Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Coincidental Dining

I wrote last April about friends from Al Ain who came to Dubai one Thursday and invited me to lunch. As were eating, my phone rang. 'Can you come to my birthday party?' 'I thought you'd decided not to have a party, to spend the evening alone with your boyfriend.' 'My boss said I'm having a party, so I'm having a party. Will you please come. Please show up between 7 and 8.' 'OK, I'll be there.'

Shortly after lunch, my phone rang again. It was another victim of Farook: after I'd declined to buy a school he was selling, he'd tried to convince me to buy it with a lady named Ann, and Ann chose that day to call: 'Hello, would you like to get together tonight? I've got a friend I really want you to meet.' 'I'd really like to, but I've been invited to a birthday at 8.' 'How about if we meet at 7?' 'OK.'

So, after a large, heavy lunch, I waddled home, then had to meet Ann and her friend at 7. At 7:15 my phone rang, 'Where are you?' 'I thought you said 8.' 'We started at 7.' 'I'll be there shortly.'

I would have quite enjoyed any of the three events, but having all in one day was a bit much. And I have no idea why all three happened on the same day. Obviously, the birthday was on the birthday, but why my friends from Al Ain and Ann all chose that day as the only day they could come see me, I do not know.

Today, at least, I understand the co-incidence: everyone is getting ready to leave for the summer, and all are trying to schedule goodbye meals.

One friend, leaving for the summer, invited me to lunch. We went to the buffet at Biggles in the Millenium hotel, where I stuffed myself, planning to skip supper.

But then, at 10:00 p.m., two more friends called to say they're leaving early next week (and will spend the weekend packing) and wanted to get together to say goodbye, so I found myself at another all-you-can-eat buffet at Barbeque Delights. I was still stuffed from lunch, but I wanted to wish them both a safe trip and a good summer, and the custom here is that good wishes must go with good food. So I stuffed myself again, and was barely able to waddle home.

I should be glad that a third friend hadn't invited me to a buffet breakfast, or I would have ended up like the fat man in Monty Python's 'The Meaning of Life.'

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Shopping at the Local Hypermarket

I heard a scream. It seems, meandering about in my usual daze on my way to purchase a loaf of bread, I had wandered into a prohibited zone. I was taking my usual, direct route to the hypermarket. Barriers had been erected to keep vehicles out of the zone, but as an absent-minded pedestrian, the narrow passages had presented no obstacle. Only now the security guard had a large problem, since he could be blamed should anything happen to me. Hence the scream.

Between me and the guard was a plastic, 'Do Not Cross' tape barrier, intended to stop pedestrians from entering the zone from the area in front of the hypermarket, but only vehicular barriers had been put on on the opposite side of the zone, through which I had entered. The guard thoughtfully held the tape up so I could exit the zone. He looked very relieved.

The hypermarket used to have a large, decorative metal grillwork above the entrance. For reasons which escape me, this grillwork is being removed today. It is being taken down in large chunks, but then the chunks are being cut apart with an oxy-acetylene torch so they can be easily hauled away. Anyone who imagines that the worker wielding the torch was wearing any sort of eye protection hasn't spent much time in the Gulf. If the sparks don't get him, the UV will. Pity he won't get any disability benefits or tax deductions.

I made my way into the hypermarket and purchased my loaf of bread when I thought I heard a Brit. asking for tempura. The store clerk was very helpful, though he had no idea what the word 'tempura' meant. He took the lady to the cleaning materials section and showed her some washing up liquid and some paper products. 'Tempura,' she said, very slowly, but to no avail. 'This way,' I said, and showed her the tempura. 'Do you know how to use this?' But she had now exceeded my limits. 'Oh, it says to mix it with water.' And she headed for the checkout counter.

As did I.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Dubai Stocks (so I'm awake now)

I posted that the Dubai Financial Markets seemed to have settled down into a long, boring period, and we could all go to sleep. Perhaps I shouldn't have posted that, as, the next day, they began to drop at a rate of about 2% per day (I did say that could happen, but was unlikely). Since there are trading limits, a drop like the US markets saw in 1929 isn't possible: the limits do not permit a 20% drop in one day. Still, 10 days at 2% will do the trick just as well.

An article in a UAE newspaper claimed there was support at 430, but predicted the support would be broken. After support is broken, technical analysis says there is no way of predicting the next bottom. Complete panic is advised. And today the DFM closed at 428. Grape Shisha also commented on this drop today.

My problem with the technical concept of 'support' is how to use it. The theory says that, at a support level, either stocks will rebound sharply, or if they penetrate the support level, decline sharply. (Away from a support level, the movement need not be as sharp.) This seems to me like fearlessly predicting that a coin will turn up either heads or tails, that we are confident it will not, as it so often does, stand on its edge.

In the US, manipulating the NYSE is impossible (although manipulating the NASDAQ BB market is not only possible, but practiced on a daily hourly basis.) But the entire DFM is about as large as a medium size NASDAQ stock. Which means it is easily manipulated. And not just by Forbes 400 types.

With no short selling, manipulation downward of the DFM is not possible, but, as investors leave for the summer or move their money to other Gulf markets, it could continue down below 200 (which I do not think probable, but certainly possible).

The market has now fallen below what fundamental theory would indicate is fair value, but declining markets usually fall far below fair value before turning around. Catching them near their bottom can be very profitable, but is also very difficult.

When the US market had dropped 60% back in 1930, some people bought, thinking themselves shrewd not to succumb to the general panic. The market declined another 72%. Those who bought at the bottom, of course, saw their fortunes rise rapidly. But there were very few of them.

There is the usual, annual prediction that things have to get better in September, when vacationers return and feel obliged to buy DFM stocks. (Of course, they might decide to sell, instead.)

The biggest DFM stock, EMAAR, is now in an arrangement where investors only have to put 5% down. (It's not actually EMAAR who'd making this possible, a bank is loaning investors EMAAR's normal down payment.) Does this mean that EMAAR can no longer convince investors to buy if they have to put more than 5% down? Or that many more investors can now buy EMAAR properties, greatly increasing the value of the company?

And EMAAR is building all over the world. These project should produce profits, and profits should support the stock. Only they aren't. And the question is, 'Why?'

