Thursday, April 30, 2009

Update on that video

You'll be aware of the 'torture video' which has resurfaced and is attracting much international attention.

There's a development reported by WAM. Here it is in full:

Official Statement of the Human Rights Office, Abu Dhabi Judicial Department

Abu Dhabi, 29 April 2009 (WAM) - The Constitution of the United Arab Emirates guarantees a number of fundamental rights including those set forth in Article 25 providing that all persons are equal before the law, without distinction in regard to race, nationality, religious belief and social status.

The Human Rights Office (HRO) of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department has viewed the contents of a video containing graphic scenes of physical abuse that has been widely circulated online and reported in international media.

The Government of Abu Dhabi unequivocally condemns the actions depicted on the video.

The HRO of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department will conduct a comprehensive review of the matter immediately and make its findings public at the earliest opportunity.

Based on the statement made by the UAE Ministry of Interior, the HRO of the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department understands that the matter depicted on the video was resolved between the two parties and that no criminal charges were brought by either party.

However, the HRO believes that the events depicted on the video appear to represent a violation of human rights and therefore these events should be fully reviewed in their own right.


The fourth and last paras are the important ones and tempting though it is to comment I suppose the right thing now is not to until the review is completed and the findings published.

Stories about the tape on ABC News and in The Guardian.

WAM website is

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The pork conspiracy

The Swine Flu is badly named isn't it. Gives pigs a bad rap when they don't deserve it.

Since the news of the new flu strain first surfaced we've been assured by the medical profession and scientists that there's no way in the world that eating cooked pork will expose us to flu risk.

You can't catch it that way. You catch it from infected humans spreading the virus by coughing and sneezing.

The authorities in Abu Dhabi seem to know something the experts don't.

Now I swear I'm not making this up - in Abu Dhabi the General Secretariat of Municipalities has issued a circular banning the import and sale of all types of pork in the country "as a precautionary measure against swine flu". They had earlier banned the import of pork from Mexico and the US, but have now extended it to a blanket ban "considering the alarming situation."

The alarming situation to me is the fact that they don't seem to understand what they're dealing with.

If the outbreak had more correctly been called Mexican Flu I bet they'd have closed all the Mexican restaurants, banned burritos, tossed the tacos.

It hardly instils confidence in the authorities' understanding of the situation. And that's a worry, because to avoid or solve a problem you first need to understand it.

Here's the full story.

No more black magic?

There's disturbing news for those of us who eagerly look forward to reading the black magic stories which pop up regularly.

In Abu Dhabi the Supreme Judicial Council has issued a directive which could act as a deterrent to the sorcerers, possibly putting an end to their magic endeavours.

"Anyone accused of being involved in black magic, sorcery or witchcraft will now be tried under criminal law and face heftier penalties if convicted" reports The National.

"The council called on Abu Dhabi’s courts to take a tougher stance on black magic cases, even deporting non-nationals found guilty by the criminal courts."

The National has it here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Culture and the law

There's a lesson to be learnt from the experience of Darren O’Mullane, an Aussie deported from Dubai for insulting someone.

It's about understanding the culture of the place you move to. Or at least being very aware of the differences.

When posting about various laws and sentences in the past I've talked about what to westerners seems the very strange seriousness with which insults and rude gestures are taken by the law.

Darren, a nurse, was driving home from a very bad day at work so he was was tired and stressed. Driving along Sheikh Zayed Road he was irritated by another driver who, he said, was weaving in and out and nearly crashed into him.

He did what he'd have done back in Sydney, raised his middle finger to the other driver. In Sydney the other driver would simply have returned the salute with two fingers and that would have been the end of it.

But this is a different culture and the other driver was Emirati. Insulting a person by word or gesture is taken very seriously indeed.

Reports say the police were ready to let the matter drop but the other driver insisted on pressing charges. After spending twenty-four days in Al Slammer Darren was deported.

He admitted the charges and to his credit he isn't whingeing that Dubai isn't the same as back home, as too many do.

Instead he said: "I want people to be aware of the law because I don’t want anyone to go through what my wife and I have been through. I’d like other people to be very careful. You’re in a different country and the laws are not always the same."

Spot on Darren. That's the lesson others need to learn from your unfortunate experience.

There are laws which I and many others think need to be changed, and I raise them here every so often. But when a law is so entwined with the culture that's a different thing. Expecting it to be changed to fit a foreign culture is ridiculous.

There are many other examples of the different culture, some but certainly not all resulting in the law being involved.

For example, insulting the royal family is a no-no. We're not the only country which forbids such insults by the way - remember the author jailed in Thailand for insulting the king?

The effusive way the leadership is talked about draws much criticism, and mirth, from westerners and others. But again it's part of the culture.

Listen to Arabs greeting each other and you'll hear the same kind of, to us, flowery language. We say 'hello' and sometimes add 'how are you?' while the Arabic greetings and enquiries about health, family etc go on for ages.

Criticising these things is to believe everyone should be 'like us'. Rather, we should understand and acknowledge that there are differences in culture.

As Darren discovered to his cost, the culture is often entwined with the law.

And while I'm rambling on about the law, reports in the papers today raise something which I think needs to be looked at with some urgency.

The Deyaar corruption case has come before the Dubai Misdemeanours Court. I have no comment to make on the charges, I don't have any information about the case.

The problem is that the CEO and others have been detained for over a year.

Two things need urgent attention by the lawmakers in my opinion.

One, a limit should be put on the length of time a person can be detained without charge.

Two, after the charge is laid a limit should be put on the length of time then allowed for the case to be heard.

Darren's tale in 7Days.

Deyaar case in Gulf News.

Monday, April 27, 2009

UAE laws online in English

There was a hugely important story in The National at the weekend, reporting that the Ministry of Justice has announced "that every federal law passed since the UAE’s founding in 1971 has been translated into English and will soon be available online."

The Ministry also announced that it "has also begun translating 1,500 federal court decisions, 500 international treaties signed by the UAE and 2,000 official fatwas issued by UAE muftis, to create a centralised, easily accessible body of case law and statutes in both Arabic and English."

Saying that this is a hugely important project is an understatement.

