Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christmas in Dubai

Christmas in Dubai was weird. We are broke, so my present to my wife was a shirt that I never wear, and her present to me was nicely presented tin of peanuts and a frosted ear plug. In a nativity-relevant occurrence, a decent dining table (only one wobbly leg) and two chairs suddenly appeared in the stairwell on Christmas Day – we have lots of room in the inn but are desperately in need of furniture, il hum du llilah. We spent the morning people-watching as a slight Christmas buzz could be felt, largely due to the nearby sounds of an early filipino party which veered from contemporary carols to Bob Marley.

Late afternoon, after several aperitifs, we sat down to roast lamb. This was enjoyed to the further accompaniment of liquid gifts from friends who recently passed through customs. We then finished off one of the bottles whilst watching a DVD of The Who Live in Brighton in 2006. This actually gave me hope after entering a deep, post prandial, depression. We would have then polished off the rest of our gifts, but sobered up to Cat on Hot Tin Roof (movie version with Newman and Taylor) followed by a phone call home. A very pleasant walk down by the Creek followed, and we were in bed and sound asleep by 1030pm

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dubai Lime party at the Loft

It was good to see that Dubai Lime have restarted their residency at the Loft and were kicking things off with a party for all Limers and with no charge on the door. The musical fayre was a more mixed bag than on the few occasions that I have checked out Lime music events before. Once again it gave a significant role to the Canadian songstress Jennifer Gove (Buddy can you spare a recording contract?) - I am told that Jennfer, like all Limer performers, has a very regular day job and does no gigs save those that Dubai Lime put on at coffee shops and the Loft ocassionally. Hard to believe, as I told her slightly drunkenly outside afterwards. Less impressive were Midnight Oil (Aussie band in the 80s, no?). Well, the "Kuwaiti-born" new wavey drummer, Ahmed was good. I think he should split from "Sam from London" and find a funkier cooler vehicle for his talents. Sam was sometimes painful in the vocal department, and own songs were decidely bedsit-driven. He tried hard though and a decent cover of Losing My Religion (in Dubai?) went down well, especialy amongst a table of Nigerians near me. REM are so damn international, aren't they? "Iz", from the UK (?), pushed a few emotional buttons..for some...and played well and passionately, performing mainly his own songs. A final word for the compere, Glaswegian-born John McCorrigan (?). He was funny and an all round good bloke. I am sure he has more "Stella Street" type impersonations in his wardrobe that he could amuse us with next time. Frankly I missed the last music act as we had to go due to our finances not being at ease with AED28 for a small bottle of Heiniken. Me thinks the Loft a tad greedy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Dubai Jazz 2008

Thrilling news that the internationally-acclaimed jazz artiste Mr David Gray will be gracing us with his presence as this year's much lauded Dubai Jazz Festival. The highly influential unplugged tunesmith who has influenced legions of bejeaned, stubbly and oh so emotional singer songwriter clones over the last few years will no doubt raise a chilled white whine at the news. Those interested in jazz, for all its manifold varities, better look elsewhere. Of course this is something of a tradition at Dubai Jazz. Last year Dee Dee Meyers (or someone who sounds like a Clinton staffer.. DD Bridgewater...Who?) was a top feature. She was a bit jazz; less so was Freddy Cole who is jazz as in being black and soulful, which covers an awful lot of talented people who would not dream of labelling themselves jazz. More RnB really, when the term meant rhythm and blues as opposed to, well, black. Strange really, I remember that just a few weeks after the Dubai International Jazz Festival 2007, the genuinely acclaimed Scandinavian jazz pianist Bobo Stenson was a part of the "Gulf Jazz Festival" that was on the road in bohemian fashion between Gulf Arab capitals and played a night at the Deira Raddison SAS. I missed that too, but in his case wished I had not. He has played with some key names at the freer end of the jazz scene since the 60s, including Charlie Haden, and is a virtuoso whose subtleties would be lost on virtually anyone who has ever trod the boards of Dubai Media City's open air auditorium. Speaking of jazz artists, the famous brand of toilet manufacturers also lends its name, appropriately enough, to an AOR band by the naff name of Toto who headlined Dubai Jazz this year. Was it last year that Thelonious Monk's son and heir Roger Hodgson was on the bill? Don't get me wrong, Supertramp's Logical Song and Bloody Well Right were groovy forays into sixth form art rock back in the 70s, but the only thing that was jazz about them was Antony C Helliwell's tenor, and that was played strictly rock-stylee. Jeez. I mean there is a lot of jazz talent out there. And I do not mean soft white female vocalists of the current jazz and rootsy "wave" like Dana Krall or Katie Melluah, nor the excreable Jamie Callum, who substitutes the sensitivities of the gym for the escoterica of the music. This is where the play off between bums on grass and the cost of a ticket to see class acts that people might have heard of from the real jazz scene kicks in. However Dave Holland, Anour Brahem (yes, an Arab), Charlie Haden, Pharoah Saunders, Lyle Mayes, Bobo Stenson... these guys do not cost like those pop artists increasingly drawn to Abu Dhabi do, and, if marketed right, people would come to see them. Anyone interested out there?

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Gordon Brown

(Quote: Money Week magazine, 5 Nov 2007) ".......Moreover, Gordon Brown may yet share the fate of another Prime Minister. James Callaghan's place in history turned out to be a footnote to Harold Wilson. He took over as Prime Minister in mid-term and had an opportunity to go to the country early, but chose to cling on to power to the very last minute. The economy deteriorated through the winter of discontent, and he was routed at the polls. Gordon Brown, too, is facing a deteriorating economic outlook. In the past few years economic activity has been underpinned by a booming housing market and financial services sector as well as large increases in public spending. A stimulus from any of these areas is unlikely next year. The outlook for 2009 is more problematic, but by then the Brown government may be a busted flush. It is possible that Gordon Brown's worst nightmare waits - being a footnote to Tony Blair. Politics is interesting once more. ....."

