Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Shady Characters 1

A comment asked about how I met Ron, and if I meet more than my fair share of shady characters. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what share is fair. All of us get letters from Nigeria (I don't bother to post those), offers of cheap software, watches, medications, and other temptations. I try to report incidents that, I hope, are a little unusual. All are strictly factual.

While this is about my peregrinations around Dubai, and some of the characters I've met, I don't really associate shady characters with Dubai or this part of the world.

I grew up in a small village, and, my last year in school, I signed up for the senior trip to the nearest large city. This was, of course, in another country and another era.

The bus let us off about 7:00 p.m., and it was already dark. We were told to be back before 10:00 p.m. or we'd be left in the city. In about five minutes, I had gotten separated from the other school children and found myself, for the first time, alone in a large city, though not, in the opinion of the school authorities, a dangerous one. I remember wondering what I could do at 7:00 p.m., and was very pleasantly surprised to find that all the stores stayed open until 9:00 p.m. In my village, back then, every store closed at 5:30 p.m. sharp. I started to explore, being careful I could make my way back to my bus before 10:00 p.m.

A young man came running around a corner. He was breathing hard, as if he was nearing the end of a marathon. He came up to me, stopped, and showed me a watch. He held up the price tag: US$499. Allowing for inflation, today that watch would be worth at least several thousand dollars, possibly more than $10,000.

'How much you give me for dis watch?'

'I already have a watch, thanks.'

'I sell it fo' one hundred dolla.'

'No thanks.'

'Fifty dolla. You see da price tag. Dis a five hundred dolla watch.'

'Sorry, no.'

He disappeared down an alley.

When I told the story, everyone thought I was stupid to pass up such an opportunity, that I was either too virtuous (as there was no chance the watch would ever be returned to its rightful owner) or too cowardly (the police would never have searched someone who looked like me and discovered the watch, they were looking for the young man who'd tried to sell it to me). Even my father, who felt he should praise my honesty, couldn't bring himself to do so with any fervour.

In fact, the story started several days before my school bus trip. An affluent-looking man, one who looked like he had a collection of five hundred dollar watches to match each suit in his wardrobe, had walked into one of the most exclusive jewelry stores in the city. The staff naturally fawned on him, showing all their best watches. But, like many affluent men thinking of buying an expensive watch, none of them quite captured his fancy, and he left without making a purchase. Then one of the staff got suspicious. They checked, but all their watches were present and accounted for. Perhaps, as the man had handled and closely examined each watch, he had managed to do a switch, for the staff had heard of thieves who were experts at sleight of hand. But, when they checked, all their watches were the expensive ones they were supposed to be. There was just one slight inconvenience, in looking at the watches, a few price tags had been misplaced, but the staff weren't worried about price tags, they were just happy they hadn't lost a watch (which would probably have meant their jobs as well).

The second member of the team looks like his normal occupation is breaking into small businesses after hours and taking the change left in the till. He looks like a very petty thief for whom stealing a $500 watch was way out of his league. With the police in close pursuit, he knows, if caught, he'll get 10 years hard time. Maybe he robbed the store with a gun, and is facing 20 years. Is that the gun in his pocket? It looks like it might be. If a cop appears, the young man will have to toss the watch down a storm sewer and hope it drifts out to sea. He is terrified. But, of course, if he can get $50 for the watch, that's better than tossing it down the sewer.

The customer realizes that there is no time to examine the merchandise, that the police might appear any minute and make their arrest, that this opportunity comes about once in a lifetime. A watch too expensive for him to even be allowed to look at is here at a price he can afford. He buys it, takes it home, shows it off. Of course, all jewelry stores have been alerted to be on the lookout for the stolen watch, so he can never take it to be appraised, but why would he need an appraisal? He has the actual price tag. He is happy, and all his friends are impressed with his luck and quick thinking.

This is very much a win-win situation. The buyer is certain he has gotten a $500 watch for $50, and the seller is equally certain he has just sold a $5 watch for $50. Except for not having a retail license, the seller has committed no crime. And everyone is happy.

This happened to me more than 20 years ago, but, over the years, I've kept meeting people like the young man with the watch.

For a fictional account of an operator like the young man who approached me with the watch, read Terry Pratchett's Going Postal. As Pratchett writes, people really want to belive they have suddenly come into an opportunity to buy a $500 watch for $50.

But some of us have a hard time believing, and miss out on such opportunities. I just re-tell them in case someone else might benefit.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Intimations of Mortality

Farook came by and picked me up today. He'd said it was about a computer problem, but, as usual, that was only a small part of the package.

First, he had to visit a friend who is in Rashid Hospital. The friend is about 10 years younger than I am, but he just had a massive stroke. He'd been fine one morning, and lying motionless in hospital that night.