The Ministry says there are two aims - one is to improve understanding of the UAE’s laws and legal system internationally, as well as foster the transparency sought by international companies and investors.

The other recognises the reality on the ground - more people speak English than Arabic in the UAE and the Ministry says its goal is to make the laws available to them. In future they may well translate the laws into other languages too.

The project involves gathering all the laws in one place, in itself a great leap forward because they've never been centralised before. Putting them online in Arabic was the next step and then comes the mammoth task of translating everything into English.

Anyone who's been involved with translation knows what a difficult task it is. Translating word for word simply doesn't work; the sense, the meaning has to be conveyed in the new language. That must be particularly important with translating laws.

They say that eighty people have been working on the project here and internationally for more than two years so far.

The website will have a search engine which they say will be able to find even one word amongst all the legal documents.

How many times have you heard people complaining that the laws are not understood, that they're open to interpretation, that they're only in Arabic, that there's too much secrecy. This really is a giant step forward.

The National report is here.

Ministry of Justice website.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ready for more chaos?

Our beloved RTA has announced even more chaos on the roads roadworks.

It's all very necessary, it's good for the future and it'll be great when the work is finished...but for those of us here now it means more chaos on critical roads, more delays, probably terminal construction fatigue.

The two areas which will make life more difficult for me are Trade Centre Roundabout, which is being replaced with flyovers and 'signalised intersection', and Al Wasl Road on which the traffic intersections will be replaced with underpasses.

I know we need it, I complain about the traffic bottlenecks on Al Wasl Road every time I'm stuck in them, which is often.

Here's a drawing of what the four Al Wasl Road intersections will become:

They say the construction schedule will be announced shortly but I can't see it taking less than a year at the very least. Beach Road will be a whole lot of fun to drive along while this is going on!

I wonder whether the completion of the Creek extension across Al Wasl Road will be done at the same time? Wouldn't it be a relief to have it all finished and out of the way in one hit rather than a year's chaos for the intersection work followed by another year of chaos for the Creek work.

Visa for Baby Nayana

A PS to my post last week about the expat baby who had been declared illegal by Sharjah Naturalisation & Residency Dept. They gave her a week to leave the country and her parents were slapped with a big fine.

Common sense has prevailed with the intervention of the Minister of Interior, Sheikh Saif Bin Zayed Al Nahayan, who has ordered that a residency visa is to be issued for the baby.

The full story in Gulf News is here.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Not paying bills

I posted back at the beginning of the month about the biggest factor of the economic crisis which companies here are facing.

It's not the much talked about lack of credit available to them from banks but the much simpler and more basic problem that they are not being paid.

As I said at the beginning of the month: "Talking to people over the past few weeks it's obvious that the biggest problem companies are facing is the non payment of invoices by their clients, especially our largest organisations."

In Dubai the companies placing the biggest orders are what are known as 'government linked' and they have placed orders worth billions. If they don't pay their bills on times the effect on so many other companies is disastrous, with predictable ripple effects throughout the economy.

If they do pay their bills on time all those billions flow through all the other companies to their subcontractors and suppliers, to their staff in salary and wages, through them into the wider retail and service economy. This means the good ripples spread naturally through the whole economy.

It's all blindingly obvious, simple, basic stuff, there's nothing difficult about it.

At the same time as I wrote my post the UK Financial Times ran an article on the situation, which included:

Over the next two weeks, the emirate will start disbursing emergency loans to distressed government-linked companies, encouraging them to use the funds to pay local invoices and give the economy a significant fillip.

Then a week later the FT ran another article about the visit to the UAE by Lord Mandelson, the UK Secretary of State for Business:

"Lord Mandelson has raised concerns about the failure of developers in the United Arab Emirates to pay British contractors, and has sought reassurances from local rulers that financial commitments will be honoured."

Now in this week's edition of the UK's Institution of Civil Engineers' magazine 'New Civil Engineer' there's a story headlined "Consultants fight Dubai clients for unpaid fees."

They report: Analysts claim state backed property developer owes UK engineering firms £200M.

Thanks to KippReport by the way, which is where I found the story.

New Civil Engineer names Nakheel as being the tardy payer to UK firms, the amount being more than a billion dirhams. In the local market too, their accounts payable department doesn't have a reputation for prompt payment of invoices.

Given the opportunity to deny the claims or to give the company's side of the story Nakheel was true to Dubai PR culture and declined to comment.

An anonymous comment left on my original post complained about governments bailing out private companies, especially financial institutions/banks.

In response I said: I'm not talking about banks or financial institutions. The point is that, as the FT article points out, the majors are government linked companies, or government owned. They're the companies which have given out the big contracts.

If their lack of cash is causing the blockage, as anecdotally it is, then surely putting more working capital into them (called 'loans' in the FT article) makes more sense than putting bail-out money into privately owned companies and banks.

If these organisations paid their invoices their suppliers & sub-contractors wouldn't need to apply to banks for overdrafts.

That really is my point, why not go straight to the heart of the problem to solve it quickly.

If a company needs more working capital then putting that working capital directly into the company is a one-step solution. To me it makes far more sense to do that as a priority rather than making government 'bail-out' money available to banks who in turn can loan it to companies. That just delays the flow of the money into and through the economy.

What's happening is bad for the economy, bad for individual companies, bad for confidence in doing business with and in Dubai, bad for Brand Dubai.

New Civil Engineer story.

Red tide? Pollution?

The natural red tide and man-made pollution of our beaches have been in the news a lot recently.

The subject has been popping up on forums too, with questions about it being asked by tourists planning to visit Dubai.

I stopped by the beach at Umm Suqeim yesterday to have a look. To be precise, to the beach the other side of Umm Suqeim Fishing Port from the public beach alongside Burj Al Arab.

It looked pretty blue and clean to me:

The fishing port is where the offshore construction of Porto Dubai is happening, so you'd expect stirred-up cloudy water. But again it looked to me as though the reports might be a little exaggerated:

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The party's over in UAQ

The handful of nightclubs in Umm Al Quwain have been ordered to close at the end of the month following complaints about noise and bad behaviour.

The police are all in favour of the ban, the police chief saying: "When the work in these nightclubs is over at sunrise, drunken people commit many accidents and get involved in fights."

