joining the WTO, the UAE has promised that no one will be allowed to pirate any intellectual property (IP). So the government is not supposed to let residents steal TV shows.

People getting legal satellite TV, paying in full for all IP, buy a card which goes inside the decoder box. Currently, many of the small, backstreet shops selling decoders copy cards and sell them for a fraction of their regular price, because they do not collect the IP fees nor pay the IP holders. The WTO wants them stopped.

The old, pre-WTO law restricting TV to that provided by the TRA also satisfies the WTO requirement in part, since the TRA always collects all the appropriate IP fees (plus their local service charge). There's a slight contradiction here: entering the WTO is supposed to require the allowance of foreign competition to the local phone company, but, since only the TRA enforces IP rights, the WTO seems happy about limiting TV access to that provided by the TRA.

The TRA also enforces all the UAE culture and values, meaning no suggestive scenes with any sexual content, and no suggestive dialog (in Arabic, or in English if they can understand it).

Meanwhile, the roof of my building is covered with satellite dishes, and decoders are available almost anywhere in Dubai for less than €100. Many of the channels available from the European satellites are not in keeping with the culture and values of the TRA. The young ladies on these channels appear wearing rather less, in fact quite a bit less, than the approriate and culturally conforming abaya (loose black robe) and sheila (or hijab, for Arabs not from the Gulf, i.e, scarf which completely covers the hair). The young ladies are usually holding a telephone, and, streaming across the screen, is something in Arabic (which I can't read). I assume the Arabic is advising Muslims to call their Imam for spiritual guidance when tempted by such un-Islamic sights. In any case, a 900 phone number is provided. (After all, Imams have to live, too.)

So now I have to worry about the TRA coming and cutting the wires to my satellite and taking my decoder. Then I'll have to settle for looking out my window...

Actually, now that I'm looking out the window, the view is even less Islamic than what I can get from my European satellite, thanks to the fact that my building is 90% a fondaq Al banat (I don't speak Arabic, so I'm not sure what that means).

So I guess I'll pull up a chair and watch tonight's reality TV window "Catfight at 9."

Dubai Stocks (Not) In the News

I believe it was Tuesday, 14 May, when, after a decline of more than 40%, Dubai stocks fell by another 12%, for a total of around 50%. On Wednesday, 15 May, another small decline. On Thursday, a small advance, on light volume. The small advance made headlines on page 1 of the local newspapers on Friday, which is like Sunday in the West (or Saturday in a country which must be referred to as 'Occupied Territory' here). The Friday paper is the largest edition, and the one with the largest readership.

Newspapers here have two sections. Section 1 is general news, Section 2 is Business and Sports.
The small advance was covered on page 1 of Section 1 and again on page 1 of Section 2, with the announcement that the government was intervening to stop the decline. Since markets are closed on Friday, the Saturday newspapers had nothing about the Dubai market.

Saturday, apparently in response to the Friday stories, stocks made an advance of around 10%, which made headlines on page 1 of both sections of the Sunday newspapers.

Sunday, I'm sorry to report, Dubai stocks showed a small loss of about 3%, which appeared on page 3 of section 2 in small print of Monday's newspapers.

Today, Dubai stocks are down again, but only about 0.72%. Still, there seems to be little evidence that the government's jawboning is working, and less evidence that the government is using its cash to prop up the market. I don't expect to see much of a story in tomorrow's newspaper.

If it seems like I'm spending all day every day just looking at the market, that's mainly because it was the main item in the news a few days ago, and now I find it interesting to see how the local newspapers cover (or, more to the point, don't cover) the Dubai stock market. For which I actually have to check the market.


Unlike China, the local newspapers cover (reasonably well) news from outside the UAE (in China, the basic attitude is, why should anyone care what happens outside China). There's a page devoted to UK news, one devoted to US news, one devoted to Phillipine news, one devoted to Pakistani news, and three to five devoted to Indian news. [Given that more than 50% of the English-speaking population is from India, this is not too surprising.] What is surprising is that, one day, for reasons which escape me, the local newspaper devoted an entire page just to Australia. The letters to the editor were filled with angry voices that such a tiny minority as visitors and residents from Aus. (mainly to be found in the local watering holes) should have an entire page. Suggestions of what should be covered instead of Aus. on that page varied. Even more surprising was that the newspaper ignored the letters and, a few weeks later, devoted another entire page just to Aus.