So, does someone know something about EMAAR (and/or the Gulf) that is not yet public? Something that means, sell everything and get out (including Citizens) while you still can? Or is it just the usual combination of ignorance, rumour, panic, and summer vacations?

We should know in a few months.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Grocery Shopping in Dubai

I often have fresh vegetables, which means (if I can't eat the lot) that I need some way to store the remains. So I went to my local hypermarket for some storage bags, and I found one with a 'free gift.' I wasn't sure what, exactly, the free gift consisted of, but I figured, free is free.

On tearing off the plastic wrap (on my plastic wraps), I found a school kit consisting of a yellow bag containing a ruler, pencil, eraser, and sharpener. (I intend to keep the free gift for the next friend who has a school child.)

Inside the bag was a coupon for a drawing, in which I could win a car (I don't actually drive, but that's beside the point). Only the coupon expired in 2004. I purchased the storage bags last Thursday, which (I think) was sometime in 2006. My first thought was that the coupon was for the US, and the box of storage bags just made it to the UAE, but the coupon had a Dubai phone number to call to see if I'd won (provided I called before June, 2004). Perhaps I should have purchased storage bags at this hypermarket 2 years ago, but I do not recall seeing these storage bags before last month.

I've heard of this in the US: offer a contest with a great prize; people queue up to do whatever is necessary; then don't bother awarding the prize (or award it to a stooge). But not recently.


In another grocery, one based on a British model, I am accustomed to purchase my bread. I've never seen this chain in the UK, but it is ubiquitous throughout the Arabian Peninsula, providing the UK ex-pats with their customary fare. Piled high in this grocery store are leavened rolls, leaven being an interloper to this part of the world. I went in to purchase enough rolls for my supper, but the rolls had more fauna than flora: they were covered in flies. Volpone's Mosca seems to have settled into this part of the world to stay. I left without my bread.


In the days of my youth, I read the story of Toad, who was gaoled for stealing a car. He went on hunger strike, but could not maintain his strike when offered 'bubble and squeak.' For the better part of a quarter century, I've wondered, 'What the heck is bubble and squeak?'

A few weeks ago, the UAE newspapers gave a recipe: mashed potatos, shredded cabbage, and the traditional British goat bacon. I'm sorry, but in my time in the UK, I didn't see much goat bacon. But who am I to contradict the UAE newspapers?

Then, about a week ago, I saw in the UK-oriented grocery packages of 'Bubble and Squeak' (vegetarian version). I resisted for about 2 1/2 minutes, then I had to purchase a package to see what it was (mashed potato, shredded cabbage, and broccoli). I'm not entirely sure that, had I decided to protest my incarceration by staging a hunger strike,'Bubble and Squeak' would be enough to convince me to end my protest. But then I'm not Toad.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Economics of Key Money

Recently, the Gulf News has been running articles about 'key money.'

I once looked at a café, and the asking price was itemized into decor, goodwill, and key money. At the time, I'd never heard of key money, but I've certainly learned about it since.

In Dubai, there is a Rent Commission, and landlords cannot raise the rent by an excessive amount. The problem, of course, is that the Rent Commission's definition of 'excessive' tends to vary widely from year to year. Currently, the Dubai Rent Commission defines 'excessive' as 'more than 15%.' Before 2003 (I was told) 'excessive' meant 'more than 10% every two years.' At the time I was looking at the shop (2005), excessive seemed to mean 'more than 100%.' And the landlord did indeed raise the rent on the shop by exactly 100%, which the Rent Commission allowed. They said, given the Dubai economy, 100% was not 'excessive.' Which meant the buyer should not have paid any key money.

But before 2004, key money made perfect sense. For example, flats in my building rented for a wide range of prices. As a long-standing tenant, I was paying about €500 per month, the same price as when I'd moved in; new tenants were paying about €750 (and tenants without residence visas, legally barred from leasing residential flats, were sub-leasing from entrepreneurs who were charging them more than €1,500 per month).

For the last 10 years, Farook, relying on the old definition of excessive as '10% every two years' made his living off key money (not in my building, but in several other apartment buildings in Dubai). He'd find some long-standing tenants who had to move for some reason, and would take over their lease. The old tenants were very happy with Farook, since they were legally obligated to pay out the full lease (having written post-dated cheques for the full amount), and Farook relieved them of that responsibility. He usually gave them a little key money, as well.

Then Farook would charge the new tenants 'key money' (and also sub-lease the flat to them for a price midway between the old price and the current rent). Farook's customers would be very happy, since they would be saving quite a bit on the rent.

And Farook would be very happy.

Basic economic theory says that this phenomenon must occur whenever there are any rent controls: people like Farook (and many others) will figure out how to take advantage of the controls. Here in the UAE, it's called 'key money.' Elsewhere, I'm not sure what it's called. (I once tried to find someone like Farook in New York City, where 30 year residents may be paying less than $100 in a building where new tenants have to pay $3,000, but didn't have any luck, and couldn't find anything where the rent was less than my salary.)

Lately, the key money business in Dubai has become much more difficult, since rents have increased drastically, and are allowed to rise (for now) 15% a year, and people can't see paying key money when they can rent for the same price directly from the landlord without it.

So Farook has had to adapt.

He tried to sell me a school in Sharjah for about €4,500,000 (the school cannot be sold to ex-pats, so that would have been €4,500,000 pure profit, split between Farook, some of his cousins, and a few Citizens). Then he offered to sell me a software business for about €200,000. The fact that I don't actually have €200,000 (let alone €4,500,000) seems to be beyond his grasp, since he thinks all Westerners must necessarily be in a position to consider Croesus a pauper. I was courteous enough to read the contract for the 'software company.' Actually, it was a fake cleaning company, where I was to put in all the capital, and the capital would then be distributed among Farook, another khandoura-clad ex-pat, and the requisite Citizen to give the enterprise legitimacy. This was all clearly spelled out in the English contract, since they'd been trying to sell the company to some Arabs before they thought of me (and they hadn't bothered to switch the English contract for an Arabic one). Sadly, Farook failed to separate me from my tiny mite.

Another profitable enterprise Farook is currently pursuing is collecting key money for some unadvertised flats only he knows about. Because no one knows about them, these flats are renting for much less than the normal Dubai rent. But Farook has been in Dubai a long time, and knows where to find such bargains. In this case, the bargains are located in Sharjah, where rents are about 50% of what they are in Dubai. Farook's customers think they're getting a Dubai flat for a 25% discount (well, he's not going to let them sub-lease it without a profit, is he?), and they are happy to pay key money. Until they realize they've been had, by which time it's too late.