In that context I loved the comment by a Swedish tourist in The National's report: "Many people come here because they believe this emirate is tolerant of other cultures. I wish they would learn from Dubai’s growth. It’s the only place where every culture thrives in harmony."

I don't know about you but for me one of the nicest things about the UAE is that we have so little of the drunken yob culture that's rapidly gaining ground in some western countries. That's a culture we shouldn't tolerate.

It's the old problem of human nature, give an inch and they take a yard as the old saying has it. Because some people behave badly the law has to step in and it's spoiled for everyone.

I always like the example of the ban on chewing gum in Singapore. All over the world countries spend tens of millions of dollars on street cleaning because people don't dispose of their gum considerately. It's not hard to do, but people being people they don't do it.

The Singapore government decided they had better things to do with their money than spend it on cleaning the gum from the footpaths, so they banned it. Over the years the law has attracted a lot of criticism from people outside Singapore, comments of the 'draconian police state infringing on people's freedom' variety. The fact is, if people had done the right thing the law wouldn't have been introduced.

That's what's happened in UAQ. Bars and night clubs were permitted, some operators and customers obviously didn't behave as they should. According to one resident who lives near a nightclub, and it doesn't surprise me, the nearby streets were filled with: "...scantily dressed women at night, interrupting all passers-by as if we were all their customers."

So down comes the heavy hand.

By the way, it's not an all-encompassing ban. Restaurants, including those serving alcohol, can continue to work normally but with a deadline on closing times and hotels will still be able to serve alcohol to non-Muslims in their rooms.

Naturally there are the objections that the ban will harm tourism to the emirate. I like the response of Police Chief Col. Sultan Al Shweikh: "We don’t want nightclub tourism. Tourists can come to see the emirate’s attractions and its people."

There's more detail in the reports in Gulf News and The National.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The strange story of Baby Nayana

It's another one of those very strange and complicated reports we seem to get all too often.

The difficulty people have dealing with bureaucrats, a lack of communication between government departments, different versions of events from the parties involved, something which could seemingly be resolved quickly and easily taking far too long, not to mention the problems faced by low paid workers. It's all there.

Bizarrely, at the heart of it is an eighteen month old baby.

The story broke Monday last week when the baby was declared illegal by Sharjah Naturalisation & Residency Department and given one week to leave the country, otherwise the parents would receive hefty fines. She could also have a one-year ban imposed if the fine was not paid.

When the baby was born in October 2007 her parents tried to sponsor her, but the application was rejected by the SNRD as they were not earning enough. Her mother Sheeja is a nurse at a government hospital, her father a tailor.

In October 2008 Nurse Sheeja's salary was increased, which seems to have taken them to the required level, but:

"I was then able to sponsor my baby, but when I applied for a residency visa for her at the SNRD it was rejected too."

Sheeja said SNRD officials told her the baby had to leave the country in less than a week with an outpass to avoid the fines, otherwise she would get a one-year ban.

"I was told that after one year I could obtain a new visa for my baby and bring her back to live with me," she said.

The next day, Tuesday of last week, a 'senior SNRD official' was reported as talking toughly about the law being the law and in fact the mother is also illegal because she's protecting her illegal daughter. But he did also say that the case would be reviewed on humanitiarian grounds. The SNRD called the mother and told her they were ready to help her if she submitted her bank statement.

So far so good.


Isn't there always a but.

Sheeja was arrested on Monday by the SNRD, charged with submitting forged documents. She was released some hours later on condition she would return to the department on Tuesday, yesterday, with a guarantor's passport. I see nothing in today's news to tell us what happened.

SNRD investigators said that her bank salary statement showed a transfer of Dh3,000 per month but she had submitted a salary certificate slip showing her salary was Dh4,210.

Here's another but.

But...the Health Ministry which employs her has said that the documents are in fact genuine.

According to Gulf News a senior official from the health department said on Monday that Sheeja was offered a higher salary certificate as she was about to be promoted following the completion of two years' service.

The official said the certificate presented to the SNRD was not forged.

Simplistic I know, but wouldn't a phone call have been appropriate? From SNRD to the Health Dept.

The health department official went on to make a very sensible statement:

"The reason for issuing such certificate for certain professions at the ministry is to help them to stay in the UAE because they are needed for the operation of the hospitals and clinics run by the ministry. We are keeping in mind the families of our professional staff who must remain united with their families otherwise they will leave to other countries," he said.


I can see the difficulty for the SNRD officials in the first instance though.

They have a law to uphold. That law sets the minimum salary for expats to sponsor family members at Dh6,000 without accommodation or Dh4,000 with accommodation. But it's not only salary, there is a list of professions which can and cannot sponsor family. Expatriate mothers cannot sponsor their families unless they are in one of 13 specialised professions. Sheeja is listed as Assistant Nurse, which is not on that list.

Officials had told Sheeja that the law had to be implemented equally, and I can see their point. But I do think that some flexibility could have come into the picture. Referral to higher authority perhaps.

"Look boss, I know what the law says but we have a case here with special circumstances which I don't think the law covers. What do you think?"

That takes us to the law-writing side. It was decided to bar anyone earning less than a certain amount from sponsoring their family. On the surface that makes sense - you're not earning enough to be able to look after, and be responsible for, family members in the UAE.

But when they were writing the law I suspect that no-one thought 'what about people living here who have a baby?'

I really can't believe that the law was intended to apply in a case like this.

Then there's the job discrimination. I've always found it impossible to understand why certain professions are banned from doing things which other professions are allowed to do, but that does seem to pop up in laws around the Gulf. Not only on lists of professions not allowed to sponsor family members but it's come up with issues as basic as driving licences.

There's also an issue here, and I must say it applies in many other countries, about how badly we pay our nurses. Why is that? I can remember the same argument raging in the past in both the UK and Australia.

Anyway, in the Baby Nayana saga the Ministry of Interior is now involved so we have at least three governemnt departments caught up in it.

All in all, a terrible mess, which is getting some media coverage overseas too. I hope for the sake of the family, the baby and the reputation of the UAE that it's now resolved quickly.

Here are three links to the unfolding story in Gulf News:
Baby declared illegal.
Case to be reviewed.
Mother arrested.

That's better!