I made this comparison about 18 months ago on the basis of the UK Treasury (Red Book) fiscal and UK economy projections...

The key DIFFERENCE, of course, is that we are unlikely to see again the 1978/79 style meltdown, but the Labour party disaffiliating and/or bolshie UK trade unions have some options. The other key difference is that Jim was popular right up UNTIL the winter of discontent, and bested the silly blonde girl all the time over the dispatch box. Oh, and the other key difference, JC was a likeable if a tad dry (by today's standards) bloke...Gordie ain't no "Sunny Jim"; he has remained a shit ever since he dissed me in a lift back in '95. JC, like all successful politicians (the only one in the 20th century to hold all top FOUR offices of state) knew how to exercise the popular touch. He also had the background to make it seem genuine. Gordon Brown (not to be confused with that much more interesting politician, and companion of JC, the former chancellor George Brown) is a privileged scion of the Manse and Scotland's Oxbridge: Edinburgh University. Combine that with a rarified, puritanical, cold showers and proddy guilt upbringing from a clerical father, and you have the man. As Paul Weller said in 1982 (?), I'm voting Tory..

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

GCC and Iran

The attendance of Iran’s President Ahmedinejad (AN) at the GCC Summit on December 3 was blessed by all countries in the GCC, said Hamid bin Jassim at the closing GCC press conference. The Qatari prime minister and foreign minister said that there have been many other such invitations to non GCC heads of state. On this occasion the desire was expressed by the Iranian president to attend, and the foreign ministry in Qatar was notified accordingly by Iran, and we extended an official invitation. It was seen as important to extend the dialogue in this fashion. Outside the press conference a senior Kuwaiti media official told me that the attendance was important as a way of expanding the current dialogue with Iran, although he acknowledged that the Kuwaiti foreign minister for example had said that we are not clear on what is wanted by any part of the regime in Tehran. He added that this is a GCC view, not just that of Kuwait. He rejected idea that the speech by AN and the press conference yesterday was in effect saying “halas” to the Saudi idea for a Swiss nuclear bank. His caution may related to the KFM saying that he heard of the invitation in the press. The problem the Kuwaiti said is that Iran wants to ease the tension by deflating the football outside of the region. In other words there is a perceptible lack of genuine Iranian diplomacy. This same ball he had claimed was in Iran’s court as the GCC had made its proposals known on nuclear compromise.

Other comments in the margins at the summit suggested surprise, even anger, among GCC participants that an invitation that may not have been a matter of consensus was not responded to with warmer words by Iran. The speech to the GCC, the first in the history of the GCC by an Iranian participant, let alone a head of state, had not even mentioned the nuclear issue. When questioned about this at his own press conference, AN said that he did not want to dwell on something used by “two countries” to cause problems and that the issue was “over”. This comment was not seen positively by the GCC participants, least of all the hosts Qatar. The Qatari premier told the press on December 4 that we should not allow outsiders to be drawn into conflict, implying the US. Iran should take into account the concerns of the countries of the area, he said. If it is extending the true hand of cooperation this is good, but if we allow outsiders to be drawn into the conflict this is not acceptable. One question from a locally based AFP correspondent concerned the latest US intelligence (NIE) judgment that a weapons programme had not been continued after 2003, and whether this meant that the dispute was over. HbJ said that he did not know as his only information came from the IAEA and the “brothers” in Iran. It has a right to a peaceful programme and thus the dispute should be resolved by peaceful means and direct dialogue by the parties concerned, referring to Iran, the IAEA and it seemed the leading international countries involved in the dispute. In the normal fashion, he did not choose to identify the GCC as an interested party in this respect. The GCC does regards AN’s proposals as positive, said HbJ – the Iranian leader issued a 12 point programme for cooperation in his speech – and as practical ways to enhance cooperation and we said so in our agreed closing statement read out at the conclusion of the conference. Iran is a neighbouring country and should remove causes of tension between the GCC and Iran. In this respect HbJ mentioned the islands dispute and added that all the countries of the region (including Iran) were interested in a peaceful conclusion to the current situation. One questioner suggested that there could be (reciprocal) steps taken toward Iran on a bilateral or a multilateral basis by GCC states. Kuwait he said had argued that individual countries could consider initiatives. However all were in agreement that ideas of individual countries had to be agreed collectively. (It was not clear to this observer what the collective status was of the Saudi initiative for a nuclear enrichment bank)

Afterwards another well-connected Kuwaiti raised the issue with me of the NIE, believing that the making of a US-Iran deal could be in the wings, and that the report was possibly released to underline the idea of engagement with a locally feared Iran. While sounding fantastic it seems that the war option has been largely taken off the table, even if the risks of conflagration should not be downplayed too much. Conspiracies always abound in the region. Gulf Arabs will wonder again about US will-power at a time when, as the Kuwaiti argued with me, there had been a shared view about who was causing the problems in Iraq and what needed to be down about it. In this situation a GCC reluctance to come forward with plausible diplomatic initiatives with Iran, despite the ball actually being in the GCC’s court after the Ahmedinejad GCC speech, will be underlined. The refrain of powerlessness will go out with greater vocal strength now that the US has, quite possibly without management of the soft intel, effectively signalled that its Iran policy, like that of Iraq previously, is in freefall. Perception is nine tenths of the political law out here.


There was a question at the GCC press conference on whether there had been discussion about revaluation of individual currencies outside of the peg to the dollar. The summit declaration had reinforced the target date of 2010 for a common currency, with a review at the next summit in Muscat, and has not passed judgement on individual currency policy. In response to the question HbJ said that collective decision making was desired in terms of currency policy (mindful it seemed of their impact on the currency union goal). However he noted that the decision was for sovereign countries who “can do what they want”, and noted that this had already been exercised by Kuwait. Before the summit the desire for collective sanction had been expressed by the UAE and others at the time of the pre summit finance ministers meeting. A GCC common market will however come into being in January, for it has been deemed so at Doha. Some countries will have to move quickly to make the claimed equality of treatment in business and investment terms a reality in less than a month. This will not be a common market with a level playing field however, as Dubai’s open platform for foreign (non GCC) ownership and investment is hardly the same as current practice in Saudi.