One thing I find strange is that Farook doesn't seem to be doing much in the new, freehold areas.

This time last year, small villas were renting for about €1,000 a month. With the 15% limit on increases, landlords cannot legally raise the rent above €1,150; however, new tenants are offering as much as €2,000. Which means some old tenants and entrepreneurs will be trying to collect key money. But, at least as far as he's confided to me, Farook is not among them.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Dinner with Faisal

I once met a lady (named Sarah) who told me she had been a vegetarian in England, but found there was no way to be a vegetarian in the Orient. Having found a large number of vegetarian restaurants in the Orient, I didn't believe her at first. (I later found out she had a habit of fictionalizing, but her stories were usually based on actual events: she'd make herself the heroine of a true story in which she'd actually had no part.)

Then I went to Pakistan.

I went as a monotheistic non-Muslim who was very interested in learning about Islam as one of the world's great religions (having slept through Islam in my obligatory 'Overview of World Religions' class). My interest was mistaken as a desire to convert. My Imam took me to a madrassa and to visit a 'saint'. (Which provokes my usual disdain of Orientalists, who translated a Sufi word as 'saint'; whatever the correct English translation of the word, it certainly isn't 'saint.' It also provokes my intense disdain of the post-9/11 US, which now considers visits to Pakistani madrassas as being worth a one-way ticket to Gitmo.)

In Pakistan, refusal to eat meat is considered tantamount to polytheism. So, being more coward than vegetarian, I found myself cowered into eating a rather large quantity of goat, which is a rather strong-flavoured meat which I quite dislike (but dislike rather less than facing the apparently imminent alternative).

I am vegetarian partly as a 'green' measure: it takes far less resources to feed a person a vegetarian diet than a meat-based diet, enabling this world to adequately feed a far larger number of its inhabitants than it currently does. I am also vegetarian partly because my parents could afford the more expensive cuts of meat (mostly beef), and my own budget does not allow me to eat any of the meats I enjoy. So I try to avoid meat, if possible.

On Thursday, Faisal called to say he was outside my flat, and wanted me to join him for dinner. I went down, and he took me to his house, where he cooked me a beef steak. Under the circumstances, I felt I could not refuse, so I ate it. Before going to Faisal's house, I had asked if I would have to take a taxi home (about €10, which is currently a rather large sum in my budget), or if he would be able to give me a lift home. 'No problem, I'll take you home. You'll be home before 10:00 p.m.'

At midnight, I said I'd have to leave, and asked if I should take a taxi. 'No, I'll drive you home. My wife and kid will go with us.'

Faisal's mobile rang, and Faisal said, 'Wait inside, I'll be back in a minute.' I waited a minute, then followed Faisal outside. His wife followed his orders and stayed inside with his son.

When I got outside, Faisal was screaming at and shoving a man wearing the outfit normally worn by Citizens. (The outfit is called a kandoura; the local translation is 'dish-dash;' the standard English is 'tunic.' The man was actually an Arab ex-pat, not a Citizen.) The man was shouting, 'GIVE ME THE KEYS, OR I CALL POLICE.'

As is quite common here, the kandoura-clad Arab ex-pat assumed all other ex-pats would immediately capitulate, since a real Citizen can (often) have any ex-pat arrested and deported, for any reason or for no reason. And that's if the Citizen doesn't hold grudges: the penalties a Citizen with connections can impose on ex-pats may go far beyond mere arrest and deportation. However, Faisal knew the man wasn't a Citizen, and had no more influence on the authorities than Faisal himself.

I could hear Faisal's child screaming from the balcony of their flat. Everyone in Faisal's Emirate could hear Faisal. Finally, the Arab ex-pat drove off, Faisal went back to his flat, and I followed. Faisal told his wife to wait for him while he drove me home. His kid screamed as we left (the kid is quite attached to his father). We went back down to the car park.

'WHERE'S MY F8(*I&(^ CAR?'

Faisal's car was nowhere to be seen. It seems the Arab ex-pat had demanded Faisal's key as insurance, though he had another key to the car. I have no idea who is the lawful owner of the vehicle, but if possession is 9/10 of the law, I'd say the Arab ex-pat is currently 90% ahead. In any case, I had no choice but to take a taxi home. Faisal negotiated an €8 fare (rather than the usual €10 fare) with an Egyptian who had no idea how to get to Dubai. The driver picked up another passenger who directed him to Sharjah, and, from Sharjah, I was able to direct him to my flat in Dubai. At 2:00 a.m. Rather later than I'd planned, but it was Thursday night, which is like Saturday night in the West, so it wasn't too bad.

Tonight, Faisal hasn't a car, so I dined alone. Strictly lacto-vegetarian, I might add.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Summertime in Dixie

Key of Em


Summertime, Summertime,
In Dixie.
My brain's so baked that I can barely rhyme.
Mus' be Summertime.
In Dixie.
I've been wishing winter would be on its way
Since early May.


My houn' dawg says 'No huntin',
'S too hot for this ol' hound.'
My baby says 'No lovin',
'S too hot to fool around.'
Must be



But there's just one thing
Could make me wish
For Dixie in July.
Must be Dubai.

Final Refrain

Summertime, Summertime,
In Dixie or Dubai.
If I step outside I'm sure I'm gonna die.
The sun is searin'; everythings gonna parch.
And I been wishing it was winter
Since early March.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Dubai Stocks (Yawn)

Dubai stocks haven't done anything for the last seven or so weeks. A very old version of technical analysis says this might be a base.

The notion of bases and plateaus applies to stocks (or stock markets) that are largely ignored (which used to be true of about 90% of the stocks on the New York Stock Exchange, before the Information Age).

The theory is based on an analogy with plate tectonics: San Francisco (e.g.) is sitting quietly while pressure builds on the plates, but, at some point in the future, it must suddenly move by several meters; similarly, some stocks sit unnoticed and stationary while pressure builds, then suddenly move up (or down). My problem with this analogy is that stock markets have no tectonic plates, but one does sometimes see something like this happen to stocks (or stock markets) that are not under intense scrutiny.

