Saturday, April 08, 2006

Villas in Sharjah

I had a lot of work that needed to get done yesterday. Not that any of it got done. Early yesterday afternoon, a Saudi acquaintence called up and insisted I come over.

'I'm extremely busy. I really can't come today.'

'This is urgent. You must come. I will drive you home if you come. I have another appointment for 10 p.m., so you'll be home before 11.'

'No, I must be home by six. I can only spare an hour.'

'OK, an hour enough, but you must come now, and I will see you get home by 6.'

I should have known he meant 6 a.m., not 6 p.m., but I went.

The 'urgent business' was that the Saudi had been offered 12 villas for only €3,000,000. We only had to put down 10%, then we'd use six villas for ourselves and rent out the rest. The rent would pay the mortgage, we'd all have a 'free' place to stay, plus there would be enough income left over from the six we rented out that we could all live without working. My share of the downpayment would be somewhere between €75,000 and €100,000, depending on how many other partners joined us.

'Are you sure the rents will pay all expenses? I can't afford to lose €100,000.'

'No risk. Rents only go up. We make too much money if we invest. We must do something. My university is giving me problems.'

It seems that his university used to work on the principle that good university teachers a) always get very high student evaluations; and b) always teach all their students 100% of the subject matter, so every student scores 100% on every exam. So all his students got straight A's, and they all gave him top marks on his student evaluations.

Then employers started complaining that students who had straight A's in English, when asked any question, could only answer, 'شو؟' (meaning, 'Huh?' in Arabic). These employers, ungrateful for the highly trained employees the universities provided, also complained that graduates with straight A's in programming couldn't write a simple, program in Visual Basic, even using the Microsoft Automatic Program Generator, which can write most common programs with just a few clicks of the mouse.

So the Ministry of Higher Education suddenly said, 'No more giving all A's. Only the top 10% can get A's.'

Suddenly, the rules had changed.

Next, his university wanted US accreditation as a post-graduate institution, and the university was told they needed research. So every faculty was told (in February), 'You must have at least one article in one of the top US journals by June, or you will be dismissed.' The Saudi had never written anything in his life: he had found a US university that does not require a dissertation to get a doctorate, and had gotten a US doctorate without any writing.

The Saudi was exactly what UAE universities wanted: a Gulf Arab with an American doctorate. His Arabic is excellent, and he understands the culture: for example, if only 10% of his students can get A's, it will be the 10% with the most wasta (i.e., influence), not the 10% who are the best students in a Western academic sense. How he got an American doctorate is a bit of a mystery, but we don't ask too many questions here.

But then they told him that he must write something, and he must get it printed in one of the most prestigious journals in the US (at least it doesn't matter which one, as long as it's on the list of the top 25). Which is something fewer than 5% of US college professors ever manage over their entire careers. And fewer than a dozen have managed to get published in just four months (it usually takes years of negotiating with the editor to get a top journal to print an article, though they make exceptions for huge research breakthroughs--Planck got published in a matter of weeks for discovering Planck's constant). But the Saudi isn't Max Planck.

The latest university outrage occurred when one of the Saudi's students was caught cheating by a female invigilator. When she accused the student, the student screamed at her. It is, of course, a total violation of the culture for a female to say anything to a male, especially, 'You're cheating,' but she didn't understand (which is strange, since she's a Muslim from Tunesia, but I guess she's been corrupted by Western influences). The student, one of the Saudi's best (i.e., lots of wasta) students, was hauled before the academic integrity council, where he denied cheating. The council found him innocent due to insufficient evidence, in spite of the testimony of the invigilator, but gave him an 'F' in the course for being disrespectful to the invigilator.

The Saudi wrote the university administration a scathing letter. They wrote back and said 'US methods are not appropriate in the UAE. This is an administrative matter, and faculty should not get involved.' The Saudi explained that, when he caught a student cheating at his 'prestigious' US university, the student said 'F*** you.' The administration insisted the student apologize to the Saudi, then gave the student the full mark he'd obtained by cheating. Such 'US methods' will not be tolerated here in the UAE. Not that I've ever, in more than 30 years, seen a US university where a student, caught cheating red-handed, who then said 'F*** you,' to the professor, was told that, 'Well, as long as you apologize, you'll get the 'A' you managed to copy. But maybe I never saw a university as prestigious as the one the Saudi attended.

So now he wants to resign before he gets fired, and he wants me to put up €100,000 to make the down payment on some villas.

The villas are in Sharjah, and were a gift from the Sheikh of Sharjah to the person who is currently trying to rent them out or sell them. This person can't be called the 'owner' in the Western sense (though he might be called the 'entailee' in the 18th century British sense). These villas are his for life, or for as long as he wants them, or for as long as the Sheikh wants him to have them (whichever comes first). If this person rents out these villas, he gets a share of the rent (the Sheikh also gets a share). Or, if someone gives him €3,000,000 for the villas, the Citizen who received them as a gift will have €3,000,000, plus the villas: a Citizen cannot legally give away a gift from his Sheikh.

My putting up €100,000 to 'buy' these villas would make several people very happy (not that I actually have €100,000). I would not be among those people.

It is now 8:00 p.m., and dinner is served. It's chicken and rice, and I left a salad at home in the fridge (I'm trying to lose weight), and my work has not been started. I say I have to go, and point out that I was promised a ride home before 6. 'But you must stay to dinner. We make chicken and rice special for you.' Actually, I'm a vegetarian, but Saudis do not consider chicken to be meat. Also, vegetarianism is associated with false religions like Hinduism, from which people must be converted to the one true religion by showing them how much better it is to eat meat. So I leave. The taxi gets stuck in traffic, and I don't get home until 10:00 p.m., at least two hours before the Saudi would have had me return home.

Actually, the Saudi works the 3 p.m. - 11 p.m. shift, and has to punch a time clock (though he usually punches in late, and then stays late to make it up). He gets home around 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., has dinner, has friends over (they all work about the same schedule), prays Fajr (the prayer which must be made just before dawn) and goes to bed. For him, 8 p.m. is mid-morning. Midnight is early afternoon, and 2 a.m. is early evening. For me, it isn't. I've tried to explain this before, but, again, he hopes by showing me how good life is at 2 a.m. I'll convert (actually, they say 'revert') to the true religion. From his point of view, getting me to a 'normal' schedule of rising at 2 p.m. and going to bed at 7 a.m. is all for my own good, and he doesn't understand why I'm not more grateful.

But I tend to be just as ungrateful as the aforementioned employers.

***

Notes: here in the UAE, it is true that rents and housing prices have only gone up, but that doesn't mean the rent on six villas will pay the interest on the loan. Actually, it won't even pay half the interest. But the Saudi was saying, after we each put down €100,000, we won't have to make another payment for a year, and in that year, surely 'something will turn up.'

9 Comments:

Blogger nzm said...

Fascinating post - you had me hooked until the end!

It's going to be interesting to see where this all leads over the next few years.

If the education system doesn't smarten itself up, the students' degrees and certifications won't be worth anything once the "news" gets out worldwide. As you have written, it's already becoming apparent in the UAE. At our office, we have found that the UAE-educated computer developer engineers know absolutely nothing, but the overseas-educated developers (but still from the Middle East) are very clued up and switched on.

The villa scenario sounds way too shonky! It makes me wonder how many Saudis and Iranians are being sucked into these types of deals, and what they'll do when they all go sour.

Good read!

10:38 am  
Blogger CG said...

I was glued to the story too!
Excellent, I loved it.

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Blogger Axonsax said...

top marks, grade A.

Seriously, a good read as always.

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