Who knows what they'll cover next? It might be almost anything except bad news about the Dubai stock market.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Dubai Stocks: Jawbones and Asses (con't)

This morning's newspapers announced the big bounce of yesterday and concluded that the stock market decline was over once and for all. The government was not going to leave Gulf women frustrated.

Today, my market-close newsletter re-appeared with the gloomy announcement of a small (3%) decline in Dubai, and smaller declines in other Gulf markets.

Where is Samson (or Shamsung) when we need him? The jawbone in the hands of the Dubai government doesn't seem to be working, and the government does not seem to be stepping in with money in the form of cash to prevent further declines.

There's another problem: last year, a huge run-up Jan-May was followed by a big decline over the summer when buyers (but not sellers) went on vacation. Presumably, the winners went on vacation using their winnings, while the losers must have closed out their losing positions to pay for salve for their wounds. In any case, there was a big decline (about 30%) last summer. This year, there's been an even bigger decline (so far 50%) over the winter, a time when (last year) the market was up 100%. Now if summer repeats...

Of course, since this winter was opposite of last winter, maybe this summer will be opposite of last summer?

We can always hope.


And at least now, Dubai Citizens living in €10,000,000 mansions are allowed to sell the mansions (but only to other UAE citizens) to cover their losses in the Dubai stock market. Before (see previous post) there was no property ownership, so someone could be assigned by the government to live in a €10,000,000 mansion and not have a tosser to his name: he couldn't sell, lease, borrow against, or otherwise use the mansion to raise any cash, rather like a welfare recipient in the West living in public housing. Only the Dubai housing for impecunious locals (at least for those related to the Ruling Family) was rather more luxurious than Western public housing.

But now, as of 13 Mar, any Citizen with property in Dubai is free to sell to any other Citizen. And it looks like they'll have to sell to pay off their stock market losses. The only problem is (like selling the Dubai stocks that caused the problem), sell to whom?

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Purchasing Power Parity

Many of the labourers in Dubai come from countries where the wages, at market exchange rates, are about €10 a month. When they indenture themselves to come to Dubai, they get around €200 a month. If they get paid. Which they often don't. But, if they do, they seem quite happy with a wage of €200, and send most of it home.

Living on €10 a month would be impossible in Western Europe, but, on the sub-continent, €0.15 will buy an all-you-can-eat meal, and a room can cost as little as €1 per month (of course, it doesn't have a toilet, but it's only €1, so what do you expect).

It was a 16th century Spanish economist who first coined the idea of purchasing power parity, by which he meant that, over time, the price (in gold) of items in different countries should converge. Why anyone would listen to a 16th century Spanish economist when Spain expelled all its best economists at the end of the 15th century is a mystery. (Of course, it's no mystery as to why a country would be happy to expel all its best economists. Economics isn't known as the dismal science for nothing.)

More recently, in the 20th century, the Economist suggested that prices by multiplied by the cost of a Big Mac in London divided by the cost of a local Big Mac. So all Chinese prices (at official exchange rates) get multiplied by 5, and a Chinese salary of £100 per month gets translated into a salary of £500 per month. Still not a lot. But it's easier to understand how a Chinese worker can live on £500 than on £100.

A Big Mac in Dubai costs the same as a Big Mac in London, so prices are assumed to be at parity, and a salary of €200 is really a salary of just €200.

Only one can get the same amount of bread (flat, not a leavened bun), meat (goat, not beef), and vegetables (with extra protein from the occasional worm or beetle on local, insecticide-free veggies) for about 1/5 the cost of a Big Mac. (Cheaper, in fact, than buying the food in a retail grocery: the restaurants get much better deals on food than retail shoppers.)

Tonight, for example, I had a small thali, meaning seconds are allowed, but not thirds, all for about a guinea (or £1.05 for those too young to remember the days before decimalization). It consisted of flat bread, rice, soup, three kinds of vegetables, and two kinds of dessert (tea was an extra half crown). I waddled out of the restaurant. I haven't been in London lately, but I suspect the local vindaloo (with free seconds) costs more than a guinea.

Which is why I advise against following the lead of 16th century Spanish economists.

UAE Stocks (con't)

Last Tuesday, Dubai stocks dropped almost 12%, and on Wednesday they dropped another 2%. As reported previously, panic was ensuing, with disasterous results (as evidenced by the complaints of several Gulf wives).

Thursday saw a small rise in the UAE markets, but, according to my stock newsletter which comes out every evening after the market close, the rise was on very small volume, and so was probably meaningless.