The health care provided in the UAE is excellent (as best I can tell, not being a health care professional). All the latest medical technology was attached to the stroke victim, a Mr. Ibrahim. They were using a breathing machine which was hooked up to an analyzer on the left side of the bed recording three different things about his breathing (none of which I understood). On the right side of the bed, an ECG (or EKG) monitor showed his heartbeat and blood pressure. His wife and brother stood beside his bed.

Farook appropriated Mr. Ibrahim's medical chart and asked me to interpret (I have no idea why he thought I could read a medical chart). He asked me about the prognosis.

Farook had a mild stroke about a year and a half ago that left him unable to balance, and hence unable to stand or walk. After about six weeks, he recovered enough that he could get about with a cane. Seeing his progress, I promised Farook a full recovery, and, after 18 months, Farook is back to normal (for Farook). But Farook had a mild stroke, while poor Ibrahim had a massive one.

The stroke was several days ago, and Mr. Ibrahim hasn't moved since, he just lies there as the machines help him breath.

All I could tell Farook was that I have seen a few stroke victims like Mr. Ibrahim, and none of them fully recovered: they lived (some for a short time, some for 40 years) with permanent speech and mobility impairments.

And, as I stood there, I just kept thinking, 'And I'm ten years older than Mr. Ibrahim is.'

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Setting up in Business?

I got a call from Ron this morning. 'Hey, what's up?' I'm never sure how to answer that question, especially early in the morning. I've told Ron I'm almost always busy on Sundays, so once about a year ago he called and said I had to meet him one Sunday morning at 9:00 a.m. I said I couldn't make it. He was angry.

'I had a Citizen ready to do a deal, but I needed you and you weren't there.'

'Couldn't we do it some other time?'

'He's was going to do this as a big favour to us, so we had to meet him when he was available, and now the deal's off.'

But that was a year ago.

'So,' I asked, 'how are you? Still at the same job?'

'Yes, but I told them I'm taking a week off. I'm ready for us to start our own business. You'll handle the computer stuff, and I'll handle all the sales. I've been doing great, I've saved over €20,000 in less than six months. You just need to give me €40,000, and we can open.'

'What, exactly, is this business?'

'Selling real estate. I've been making over €9,000 a month, but now I'm ready to move on. Right now I get 30%, but when we set up this business, We'll get 100%. I'll need three or four salesmen who'll go out and sell, and you'll run the office and set up the computer to send out lots of e-mails telling people to buy from us.'

I wouldn't mind a job running the office and IT systems for Ron, but I'm not too keen on giving Ron €40,000.

'Could we talk about this tomorrow? Let's get together tomorrow afternoon.'

'I've already told you everything. What else to you need to know?'

'Details about this real estate business. Who's your developer, for one.'

'It doesn't matter, we can sell any property in Dubai. We get 4% of the sales price. When I sell a property, we'll get 100% of the 4%, when one of our salesmen sells a property, he'll get his commission and we'll get the rest. You'll get your money back in less than four months. In a couple of years, we'll be millionaires. I'll give you 40% of all profits, and I'll get 60% because I'll be running things and doing most of the work.'

'We'll talk about it tomorrow at 2. Where?'

Ron gave me the name of a large mall where he plans to put up his kiosk. It will be (so he says) near the kiosk where he's just been made supervisor by his current employer.

I went back to work, and in about ten minutes, the phone rang again. It was Ron.

'If I let you in on this, are you going to trust me, or will you be suspicious like last time, because if you're not going to trust me, I can't go into business with you.'

In the 15th century, the Italians discovered how to completely eliminate the need for trust in business. It's called double entry bookkeeping. No one has to trust anybody: the business records every penny coming in and going out. Twice. So everyone can check and see. No partner has to trust the other, the boss doesn't have to trust the employees. Good accounting practices make sure no one can run off with anything and not get caught.

'And why should I trust you with my €40,000?'

'If you can't trust me, we can't do business together. I thought of you. I tried to be friends, but I don't think we can do the boyfriend/girlfriend thing again. You made it too hard on me.'

I should hope not. I personally don't consider myself a female, but apparently Ron does, only I wasn't the kind of girlfriend he wanted. Or he wasn't the kind of girlfriend I wanted. Or something. I hadn't heard from him for six months before today. Anyway, I'm quite annoyed to be called an ex-girlfriend. And one that he dumped at that.

'Don't be a big baby. A grown up would trust me.'

Ding ding ding ding ding. Bells started going off inside my head.

'Look, Ron, do you want to get together tomorrow? I'm kind of busy now.'

'Not if you're just going to waste my time. I have to get this business started, and if you're not going to trust me, I don't have time to waste with you.'