More positively, and key at a time of apparent regional tension, the Saudi-Qatari kiss and make up appears to be genuine. Abdullah turned up to the summit, and al Jazeera continues to turn down its negative kingdom coverage. Saudi is the backbone of the GCC, declared HbJ to much scribbling in the press conference. The big brother is back, especially when Doha had thought it would be in the frontline of a US-Iran conflict and thus needed to ensure solidarity to reduce exposure.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Andy Warhol in Dubai

Well am gearing up to hear meaningless prattle about nuclear options and collective approaches to weak currencies and employment problems in Doha. Been a strange holiday weekend. Began with a phone call from HQ. This was immediately followed by a trip to the XVA Gallery in the cultural nub that is otherwise known as Bastakia (Bur Dubai). Here we were promised the first of a series of Andy Warhol flicks. Being something of a doyen of the genre, my mind boggled at the idea of an open air, open to the public, showing of Joe Dellesando's arse, or nubile aryan flesh being cut up and splattered around the courtyard care of 3D specs....the possibilities were endless. The first of what promises to be a whole series of bohemian delights, albeit filmed on downers, was the fairly obvious choice of "Chelsea Girls". This launched the Warhol silver screen process, with the Factory's finest up there on split screen display, drag queens and naked butts, not to mention some serious needle fascination. The rolling of the opening credits was a pleasing counterpoise to the evening adhan. However after we had seen about 6 of the 8 "characters" - Edie Sedgwick, Nico of course, Gerard Malanga, Joe and a bevvy of boys, and several transvestites, we decided that we had seen enough. It was sexy and fascinating in a bohemian Big Brother on mandrax kind of way. So afterwards you need a beer and a cigarette to wash the taste out of your mouth. This we did, to excess.

It was a bizarre counterpoint to the ensuing National Day excesses too. The fireworks have been fab, and it's been nice to see the flag frenzy too. Much talk on Dec 2 (National Day itself) about maintaining the democratic path and preserving the national identity of the country...We shall watch the programmes designed to ensure these objectives with great interest...another drink somebody?

Monday, November 26, 2007

UAE to attend Annapolis

With barely an official confirmation, the UAE will attend the Annapolis peace conference in the US. The UAE was a part of the Arab League decision last Friday to attend the peace conference at foreign ministry level. However it is not a part of the 12+1 Arab Committee designated at the May 07 Arab League summit in Riyadh to follow up on the relaunch of the Arab (Saudi) Peace Plan. The UAE was invited by the US to attend the conference at Annapolis, along with 39 other countries and organisations, including a number of other Arab states not represented in the 12+1 Arab Committee. The UAE is also a member of the US-promoted "Arab Quartet" with Saudi, Egypt and Jordan, but had kept schtoom over whether it would be represented at the US-hosted peace conference beginning Tuesday 27th November (see also my "UAE and Mid East Peace" posting below). In the usual fashion, the UAE has waited for the "Arab cover" that the Arab League summit meeting provided before it responded to the private urgings of US officials and of course Mr Blair, the special mid-east peace envoy appointed by the awesome foursome of the US, EU, UN and Russia. Now replete with such "ideological" niceties, the UAE, like big brother Saudi, can travel to the ball in the US having backpocketed the soothing balm of "Arab unity" and support for the "Palestinian brethren", and having played their part in ensuring that Syria was not left on the shelf, even if no-one is really that interested in trying to make them a full partner in the process.

The UAE knows that the journey from Madrid back in 1991, to the Arab Quartet formed last year, has put it in a potentially more exposed position on the Palestine Question than hiding, virgin-like, behind the vanity partition that the shibboleths of "Arab solidarity" allow. A UAE ex-minister told me recently that the Arab Quartet was founded as a "facilitator" for the peace process, and that it is pushing (via the US) for "light at the end of the tunnel" for the Palestinians. If the conference in the US leads to any meaningful interim steps on the ground (ala the resurrected "Roadmap"), and serious efforts at resolving final status issues between Israel and the Palestinians, then the Saudis and the UAE know that they will be expected by the US to meet with Israel periodically at such international summits in order to give their blessing to progress and Palestinian compromise, and to hold out a clearer vision to Israel of what (a fuller) normalisation will look like. Moving from Annapolis to a kind of interim recognition of Israel of the type seen on the part of Qatar, Oman and Morocco is not on the cards for the UAE or Saudi. However the more they have to share a table with Israel, the more a kind of semi-normalisation will have been reached. Short of premature handshakes, much less trips to Jerusalem to meet Israeli officials, this kind of engagement is realistic, and, potentially, helpful in terms of resolving over 100 years of blood and tears.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Limbo land

It's a strange state to be in, between research projects, awaiting the call to authorise the next phase. I have completed revisions on a major, if imperfect, piece of work related to the Gulf, but it is currently stalled in the company's internal decision-making machinery. Other things understandably have a greater priority, and my manager, I believe, does not know if he has the energy to try to reconstruct the piece of completed work with me. In the meantime I consider ways to preoccupy myself, ploughing through research and interview notes and conducting meetings, calls and on-line searches to prepare for the next piece of work. Until then it's a waiting game, a game of patience. Bigger events preoccupy the upper echelons and personal matters no doubt intrude on people's time. The world does not revolve around my concerns, but there is a distinct feeling of being left in limbo land

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Newspeak

“Inspired” by the article by Iranian dissident Akbar Ganji in the current edition of NewsWeek on "Islamic Fascism", I want to point out something that every single commentator I have seen on this subject - from Ganji to Blair/Bush, and points in between - has failed to engage with. What exactly IS fascism?