One of the things I miss most about Australia is the clear blue sky we enjoy most days of the year.

We don't see it very often here and the last week or it's been particularly dusty, hazy, dirty, depressing.

Not today though. There's a strong breeze coming in off the sea, the air is clear and the sky is blue.

It'll reach 29C and humidity is low.

Couldn't be better.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Kuwait jail for Aussie mother

The papers here, and radio discussion, have been talking about an Aussie mother of seven jailed in Kuwait for insulting the Emir.

I've also been reading about it in the Sydney Morning Herald where there was the original story about her arrest back in January. They also have family background and photos, which fills out the story more than our media here.

Nasrah Alshamery, who's been sentenced to two years in jail, is second left in this photo:

She has always denied the charge, her lawyer is appealing the sentence and they've petitioned the Emir for leniency, so the story may not be finished yet.

All of the family are Australian citizens, although most were born in Kuwait. The two youngest were born in Australia.

The Sydney Morning Herald says:

They had previously lived in Kuwait among the some 100,000 bidoons, or stateless Arabs.

Bidoons have no right to work, obtain a birth certificate for their babies or even get their marriage certificate attested.

It doesn't quite say that they are bidoon but that's certainly what's suggested.

The coverage being given to the story might just raise international awareness about the plight of the bidoon in the Gulf. And maybe some pressure to correct what is obviously an unacceptable situation.

The story originally broke in the SMH back in January, which you can read here.

The report of the jail sentence is here.

Magic goings-on in Sharjah

I was thinking only a couple of days ago that recently there's been a dearth of stories about black magic.

I must say I miss them, so I was happy to read this morning that the black art is alive and well.

Sharjah's finest have arrested two men after they received a complaint, which seems to have been that the magic didn't really work.

Briefly, the two alchemists claimed that they could change ordinary paper into dollar bills. To prove their magic powers they poured liquid over paper and, hey presto, dollar notes appeared.

That convinced their victim to hand over Dh250,000 to them. Well, you would wouldn't you.

Somehow he later worked out that the magic was an illusion and off he toddled to the local nick to file his complaint.

I'm so pleased that we're still getting these stories.

The story is here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

'English (only) spoken here'

Sitting in the coffee shop yesterday morning when an Emirati couple came in and sat at the next table for breakfast.

They received the usual smiling welcome and "Good morning sir, good morning madam" and they were promptly given the menu.

All very welcoming and pleasant. But everything was in English only, menu included.

I was reminded again how difficult, or annoying, or uncomfortable, or something that must be. I also think it's simply wrong.

Put yourself in their position. Imagine in our own countries if we, as local citizens, went to coffee shops for breakfast and were greeted with "Sabah al khair", given a menu only in Arabic and spoken to only in Arabic by the staff.

I'm sure that not many of us would be happy with that.

There is a rule that menus have to be in Arabic and English, which Dubai Municipality reminded us of a year ago, but it's being ignored and obviously not enforced.

DM said then that they'd sent out warning letters to nearly 1,000 restaurants, giving them two weeks to include Arabic on their menus or face fines of up to Dh10,000. They were given two months to include Arabic on their menu boards too.

In at least some restaurants it simply hasn't happened.

When I lived here back in the seventies there was much more Arabic on view. Back then I worked in advertising agencies and we followed the rule, we had to, that all signs, menus etc had to have Arabic above or to the right of the English.

Vehicle registration plates were in Arabic and English. I was astonished when I came back to see that the Arabic has disappeared from them.

The use of the language has been allowed to erode over the years. In my opinion, bringing it back and enforcing the rules is long overdue.

Gulf News report on DM's warning.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

You have to read this!

No, not this post, the one over at Chris Saul's blog.

You may be aware of the Johann Hari article on Dubai which appeared in The Independent. (If not, the link is below).

Chris has found another article written by a famous journalist and has posted it on his blog.

A short extract:

There is a common echo I hear in every one of the imaginary conversations I have with myself during my visit. Everyone has staff. Even maids have maids. Fifty years ago, there was nothing here but desert, roamed by dinosaurs. Now the desert is filled with runaway maids, sleeping under maxed-out expats' Range Rovers, with no-one to look after them but slightly more junior maids.

It's long, it's brilliant, I urge you to read it. You'll find it here.

To compare it with the original article by Johann Hari, you can read that here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Whose money is building Dubai?

Something that's come up many times in conversation and on internet forums was raised again recently in a comment left here: Dubai is in trouble...they have over $1T in building projects... Who's funding them?

I've heard so many times: "Without the oil money they wouldn't be able to do it". Recently that's changed to: "Now the oil price has dropped the buildings can't be finished".

Time to put the reality in writing I think.

It isn't Dubai's money.

We need to go back to 2002.

The world was awash with cheap money, it was easy for people to get hold of sacksful of the stuff.

It was soon after 9/11. Arabs were meeting obstacles if they wanted to travel to the west, the US in particular. Bush W's administration and others were freezing assets, alleging terrorist connections. As a result money was being repatriated back into the Middle East.

So all over the world there was a hell of a lot of money looking for a home.

Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid announced the freehold era, decreed that foreigners could own property in certain areas.

The timing was not accidental.

So for those who don't know, here's how the whole thing works. I'll give you a practical example, Dubai Marina. It's just one of the many, many developments which have appeared since the decree, and it's typical.

Emaar is the Master Developer. The Dubai Government is the largest shareholder but as the company is listed on the Dubai Stock Exchange it has huge amounts of money from many other investors.

Emaar built the marina and put in the infrastructure. They also built, or are building, something like ten projects, from residential towers to a shopping mall.

But they sold the other 95% of the land to other developers, large and small.

Those developers designed and built residential towers and in turn sold the apartments to investors. Some of these investors are large companies or very wealthy individuals who bought whole floors, or even whole towers. Others are simply ordinary people who bought one apartment, either to live in or as an investment for their future.

It's said the two largest groups of end-investors are Brits and Indians. The properties were certainly aggressively promoted in those two countries.

Dubai Marina is a typical example of the reality of real estate in Dubai. Very little Dubai money is involved, the vast majority is from investors large and small from all over the world.