'Then I'm afraid we'd better call it off.'

Ron hung up and I went back to work. After ten minutes the phone rang. It was Ron.

'Look, after four months, when you've got all your money back and we're sitting on millions, are you still going to be this suspicious and mistrustful?'

'That is the dumbest question I've ever heard in my life.'

'Just answer it.'

'I can't. Do you want to get together tomorrow or not?'

He hung up. Again. Then the phone started ringing, but when I answered, Ron wouldn't reply. I do have caller ID, so all the calls were Ron, but, for about an hour, he called every five minutes and when I said, 'Hello?' he wouldn't say anything. It was getting annoying.

Finally, I answered, quite angry now, but Ron only said, 'Let's get together tomorrow and I'll answer any questions you might have. I'll give you a contract. Anything you want. But you've got to let me handle all the money, because you wouldn't know where to put it. I'll take care of everything. Just give me a call tonight.'

I got several more SMS messages from Ron about how great a deal this was going to be.

Then the phone rang, and I was a little surprised to see that the number wasn't Ron's. I didn't know whose it was. It was Farook.

'I have something to show you.'

'Not today, I'm afraid.'

'Why you no call me? I say I call you, but you no call? If I no call, you no call me?'

'I've been a little busy, I was going to call you tomorrow.' Not actually true, but it sounded good.

'I'm having a computer problem, could you come over and look at it.'

'I can tomorrow.'

I know, I'd already promised Ron, and Farook is about as likely as Ron to have anything profitable, but I'd had about as much of Ron as I could stand for a couple of days, and Farook might actually have a computer problem. Not likely, since the last time I went by his office, he had a monitor and a computer case to impress customers, but there weren't any actual computer components inside the case, it was just a cheap, empty case.

But I agreed to go by and see Farook. I figure Ron will still be wanting hismy €40,000 for the foreseeable future.

Friday, May 26, 2006

UAE in the New York Times. Again.

It was not long ago that Dubai made the front page of the New York Times.

Today one of their front page articles is about (as they call it) Ras Al Khayma, where they picked up a (fairly regular) Gulf News article about the mass weddings that are held with some frequency here. (I guess that's only fair, since a lot of the Gulf News content is taken from the New York Times.)

What is also interesting is that the article listed two reporters whose jobs seem to be reporting about the UAE, so the stream of New York Times articles about the UAE may become fairly steady.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Dinner with a friend

I was invited to dinner yesterday (which I didn't get). I planned to leave at 5 p.m., take the bus, and arrive around 6 p.m., but I was running late (literally: yesterday was my day to jog for an hour on a treadmill), so I managed to leave at 7 p.m. and arrived at 9:30, by which time everyone had already dined.

When I entered his apartment, my friend was sitting with his feet up on the breakfast table. One foot was bloody.

He expressed, in rather vulgar language, his opinion that the UAE is in desperate need of regime change. His reasoning was that all the residents here are slobs, and the authorities allow them to throw broken glass on the beach, where he had cut his foot rather badly. The regime to which he would like to see this place changed would strictly enforce anti-littering laws.

'I can't feel my f*&% toes,' he complained.

His foot was cut on the top, so he clearly hadn't stepped on broken glass, but he might have kicked a chunk lying concealed in the water as he was doing the crawl. Or possibly some piscene denizen had noted his bare foot and thought it either a threat or a tasty treat.

The foot is badly swollen, and I warned him about tetanus, but he ignored me and continued to condemn the UAE for allowing such things on its beaches. I also suggested that it might have been something alive and poisonous that had cut his foot, but he responded as before.

[Note: the beach outside his apartment consists of kilometers of immaculate white sand and calm blue water. I have seldom seen a more attractive beach. But I personally wouldn't go into the water barefoot.]

A friend of my host named Sam came over. Sam had been living with his family in the US on a visit visa of some kind when (he said) his father angered another, much more powerful Arab who arranged for Sam's entire family to be deported.

'Sam was my friend back in the US. His father was an Imam, and a rich Arab pork-seller had him thrown out of the US.'

Sam is also Arab, so this can't be a racist comment about Arabs, only about the specific Arab pork-seller (never named) who got Sam's family deported back in the late '90s (i.e., long before 9/11) by claiming they were all terrorists. The pork-seller and Sam's family were, of course, from different tribes.

Sam seemed like a nice person, nothing remotely resembling a terrorist.

It was clear, however, that both Sam and my friend do not think highly of Muslim pork-sellers, of which there are quite a few in the UAE. Personally, I think Muslims selling pork to Christians are a paradigmatic example of tolerance, but my host (and Sam) do not agree. Though perhaps Sam only disapproves of pork-sellers from the tribe of the man who got Sam's family deported. I'm not sure.