Ganji, Blair and Bush engage in reductionist thinking akin to undergraduates the world over who unthinkingly trot (sic) out the word "fascist" as an insulting epithet for authoritarians and/or nationalists, but who seemingly have little historical understanding of what fascism actually is.

Whilst fascism lacks the ideological canon of what some regard as its philosophical twin, communism, there are definitions and characteristics available from original Italian "thinkers" and from the fascist parties in general of Europe in the 20s and 30s. The word "fasci" was borrowed from the undifferentiated sticks contained in the "tribute" paid to a Roman emperor. Hence the indistinguishable whole of a single nation united in reverence for Il Duce, the Reich Fuhrer, et al.

In the fascist thinking of Europeans - akin to communist party organisational thinking it is true - a single united, and of course highly centralised, single party would embody the mission and leadership of one people, one nation, and "revive" their faded glories, and seize absolute control of the state. Its methods and symbolism gave great importance to military and personal strength. In the Italian version under Mussolini it embodied corporatist anti capitalist thinking part borrowed from his Marxist background; in the German Workers Party (National Socialist) an ideological and personal divide on this issue showed that fascism lacked clarity on some key points. Furthermore, Mussolini did not lead an Italian Fascist Party that was initially obsessed with the Jews. Fascism in general in Europe however did embrace ideas of racial superiority as part of a nationalist creed of a people's revival under one true leader. Furthermore fascism's relationship to religion was often distrusting. Christianity was a cultural legacy of the Italian or German or Spanish nations of course. But the catholic (and in the case of Germany catholic and protestant) church in these countries were toughly policed and engaged with pragmatically. While not necessarily the enemy (far from it in the case of the Falange in Spain), the clerics were not ideological partners, much less sources for the leadership or the shock-troops of the fascist movement.

What we can gleam from this is that fascism is a totalitarian ideology that reveres and organises around a single "secular" leader and a single party, and is geared toward mass mobilisation behind national and, to some extent, ethnically pure objectives.

Does this remotely have anything to do with theories or idea of an Islamic umma (NOT a "watan" nor a "qawm") subject to clerical leadership and largely distrusting of political parties? How on earth does anything about the thinking of the current Iranian president equate with fascism when the Iranian political system and constitution that he upholds is made almost inchoate by differentiated power centres with key players far from purely Persian and unable by dint of ideology to clearly embrace Iranian nationalist language or purely national interests? Sure Hitler played to the aspirations of other nationalities outside of Europe as part of a strategic calculation, not least in the Middle East. But his ideological goals and identifiers were clear, and fascist. Sure the Muslim Brotherhood are organized a political parties and the movement’s Egyptian founder Hassan al-Banna found things of interest in Nazi Germany. However the Ikhwan are NOT Egyptian, Jordanian, Palestinian, Kuwaiti nationalists, even though their focus is largely on what used to be considered “artificial” national (“watan”) lines. What is fascist about the Islamist political concept, and supposedly governing model in Iran, the velayat-e-faqih ?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bahrain beach land

Just spent a hectic 48 hours in the island, and what a relief it was from here. An island (or several) that feels as a Gulf city surrounded by, eh, the Gulf should. Plenty of corniche and unspoilt beach views, albeit more easily viewed from the road rather than the large amount of "private" beach land. Yes, there is a business district et al, but most of Bahrain is still pleasant to look at. The balad (old town) area is interesting and good for affordable hotels. Don't go into the internet cafes however, they suck. Cheap but virus ridden, bit like some of the hotels I didn't frequent.

Interesting politics there too. Not that it's covered in the English language press, but sure as hell is covered in Al-Wasat for example. In Dubai we enjoy plenty of local "political" coverage in the english language press, but little that concerns the structure of power other than stories documenting the difficulties of (some) foreign residents. In Bahrain the nationals are a majority and among the majority politics are rife, sectarian, and pretty public....

Christmas has also come early to Bahrain too...rejoice..who could resist some smurf like santa boys in a Gulf fortress scene, as can be viewed at the airport (see above). Charming.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Counter-Rhythms and Anti-Communist Reels

The decision to put Gloria Estefan center stage as part of “Rhythms and Reels” at the Dubai International Film Festival in December belies the impression I got when coming here nine months ago that the organisers were going to upgrade the quality of this year’s cinematic bash.

This decidedly average US-exiled Cuban singer, whose commercial success and Miami-fuelled politics have given her a platform that talent alone would not secure, is to be the star attraction at the DIFF, according to the local English language press and TV news. Readers of a certain pedigree will recall her ersatz offerings in the ‘80s when she regaled us with half-cooked disco beats under the label The Miami Sound Machine. Now for the relatively princely sum of AED175, the Gulf News informed its readers this week, we can have the opportunity to see her live in what will be her “middle east debut”. If only this purveyor of plodding rhythms and soppy ballads could have been shipped up the road to join the sexy but talentless Justin Timberlake, local papers would be free of one more unnecessary homage to the doyens of the retirement music scene that wash up on this particular section of the Persian Gulf. Of course one should not forget that Gloria is part of a double bill that also brings us the more interesting offering of 90 Millas, a documentary movie made by her husband about the (exile) Cuban music scene. No Buena Vista Social Club, 90 Millas will give us music from across the pond, in direct opposition to the sad excuse for socialism that is the ailing dictator’s island. But who needs the pet sounds of these gun running, drug fuelled, counter revolutionaries either? The Miami Contra Machine? No thanks….

Part of the DIFF quality uplift was, I thought, to include a greater Arab, nay Emirati, component. Arab musicians could more than adequately fill Mrs Estefan's shoes. Surely the Iraqi musician and singer Ilham Madfai would come cheaper. He is known to an extent in the west and very well known throughout the Arab world, and, lest we forget the preported objective of this film and culture showcase, is actually very good. One wonders about the DIFF platform for UAE film-makers. One or two have garnered international praise and publicity, yet I heard on Dubai Eye news last night that a separate Gulf Film Festival is to be held in Dubai concentrating on Khaleeji talent (and that of Iraq and Yemen, but not that rather large Khaleeji state, Iran).