Basically, the base/plateau theory states that these stocks (or stock markets) tend to be ignored, and sit at the same price, while conditions change. An example is a company with lots of property but small earnings that haven't changed for years. No one pays any attention to the stock, and it sits at the same level while the same boring earnings reports come out quarter after quarter. These quarterly (and annual) reports give the book value based on accounting principles: the properties are valued at their purchase price less 5% annual depreciation, so book value stays about the same. Meanwhile, the real value of its properties has drastically gone up. The stock is said to be at a base. Then someone notices, and begins to buy. Others notice the movement, figure out why, and the stock suddenly jumps up to a level well above its current worth, just like San Francisco when 'the big one' comes. This excessively high level is called a plateau. Then it sits at the plateau for awhile, until someone notices and starts to sell, after which the stock plunges back to a new base.

In more modern terms, bases and plateaus occur when the stock trades in a narrow range. The top of the range is called resistance, and the bottom support. For a base or plateau, the resistance and support must stay constant for a (relatively) long period. Day traders can safely buy at the support level and sell at the resistance level. Until the stock breaks out of its range.

Since the Dubai stock market hasn't really moved for seven weeks, are we seeing a base? Has everyone forgotten about Dubai, one of the few markets open to any and all investors, Citizens and ex-pats alike (not all the stocks, but all the actively traded ones)? When the Dubai stock market gets included in the Dow Jones Asian index, will the index funds suddenly plunge in with quantities of capital that overwhelm the market?

One problem with applying the theory of bases and plateaus to Dubai is that there was no plateau. Stocks went up by 40% to 50% a year for several years, then, in 2005, rose by more than 300%. Then fell from the peak by more than 60%. The pattern looks like the US in 1929, but the Dubai stock market has little in common with the US in 1929, when the US had the world's largest domestic economy and no single person or group could manipulate the entire market. In fact, very few individuals could even manipulate a single stock on the NYSE back in 1929.

Based on the US 1929 experience, the Dubai Financial Market could drop to about 150, from its current level of 456.

But Dubai is not the US. So far, the government has tried to reverse the downward trend with jawbones (of asses?), but with little effect.

First legalizing stock buybacks, then promising stock buybacks (but, so far, no actual stock buybacks) hasn't helped. Yet.

No one, not even the US government, had the resources to prop up the NYSE in 1929, but the Dubai Financial Market is miniscule by comparison. The DFM is also about fairly valued now, which is not particularly encouraging, since bear markets usually last until stocks are drastically undervalued.

But either a) the Dubai Government, or the Dow Jones Index Funds, could put in enough money to push it back over its 1,300 peak, and do so over a very short time span.

Or b) it could continue to build a base for the foreseeable future before starting to trend upward again at a rate of about 40%.

Or c) it could continue to slowly, slowly drop down to the 150 level like the NYSE from 1929 - 1932.

I'm guessing about a 15% chance of a), a 40% chance of b), and a 10% chance of c).

Which doesn't even add up to 100%, so take it for what it's worth.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Arab Humour

Farook invited me to coffee yesterday, then he took me to get some pictures developed. I didn't get to see the pictures, being male (contrary to what Ron says, which is why I prefer the company of Farook). While we waited for the pictures, Farook regaled me with Arab jokes and riddles.


'Is there a fifth of July in California?'

(I have no idea what that riddle is about.)

'Do Christians allow men to marry their widow's sister?'

(I do know what that riddle is about.)

'Name two more fruits that begin with M besides Mango, Mus, and Mish-mish.'

(Again, no idea. Mus is Arabic for banana. I have no idea what mish-mish is, much less what the other two fruits are.)


For some reason, Arabs like jokes about cockroaches. I heard some Arabs doubled over with laughter and asked, 'What's so funny?'

'Why does a cockroach carry a flea?'
'It's his mobile.'

A cockroach was wandering about a kitchen when he crawled into the mixer. When the bread was kneaded and the mixer switched off, he crawled out. His friend asked, 'Where have you been?'
'I've been to the amusement park, but I'm never going on that ride again.'

Now I wonder, 'Why did I ask?'


The next joke is very politically incorrect. Blame Farook, not me.

An Arab with a speech impediment was having trouble finding a job. Fortunately, he had a cousin who had connections with an Arab TV station, and the cousin got him a job interview. The interviewer asked, 'What positions would you be interested in?' 'O-o-o-nly N-n-n-n-ews R-r-r-r-eader.'

The candidate didn't get an offer. As he explained to his cousin, 'T-t-t-he h-h-h-iring m-m-m-anager was a Kh-kh-kh-aleej Arab, and they d-d-d-on't like p-p-people from our tribe.'

(NB: Khaleej means Gulf, as in GCC. Making fun of people with speech impediments is something I report, but do not condone. Making fun of tribalism is something I report and do condone.)


The last story was told to me as true, about one of my own cousins. It still isn't politically correct, but I figure, truth trumps political correctness.

My cousin from Asención was inducted into an Army. The sargent asked him, 'What city are you from?' 'As-as-as-as' 'I know you're an Ass, but where are you FROM?'

(Of course, I don't know if the story was true, or if it really happened to my cousin, or if it was just another tasteless joke about people with disabilities.)

And I guess it doesn't count as Arab humour, for that matter.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Plasma TVs from the Back of a (floating) Lorry

I invited Faysel to lunch at The Lodge. Faysel doesn't normally get up in time for lunch, but on the day in question, he'd called me at the unspeakably early hour of 11:00 a.m. to say he was in Dubai on business. He reluctantly agreed to join me, since I took him to The Lodge one evening, and the kitchen was closed.

The Lodge is a complex of about three restaurants (they way they're laid out, it's kind of hard to count) and venues for music, dancing, and, for this month, World Cup Football. One restaurant, Cheers, is only open for lunch from noon until 3:30 p.m., then the kitchen closes. A few people, at Cheers for the music or football, ask to dine at night, but the food is ordered from one of the other restaurants in the complex. In my opinion, the best value on food at The Lodge is the Cheers lunch, where I dine regularly, but Faysel wasn't convinced. At 3:30 p.m., he still hadn't showed up, so I called to say we couldn't go The Lodge. He was relieved, and said he was at his favourite watering hole, The Dulf Hotel. So I dragged myself to The Dulf and joined him.

