Saturday, May 24, 2008


In 1914, the Germans were determined to acquire a mercantile empire, since they saw no other way to industrialize. The obvious mercantile empire for them to acquire was that of France, but, for reasons which escape me, they launched their invasion via Belgium, against a British injunction. As it turned out, the British Navy proved pivotal, and the Germans lost. As punishment, the treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany from re-industrializing, and, a fortiori, militarising.

In 1933, Churchill noted that Germany had been overtaken by a racist government that was violating Versailles, and said that Britain should intervene. Churchill correctly noted, in the '40s, that, had Britain acted as he recommended in '33, World War II could have been averted without bloodshed.

Churchill further noted that, when Britain finally declared war in '39, the Nazis defeated Britain within 6 months. Churchill drew a straight line through the data, and said that, had Britain responded to German armament with a police action in '35, World War II could have been averted with only a small amount of bloodshed; he went on to speculate that, had Britain declared war on Germany in '38, the war would have been difficult, but would have been resolved in Britain's favour.

Waugh stated that, had Britain gone to war in '38, it would have been with the wrong allies for the wrong reasons. Waugh idolized the actual British policy, a rather unusual position, given the net results. Waugh agreed that Britain had to go to war in '39 for moral reasons, even though it was not in Britain's national interest.

In fact, after abandoning appeasement for war and declaring war on Germany, Britain was quickly defeated. That is, defeated as the US was in Vietnam, not (quite) defeated as Germany was in '45.

With perfect 20/20 hindsight, Britain and France should not have declared war on Germany in '39, since it was, morally valiant or not, a war neither could win.

Appeasement in '38 delayed the defeat of Britain and France for a year; appeasement in '39 might have delayed their defeat indefinitely, since Hitler said his only interest was in Eastern Europe, not in Western Europe, until Western Europe declared war on him. Of course, Hitler was not the most reliable of guarantors, but it does seem that, had Western Europe not declared war on Hitler, that he might have dissipated his forces against the USSR.

But, after The Gathering Storm, appeasement has been a useful blob of mud to throw at one's political opponents.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Sub-prime crisis and Dubai Property

It appears that the sub-prime crisis, started in the US and then spread throughout the Western world, has reached Dubai and is having a major impact on property prices.

Since the beginning of 2008, Dubai properties have risen by about 25%, as have rents for new tenants.

Apparently, with property prices falling in the US and Europe, investors with oil windfalls are flocking to Dubai.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Bouncing Cheques, Part II

Once we had been to the bank, we went to Farook’s office, where Bobbie was waiting. Bobbie isn’t her name, but it’s as close as Farook can come to the actual Tagalog name.

Farook is a fairly typical Dubai small businessman. Dubai sets, for every business, a limit on the number of employees it may retain, a number that depends on the business. For example, businesses that obviously need at least four employees can usually apply to employ six with no problem. For employees seven and eight, the owner must spend time providing the authorities with some justification for why the company needs the extra employees, but, with a patient owner, a few more permits will generally be issued. At some point, the authorities will say that the business is fully staffed.

Farook, after extensive negotiation, managed to get the absolute maximum number of permits for his business, then sold all the work visas. He is also willing to provide, for a price, his two visit visas. as soon as they become available. Farook expects that the people who work for him will provide their own visas, purchased from someone like he was when he first opened his business.

Farook has been known to promise, ‘You can work for me on your visit visa as a test. If you do good work, then before your visit visa expires, I will give you a work visa.’ Only he has no work visas to give.

The UAE, like most countries, has several kinds of visa. The tourist visa is officially good for 30 days, but some tourist visas have a 30-day grace period. A visit visa, issued to immediate family members of people with work visas, and to recruits coming to interview for a job, is good for 60 days with an additional 30 days available for an additional fee. Working with a tourist or visit visa is strictly prohibited. A work visa is good for three years and allows the holder to engage in gainful employment as a temporary, migrant worker. Work visas are called ‘permanent visas,’ but, of course, they aren’t.

Bobbie has been working for Farook for two months. She received her first month’s salary on time, and should have received her second month’s salary on 30 April. Farook had planned to pay her when he cashed the cheque post-dated to 30 April, only the cheque bounced. So Bobbie hasn’t been paid for April. Farook’s phone bill was also due 30 April, so his phone has been cut off.

‘What kind of visa do you have?’ I asked. ‘I have a visit visa.’ ‘And you’ve been here three months?’ ‘No, only two months.’ ‘Then you can extend the visa by one month by paying Dh 500.’ (About €90).

Farook called immigration, and they said that Bobbie needed to have her sponsor extend the visa. ‘Go,’ Farook said. ‘We should take her,’ I said. So we drove Bobbie to the company where she bought her visit visa. Farook gave her Dh 550, and dropped her off.