In the Tabloid! section of Gulf News this week another middle aged median propagator of muzak was bigged up. This time it was the apparently best selling female singer of all time, Celine Dion, who has been awarded the Legend award at the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo by none other than that renowned muso Prince Albert. An obviously key contributor to the development of world music, one only has to look at her sales worldwide to justify this assessment, Ms Dion is most famous for the painful emotional manipulation of that song from the Titanic. She has also inflicted a host of other aural offences upon us over the two or more decades of her illustrious career. I was however pleased to see that Patti Labelle got an (unnamed) award too, no doubt also for her services to “world music”. Patti at least can perform and excite, and hey, that recently revived song that first saw the light of day 35 years ago was a classic. What else did she do in the intervening period? Well, a bit more that the Eagles did in the 28 years since they managed to condescend to put tracks to tape. At last however they have treated us with the awesomely named Long Road Out of Eden. The last LP was, I recall, The Long Run, released way back in 1979. So the titles haven’t got too imaginative in all that time, and, by all accounts, nor has the band’s music. This hasn’t prevented the record buying cognoscenti of the Sceptered Isle putting it straight in at No1, however; no doubt eager to find something to buy gramps for Christmas. The good news is that it is keeping Britney off the top slot - for now. But with repackages primed from the likes of Queen (again), Whitney (again) and, I believe, new albums from tiresome old “legends” Phil Collins and Eric Clapton, Ms Spears will get some stiff competition from the stiffs.

Friday, October 26, 2007

UAE and Israel

It has been interesting to note the absence of comment in the UAE press (in English and what I have been able to see of the Arabic titles) about the US's Annapolis peace conference in November, other than the usual stuff about the need for a serious conference, not a US sponsored photo op. In the western and Arab media several candidates for participation in the peace conference have been proffered. Egypt and Jordan already have formal peace deals with Israel of course, and major financial subventions from the US as well as a strategic alignment. The latest from Cairo is that they will be there. Jordan maintains full level diplomatic representation with Israel and thus can hardly be expected to be absent. Morocco and Qatar have been suggested, two countries that have low level relations with Israel, as does Oman that gets mentioned less often as a possible attendee. Saudi blows hot and cold, but can hardly be expected to blow out the US as long as Abbas is there - and he has nowhere else to go. Syria, with more important business to attend to in Lebanon, has been begrudgingly given an indirect US invite with Saudi, and no doubt UAE, encouragement, but seems unlikely to bite. Bahrain has stepped up de facto normalisation in recent weeks. This more or less leaves the UAE. It is a member of the so-called Arab Quartet together with Egypt, Saudi and Jordan, which meets periodically with Condi to express concerns on the peace process and swap intel stories. While not exactly a normalisation with Israel vehicle, the AQ was encouraged by the Americans and the Saudis as the way to bring major Arab players half way to the table with Israel in order to encourage Israeli movement in their direction too. This was about Palestine but also about containing the common enemy Iran. The partial reaching out to Israel fitted with the Saudi Peace Plan under which Riyadh offered Israel a warm peace in exchange for Palestine, more or less lock stock and barrel on 1967 lines. While the virtual flirting continues in the run up to Annapolis, Condi is trying to get the Israelis and Palestinians (with Arab connivance) to agree an outline that would nail down some principles for a final status deal and offer some kind of timetable (don't say "roadmap") for getting there. This is pleasing the Saudis, but what does the UAE government think? Is there an alignment of view between the key players (player?) in Abu Dhabi and the singular leadership in Dubai? Of this we hear nothing, nada, zilch, nil, sifr, walla ish. This from a country that has built homes in Gaza, discussed buying the old settlements there, and over the longer term held credibility among Palestinians for its "steadfast" position over the historic Question. My guess is they can't fail to come to the Annapolis ball. They were at Madrid after all, but they are they not yet being named as possible attendees at this multilateral bash. What has been said to the roving "peaceniks" Condi and Blair in Abu Dhabi to suggest a coolness about Annapolis that is greater than their Arab brethren? Could it be that the long standing and still close relationship with the largely ostracised Syria is encouraging caution by the UAE?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Extremists" allegedly threaten Bryan Adams

It now appears that the Jericho event has been cancelled due to threats from "extremists". However this will not prevent Mr Adams performing at the Tel Aviv event. Sad that the organisers/"artists" felt so intimidated by threats when security dangers are a daily reality on the ground for the locals. According to organisers "One Voice", the event is under threat from Palestinian "extremists", but this organisation is currently sparing most of their factional invective for rivals in the peace camp who have apparently been accusing them of petitioning for a sell-out of the refugee cause.

I must say I didn't think that Palestinian "militants" would have been responsible for the threat to the event in Jericho, given that the performers would probably be seen as "useful idiots", to quote a dead Russian's dictum. I thought in fact that the Rabin killers may have gotten their way in Jericho, and would then be free to threaten the event in Tel Aviv. One Voice seem to be implying that "hardline" (often western) peaceniks have stirred up some dangerous local Palestinian hostility to the Jericho gig. But what do the organisers of the event think would have happened in Jericho? Palestinians suicide bombing fellow Palestinians attending a music event?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Involuntary martyrdom needed

"Don’t tell me it's not worth fighting for, don’t tell me it's not worth dying for....."

For once I feel that an Israeli Defence Force targeted assassination would be a gift to humanity. This is one Canadian nobody, repeat nobody, needs

----------------------------------------

"Bryan Adams to sing for peace"
Oct 07, 2007 04:32 PM
by Dalia Nammari
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/Music/article/264466

RAMALLAH, West Bank – Canadian rocker Bryan Adams will headline concerts for peace in the West Bank and Israel later this month, with performances relayed by satellite to simultaneous events in London, Ottawa and Washington, organizers said today.