Faysel said he'd learned of a shipload of Plasma and LCD TVs that had been pirated. The pirate ship (he said) was at a Dubai port, and they were trying to sell the TVs for a few cents on the dollar. He invited me to join him in going aboard the pirate ship and inspecting the merchandise. Since I've never been on a pirate ship, I thought it would be interesting to see all the customary accoutrements of a pirate ship: cutlasses, eye patches, parrots, and, of course, 'The Plank.'

Faysel said he'd already lined up buyers willing to pay US$900 for the TVs, and thought he could buy these TVs for about US$500 or less directly off the pirate ship.

So, at 4:00 p.m., we went to the port. We needed passes to get in, but Ali, a friend of Faysel, bought us two passes, and then he and his brother led us to a small building.

Inside the building was a perfectly legitimate Korean shipping company that could bring in as many Korean TVs, computer monitors, washing machines, and a few other items as we wanted. The price of the TVs was US$1,547. Plus the 5% charge if we wanted to bring them into the UAE and sell them here. Faysel was not impressed, and showed it. To be polite, I asked the Korean shipper a few questions and tried to appear as if I were a serious distributor interested in his product. Faysal couldn't wait to get away.

'That Korean was no salesman. He didn't even know who his customer was. He thought you wanted to buy the TVs.'

I've seen factories selling in Dubai before, at GITEX and at Dragon City. The factory representatives are seldom high-pressure salesmen: they sit, patiently waiting for customers who want to purchase factory direct. This is not upmarket retail selling.

I got a very nice cup of tea out of the deal, but Faysel felt like he'd wasted the better part of an afternoon. He doesn't know anyone who will pay him more than US$1,000 for the TVs.

As my friend Robert used to say, 'Somedays chicken, somedays feathers.'

So it was 'Feathers for Faysel' day.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Lunch, Dubai Style

On Thursday at around noon, Farook called and asked me to join him 'as soon as possible.' I said I could join him at 1:00 p.m. He asked me if I couldn't make it any sooner, and I said I'd try.

I arrived at his office promptly at 1:00 p.m. His secretary, Aline, said she was expecting me, but Farook would be a little late. 'Would you like some tea?' I said, 'Yes.' She brought me a cup of tea, which I drank. I had prepared myself by bringing the newspaper, and proceeded to read it. Cover to cover. Even the parts I don't usually read.

At 2:00 p.m., Aline asked if I were hungry, and offered me some crisps. She said Farook wanted me to look at his computer.

Four or five years ago, Farook bought a used monitor with the screen burned in (about €10) and a computer case with a very old mother board which can only display an error message that it has no disk drives and no memory (probably another €10). Farook used this 'computer' to impress clients with his up-to-date methods. Recently, he hired Aline, who said he should put all his records on computer, and she knew how to do it if he would just get her a computer.

Farook is a concerned father, so he bought his son a good computer back in 1998. He has since bought his son newer computers (handing the older ones down to his daughters), so they brought the oldest computer into the office for Aline to use. Only Aline kept saying, 'It's too slow and I can't save my work.'

For a start, the computer was put together with an off-brand motherboard in 1998. Companies in Dubai buy cheap computer parts and use cheap labour to assemble them, and they can then sell the computers for a good profit. Before Microsoft started using Digital Rights Management (DRM), they would buy one copy of Windows and put it on all the computers they sold. So Farook didn't have his own Windows CD, just the (illegal) version put on by the assembler back in 1998. Then his son had gotten illegal copies of Office, Visual Studio .Net, several advanced engineering packages, games, and a program that teaches typing. Most of these come from China, where someone disassembles the program and deletes all the DRM. Along with the surrounding code, which may or may not be essential.

His son had also added a copy of Norton Antivirus, but, while he had the engine, he didn't have the database of viruses, so the program tries to scan everything, but can't find its database, so it spends a long time trying to scan, then gives an error message.

I found a couple of spyware and adware programs, and tried to delete them, but I couldn't open Control Panel. The secretary put the crisps on the desk with the computer, and I ate them.

I tried to run the program to repair the hard drive, but it wouldn't run, either.

After an hour, Control Panel finally came up and I started deleting some of the garbage, but the adware doesn't allow itself to be removed so easily.

Finally, around 5:00 p.m., Farook showed up and called his daughter, who said she had some very sensitive stuff on the computer, and I was not to look at or delete anything.

Many Muslims believe that a woman must never be seen except by her father, brothers, husband, and sons. Still, many women have pictures taken of themselves in very suggestive poses (i.e., with their faces uncovered, but everything else under a black abaya, something they feel is as embarrasing as a Western woman would consider a nude photo shot of herself put on the Internet by her ex-boyfriend). These pictures they keep on their home computers (and get very upset when they download a virus that e-mails these pictures to strange men). Farook kept saying I was making a perfectly good computer kharban (whatever that means).

The machine was so slow, it took me an hour to run shut down. I said I hoped it would run a little bit faster on Saturday when Aline came back to the office after her Friday weekend.

Finally, at 6:00 p.m., Farook took me to 'lunch' at City Centre in the ground floor food court, a crowded, noisy place that charges almost as much as one of the restaurant sections, but Farook likes it. (City Centre has three places to eat: the food court, the cheaper restaurant section, and the upscale restaurant section called Bin Hendi, whoever he was. Bin Hendi means 'son of Hendi,' but I've never heard of either Hendi or his son.)

After dinner, Farook insisted on ice cream, but really he'd seen a 'For Sale' sign next to the ice cream parlor, and wanted to get a contract to sell the place. The owner offered him a commission if he actually sold it.

And finally, around 10:00 p.m., Farook dropped me off at home.

For this part of the world, that's a very quick lunch.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Burj Dubai on BBC World Business Report

I was channel surfing last night. (I'd been watching the US-Czech World Cup game, left the public viewing venue when the outcome became obvious, but then I became insatiably curious as to just how badly the US had finally lost.)

Instead, I found the BBC World Service doing a report on the Burj Dubai (requisite BBC translation, Dubai Tower).

They said it would be over 700 meters tall, with the distinctive Islamic architecture style. It will need more than 70 new, very high speed lifts.

From the upper viewing deck, (which will be open to the public for a substantial fee) visitors will be able to see Iran.