Normally, when I go to visit my friend, he gives me a lift home, but, under the circumstances, I caught a cab and left my host spraying some kind of anaesthetic spray on his foot.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Flame Trees of Dubai

I had heard of Flame Trees before coming to this part of the world, thanks to seeing the novel The Flame Trees of Thika prominently displayed on most bookstore shelves. I never bought or read it, but at least I'd heard of flame trees.

Now, of course, I've see actual flame trees. I try to go out for a walk at least once a week, and last week, I didn't see any flame trees in bloom; this week, I saw several blooming, and several more in states of incipient florescence.

I distinctly remember prior years when the flame trees burst into bloom while the weather was still pleasant, making for a very pleasant walking opportunity. Of course, my memory may be, and probably is, failing, for, this year, the flame trees began blooming after the temperatures decided to remain in the mid 40s (or about 110 for Americans). Walking is, now, decidedly unpleasant, so I recommend viewing the flame trees from the comfort of an air conditioned vehicle (a comfort denied to those of us who are confirmed pedestrians).

Still, the flame trees are a dramatic display of vivid red, and well worth seeing.

Houseman wrote:

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom upon the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

This part of the world has no cherry trees (and cherries, imported from Europe, cost more than I can afford), so, here, I'd say

Loveliest of trees (for Dubai), the flame trees now
Infloresce by mooréd dhow,
And all along the Dubai street
Stand scarlet in the searing heat.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Remaining Employed in Higher Education

Background: The West

The Major Institutions of Higher Education

Go to a major university such as Oxbridge or a wealthy US university, and all the permanent staff are famous in their fields. I was visiting Oxbridge once, and was told that one obscure looking professor was one of the world's foremost experts on knots. Not knowing anything about knots myself, I hadn't heard of him, but I understand that everyone who is up in knots has.

At a major state university in the US, I saw two professors playing bluegrass music, and was told they are two of the world's top quantum mechanics. All the quantum owners whose quanta are them giving trouble know that they can't go wrong letting one (or both) of these two look under the bonnet.

Type any of their names into Google (or into the library list of scientific publications) and a long list comes out, not just of what they've written, but of all the people who have used what they've written as the basis of further scientific research.
The Minor Institutions of Higher Education

But, as one goes down from the top universities, they have the same charter, but not the same staff. No one has ever heard of any of their faculty, since any faculty that acheive fame are approached by one of the top universities and offered a huge pay rise and a top quality laboratory (or First Folio, or Gutenberg, or Michelangelo, or original Bach manuscripts, or whatever the faculty is famous in) to work with. So, at the end of a brief probation, the Dean has to say that half his probationers are world famous in their fields, with a huge list of well known publications, and that the other half aren't. How the Dean decides isn't clear, but the ones not declared famous are fired, even though no one has heard any less of them than of the ones declared famous. The 'long list of well known publications' must remain classified, part of the employement record that must be respected under the employees right to privacy. Strangely, looking in Google or the library list of scientific publications, one can't find any of these 'famous' faculty. For the probationary faculty, the system makes for an exciting probationary period at the second (and third) tier institutions of higher education.

Introducing the Western System in the UAE

A Dubai institution called all its faculty in last January and announced that they would be adopting the Western (third tier) model: any faculty members not world famous by this June would be dismissed (or at least have their pay docked by a third). So Fahad called me and asked me to write an article with his name on it, get it published in a famous scientific journal, and send him the acceptance letter. Like the 'Phantom of the Opera,' I would do all the work but get no credit for the article. Fahad, unfortunately, didn't have any time to work with me on this: I would get paid for the work, and he would get famous.

I have written more than 20 scientific articles in my life, only they (almost) all got rejected. How Fahad expected me to make him famous by this June, I do not know, nor did he say how much he was willing to pay (about the same as they paid the 'Phantom of the Scientific Paper,' in the novel, not adjusted for inflation, I imagine).

Fahad's Dean kept calling him saying, 'I need to see the acceptance letter from some famous scientific journal. Or else.' And Fahad kept calling me.

Only I had my own deadline two weeks ago, and if I missed it, I wouldn't get paid. Then I had a terrible cold. Once the deadline was met and the cold in remission, I tried to call Fahad and offer to help, but he wouldn't answer if he saw it was me calling.

So I called Majid, a friend of Fahad, and said I could help now. Majid had offered to help Fahad when I said I couldn't, but when he found out what Fahad wanted, he respectfully declined. I suggested to Majid that just he and I should get together, without Fahad.

About 10:00 p.m. that same night, Fahad called and said he wanted to get together if it wasn't too late. I was in pajamas, so I said, 'I'm afraid it's too late tonight, perhaps another night.' 'But Majid is here, and so is everyone else. We'd really like you to come.'