But on Friday, the local newspapers reported that the government had stepped in to prop up stocks, and the decline was over. I waited for my daily newletter to report on Saturday's trades to see what had really happened. The newsletter did not arrive. So I checked the Dubai Financial Market website.

Once again, it appears a bear was slain with the jawbone of an ass.

When the always reliable local newspapers reported that the government had stepped in and would not allow stocks to fall further, panicked investors stopped selling. Given the small volume Thursday, it's not clear if the government actually stepped in, or just waited for a small positive correction in the general bear market decline to make their announcement. In any case, after the newspapers' re-assurances, there was no further panic selling, so stocks rose by more than 10% today. What we call a big bounce.

Whether it will continue is anyone's guess. The power of the jawbone is not to be underestimated, but it won't always stop a bear, unless wielded by Samson. Who, unfortunately, didn't make it into the Koran. (Though a Shamsung appears in some extra-Koranic Islamic legends.) Still, current market valuations don't seem terribly unreasonable at about 20 times earnings, and are certainly far more reasonable than they were when market prices were double current levels.

Stay tuned for the Sunday report.

NB. Stocks in the UAE trade Saturday through Thursday. Everything is closed Friday.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Gulf Stock Markets

In 2005, most Gulf stock markets were up 100%. For 2006, most are down by 50%. Leaving a tidy profit? At least for the brokers.

The local newspapers report that many Gulf wives are complaining that, since the crash, their husbands are 'unable to perform their marital duties.' Coming from the West, I assume the husbands' marital duties are 1) taking out the garbage; and 2) mowing the lawn.

Only they don't have lawns in the desert, so I have no idea what marital duties the husbands are unable to perform.

But whatever they are, Gulf wives are very upset, and want the governments to 'fix' the stock markets, so the stock markets can't 'fix' their husbands.

Dubai Property Laws

Most ex-pats had heard that only Citizens were allowed to own property in the UAE. As it turned out, we were wrong, until March 13. The Gulf News on March 14th announced that, on 13 March, the Dubai government had passed a law allowing all UAE Citzens to buy and sell all property in Dubai.

Before, all property in Dubai belonged to Dubai. From time to time, the ruling family would give a citizen a modest villa of, say, US$10,000,000, and there the poor citizen would be obliged to live. People seeing his $10,000,000 home assumed he was rich. Only his house belonged to Dubai. He couldn't sell it, lease it out, borrow against it, or do anything else except live in it, like an English entail, only more restrictive. He looked rich, but hadn't a dirham to his name.

But all that changed on 13 March: now, all Dubai property may be freely bought and sold by all Citizens of the UAE. Meaning, sold by the current Dubai residents to Citizens from the other small, impoverished Emirates (and also to Citizens of the wealthy Emirate of Abu Dhabi, whose citizens live in luxurious villas that belong to Abu Dhabi, and who want to spend some of their money to buy a villa of their own).

As a side-note, some property will be made available for ex-pats, but that will be announced later. For now, as most ex-pats had erroneously believed before 13 March 2006, only Citizens of the UAE may freely buy and sell Dubai properties.

The Dubai government has promised that ex-pats will be able to legally buy and sell land in certain areas, to be named later. Everyone assumes those areas will include the Palm 'Islands' (visible from space), the Meadows, Springs, Arabian Ranches, and Dubai Marina, and a few others. But, for now, only Citizens of the UAE may legally buy and sell Dubai property.

Meanwhile, ex-pats continue to buy and sell (without any legal foundation) properties that may, eventually, be made available for ex-pats to buy and sell. At prices that exceed €400,000 for a small, three-bedroom villa. In the middle of the desert. That leaks when (once a year) it rains. And the ex-pats are hoping that €400,000 villa will soon be worth €800,000 or more. For reasons that escape me.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Rape law in Dubai

Not long ago, rape in the UAE normally carried the death penalty, at least for ex-pats raping Citizens. The best the rapist could hope for would be deportation. As a soprano.

But recently, a British airline stewardess was gang raped, and the Citizens responsible were sentenced to two years in gaol.

The defense is appealing, claiming that the woman was drunk, and was therefore not competent to say, 'No.' The court is considering the claim.

In the West, at least in the US, if a man buys a woman a drink and she agrees to have sex, but then regrets it afterward, the man is guilty of rape, since she was not fully competent to say, 'Yes.' So the Dubai law regarding sex with a woman after a few drinks seems diametrically opposed to Western jurisprudence.

Of course, the case is still under consideration.