Adams, 47, had a string of multi-platinum albums during the 1980s and mid-1990s and was nominated for an Academy Award for ``Everything I Do,"
his theme for the 1991 Kevin Kostner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

The New York-based One Voice peace movement said the concerts are aimed at bolstering its campaign to collect one million signatures from ordinary Israelis and Palestinians demanding that their leaders finalize an agreement on a Palestinian state living at peace with Israel.

The head of One Voice's Ramallah office, Fathi Darwish, said Adams would launch the West Bank event at a football stadium in the ancient town of Jericho, then head to Tel Aviv to perform in the second half of the three-hour show there.

The two venues are about 90 minutes apart by road, though Israeli army roadblocks can make the trip significantly longer. Darwish said Adams might travel by helicopter.

Other artists booked to appear on the Jericho stage are Iraqi guitarist Ilham Al Madfai, Israeli Arab Hip-Hop outfit DAM and Palestinian singers and dancers.

"Our goal is to send a message to the world, that the Palestinian people love life, and hope for life and liberation," Darwish said.

In Tel Aviv, Mashina, Hadag Nachash, Ehud Banai and other rock and pop acts are to perform.

Both events will feature addresses by officials and local peace activists. Hollywood celebrities were expected to send messages by videolink, the organizers said.

One Voice's Hollywood supporters include Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Rhea Perlman, Danny de Vito and Jason Alexander.

One Voice said last month it so far had just over half a million signatories to its initiative – split about equally between Israelis and Palestinians – and was aiming to reach the one million target by the end of the year.

Entry to the Oct. 18 events will be free, but concertgoers must sign the One Voice petition to gain entrance, the movement's website said.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A Warning to All You Husbands Out There

I found this most amusing, especially as my wife has an obsession with Saudi Channel 2 (English language; religiously-based programming)....not for nothing do some clerics call it Sunduq al-Sheitan (The Devil's Box)

Saudi Arabia: “Judge turns down divorce request for [wife] alone with the television”

On September 29, the Saudi Shams newspaper carried the following report by Ibtissam Al-Qahtani: “A judge in a tribunal in Riyadh turned down the request of a Saudi citizen who asked that his divorce be settled under the pretext that his wife was alone with men while watching a program on a satellite channel. The judge considered it was illogical to hold the wife accountable for that and that his wife watching television was not considered an illegitimate seclusion. The judge asked the husband to review his decision… but the latter insisted on the divorce.

“Ali Al-Harbi, one of those who copied the divorce papers at the public notary’s office, said to Shams that the husband asked the judge to state the reason why he filed for divorce and to try her for having disobeyed him by watching television alone while there were men [in one of the programs]… For her part, the wife who was divorced said to Shams she was surprised by her husband’s request… She added: “The judge was very fair when he turned down my husband’s request and explained to him that he was mistaken for divorcing me because I watched a program on TV that is hosted by men. However, my husband’s obstinacy prevented him from understanding what the judge was saying and he insisted on getting divorced”.

“She pointed out: “A few weeks ago, I was watching a talk show on an Islamic channel. I was very worried because I was afraid my husband would come in and see me watching television since I am banned from doing so… Unfortunately he entered the room while I was still watching TV and I tried to turn it off. But he prevented me from doing so, insulted me and asked me to leave the house.”

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Live at the Lime

With the Ramadhan emphasis on culturally refocussing, open mics and the weekly Lime Loft sessions have been necessarily parked. The last time I checked out what was happening was one of the Thursday nights at the recently launched Lime Theatre Loft events near the Fairmont Hotel, off Sheikh Zayyed Road. On that occasion, a mixed bag of accoustic and "unplugged" sets were delivered by Messrs Graham Park, Neil and Andy (?) and Mike Ross. Mr Park and the informally named duo were in their different ways, overtly Brit; Mr Ross was overtly Canadian. Nothing wrong with that on either score I venture. The problem with guitarist and singer Graham Park (isn't that in Hackney?) was the classic English understatement, when cranking up the literal and emotional volume on his often excellent songs would have made a world of difference. As he soldiered on it was getting harder and harder to hear him from fairly close proximity to the stage as he declined to up the ante as the braying of the already beer-sodden exiled Brit bar props gained volume. Neil and Andy had no such problem. Their younger, Oasis style, almost sing-along approach, plus greater amplification given the use of (wow!) electric guitar, proved an easier hit with England's finest. Appeals in the intervals from Dubai Lime's drole comic compere went unheeded at the bar however when Mike Ross came on. His first few songs were nearly drowned out as the Anglo-Saxon chorus made his set a battle for audability. By the end, the mild-mannered Canadian won on points as the emotional strength and vocal power of his performance tipped the scales in favour of musicality over barrack room beery excess. The question for me is what can be done to ensure that a paying gig takes centre stage over just another weekend night in a pub? Perhaps the answer is to hire a louder PA system, get more musicians on the stage, and utilise the big blokes on the doors to mingle with the great unwashed at the bar.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Hi-tech telecom revolution falls flat

I have become a little obsessed after a recent fracas with the long time monopoly provider. After 10 attempts to pay my bills (as usual) on line and two ignored emails, I finally found the courage and the time to call their erroneously named "help desk". It appears that the reason why I have been getting automated payment receipt numbers and then "payment not authorised" messages is because a decision was recently made by fiat to no longer accept non-UAE credit or debit cards for payment of bills. Apparently it was considered appropriate to only inform customers of this when they ring up and complain, not to put it in the automated email that is sent with the payment "confirmations". (I do not have a local credit card, suprisingly, perhaps, I find a Barclays Visa and a Barclaycard usually sufficient for my purposes).