I declined.

Then Farook called. Apparently, Farook was with them all at Fahad's. Farook had tried to get the group to buy a property (not for sale to foreigners, only to Citizens), and they had insisted I join them in at least looking at the property, but I had refused. Farook and Fahad still want me to invest in the property, they're both convinced I can be persuaded. Farook said he'd call later this week and we'd get together.

Since I have no further deadlines at this point, the week might prove interesting.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Faysal (con't)

Faysal came by a few days ago. He'd invited me to dinner at some restaurant in Dubai, but then he bought us two goat schwarma (i.e., goat burgers), then drove me to his home. On the way he said, 'Don't tell my wife, but I bought a Uzbeki lady for €1,100.'

I've heard of men keeping mistresses in apartments across town, but the Uzbeki lady is currently residing at Faysal's with his wife and kid. This I haven't heard of.

'I didn't really buy the Uzbeki lady. A friend did, but the apartment he's preparing for her isn't ready, so she's staying at my place for now. You want her? I'm sure she'd be happy to do you for €5.'

I declined the offer.

When we got to Faysal's place, the lady turned out not to be from Uzbekistan, but from one of the pieces (Dagestan) that are still part of Russia. Her name is a thoroughly Slavic name that neither Faysal nor I can pronounce.

When I arrived, and until I left, she sat watching TV (they were watching "Charmed") with Faysal's wife. What else she does, I do not know. Faysal says she's not a maid, he's just giving her a place to stay until his friend has an apartment ready for her.

I heard her talking pidgen on her mobile, and it's a pidgen I recognize (but don't understand). As best I could tell, she was trying to set up several assignations (whatever they are). But, as I said, while I recognize the pidgen, I don't understand any of it.

I asked Faysal about his legal problems, and he said that, for just €28,000 he fixed everything and is back in business.

And, after "Charmed" and a few more programs, he dropped me back at my home.

And I'm still not sure what's going on with Faysal.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Cyclone: Demise Exaggerated?

According to The Desert Weasel The Cyclone is due to be closed.

At least partly out of curiosity, and partly due to a suggetion of Captain Bligh's in his version of a certain unpleasant incident on the HMS Bounty, I had to drop by and check. (I've been under the weather lately, and Captain Bligh has a medicinal recommendation in his memoirs that I thought I should try.)

I arrived at 5:30 p.m. and, finding no security guards/ticket takers, I went in.

I asked 'What time does the cover start?' '€17.' 'No, what TIME?' '7:00 p.m.' But they were setting up the cash register and ticket machine by 6:00 p.m. and I've been asked to buy a ticket as early as 6:30 (I decided to skip the Cyclone that evening). I believe the cover is €22 on weekends, but apparently there's a discount mid-week.

Inside the Cyclone are two bars. One charges less than €3 for a 20 oz. pint, the other charges more than €6 for a 12 oz. bottle of the same popular beverage. This isn't an intelligence test: before 9 p.m., the €3 bar is open; after 9 p.m., it closes and the €6 bar opens. Why they don't have a single bar with variable prices escapes me.

For those who like a cheap beverage in the late afternoon, I can recommend The Cyclone. After 9 p.m., it caters to a very different clientele, but I invariably make my departure well before 7 p.m. One afternoon, I found a few journalists chatting over the news, and was impressed with the quality of the discourse (which was bi-lingual, but I liked the 50% I could understand), but much of the time The Cyclone is deserted at 6 p.m.

While inside, I asked if the rumour about the imminent demise of The Cyclone was true.

'We have had five year leases from Al Nasr Leisureland since 1994, our current lease runs until 2009, and then it will be renewed for another five years.'

So, it appears, the sad demise of Al Nasr Cinema, a cinema that was always crowded with South Indians every night and even more crowded on weekends, has grown into a rumour that all of Al Nasr Leisureland will soon be history.

As far as the employees know, The Lodge, with its nice, reasonably priced (€5.25) luncheon, and the Cyclone, with its cheap afternoon beverage specials, will be around for the foreseeable future. (NB 'The foreseeable future, in Dubai, is certainly less than the three years The Cyclone is legally guaranteed space to operate.)

And it is still true that if one says, 'I just dropped into The Cyclone for a quick beverage,' no one will believe it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

UAE Stock Market (con't)

When I posted about the 'marital difficulties' caused by the fall in the markets, one commentator asked my opinion about where the market is heading.

In May, 2003, the Dubai Financial Market was at approximately 118; in May, 2004, it was at approximately 200, a gain of about 70%; in May, 2005, it was at about 1,000, an annual gain of about 400%.

The consensus was that 9/11 made the West unattractive to Middle Eastern investors, and that the $60 a barrel oil money had to go somewhere.