I think the last is a bit optimistic, given the rising levels of pollution, but, in the unlikely event that there is a clear day, that might be correct. (I understand the CIA has already booked a large space, and MI-5 has arranged to sub-lease a section from them. I assume, MI-5 will be paying the CIA in elan, as they do in all the Sean Connery movies.)

I came to Dubai because it was a part of the world I'd never heard of. Now I can't seem to read a Western newspaper or watch a Western TV station without hearing about Dubai.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Monarchs and Viceroys

The Monarch butterfly (and, presumably, caterpiller) is poisonous. Not deadly poisonous, but (so I've been told) anyone (or any thing) eating one will fervently wish that it were deadly. Momma birds teach their children, 'Don't you dare go eating those Monarch butterflies.' Of course, some young birds are naughty and deliberatly disobey, but only once.

The Viceroy butterfly, on the other hand, is delicious. To paraphrase Al Capp, 'roasted it tastes like beef, fried it tastes like chicken,' and barbequeued it tastes like, well barbeque. Not that I've ever actually tasted it. As I did when my host happily announced that locusts had eaten all his rice and wheat, so, instead of boring rice and bread we'd be having meat in the form of fried locusts, I respectfully declined my share.

There is one problem with eating Viceroy butterflies: they look exactly like Monarchs, and the only way to tell them apart is by taking a bite, something most creatures are, understandably, reluctant to do.

Here in Dubai, Citizens are a tiny minority with the usual rights of citizens. Actually, Dubai is not unlike ancient Athens or Sparta, with most of us here as helots.

For example, I once knew a Citizen who had a mistress, whom he visited perhaps once a week, always on the same night of the week. When he dropped by on a different night of the week, he found her in bed with an ex-pat. He had both his mistress and her lover gaoled and deported for adultery.

I think of Citizens as Monarch butterflies.

But some ex-pats dress exactly like Citizens. To be convincing, the ex-pat must be an Arab or the sort of polyglot who can sound like a native speaker of Arabic. I think of these ex-pats as Viceroys.

The Viceroys dress in the same kandouras as high ranking Citizens, but their Rolexes only cost €20, unlike the Citizen's Rolexes, which are real.

There are very few Citizens in Dubai, and they have the resources that they can afford to stay out of sight if they wish, so, seeing a kandoura-clad man wandering the streets, the odds are that he is an ex-pat Viceroy, not a Citizen Monarch.

I watched as a Viceroy was looking for a parking space (always a problem in Dubai) and demanded to be allowed to park in a space reserved for members of the Ruler's entourage. This Viceroy has a neatly trimmed greying beard and the full kandoura with the white head covering held in place by the double black ring called an agal. After a lot of screaming, the nervous guard, afraid that the Viceroy really was a member of the Ruler's entourage, let him park in one of the reserved parking spaces.

But this doesn't always work. A young Viceroy pulled into a 'No Parking' zone at Madinat Jumairah. The security guard asked him to move. He refused. The security guard called the police, and the young Viceroy was awarded a stay at what we ex-pat residents call the 'Muraqabat Hotel.' (I learned about the young Viceroy's fate because I had a meeting with him, but was informed that the meeting would have to be delayed for 90 days.) I didn't see how the young Viceroy was dressed, but it obviously didn't convice the security guard or the police. (Once the matter goes to court, the judge knows his fellow Citizens, so the Viceroy is in big trouble. The trick is to scare the security guard by screaming that, if the police are called, it will be the security guard who goes to gaol.)

For the clueless ex-pat, it is, of course, safest to treat any kandoura-clad Arabic speaker as a Monarch. Unless a real Monarch comes along, furious at whatever the Viceroy has tricked the clueless ex-pat into doing.

And, while Monarchs are too rich to need to steal from ex-pats, Viceroys are not, so one should always keep close watch on one's wallet, just in case.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Hot and Cold Running Water???

In the West, most residences have hot water. In the US, most homes and hotels have gas hot water heaters, and in the parts of Europe where I've travelled, they have electric hot water heaters.

In the UAE, most residences have electric hot water heaters. In winter, the tap water can be colder than 15 (that's 50 for Americans), and most residents switch on the heater for a hot bath or shower (though the poorest take cold showers).

Now, it's summer, and the affluent not only have hot water heaters, they have cold water chillers so they can take cold showers in the summer (but why do they need them?)

But those of us who are not affluent lack the cold water chillers, and the tap water heats up to more than 50 (that's 140 for Americans).

In early summer, the tap water cools down at night, and is almost bearable between midnight and dawn, but eventually it becomes unbearable all the time. A partial solution is to switch off the hot water heater, which cools down to room temperature, providing a small supply of cool water with which to shower (if one can afford to keep room temperature at bearable levels).

So, for now, the English 'C' on the shower tap has become the French 'C,' though I don't think the French ex-pats stuck here over the summer are rejoicing about the victory of their language.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Zephyr of Change?

Last year, UAE newspapers had to condemn the 2005 US Human Trafficking report without actually mentioning it by name, and certainly could not mention that several Gulf countries had been condemned by the report.

This year, the report was in several UAE newspaper articles, including the fact that the UAE moved up a notch from Tier 3 (the very bottom: trafficking common and nothing being done) to Tier 2 Watch (trying to stop trafficking, but could be doing better, and being closely watched since it was Tier 3 last year), and even reported that Saudi is still Tier 3.

The article said that the UAE wants to move up further, and is going to revise its laws on human trafficking. It looks like someone in power wants the UAE to move up to Tier 1.

Since all newspaper articles here must be approved by the government, this represents a significant change in the censorship policies.

All in all, this looks promising, both for opening up the news and for a reduction in human trafficking.

Of course, this is only a zephyr and a promise. Watch carefully.

Bombay Woodlands 2

In deepest, darkest Karama are a string of vegetarian restaurants. I am (usually) a vegetarian, and, given that I only speak English, I am not conviced of my ability to order a vegetarian dish in a non-vegetarian restaurant. So I (usually) stick with the vegetarian restaurants. Last night, I went to Bombay Woodlands.

[NB: The local papers review restaurants that pay them, and where diners pay at least €10. I review restaurants that do not pay, and where diners would consider €10 to be outrageous.]