Government money goes into infrastructure, it's outside investors who are providing the bulk of the money for the buildings. Hundreds of billions of dollars have poured in.

Oh, PS. Oil revenues make up a tiny part of the emirate's economy. It varies with the oil price of course, but it's around 6%.


I've re-read what I'd written thanks to comments from The Real Nick.

A mistake in the fourth para - I should have said "Most of it isn't Dubai's money"

Monday, April 13, 2009

Stating the obvious

You will have noticed as I have the long and increasing line of signs stating the bleeding obvious.

Like signs stuck to hot water taps warning that the water is hot.

I came across this one on a fountain in JBR:

Sunday, April 12, 2009

People and stupidity

Never underestimate the capacity of people to be totally stupid.

Here's another example - a sad outcome but self-inflicted because of mindless stupidity.

From the Sydney Morning Herald:

Northern Territory police have found the remains of a 20-year-old man taken by a crocodile while swimming at night in the Daly River about 150km south of Darwin.

The local man disappeared while swimming with his brother across the crocodile-infested river at about 2am (AEST) on Friday.

The man's wife was watching from the riverbank and later told police she saw a crocodile nearby.

Superintendent Dean Moloney said the three had been drinking and the two men decided they would try to swim across the river.

Supt Moloney said "very large crocodiles" were known to frequent the river.

"I think there was some complacency involved in this incident."

Supt Moloney said the two men would have known there were crocs in the water.

"They are locals from this community," he said. "There is no doubt they would have known there are crocodiles there."

Here's the full story.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Hari article, an opportunity lost

To its credit The Independent has given space to Sultan Al Qassimi for a right-of-reply to Johann Hari's now infamous earlier piece on Dubai.

Sadly, Sultan has chosen to take the worst possible route.

He had the opportunity to point out that Johann's article represented only a tiny part of Dubai, that he interviewed the worst-behaved expats he could find and presented their behaviour as the norm, that the article contained more than a few inaccuracies and some questionable claims.

He had the opportunity to present a more balanced picture of Dubai while accepting that there are indeed problems to be resolved.

Instead, Sultan decided to run a similar attack to Hari's, concentrating solely on the worst elements of British society, past and present.

What a lost opportunity.

You can read Sultan's article here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Catching people's interest

It's fascinating which stories catch people's attention.

The latest example is Johann Hari's piece in The Independent - another in the increasing number of articles called 'dark side of Dubai'. Not only is Johann's article being quoted or reprinted around the world, the blogosphere is buzzing with it too.

I commented on the article on Tuesday and the traffic to 'Life in Dubai' has trebled, the majority of the additional visitors arriving at that posting.

Not since my piece on Andy and the Redundancy Porsche has one of my postings attracted so much interest.

Yesterday the New York Times Freakanomics column reported on and linked to The Independent's article, and they also link to 'Life in Dubai' saying: "It’s the dark side of Dubai, though at least one Dubai-based blogger thinks the piece is overkill."

It's obviously attracted their readers' interest because several hundred of them so far have hit the link to come here. A random check tells me they're from all over the world - throughout the US and Europe, from Canada, across Asia, the sub-Continent, even Dubai.

(Welcome NYT readers, I read your paper every day so it's nice to have you here too).

I'm also getting more visitors than usual arriving onto that posting from sites such as Dubizzle, where it's also attracting many more comments than my other posts.

From Los Angeles, Xeni Jardin posts Johann's article on on BoingBoing, which is also attracting a lot of comments, and an anonymous commenter says "Another counterpoint to this article:" followed by a link to my posting. Visitors are starting to arrive from that too.

Blogging from Norway, Paul Chaffey talks about and links to the article. He also links to my post about it and, again, that's attracting visitors.

I suppose the activity reflects a number of things. The interest there is in Dubai all around the world. The fascination people have with bad news stories. The popularity of the current bash-Dubai bandwagon. The tall poppy syndrome.

As a passing thought, I'm pleased that commentators are not only linking to the original story but are also linking to pages which are critical of it, such as mine in which I wrote about the pre-determined bias of the article and its sloppy journalism.

Whatever the story, we need to be aware of both sides of it. With that thought you may be interested in other sides of the story relating to Johann's article, and to the equally well-reported BBC Panorama programme on construction labour camps.

Sultan Al Qassimi says his words were "taken out of context and butchered" in the article. That he was wearing a 'Ralph Lauren shirt' was a figment of the writer's imagination he says, a small detail but it does suggest embellishment for effect.

You can read his response in here, in Arabian Business.

I'd also be interested to hear from friends of the Canadian Karen who according to the first section of the article has been living in her Range Rover in a car park for several months. Or from these people or their friends: 'All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars'.

It would be nice to verify the claims, to find out the full story, establish the truth.

Then there was the BBC programme about the way workers are treated by Arabtec, one of our larger construction companies. The CEO has also been in Arabian Business disputing the allegations. That rebuttal you can read here.

Your reaction may well be 'well he would say that wouldn't he'. So who do you believe? I suppose the truth may be somewhere in the middle, as it so often is.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The economy, law enforcement and transparency

The BBC programme 'Slumdogs & Millionaires' seems to have caused official ripples.

According to Gulf News, the Ministry of Labour will investigate the claims made in the programme that expat workers are made to live and work in completely unacceptable conditions.

The MoL has issued a statement saying that an inspection team has been ordered to investigate the claims and that 'any violating companies will be penalised'.

As the Minister points out, the rights of workers is covered by legislation. The problem is that companies ignore rules and laws - not ony in Dubai but just about everywhere - and they need enforcing.

It's no secret in Dubai that some labour camps are way below the standards they should be, even the local press has run stories about it. The media can find violations but somehow the inspection teams miss them.

So what's the answer, many more inspectors? More willingness to hunt out and penalise violators? Both, probably.

The ministry reaction does once again demonstrate the value of exposure, of openness, of bringing things which need changing into the public arena.

There's also the report that a former Minister of State has been charged with appropriating public money and damaging the country's interests. Only his initials are used in the local media, in keeping with the media ethics code, but he's named in a report in the Financial Times.

That's an interesting advance by the way, a good step along the road to transparency. Not all that long ago there would have been no public disclosure of such a situation.