Immediately, Farook’s phone rang. ‘This is a visit visa, but we are a tourist company, and it is not possible to extend a visit visa issued by a tourist company.’ Translation: it’s a tourist visa, good for 30 days with a 30-day grace period. ‘We can renew the visa for Dh 1,300.’

Farook promised to pay the cost of Bobbie’s visa, and owes her salary for April, but, as of current date, that Dh 550 left him with a billfold holding nothing but a bounced cheque. Bobbie’s April salary would cover the cost of her visa, but Farook doesn’t have it, and Bobbie is angry.

‘I pay her all I owe, but not today. When I get money I pay her. But she so angry, I think I not want her for employee anymore, so khalas.’ I.e., ‘Finished.’

Bobbie called again to say there’s no point in her remaining at the visa office, and she wants Farook to pick her up. ‘I cannot. I am very busy this afternoon.’

Bobbie kept calling, but Farook no longer answered when he saw who it was.

So Farook droped me off, and went to pick up his youngest son from kindergarten, leaving Bobbie stranded at the company that sells visit visas.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Bouncing Cheques, Part I

Farook called at 8 a.m. and asked me to join him. I said I could be ready by 9:30.

Farook showed up outside my flat at 9 and rang me to say he was waiting. When I had completed my morning ablutions, I straggled down at our agreed time, and he was perusing some papers. ‘I need you to use your brain to help me,’ he said, showing me the papers: a returned cheque for Dh 23,300 (about €4,000) with a form. The form had several boxes, such as, ‘Signature does not match,’ ‘Postdated,’ and ‘Account closed.’ But the box checked was ‘No Agreement,’ whatever that meant. There was a box for ‘Agreement not adequate,’ so I decided that the Arabic word that meant ‘balance’ had been translated as ‘agreement;’ however, Farook didn’t really know the Arabic word, so we weren’t sure.

Farook also had a letter from the police, in Arabic of course, and we proceeded to the bank. ‘This letter says,’ he translated, ‘that I have made a case against the person who has this account, that the bank is to send the police all their information about this person, with all the information about his account, and his passport and visa copy.’ Pointing at the next line of Arabic, he finished, ‘This says that they are not to give his private information to me, but must fax it directly to the police.’

So we took the letter to a branch of the bank on which the cheque had been drawn. ‘I need to use your phone.’ The customer service representative, a young lady from India, handed Farook the handset. He told her the number, and she dialled. He spoke in Arabic and wrote down a number. ‘We need to send a fax,’ and she pointed at a fax machine. ‘Please send this fax,’ he asked me, so I did.

‘I send this to my son,’ Farook confided.

We then took the two documents, a copy of the bounced cheque and the original police order, to the branch manager. He and Farook discussed the matter at length in Arabic. After which, Farook led me in a search for the manager’s boss, since the manager had not provided satisfaction. We went through a door marked, ‘Employees Only,’ and sought out the occupant of the largest office. Following a rather brief conversation in Arabic, we were escorted out of the part of the bank that was strictly for the use of employees, and Farook went up to a different customer service representative, this one an Arab woman.

He handed her the two papers, and she stamped them ‘Received 1 May 08,’ then called for the copy-wallah to make a copy for Farook.

Farook then led me to the copy machine and said to me, ‘Please make me three copies.’ I looked at the machine and tried to convince it to make a copy, but it just did the machine equivalent of sticking its tongue out at us and jeering. Imagine, if you will, an elderly Bedouin (which Farook pretends to be, though he really grew up in a city and has a post-graduate degree) and the Western equivalent (which, whatever that is, I actually am), completely at a loss before a modern multi-function copier. The copy-wallah came back and made us our copies and we went over to one of the long tables where people fill out deposit and withdrawal slips. Farook wrote on one of the copies in Arabic, and asked me to write the English translation: ‘Many thanks for your help. Please call me as soon as you have sent the required information to the police, and keep a copy for me to pick up.’

Then we took this copy with the writing to the bank manager, whom Farook thanked profusely in Arabic. Finally, Farook was satisfied that we had done all we could, and we left the bank.

As we were walking out the front door, we heard a loud argument between one Citizen wearing the customary dishdash and another Citizen wearing a uniform. Actually, only the dishdash was screaming, the uniformed Citizen was very polite.

The entire argument was in Arabic, but it was fairly obvious, even without my knowing any Arabic, that the dishdash was explaining to the uniform that he should be issuing citations to ex-pats, not to Citizens, even though the dishdash had illegally parked his huge SUV at a bus stop.

Farook translated the policeman: ‘I am just doing my job.’ And the dishdash got a ticket.