Bombay Woodlands had a Dosa special a few months ago, with up to 20 dosas (I managed to eat about 12). Now they have a Biriani special, though my Hindi expert told me that 'biriani always has meat; pulao is vegetarian.' But, apparently, there is vegetarian biriani.

I had the thali. Bombay Woodlands has Limited Thali for €1.25, Unlimited Madras Thali for €1.75, Unlimited Royal Thali for €2.25, and Limited Punjabi Thali, also for €2.25. Bombay is a long way from Madras and the Punjab, so I'm not sure how accurate those thali are; anyway, I had the Royal. I'm not sure how Royal it was, but it was a good thali.

It started with a yellow-orange soup with croutons. I had to ask what it was. 'It's tomato soup, sir.' It didn't look or taste like any tomato soup I've ever had, but it was good.

Then the thali came. My French uncle said no meal was complete without bread, and my Chinese college roommate said no meal was complete without rice. I've taken a Chinese friend with me into an Indian restaurant, and he said the rice did not qualify. I suspect a Frenchman would say the same about the bread. Still, the thali provided both rice and bread.

The thali had about four more soups (besides the tomato), plus yoghurt, buttermilk, and three non-soupy vegetables. As I emptied each stainless steel cup, it was re-filled. One vegetable is a gourd that is very good for Type II diabetes, since it has no calories and a diet of this gourd must lead to lower BMI and better diabetes control. I couldn't eat it. As I said, this gourd leads to a lower BMI.

When I couldn't eat another bite, they brought out ice cream and fresh fruit.

Not only will no one ever walk away hungry from Bombay Woodlands, no one will ever walk away: I had to waddle home last night. And all for €2.25.

If only Dubai rents had remained so reasonable.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

US 2006 Human Trafficking Report out Today

Every June, the US produces its annual 'Trafficking in Persons Report.' Not all nations are included (the US does not include itself). Nations are divided into three Tiers and four categories: Tier 1 nations are doing everything they can to stop human trafficking; Tier 2 is divided into two categories: plain Tier 2 nations are trying to stop trafficking, but they could be doing more, while Tier 2 Special Watch nations are similar to Tier 2, but are suspect, and will be closely watched for improvement or decline; finally, Tier 3 nations have substantial human trafficking and are doing nothing about it.

Almost all countries are somewhere in Tier 2. Twenty six good friends of the US are in Tier 1 (I'm not sure what happened to Portugal: they were kicked off Tier 1 for some reason). All the Axis of Evil (Iran, Syria, Cuba, and North Korea) are in Tier 3, along with 8 other countries countries (out of about 150).

In 2002, someone from the US went to see a camel race. The UAE was put in Tier 3. No mention of the trafficking report appeared in any UAE newspaper, but the President announced that the use of underage child camel jockeys was banned with immediate effect, and all the children were to be repatriated as quickly as possible. Stories on the repatriation continued to appear in UAE newspapers throughout 2002, 2003, and 2004.

As a result, for the next two years, the UAE was somewhere in Tier 2. Then, in 2005, someone from the US actually went to see a camel race: The UAE was back in Tier 3.

This time, an apoplectic editorial in the UAE newspapers condemned the report, a difficult task, since the editorial could not actually mention the report, since it is not allowed to refer to anything critical of the UAE.

And, once again, the Federal Government announced that the use of child camel jockeys was strictly prohibited with immediate effect, and that all the children were to be repatriated as quickly as possible. Since the 2005 report came out, UAE newspapers have been running regular stories on the replacement of the children with radio controlled robot jockeys.

Today, the 2006 report came out, and the UAE is back in Tier 2, so the local newspapers were able to write a couple of stories about the report. (For example, they were allowed to report, in the Phillipine section of the newspaper, that the Phillipines had been moved up from Tier 2 Special Watch to plain Tier 2.)

I don't think it is particularly critical of the UAE, or inaccurate, to say that, while the UAE is making a good effort to stop human trafficking, it could be doing more, but sometimes UAE citizens are particularly sensitive to anything that might be perceived as being even slightly critical of their country.

I have no idea what it would take for the UAE to make it into Tier 1, although strictly enforcing the existing UAE labour laws would be a very good start. But at least the UAE is moving in the right direction.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Sandra's Song

This song is dedicated to Sandra Wheeler and Lucy Snowe. I sent it to Sandra, return receipt requested, but she never opened it.

So here it is (Key of G major, Common Time):

And you might catch a glimpse of him
No matter where you are,
He's nursing luke-warm beer
In some fly-blown ex-pat bar.
And he still wears your memory
Like some war-worn veteran's scar,
And still each night he wonders how you are.

They say he had a life once,
But he threw it all away.
He swears that all he's ever known
Is living day to day,
And never gets his bags unpacked,
But must be on his way.
He wishes he could talk to you,
But nothing's left to say.

And you might catch a glimpse of him
No matter where you are.
You will recognize him by his battered, cheap guitar.
Trying to pluck notes 'Might Have Been'
Out of 'Chords That Are.'
And still each night he wonders how you are.

He's looking out a casement on a sea of fairy foam.
His bill is paid, his bag is packed with just a fine-toothed comb.
Of all the places
That he thinks
It's likely that he'll roam,
He wishes you were with him
And one might prove a home.

And you might catch a glimpse of him
No matter where you are.
Strumming off-key somewhere, in some rancid ex-pat bar.
He knows no matter where he goes, he'll never get too far,
But still each night he wonders how you are.

Morning Arrests

This morning, as I was on my way to work, I saw police standing outside an apartment in my building. Suitcases were piled outside the door, and more suitcases were piled by the elevator. Since the door was open, I could see frantic packing going on inside. I know that, if tenants are late with the rent, the managers call the police immediately to evict the deadbeats and replace them with paying tenants.

So, when I got home, I asked the watchman: 'What happened this morning?'

'Immigration catch ladies. No visa.'

'Immigration came here?'

'No. Immigration catch them last night. Today they bring back to building to get all clothes.'

These ladies always left their door open at night (and often during the day). I mentioned this.

'Man live in bedroom and he close A/C, so they keep door open to cool rest of apartment.'

Since their door was always open, I'd heard them talking. I did not recognize the language. 'Where were they from?'

'Azerbaijan. They speak Russian.'

'No, I recognize Russian.'

'Then they speak Azerbaijan language.'