In Dubai, it was more than just Middle East money: Dubai let anyone who could come to Dubai open an account at the DFM. So there was the prospect of limitless amounts of Western money chasing the Middle Eastern money.

Personally, I was going to put my money in the market last Fall (before the weather had cooled below 40), only I waited an hour for a public transport (which didn't come) and I decided it was too hot, that I'd wait until things cooled down a bit.

Meanwhile, quite a few people went to the bank, borrowed all they could, and put the lot into the market. Not just in Dubai, of course, but in all the Middle Eastern bourses.

The DFM continued up to over 1,300 in August, 2005, but has since fallen to 465, which is still more than double (233%) what it was in 2004. Or about 36% as much as it was worth at the peak.

The Middle East cannot really be compared with Wall Street in 1929. At the time, the US had the world's largest domestic economy, and everyone knew that, with the complete ban on alcohol, productivity would continue to soar far beyond the rest of the world, and the US economy could only keep growing. The US, unlike most of the world's bourses, allowed almost anyone to invest in its stock markets, not just citizens. So it was a "no-brainer" to invest in the US market.

Then the US banned all foreign trade, the entire world economy collapsed, and US stocks fell by 89%, declining fairly rapidly at first, but then going down fairly steadily until 1932. It took 25 years (and a World War) for the US economy (and stock market) to recover back to 1929 levels.

But this is the Gulf.

And, as one poor interviewee told the Gulf News, "For me the loss is doubling, as I cannot focus anymore on my work," he said. "I cannot attend to my wife and children - how can anyone be able to, while facing bankruptcy and maybe imprisonment threats?"

If the workers here can't work, what does that say about the economy and its prospects?

But the Middle East markets are tiny, and most shares are restricted, so they can't be traded. Except for Dubai, it is difficult for most people to invest in the markets (cf. The Religious Policeman's comments on the obstacles that prevent non-Saudi's from investing in the Saudi stock markets).

Forecasting based strictly on 2003 and 2004, a 'fair value' for the DFM would be somewhere between 400 and 500. Market dynamics during a crash of a free stock market usually go well below 'fair value,' leading to buying opportunities. (People who bought the US in 1932 did very well, but not those who bought right after the crash in 1929. Or 1930 or 1931.)

But this market is so tiny that it could be propelled back upwards by inserting a single day's oil revenue. Or allowed to fall back below 200. And I can't see any easy way to predict which way the wind is going to blow.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Modesh is back

A couple of years ago, some Australians were in Dubai in summer, something they usually avoid, and they asked me, 'What's that yellow worm?'

Of course, Australia has some unusual fauna, and probably has a worm rather like Modesh. (I personally don't know how to describe Modesh, but I wouldn't have thought he looks like a worm.)

I explained that Modesh is the symbol of Dubai Summer Surprises, 'Big Fun for Little Ones.'

And now he's back.

For several years now, Dubai has had a summer festival (in the 47 degree heat) with lots of indoor activities for children during the school holidays. Malls and amusement parks take part.

And people come.

The guidebooks used to say to avoid Dubai during the summer, so hotels used to have very low rates during the summer months, but the low rates no longer apply. And people still come.

So, from now until school starts, Modesh will be all over Dubai.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

On the Cover of the New York Times

Dubai Sports City made the front of the sports section of the New York Times today. Nothing particularly new in the article, except for

At first, the multipurpose outdoor stadium was designed to hold 25,000 people. "We were instructed to make it 60,000," Balasubramaniam said, smiling. That decision has fueled speculation that the United Arab Emirates will make a bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Summer Olympics in an outdoor stadium in Dubai?

Followed by Winter Olympics in the new rotating Snow Mountain?

Monday, May 08, 2006

Digital Receiver Problems

My apartment has a large number of satellite dishes sitting on the roof. When I moved in, I asked the real estate agent how to get connected, and he gave me the phone number of the company that put most of the dishes up there, the one that has an agreement with the apartment owners.

I called, and they told me they were located near the soft drink bottlers on Sheikh Zayed Road, so I went. They said they didn't sell out of their office, that was just where they took calls for service. They gave me a number to call to schedule a person to install a decoder. So I called.

The person arrived, installed the decoder, picked up the money for decoder and installation, and left, and I've had about 400 free satellite channels for a few years now. Mostly in Arabic, Italian, Spanish, German, and French, but with Polish, Russian, Chinese, Serbian, Greek, and other languages. And a few English channels. Which I have been watching for two years.

I got home last night to find the decoder fried. Possibly because of the power surges we get, but definitely fried.

So I called the company that sold me the decoder.

'Sir, what is your SmartCard number?'

'I don't have a SmartCard, I only watch Free to Air.'