I asked the genuinely pleasant person on the other end of the line what I should do to pay my bill, which is now about 2 weeks overdue. I was invited to visit a local payment center. My protest that I do not have the time or the inclination to schlepp all the way down there was met with the helpful suggestion that I send someone on my behalf. Great. I do not have a car, but no doubt I can send a servant to pay on my behalf with the credit card that they no longer accept. You can go to one of the many cash payment places, she helpfully suggested. Sure, I usually carry AED1000 in readies....Just how backward and un-user friendly can the otherwise very generous patrons of the local telecom monopoly be? (I note in this regard their "voluntary" payment to the latest state charitable mobilisation).


Postscript:

Upon schlepping over to the local telecom office today I found that I could in fact pay in person with my foreign-issued VISA card if I wanted (but NOT on-line)...This seems like a security issue therefore. But perhaps there is a credit card war too. I was charged a 2% mark up on a flight recently due to paying with a FOREIGN Visa card. Some residents from a neighbouring country could find cash use the norm over next few months....perhaps we will all be affected by a (US encouraged) tightening of control over financial flows around here.....

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Live @ Central Perk

Arriving at my first ever Dubai Lime music event, having sadly missed the previous night's opening of the regular showcase events that began at the Loft in Lime Theatre, I had little idea of what to expect of an "open mic" event. The term itself suggested a fairly open access, concomitant at least with what hard work had succeeded in facilitating with the powers that be. So inevitably this was not quite "come all ye", but "open microphone" was the term used in the coffee bars of the early 60s New York "folk boom" and the only qualification, aside from the bureaucratic, as far as I could work out, appeared to be the self-confidence to get up there and do it. Of course Greenwich Village this ain't, and initially arriving at a brighter version of Starbucks in the middle of an admittedly almost tasteful Mall (upper Mirdiff), I wasn't exactly full of hope. I knew that the stress for these gigs was on original material played by locally based musicians, and for the most part that was what we ended up getting, which is no small achievement for the singers concerned. And hey, when the covers are as gutsy a version of Knockin on Heaven's Door that an un-named singer and the guitarist Kareem belted out, who's complaining? The acts came fairly thick and fast, all to such a high professonal standard that I found it hard to believe what I was told on the night that none of them perform on a regular basis professionally. I have to say that they all sounded like they do, almost too much so in fact, when a looser feel might have been better. Kareem is an accomplished acoustic guitarist who is apparently aching to play the blues. I think he should. He was followed by 11th Hour, who did immaculate covers; and then two young solo singer-songwriters whose songs, inevitably, showed a debt to contemporary stylists of this oeuvre. This need not prevent strong emotion, and good songwriting, however; and Ramsey Phillips and the guy who followed him (apologies) certainly displayed both. Top marks though has to go the singer-guitarist Jennifer from Canada. I initially found myself going for the inevitable circa 1970s pigeon-holing, and then discarded these thoughts and simply enjoyed the strength of her voice and overall performance. Look forward to more open mic and "Loft" sessions around town like these.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Psychedelic Shacks

Irish schlep in Deira

Went to my first genuinely social event in nearly 6 months spent in Dubai the other night. Organized by Dubai Lime, the ground-breaking music and arts facilitators, this was an evening for all Limers at the newly opened “Irish Corner” at the “Al-Khaleej Holiday” (!,) near Deira. Yes! A return to Deira, a must for me, a free beer, and a chance to give some credence to the name of this blog. Things initially didn’t quite turn out the way I had hoped, however, as my usual standard of logistical prep, and seeming inability to retain vital intel, meant that the journey cross the Creek to the Hotel took about an hour. Yes, past spring time evening and even daytime schleps on the East Side had encouraged me to stroll over, initiating the journey via an abra to Sabkha Station. So far, so sweatily good. However Maktoum Road is not exactly a short or comfortable stretch in jeans at the height of Dubai summer, as I should very well know. What’s more, I was convinced (natch) that I knew this Irish bar from previous experience of what a former DJ has termed the “dark side” of Dubai. I strolled on and on, my trendy tight shirt rapidly becoming proportionately more wet than dry, and my feet blistering badly in so sensible fuggin sandals…..Al Khaleej Palace….nope, ignored that, and headed for an Irish place I remembered seeing near the Clock Tower roundabout….Oh yes, the Dublin Castle (not), the Dublin Bar, or whatever, IS still there, but is of course not quite a five star scene. About turn, and twenty minutes later I am inside the Al Khaleej Holiday, dripping wet, dodging the blonde Russian girl who wants me to go straight into the Limers’ party, and heading for the bogs for a desperate attempt to brush up. At this point I am actually nervous quite about this, but soft (ish) lighting and usual bonhomie made sure that the evening was a lot of fun. I did feel like a bit of an old fart at times struggling to hear what people one foot away from me were saying, but hey, I’m 43, and the DJ was way too loud (shud’up grand-dad). Key thing for me was making new contacts, enjoying some very interesting chat. One long-time resident suggested that this bar and the ongoing hotel development around Deira could indicate a trend that may happen in the city as the struggle for affordable space continues, and places like Jumeira and new housing developments way out west are largely (and in my view boringly) ethnically segmented. It also, we agreed, has a very interesting and unexplored, for many westerners, night time scene (see “Southern Rock” blog entry). Whether the delight of south asian bars and night clubs in two star hotel would survive a major western invasion however is debatable. All in all, this turned out to be a good evening, and for me, a major incentive to check out the “open mic” and now Lime Theatre evenings that are being organized by Dubai Lime. http://www.dubailime.com