So, apparently, they were trying to earn a living last night, got arrested, and today they were brought back to their apartment to collect all their personal effects before deportation.

Enough excitement for one day. And no more open doors through which a voyeur could watch scantily clad young ladies sleeping on a bare mattress on the floor.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Going to the Beach

Last Thursday, Faysel asked me to meet him at Jumairah Beach at noon on Friday.

At 11:30 a.m., I called him. No answer. Normally, Faysel goes to bed right after the dawn prayer and gets up just before the late afternoon prayer, so he can say the noon prayer before it's too late, immediately followed by the afternoon prayer. [Actually, Faysel isn't a perfect Muslim: sometimes he sleeps until it's too late for both the noon and afternoon prayer.]

I had hoped this Friday would be different, but, since he wasn't answering his phone, it obviously wasn't. So I waited until after the Friday noon prayer (Juma) and went to Faysel's house. It was around 4:00 p.m. when I arrived. Faysel met me in pajamas.

'What's up?' he asked sleepily.

'You said we were going to meet at Jumairah Beach at noon today.'

'Did I? Would you like something to drink?'

'Well, it is tea time.'

Faysel called to his wife and had her make me a cup of tea. She handed Faysel a glass of soda. The phone rang, and a worker at Faysel's shop said he was needed desperately.

'I'll be there in five minutes.'

Faysel did not begin getting dressed, though he did ask his wife to press his pants.

After about two hours, during which time he showered (using up all the water in the tank) and wandered dreamily about, and I read the Friday newspaper (here, similar to a Sunday paper in the West, with lots of the previous Sunday's articles gleaned from various Western papers) we finally went to his shop. I noticed that it was now after 8:00 p.m., and decided it was time to go.

And we still hadn't made it anywhere near a beach.

I mentioned this to another friend, who said I should have known noon appointments in the Orient always start after 5:00 p.m. At the earliest.

Anyway, it's too hot now, so missing out on the beach was probably all for the best.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Shady Characters 2

As I wrote in part 1 of this series, my very first encounter with a shady character occurred when I was still in secondary school. I had just gotten off a schoolbus taking me from my home village to the nearest large city for a school trip.

A more recent encounter occurred in 2004, when I had just gotten off the Dubai Transport #14 bus at the stop near the clocktower. It was 5:30 p.m., and I had a 6:00 p.m. appointment in front of the old Dubai Cinema, once a universally recognized landmark in the Hor al Anz section of Deira, but today a small triangle of sand with a few bits of rubble scattered about.

As I walked (as briskly as I can manage), a young man stepped right in front of me and leaned over. I managed to stop just in time to avoid an actual collision. He stood up, and was holding a roll of money with a US one hundred dollar bill on the outside. Assuming, as one would, that it was a roll of US hundred dollar bills, the roll must have contained several thousand dollars.

'Wow. This is my lucky day. You know, under Dubai law, we must turn this into the police, but you are the only one who saw me, so, if you agree, we can split this money.'

I deeply regret that it takes me almost half an hour to walk from the clock tower to the old Dubai Cinema site, and I could not be late for my appointment, so all I could say was,

'Go ahead, you keep it. I've really got to be off.'

I would like to have seen the second act (I'm afraid I already knew I couldn't remain for Act III).

Had I not rushed off, the young man would point out that either the police or the rightful owners would soon be coming by, and that we must move away from the area immediately and rendezvous later. I would be entrusted with the loot, since I looked much more respectable (or at least much older and fatter) than the young man, but he'd need some assurance that I'd meet him at the rendezvous. Since the roll was obviously worth thousands of dollars, I shouldn't mind giving the young man a deposit worth a few hundred. For safety, the young man would have a black, plastic sack in which to place the roll of money so it wouldn't be obvious. It was much too large to be stuck in a pocket or billfold.

Most people would figure the young man for a fool, take the money, and plan never to meet up with him. Others would plan on 'honestly' going to the rendezvous at the specified time. In either case, when opened, the black, plastic sack would contain only pieces of paper cut in the shape of dollars. The young man would have managed some sleight of hand to switch the bag containing the roll of money with the hundred dollar bill with another bag containing only paper.

At best (after a deposit worth several hundred dollars) the roll would have a single one hundred dollar bill on the outside wrapped around newspaper cut in the shape of money.

This game is so famous, they made a movie about it called The Sting.

I would have liked to have heard his actual proposal for splitting the roll of money, but I didn't have time, so I assume it would be identical to the one Robert Redford used in the movie. This assumption is almost certainly wrong, as the young man would have his own idiosyncratic script.

Of course, this script might have involved my getting my 'deposit' from a nearby ATM, and the young man then reliving me of the deposit by force (in which case, I'm glad I had the appointment), but, again, I'm not sure of the details of what he would have done next had I not had to rush off.

I met a reporter from one of the local newspapers and told him the story, but the newspaper only publishes local stories if they are official government press releases, and I wasn't wearing my khandoura (actually, I don't even have a khandoura, being neither an official nor even a Citizen), so the reporter told me they couldn't use the story until they got it as an official release from the Dubai police.

But I'm telling it for the benefit of anyone else who has the good fortune to come across a huge roll of hundred dollar bills.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Dubai, then RAK, now Sharjah's on the Map

It now seems fairly evident that the New York Times has taken an interest in the UAE, apparently to the point of sending a reporter (or reporters) to stay here and send a weekly report back to inform their readers about this place.

This week's article is about Air Arabia and Sharjah.

For most of my tenure here, I saw nothing about the UAE in the Western press (except for the Sharjah airplane crash, since airplane crashes almost anywhere make the international news).

But now I'm seeing what looks like a regular weekly feature in the Times.

The article, briefly, states that Sharjah has a lot to offer tourists, especially Muslim tourists who feel more comfortable vacationing somewhere without any unIslamic activities, and Air Arabia is making tourism to Sharjah affordable for many people in the other Arab countries, while also making a vacation in the cooler climates of those countries affordable to tourists from the Gulf. It also observes, as did Grapeshisha some time ago, that Air Arabia ads seem to use the South Park characters clad in traditional Arabic dress. For those familiar with South Park, this may seem just a trifle incongruous, but this is a place which is careful to avoid the hobgoblin of little minds.

I wonder which Emirate will be featured next week?