'Then you'll have to call the main office and get your SmartCard number before we can send somene out to repair your set.'

'I don't have a SmartCard. I bought a decoder from your company and I use it to watch Free to Air channels.'

'You must call the main office and get your Smart Card number.'

After quite some time yelling, she figured out that I don't have a SmartCard at all, that it wasn't that I had lost the number. She said, 'Since you don't have a SmartCard number, I can send out a technician, but if there is no problem with the satellite dish, there will be a charge.'

So I went to the nearest hypermarket to try to purchase a decoder.

There was a sticker on the shelf that said Satellite Decoder, but no decoded above the sticker.

'Do you have any decoders for sale?'

'No, the brand we used to carry had a large number of defectives. They wouldn't read the SmartCards, so we stopped selling them. Try Naif Road.'

The brand they used to sell was the one I'd purchased from the company that maintains the antenna on my building (and at a price of 1/3 what I'd paid). And, indeed, the brand does have defectives, including the one not working in my apartment.

So it looks like I can't watch my Greek-subtitled shows from the 1980s BBC.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Hot and Sour Soup for the Soul

I have come down with a nasty chest infection with a persistant cough. The cough is a bit different from coughs I've had with previous colds, this one sounds like 'cluck, cluck.'

So I decided I needed some Chinese food and headed to Spring Bamboo (Br).

Dubai reminds me of the US in many ways, in particular, that there are so many Chinese restaurants. Most of which have never had a single person of Chinese extraction enter their portals, either as owner, employee, or customer.

In the US heartland, most Chinese restaurants seem to be based on a model developed for serving the British in Canton in the 19th century, so they serve English mustard with everything. So, in the US, we call English mustard "Chinese mustard."

And my father always said that the best thing for a cold was something slathered with "Chinese mustard."

So I dragged myself into the Spring Bamboo (Br), one of the restaurants actually run by Chinese ex-pats (and, I noticed, with almost all the customers Chinese ex-pats).

Unfortunately, no "Chinese mustard."

So I ordered Hot and Sour Soup, which was on the first page under appetizers. The waitress stayed beside me, pen poised, since the Hot and Sour Soup was on the appetizer menu. So I added Hot and Sour Aubergines.

After I'd ordered, I noticed a second pages of Main Course Soups, but I was too embarrased to change my order.

The Hot and Sour Soup was intended as an appetizer. To be shared by four persons. After which I wasn't really up to the Hot and Sour Aubergines, but I managed.

Hot and Sour Soup is perhaps the only Chinese dish I've found that tastes about the same from Dayton to Dubai to Dalien. Other Chinese dishes are remarkably different, with Chinese tourists to the US unable to recognize the US versions. (This chow mein is fiction. Any resemblance to a real chow mein is purely coincidental.) And, as these dishes move to Dubai, the treatment is different still.

Still, I've had curry in China, and Chinese "curry" is as close to curry as Indian "chow mein" is to chow mein. So I guess it all evens out.

But I can still recommend Hot and Sour Soup for a cold.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Another Faux Pas

Last night, about 10 p.m., a friend called and said a group was going to Bur Dubai and he invited me to join them. I agreed. He said they'd pick me up.

When they arrived, they had a young man with them whom I'd never met. The young man had, apparently, said that he knew the best restaurant in Dubai, and he would direct us. We ended up taking a rather circuitous route (through very heavy traffic) from my place to Heritage Village and sat down at one of the restaurants there (I can't remember which one) with tables right on the Creekside. Great view and great food, but a month too late: temperatures were in the high 30s, even at 11 p.m.

The young man, after asking my marital status (he'd already asked my two friends theirs), explained that he is currently looking for a wife. He is from a wealthy family, and is currently enrolled in an MBA program. What my own marital status has to do with his search escapes me, but it's a question that gets asked a lot here.

Meanwhile, another acquaintence, the father of a young girl, has been telling me for almost a year that he is looking for a husband for his daughter, with limited success. Both the young man and the young woman are well educated and (I think) from the same Arab tribe, so it seemed to me that they might make a good match. I thought they might at least start the preliminary exploration, beginning with the girl's father meeting the young man. I started to call the father when the young man and the other Arab in the group both yelled, 'Stop,' so I stopped the call, but not before I'd left a 'missed call' on the father's mobile.

So the father called me right back, and asked why I'd called him. I explained that I knew he was looking for young men to interview for his daughter, and told him that I had a well-educated, good-looking, young man he might wish to meet. He said, 'Thank you,' and hung up.

Both Arabs present explained that I had just committed a serious breach of Arab etiquette, that I must never put a father in touch with a potential suitor for his daughter, that was never done. That I had seriously embarrased both the father and the young man. That it was just terrible, and how could I have done such a thing?