There was another story of tighter enforcement of regulations in yesterday's Financial Times too. The chief executive of the Dubai Financial Services Authority says they will stamp out any vestiges of “light-touch” regulation. “The light touch approach is over,” he said.

Many of us have been talking for some time about the urgent need for enforcing the rules and laws in all sorts of areas, the driving laws and labour laws in particular. It seems to be happening, probably too slowly and sometimes it needs the international spotlight to highlight the violations, but it seems as though we may be getting there.

The FT ran another background story on Dubai yesterday, the writer Roula Khalaf not pretending that Dubai isn't being hit badly by the recession but talking sensibly and responsibly about the problems, what needs to be done and the future. A professional job after the copycat 'dark side of Dubai' sensationalism we've been seeing recently.

She highlights one of the big problems we have: Dubai remains obsessively keen to keep its problems out of the public eye. And she makes the important point: The emirate likes to be known as an outwardly, cosmopolitan city, but it has not come to terms with the responsibility alongside that – crucially, the need for transparency.

There's also an FT report that Lord Mandelson, the UK Secretary of State for Business, has raised with the authorities here the major economic problem which I posted about last week, the big developers not paying contractors.

Once again the international spotlight falls on something which should not have been allowed to happen.

Ministry to investigate BBC claims.

Ex-minister charged, Gulf News.

Ex-minister charged, Financial Times.

Roula Khalaf's background piece.

Major developers owe billions.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"I agree" - so it must be balanced.

It fascinates me how people see the article in The Independent which I posted about yesterday, as did many bloggers.

Secret Dubai said it was: "Probably the best article ever written on Dubai. The word 'best' is such a vague, general word. Best in what way, I wonder?

That's just a thought in passing, my real point is that I'm intrigued that people see the article as balanced with all sides of the picture being covered by it.

For example, SD continues: " It covers everything from wexpats:...To indentured labourers:...To Emiratis: , with relevant quotes from the article.

Covers everything?

Then in the comments you'll find the following:

" Rupert Neil Bumfrey said...

"Probably the best article......" possibly the most objective, I would say.

The reporter has done a good job meeting all sides.

Kyle said...

One of the best & balanced writers in this day & age.

fynali iladijas said...

The article is well researched, well written, fair, objective, and whole.

Dubai=shit said...

This is a well balanced and well written article about Dubai.

You write only one side of a story, yet readers see it as presenting all sides, see it as objective and balanced.


PS: to Anons who plan to comment but will misrepresent what I've written. I'm not discussing the contents of the article, but the way people see a one-view story as objectively balancing all sides.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The most vitriolic piece on Dubai so far

Today's UK paper The Independent has a story jumping on the new Dubai-bashing bandwagon and it's the most vitriolic I've seen so far.

At least the writer appears to have spent some time here, unlike many of the previous commentators, but it's obvious that the objective was simply to find the worst possible angle and seek out the worst possible examples.

It's biased, has no balance, has plenty of inaccuracies. It raises some valid points about things that need attention - treatment of labourers, bankruptcy laws, enforcement of the laws and the like. But to get those points across he crosses the line of responsible journalism.

It's so full of highly doubtful and downright untrue claims that it detracts from the the important issues he talks about.

He's painting a word picture to create an impression of the city that supports how he wants to project it. Lots of little comments, the implicit suggestion that the people he includes are the norm, emotive words thrown in, quotes from people which in themselves are unimportant and, worse, are simply untrue, but they're included because they add to the word picture. It's all to create the pre-determined bad impression.

There was no need, he could have stayed with the facts and discussed the things that need changing in responsible way. The vitriol is undisguised.

Here's what I mean by the word picture he's painting.

The first two sentences start to give the game away - the claim that Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid's "...image is displayed on every other building, sandwiched between the more familiar corporate rictuses of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders.

On every other building? The truth is that the image is not even on one in a thousand buildings.

And I wonder whether he's noticed how many portraits of the Queen there are around London.

He reports on a group of Brits in the Double Decker bar - but if he did indeed come across this behaviour he's obviously been at pains to scrape the bottom of the barrel.

"As I enter, a girl in a short skirt collapses out of the door onto her back. A guy wearing a pirate hat helps her to her feet, dropping his beer bottle with a paralytic laugh.

I start to talk to two sun-dried women in their sixties who have been getting gently sozzled since midday. Essex boy shouts at me in response, as he tries to put a pair of comedy antlers on his head while pouring some beer into the mouth of his friend, who is lying on his back on the floor, gurning.

Questionable. I seriously doubt whether the bouncers would have allowed that behaviour.

Nevertheless there are badly-behaved expats in town - the yob culture exported. But Hari doesn't bother to point out that the excesses of a few are outweighed by hundreds of thousands of extremely hard working expats, from Britain as well as the rest of the world. Hundreds of thousands who are working hard and saving, putting their children through school, supporting extended families, who know how to behave.

In a mall he 'approached a blonde 17-year-old Dutch girl wandering around in hotpants' to get her opinion - but he was at pains not to approach any of the hundreds of families with kids in pushchairs or carrying their weekly groceries to ask for their opinions. Balance is not a word that comes to mind about in his interviewing.

There's the highly dubious story about 'Karen Andrews' who has supposedly been living for months in her Range Rover in the car park of an international hotel.

That leads to Mr Hari's ridiculous claim that "All over the city, there are maxed-out expats sleeping secretly in the sand-dunes or the airport or in their cars."

Absolutely untrue. People living in the departure lounge of the international airport? That's the only part of the terminals they can get in to. Think about it, do you think Security would allow that? And sleeping in the sand dunes in the city. Sand dunes in the city? The only people sleeping in the sand dunes in the desert are people on weekend camping trips.

He reports on the construction scene:

"The World is empty. It has been abandoned, its continents unfinished.

All over Dubai, crazy projects that were Under Construction are now Under Collapse. They were building an air-conditioned beach here, with cooling pipes running below the sand, so the super-rich didn't singe their toes on their way from towel to sea."

In reality The World hasn't been abandoned, projects are not 'under collapse' and the chilled beach was not a Dubai creation but was the private Versace hotel floating an outrageous idea to gauge reaction. It won't happen.

There's no mention of the hundreds of projects, both residential and commercial, which are finished, occupied and successful.