I'd say, 'Stay tuned,' but the final outcome will only make the news if the government deems it an instructive verdict and issues it as a press release. Otherwise, we'll never know how the case is finally resolved.

And for those visitors to Dubai who think this makes it open season on women, I suspect the original version of the law still applies to ex-pats.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Temperatures Rising

The daily high is once again above 30, after a hiatus of about three months. Walking is still pleasant mornings and evenings, and, for those who've been here awhile, even 30 is mild, but the increase will be rapid.

Race to enjoy the parks and traditional souks while you can, before walking faster than a crippled snail will be beyond imagination.

More and more Europeans are coming to Dubai for the brief season of clement weather, and some come after the season, having heard stories about how nice Dubai is.

The stories are true for December through February, and even part of March, but March is marching on.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Dubai: The Once and Future West

The latest economic reports from the West indicate that per capita (i.e., average) income is going steadily up, while median income is going steadily down. (Average means take the sum of all incomes, rich and poor, and divide by the population; median means what the typical person gets.)

The West may soon achieve numbers similar to Dubai, which has a per capita income in excess of €20,000 and a median income of less than €2,000.

In the 18th and 19th century, English novels indicate that a family could live comfortably on just £20 a year, while single members of the landed gentry ran through more than £100 a week without even trying (e.g., Tom Jones). Dubai is currently much like that.

And, if things keep going as they are, the West will soon be again.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Luncheon at The Lodge

I received e-mail and flyers about The Lodge for about three years before I actually called and asked where it was. It is located in Al Nasr Leisureland. Al Nasr is a place of European Football fields, tennis courts, a play area (with water park) for children, an ice skating ring, and a large number of restaurants, including Indian (chef trained in Mumbai), Thai (chef trained in Mumbai), Chinese (chef trained in Mumbai), and Goan (chef trained in Goa). Of these, only The Lodge, the Chinese, the Club, and the Indian are open for lunch, but only the Lodge has the €5.50 luncheon special.

Lunch in The Lodge consists of three European-style courses, with a remarkable lack of kebab, curry, and tabouleh. First course is a choice of a soup or one of two salads, which change daily (today, the soup was cauliflower, the salads were chicken or apple-celery). Main course usually has a fish (today, Provençal), a chicken, a beef (today, Wellington), and a vegetarian dish (today, Canneloni Florentine). Desert generally has a choice of fresh fruit, ice cream, a streudel, and something chocolate.

The diners quite enjoyed the soup, salad, and Wellington, though our two Brits were disappointed when they saw that some of the dishes came with chips, while the Wellington was served with steamed vegetables. The canneloni was not quite as tasty as the Wellington, being rather bland. The streudels were served warm, with an artistic decoration of white sauce streaked with strawberry icing.

Lunch also includes a free drink of wine, beer, something stronger, or freshly squeezed juice.

After 3 p.m., a glass of wine is the usual Dubai €3.30, so the price of the luncheon special is quite remarkable.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Order in the Orient: the Intenet Café story

The Orient is a strange place for Internet Cafés. A few years ago, after a fire killed several patrons of a Chinese internet café, China announced that it was going to make illegal internet cafés illegal. It was not clear to me how they intended to do that.

When I was in China in 2002, there were cafés in every neighbourhood, almost all illegal, since they didn't impose the Chinese proxy that bans Falun Gong, most human rights sites, all Western news, in fact, almost everything except for the official Chinese government sites. I didn't actually see any legal cafés in China, but I saw the legal Chinese Internet from a friend's office, and nothing was available, at least nothing I cared to see.

So everyone was using the illegal, prohibited cafés in 2002. These cafés were already quite illegal and prohibited in 2002, so how they could be made illegal and prohibited in 2003, as the Chinese government announced, I do not know.


Dubai is full of internet cafés, but announced on 1 March that it intends to crack down on illegal activities by insisting only people with a photo ID will be allowed to surf. The café must keep a copy of the photo ID and the time of surfing, so the government can track down malefactors.

The government is correct in its suspicions: almost half the people in Dubai internet cafés are engaging in felonious activities. No, not phishing nor spamming, nor plotting terrorist activities, they are making phone calls (a few are viewing porn).

The law for the entire UAE requires that all phone calls must be routed through the Official Phone Company, and all phone calls outside the GCC are charged around €1 per minute. Meanwhile, internet VOIP companies charge around €0.01 per minute to the US, Western Europe, and China, and around €0.25 to almost everywhere else.