So the father and the young man will both continue looking through 'proper channels,' whatever they are, for potential marriage partners.

It's not proper to explain what, exactly, these 'proper channels' are to an outsider, but I was told I must never try to help in any way, or ask any questions, or make any comments about such a sensitive area. I am to listen to whatever they want to tell me about the progress of their respective searches (and they will want to tell me about their searches), and to keep my mouth shut.

As repayment, the young man and the other Arab pointed out every young woman we saw walking the streets of Dubai at 1:30 a.m. and offered to introduce me, just as I'd offered to introduce the young man. Then they dropped me off at my home.

And I am out of the match-making business for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Punjabi Thali (and Aroma soup)

I recently posted that I'd eaten Punjabi Thali and had a nosebleed, and one comment said that it must have been much too spicy for a Westerner. But actually, the nosebleed might not be bad.

I have some former colleagues who are always sending me pamphlets such as, 'Are you getting enough praseodymium in your diet?' One time, they sent me an article saying that Indian food was the Drano® for the human plumbing system: that it cleans out your digestive and circulatory system of all the gunk, just like Drano® does for your drains. Of course, I'm not altogether convinced I really need more praseodymium. On the other hand, I am convinced that I need more Indian food (from time to time).

I've had quite a few friends and relatives die of strokes, which are caused when your circulatory system gets clogged up or when it springs a leak. As best I could tell, the Punjabi thali unclogged anything I might have had blocked. (Either that, or it sent my blood pressure through the roof.) In any case, I am almost convinced that my former colleague's e-mail about Indian food has some merit. Unlike their e-mail about praseodymium.


Tonight, I showed a different, and (he claims) rather wealthy colleague, how to find Deira City Centre. He insisted on buying me dinner, but I didn't want much just for acting as guide to City Centre, so I suggested a place I knew where I could just order a cup of soup. So he and I both ordered a cup of tea and a cup of soup. Which cost €22 for the two of us. I didn't realize how expensive this place was. It is a big shisha place. Soup in a normal, non-hotel restaurant in Dubai is about €1.40, and tea is normally €0.10. Even the big, 5-star hotels don't charge €20 for soup. I'd had soup here before with a Saudi, but he ordered while I was in the bathroom, so I didn't know how much it cost. Still, it is rather good lentil soup.

I may even go back, if someone else is paying.

Just before we left, a young lady came in, found a young man, and both left in a taxi. My colleague figured it was a cash transaction: she'd come in, wandered around until she found someone alone, and persuaded him to leave with her. I figured she'd come there to find her husband, found him, and departed with him in a taxi.

Why anyone would need a taxi after shisha escapes me, but a Syrian said he thought shisha was the Arabic whiskey, and had the same effect on Arabs that whiskey has on Westerners. But he was a Syrian, so his pronouncements do not always carry the full ring of truth. And I never saw him either puff on a shisha or drink a whiskey.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Waiting for the bus

My bus comes promptly at 9:45 a.m., and, as I was waiting in the sun, I got an offer to sit in the shade.

My bus stop is next to a coffee shop with a number of outdoor tables with umbrellas, and, sitting at one of the tables, were two ladies who invited me to sit near them. I wish I'd had more time to get their stories, as at least one of them speaks good English, so I could ask questions and get answers.

Both told me their names, but the English speaker had a name I couldn't pronounce (or remember), and the other was An (which I remember as Anne). The first said she had a regular employement visa. No employment, just the employment visa.

Before a plane crash in late 2003, the snakeheads (as they're called in China) would make all the arrangements for young ladies to come to Dubai for US$4,000 with a 30 day tourist visa. Every 30 days, they had to renew their tourist visas by getting on a plane that left the UAE 'for good' taking these 'tourists' home, and then the plane came right back and they arrived to 'start their vacations.'

After the crash, the UAE president announced that these 'visa runs' were prohibited, that the companies issuing these 30 day tourist visas were to be closed, and that people not from Western countries could only come on tourist visas one time (not renew them every 30 days).

So (the lady said) she bought a regular employment visa from her snakehead and came to Dubai about four months ago. She doesn't have to leave unless she wants to. Actually, she can't leave until she's repaid the snakehead the cost of her visa, or she'll go to gaol for debt back in China.

If her snakehead really did sell her an employment visa, it certainly cost her more than US$4,000. Of course, she might not actually have a visa, but might have told me she did in case I'm working for the CID.

So (she said) every night she goes to a hotel bar in Deira and tries to make some money. She and her friend had just finished their night's work and were taking a break, but they wouldn't have minded making a few extra dollars mid-morning if anyone had been so inclined.

My bus arrived, and I got up and got aboard. As I looked back at the table, it was empty.