Even the section on the terrible conditions at some of the labour camps is highly selective. There are thousands of labourers, and others at the bottom of the social ladder, who do not live in these conditions and are happy with their lot. Money sent home to keep an extended family, to educate children and more than a few are considered wealthy in their home countries.

He brings up the water question.

"Dubai drinks the sea. The Emirates' water is stripped of salt in vast desalination plants around the Gulf – making it the most expensive water on earth. It costs more than petrol to produce, and belches vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as it goes."

Over 120 countries have desalination plants, there are over 13,000 operating around the world, yet it's presented as though Dubai is unique in desalinating water.

He's been at pains to search out disgruntled expats and quote their comments, true of false.

One section is even headed 'Fake plastic trees', picking up on a quote from a disgruntled Filipina. Another untrue claim because the trees are real. Nor is the water fake, as she also complains. Fake water? What's fake water?

It's the language barrier, she doesn't mean fake but it's been included because it adds to the picture. Most trees are not growing naturally, but that's not 'fake' - they've been planted as street landscaping and in parks. Just like cities all over the world.

"...a Filipino girl tells me it is "terrifying" for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. "They say – 'Please, I am being held prisoner, they don't let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.'

"Always" is a strong word. No question that some families mistreat some maids, but the vast majority are not badly treated, are not prisoners. I know plenty of Filipinas and they're not harrassed by desperate countrywomen leading for help. In fact it's normal for them to ask whether we can give their friends and relatives back home a job in Dubai!

This maids theme is another he gives a false impression about. " theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid"

Again it's simply not true. Again he was very selective in the people he chose to interview.

"Between the malls, there is nothing but the connecting tissue of asphalt." More that's untrue. The malls are kilometres apart and in between them there's the usual cityscape - apartments, villas, commercial premises, office blocks, factories, strip shopping. Dubai is a working, trading, bustling city of over a million people.

"The roads are all four lanes" he declares as part of the word picture. No they're not.

"The residents of Dubai flit from mall to mall by car or taxis"

He must have missed the city, where the footpaths are full of Dubai residents walking around. In summer of course people stay out of the heat and humidity as much as they can, just as in the UK they try to avoid the worst of the winter weather. But the city is for walking. New Dubai isn't, it wasn't built that way any more than Los Angeles was.

As I've said before, I have no problem with articles which are critical of Dubai, which point out issues which need addressing, but I do object to sloppy journalism and biased reporting.

The over-the-top fawning articles we had up to a few months ago extolling the virtues of the miracle of Dubai were just as bad. Again there was no balance and they set it up as a tall poppy which inevitably was going to be chopped down.

Dubai has appointed a PR company in London to handle the emirate's financial image. There's an urgent need to hire one to handle the wider Brand Dubai image to get some balance, some context and perspective into the picture. It's a pity it wasn't done much earlier because now it's rapidly becoming an exercise in damage control. Having worked in PR I can tell you that's the worst possible place to start.

Thanks to Grace over at Sandier Pastures for the heads up. You can read the article in full and see if you agree with me here.

Oh, and you can check out photos and reviews of Double Decker bar for yourself at Time Out Dubai, here. You won't recognise it as the same place described in Hari's article.

And if you want to see what Dubai really looks like rather than the completely and deliberately inaccurate picture conjoured up by Johann Hari, click on the appropriate labels here on this blog.

The inevitable

On Saturday I posted about the dangerous intersection that's been created on one of Dubai Marina's bridges.

This morning:

The BMW was coming across the bridge, the taxi was presumably already on the roundabout.

It happens to be one I saw but I bet there have been more, and there'll be many more in the future too.

As I've said several times in the past, bad road design and bad road signage contribute to the crash statistics.

Monday, April 06, 2009

That poll

A couple of the papers plus radio news are carrying stories today about a online poll. Dubai Today on Dubai Eye had a discussion about it too.

It's been described as a poll of 22,708 respondents, which sounded implausibly large to me so I thought I'd have a look at it to see what it's actually all about.

As usual the reporting is muddled, the conclusions are iffy, the reports are misleading.

Khaleej Times incorrectly calls it a 'regional online poll' while EmBiz247 is more accurate with 'recent series of polls'.

In fact it could more accurately be described as a series of individual questions posed on the website over a period of time.

There may well have been over 22,000 respondents, but that was to a whole series of questions over a period of weeks. Many would have been the same people answering each weekly question so the 22,708 respondents figure is inaccurate.

Each question actually had very many fewer respondents.

For example, to the question: "How long do you see yourself remaining in your present place of employment? which ran from March 1 to 9 there were 5,090 respondents.

Take it all with a pinch of salt and as only a vague indicator of people's thinking. This is not depth research, it's just people clicking on options given below the question.

It's part of the website's 'Poll Corner' feature, such as you see on many newspaper websites. Today's example is:

Do you think extending work hours & increasing responsibilities of existing human resources is a good response to the current economic crisis?

Not sure

The news outlets have picked up on one question and chosen to go with the positive interpretation:

"Expatriates prefer to stay in Middle East" says KT.

"More than a third of expats in region will opt to stay put" according to EmBiz.

Here's the actual poll.

The question posed between February 8 and 16 was:

If you are an expat in the ME, do you see yourself having to return to your home country this year as a result of economic conditions?

Total Votes: 3053

Yes I may have no choice: 845/27.7%

Yes I prefer to: 473/15.5%

No there is still no reason for me to move: 1090/35.7%

No I will move to a different country as an expat: 645/21.1%

The headlines and the stories don't really have it right do they, with their 'will stay put' and 'prefer to stay' slant.

Only 15.5% said they'd prefer to go home, 27.7% were realistic when they said they may have no choice.

The 35.7% who said they had no reason to go home obviously haven't lost their jobs - yet. If they do it will be a very different answer.

And the 21.1% who said they'd move on to another country as an expat are really saying they don't want to return home. The reality is that every country is being affected by the recession so there are probably no jobs for them in other countries - maybe not even back home.

I've talked before about polls and statistics and how they're often misinterpreted. How the context isn't considered, how the methodology is ignored, how the phrasing of the questions isn't taken into account. This is another example.