[The other half of the users, the legal half, have learned that it's even cheaper if their families and friends also go to an internet café to talk, where they can use Yahoo or MSN and have a perfectly legal video chat, but the illegal half are calling unsophisticated friends and parents who only understand how to answer the telephone.]

The Official Government Phone Company (soon to be one of two Official Government Phone Companies, for reasons which escape me) estimates that it is losing millions every year to illegal internet phone calls. I'm guessing that's a huge underestimate.

As of current date, this police move to stamp out illegal internet café activity is only a threat on the horizon: no internet café is currently demanding a photo ID and taking a copy before issuing a workstation--the only photo ID required now is the photo that appears on banknotes--but most of these threats eventually come to pass. Sort of.

A few years ago, Dubai announced that unlicensed taxis were banned. I still found plenty who would transport me for around 1/4 of what licensed taxis would charge. Then, one day, I got into an unlicensed taxi, and the police pulled us over. I was ordered to engage a licensed taxi (which I did), and, as we drove away, I saw the unlicensed taxi driver being herded into a black Maria. After that, I couldn't find an unlicensed taxi for months.

Then they all returned, in numbers comparable to what they'd been before the ban, except that they'd raised their fees.


1. The requirement for photo IDs in all Internet cafés is announced.
2. Some cafés comply, and lose half their customers. Most do not, and the ones who started to collect photo IDs soon abandon the practice, only asking for a photo ID if they think a customer is really a cop. All cafés put up their prices.
3. One cafe owner and/or employees is/are arrested for not collecting photo IDs, and an illegal internet phone user is also arrested, based on the phone company detecting illegal activity and arresting him based on his photo ID at the internet café. Both arrests are displayed prominently on the front pages of the local newspapers, and both felons are given longer prison sentences than murderers or rapists, since their sentences are intended as object lessons.
4. Some internet café comply, and lose half their customers, but most do not, and the ones who do soon abandon the practice, only asking for a photo ID if they think a customer is really a cop. All cafés put up their prices.
5. A few more internet callers and café owners and/or employees are arrested, some for public display, some quietly because they were particularly irritating to some government official. Most cafés put this down as a cost of doing business. Passing this cost on to customers, they all raise their prices.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

A Rich Landowner in Sharjah?

I met a young Emirati lady named Fatima (named after the Spanish shrine to Our Lady). She is related to the Sheikh of Sharjah, and he gave her 32,000 square meters of land. She has had the land appraised at €3,000,000, making her a rather wealthy young lady. Only, like jewelry, the appraisal and what she can actually get for it seem to be somewhat divergent.

She'd like to feel like a millionairess, which requires rather more than 32,000 square meters of empty desert with her name on it.

About a year ago, Farook, a real estate agent, dragged me to look at a school that was sitting empty. He said, with my Western degree, I would have no trouble getting a license to open the school, which was selling for €5,500,000, but he could get it for me for only €5,000,000. (He'd heard that the school was selling for €3,500,000, and was planning to take my €5,000,000, then pay the owner €3,500,000 and share the difference with his cousin.) He said, if I just put up the €5,000,000, I wouldn't have to do anything, he could get me all the teachers I'd need (his family and himself), I'd just have to sit back and count the money.

I tried to explain that a) I didn't have €5,000,000; and b) if I did, I wouldn't want to open a school with it.

Since Farook has a large family and pays a fortune in tuition, he thought I knew what a good investment the school would be, and couldn't understand why I didn't write a cheque on the spot. His English, or rather lack thereof, combined with his wish fulfillment meant that he couldn't understand my explanation of why I wasn't writing the cheque.

I did offer to write a newspaper ad, but first asked Farook for written details about the school, so I could make sure the ad was accurate. I never got them. Farook had never met the owner, he'd just been contacted by a cousin from Sharjah, and he'd immediately thought of me. I wrote the ad without the details, just based on what I'd seen, and Farook said he was going to put the ad in the newspaper and share the commission. Of course, he never did.

Meanwhile, each Western client of his real estate agency was told about this fantastic investment opportunity, and a Scottish lady named Ann said she knew people who were looking for a school. For reasons which escape me, Farook invited me to meet this lady.

'I want to present this school to some investors, but I need the blueprints,' she said.

'No need, we go now to see school. You like, you take, no need blueprints.'

'I have to present the blueprints to the investors. I'm not buying the school, and my investors want to see blueprints before they make the trip to Dubai.'

Eventually, Farook took me to meet the owner, who said she'd already sold the school (she hadn't) but her niece Fatima had a piece of land and permission to build a school. I asked Fatima to send me the blueprints for her land and school. I'd been waiting almost a year for those blueprints, when Farook called to say Ann really wanted a school, and asked if I could help.

So I took Ann and Farook to see Fatima and her aunt, The Aunt doesn't speak any English, but Farook and Fatima translated. (Their translations were not consistent.) The Aunt said she wasn't happy with the group that was supposed to take her school (the one I'd already seen), and asked if Ann wanted it. Ann said 'Yes, but I need to see the blueprints.' Fatima promised that she would send her aunt's blueprints, and we left. No blueprints arrived. I called, and Fatima said her aunt had, once again, sold her school, but Fatima's school (or rather her idea for a school) was available. I suggested we get together and talk, and Fatima said 'Please do not bring Farook,' so Ann and I went to see Fatima, who was with her aunt.

Fatima explained that she has empty land, and permission to build a school on it; however, she does not have permission to open the school, because she signed on as sponsor for an illegal school (every business in the UAE must have a local sponsor, even illegal ones). She can't open a new school until the illegal one is closed, but it has a contract which Fatima doesn't want to break until the new school is ready.

The school building Fatima wants to rent out will cost about €1,500,000 to build, but that's just the shell. Fitted out as a school, it will cost around €2,000,000. And no bank will loan Fatima any money for the building. Fatima can't put the land up as collateral, since it was a gift from the Sheikh, and she can't transfer ownership to anyone else.

Her plan is for someone to put up €2,000,000 cash to build the school, which, since it's on her land and since foreign ownership is limited to 49%, she will own 51%. The investor will then have to pay her rent of at least €200,000 a year.

Ann doesn't know anyone who wants to put up €2,000,000, with the understanding that their equity will only be €999,999, and they will have to pay €200,000 a year to rent their own building back.

So Fatima has assets of €3,000,000, but no way to use them for anything. Except maybe a picnic in the desert.

Then the aunt said, 'So where is our money? You told us a year ago you wanted this school, and we have held it for you for this entire year, though we have had many offers, but now we have a Pakistani buyer who is desperate, since there are many, many Pakistani children in Sharjah, and there is a need for Pakistani schools for them, so we can't hold it any longer.'

We promised we'd get back to her, then Ann and I left.

[NB. Fatima's aunt told me she spent €3,500,000 to build her school building. With the land, she wanted to sell it for €7,750,000, but ended up leasing it for €330,000 a year, so it's not clear what €5,000,000 would have bought me, if I'd been daft enough to give it to Farook. No one is legally allowed to own any property here, except for Citizens, and even Citizens' can't sell or transfer land that was a gift from the Sheikh, so it's not clear how, or to whom, either Fatima or her aunt hoped to sell their schools. The aunt, at least, is currently collecting €330,000 on her investment of €3,500,000 for the school building, and Fatima is getting paid by the illegal school to be their sponsor, so neither woman is starving, but they have a lot less than they think they should. As do we all.]

Dubai Traffic

I am a perennial pedestrian (or public transportation consumer). I tell people that I do not drive because I'm green, but really it's because I'm yellow. There are more than two accidents a day in Dubai, and the non-Arabic speaking ex-pat tends to be guilty. The rules aren't entirely clear, but if a Citizen runs into you, it's always your fault for being on his road. [Of course, if a Western ex-pat runs into a sub-continental ex-pat, the Westerner may be waved on his way while the sub-continental disappears into the Dubai justice system, unless a particularly devout judge agrees that the sub-continental was a Muslim and the Westerner was an infidel.]

So I walk, generally in the low-rent districts, since I have no business in the posh areas.

Which means I was quite surprised at the traffic jam.

Not that a traffic jam is surprising anywhere in Dubai at any time, but the car stuck in front of me had a Flying Lady hood ornament. I have heard of the Rolls Royce (and seen pictures in expensive magazines viewed in the library), but in a long and varied life, I had never before found myself standing next to one.

The chauffeur looked quite harried. The passengers were behind opaque glass, so I'm not sure what condition they were in: screaming at the chauffeur, or relaxing and sipping some cool, bubbly beverage, unaware of their chauffeur's problems.

I stood there for a few minutes, mouth agape, but I once stared at a Sheikh's huge hummer, and was told that gaping is not allowed. So I decided I'd better move on.

At least I made rather better time than the Rolls.