The two newspaper reports are here; Khaleej Times EmBiz247.

Then you should go to the polls yourself to get the background and understand what the questions were, what answers were available to choose from and how many people actually responded. They're here, scroll to 'Poll Corner' and click on 'View past polls'

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Great moments in design

There are a couple of classics of bad design in one small area of Dubai Marina.

How's this for probably the worst bit of road design in town?

A bridge across the marina which like all the others is a dual-carriageway. But this one cuts across another busy road.


The answer to the stuff up was to remove a section of the bridge's central reservation, create an intersection and add a small roundabout:

Now as we know, the road rule for roundabouts is give way to traffic on your left. But with this one the traffic zooming across the bridge tends to simply keep going. Well, it looks just like all the other dual-carriageway bridges so it's understandable.

Now there are 'Stop' signs and rumble strips on every approach to the roundabout - but they're not a hundred percent successful, as you would expect.

If you drive across the bridge to JBR there's a public car park in one of the buildings.

I used it the other day, looked in vain for the stairs down to street level and asked the car park attendant where it was.

"No stairs sir"

"So how do I go down?"

He pointed to the car access ramp.

"That's the only way?"

"Yes sir"

I have three questions.

Who designed this stuff?

Who approved it for construction?

Are they still in their jobs?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Solving the biggest problem

Talking to people over the past few weeks it's obvious that the biggest problem companies are facing is the non payment of invoices by their clients, especially our largest organisations.

When the largest companies don't pay their suppliers there's a huge ripple effect through the whole economy, which is exactly what we're seeing.

Examples from people I know well - a small architectural firm owed more than Dh2 million by one of the majors. The entire staff has had to be laid off and the owner has to decide whether to stay to try to collect the outstanding amount, which means running up even more bills on rent and living expenses, or to move back home to try to find work.

A friend who hasn't been paid for three months because the employer hasn't been paid for more than six months - again by major players.

Companies cancelling training courses for their employees because they have to cut expenses - because they haven't been paid for many months by the majors.

One of the most important measures the government can take to get on top of the current problems is to put money into the major organisations so that they can pay their suppliers.

In today's Financial Times there's a sentence in an article headed 'Overhaul for crisis-hit Dubai' which suggests that may be on the cards.

The article is about the restructuring of government affiliated companies which is under way. That's long overdue in my opinion; competition is one thing but overlap, duplication and therefore waste is something else and has needed addressing for a long time.

In the middle of the article is the sentence: "Over the next two weeks, the emirate will start disbursing emergency loans to distressed government-linked companies, encouraging them to use the funds to pay local invoices and give the economy a significant fillip.

'A significant fillip' is putting it mildly, it's absolutely critical to keeping smaller companies in business and preserving jobs.

This measure has taken far too long but if 'the next two weeks' is an accurate timeline we'll soon see a reversal of job losses, unpaid salaries and company closures.

The FT article is here.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Its deja vu all over again

My morning ritual wherever I am is to sit in a coffee shop having my caffeine hit and reading the paper. Being in Singapore all last week the only difference was that the paper was the Straits Times.

Even the stories I was reading were familiar. It's fascinating how many of the stories were similar to those I usually read in Dubai, or in the international press about Dubai.

Some of the headlines I came across in last week's papers:

Price fall for S'pore prime homes 5th largest globally.

Rents in prime areas head south.

2,600 workers housed poorly.

Got the pink slip? Tips to stay afloat.

Mother-daughter pair now admit abusing maid.

First woman minister appointed.

It all sounds familiar doesn't it.

I've noted before that there are a many similarities between Dubai and Singapore and last week's Straits Times included stories on a number of them.

Singapore is being hit badly by the global recession and there had been a feature in the paper about job losses in the present climate, picking up on the general 'foreigners taking our jobs' chatter. Eighty percent of people responding to the feature said that jobs should be reserved for locals.

There are now over a million foreign workers in Singapore, making up 36% of the workforce. Putting the figures in context (how I wish the media here would do that, as I've said so often in previous postings) the article says: Both 2007 and 2008 were boom years, with more jobs being created than there were locals to fill them. (The figures) also do not tell you that many of the jobs filled by foreigners last year were in the construction and service industries - jobs which Singaporeans usually shun.

Related to that was the report that a restaurant owner was jailed for falsely declaring the number of local workers he employed so that he could hire foreign workers. Employers are only allowed to hire foreign workers after meeting a certain quota of Singaporean employees.

A quota of local employees has a familiar ring to it.

Expats' employment passes, as in Dubai, are tied to the employer/sponsor so expats losing their jobs have to leave the country. There is now though a Personalised Employment Pass which they can apply for and which allows them to stay for up to six months between jobs to look for a new employer. The government here is looking at a similar visa.

Singapore has a reputation as being an ultra-modern, state-of-the-art, highly sophisticated clean & green city.

The paper reported last week on worker accommodation:

Government inspectors have been checking on workers' accommodation and have found thousands of them housed in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions. They were found living in unapproved converted factories and in residential properties.

That's also sounding familiar.

Not seen here for years though is the way workers are transported to and from their workplace in Singapore:

That's perfectly normal in Singapore, hardly any companies have covered buses for their workers.

And it may be a surprise to many people that Singapore has never had a female minister, until today that is. Mrs Lim Hwee Hua started in her new position this morning as Minister in the Prime Minister's Office. She is also Second Minister in the Finance and Transport ministries.

Something else that's probably not associated with Singapore is maids being abused by their employers.

In a similar situation to that story, I was appalled one morning to see a maid up on the wet roof of a bungalow sweeping leaves from it.

And there are all-too-often reports of physical abuse of maids - this is not me spreading unfounded rumours, I've put some links to stories below.

Both Dubai and Singapore have a lot going for them and I like both places very much. But I don't pretend that everything's rosy in both city-states, that there are no problems and issues to be addressed. Nor do I believe that those issues, many of which are the same or similar, should be swept under the carpet. To be resolved they need to be openly discussed, so even though it may shatter some illusions about Singapore I make no apology for talking about them.

If you're interested in more, here are some links to Straits Times stories:

Worker accommodation.

House price drops.

First woman minister.

Phantom workers.

Maid abuse here, here, and here.