Psychedelic Creek

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Welcome to Iraq

Saudis police desert border with Iraq

I recently visited Judeida, one of five border post headquarters (qiyada) dotted along the nearly 1000km stretch that is the Saudi-Iraqi border. Flying into the nearby Saudi town of Ar'ar from Riyadh, I was reminded of the look of an Iraqi or Syrian town. Certainly this sleepy 150,000 Saudi border settlement is far closer to Iraq in location and tribal terms than the northern Saudi cities of Jowf or Tabuk, let alone Riyadh or Jiddah. Along the border, the haris al-hudud (border guard), a branch of the interior ministry, conduct patrol by "dareeah", pick up trucks with machine guns for cargo, while night vision cameras are used each night by four similar vehicles in response to daily intel feeds. The Judeida Qiyada covers seven markaz ("centres") - sentry posts - where a small contingent of drivers and assistants move between these fixed points in a virtually non-stop procession, aside, that is, from prayer and meal times. Between nine and fifteen dareeah drive all day and night along two tracks that run alongside the three, three metre or so high, sand banks that separate the north of the kingdom from the anarchy of Iraq. The border area from the third to the first and last sand-banked border line (see pic below) is designated as a "closed military area". There are asphalted roads that run into this area and between the sand banks, and, I was told, no check-points to prevent a Saudi civilian driver entering, and, in theory, speeding on to Iraq. However they would no doubt soon be stopped by one of the official vehicles if they tried. It was also pointed out to me that the sand affords detection of footprints from those trying a stealthier approach, and that any prints are observable in the headlights of the dareeah vehicles. This would appear to be reasonably efficient, if possibly rather belated, method of detection. The whole terrain of the northern border area is essentially "sahel" - bleak, flat, and fairly forbidding, with few very inhabitants, save, I am told, a few bedu. (Their loyalty, however, may be as fixed as their postal address). Of course, despite there being no open crossing, it is admitted that Iraqis do get through to the Saudi side, though only "several", it is conceded, make the illegal journey in a given year. Some of course will be seeking work, or to trade in drugs, others will be handed to intelligence officers on the assumption that their purpose is terroristic. Not one Saudi, it is said officially, goes this way into Iraq, however. This makes sense, the terrain and the existence of many local inhabitants makes the Jordan then Syrian crossing rather more amenable, especially as it connects with a potentialy more welcoming reception in western Iraq than the largely Shia south. There is a long-standing haj border crossing in the Judeidah area, and two years ago this was opened for the annual month of pilgrimage for the first time since the 1991 Gulf war. An obvious potential security risk, the Iraqi hajis going from Iraq into Saudi (see above pic) will be greeted by 50 haris al-hudud officers and 200 intelligence officers when they move further down to the haj processing centre. For the rest of the year it is dead, with no one visible on the Iraqi side, and only a locked gate on the Saudi side. For the most part, this was a pretty convincing official tour of border security operations. Although I could not help but wonder at the relatively small scale of the operation at what represents one fifth of the border security operation on a 1000 km stretch for which, I was constntly reminded, there is only one country actually doing anything at all. Of course a far more sophisticated set up is planned, with infra-red detectors et al, to prepare for the seemingly inevitable worsening of the situation just metres from here. Contracts for the first of the hi-tech three phase border security project may be awarded before the end of the year, with Jordan and Yemen following the beefing up of the Iraqi border. For now, the inspection of pick ups and a few mobile night vision cameras seem to suffice.

Viewing Iraq from Saudi perspective

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Al-Fatah

Visited al-Balad, the downtown area of Jiddah last night, and walked around the nearby muntaqa al-tareekhi, the historic area, where some of the old Jiddah is undergoing reconstruction efforts. A baladiyya official proudly showed by the names of nearly 14,000 locals who were signing up for voluntary work scrubbing off graffiti. This civil responsibility is surely a very good sign, though I could not help by notice that many of those in the queue keen to get the goody back and a number in the lottery, were south Asians. Perhaps they are assuming they can skip the unpaid labour part. The remains of a castle (in the masaluwn area) provides a very attractive focal point in this area, however the surrounding wooden shuttered old buildings are in a pretty poor state. You do not have to walk far in Jiddah, here, or near the souq area, to imagine you are in the “developing world”. That is partly the style of life in a city that is a focal point of haj pilgrims from all over the world. However it also begs the question about local funding and efficiency. The press continues to contain stories of water still being provided by lorry in parts of the city, and that this apparently gets more expensive in poorer areas that are less accessible by vehicle. Walking around last night, close to the historic area for which a new clean up is planned, I saw a lot of trash and broken glass and poorly paved walkways. It is not a shortage of revenues that explains this. ….

One very positive moment, however, was dining in the Al-Fatah restaurant, just around the corner from the Masaluwn. It serves fantastic foul and masuwb for desert, among other delights. Great place, great atmosphere helped by regional and international staff, and almost embarrassingly cheap.

Peace, war or containment?

Great excitement emanates from the Israeli government at the prospect of Saudi Arabia’s attendance at the post-Ramadan Middle East peace summit as an early and perhaps unexpected prize of normalisation. However in the Kingdom the expectation of its attendance is balanced by the presumption of a firm party line stance by a middle ranking official who will merely reiterate what is wanted from Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians for there to be truly normalised relations with Saudi. There is also though a sense on the part of some Saudis that the Kingdom has some scope for influencing the US administration, and quiet confidence that it has played a significant part in ensuring that the summit will at least underline the importance of addressing the endgame issues that Bush referred to when announcing the conference last month. However, with little prospect of the detail of these issues being seriously addressed when or before the parties meet in late October, something that Saudi Arabia initially responded to the conference announcement by saying it wanted, then this is not the beginning of a process that the Kingdom any great hopes for. On the other hand the proposed conference is being viewed as having “Madrid” features, the multilateral peace conference launched in the wake of the Gulf war in 1991, which in effect recognised the celebrated “linkage” in terms of ending the occupation of territory, whether Kuwait or Palestine. Under the cover of international support for the planned conference, including that of the UN, then the Saudis will once again lend their diplomatic imprimatur to a multilateral conference. However, while the linkage this time is the slightly more confused one of the US need for a coalition to build success in Iraq and recognising that diplomatic effort on Palestine might contribute to it, this is hardly the stuff that motivated James Baker III in 1992. From a Saudi perspective, the substance on the part of the US (as well as Israel) is lacking. Schemes emanating from Israel involving swapping settlement blocs for parts of the heavily Arab populated Galilee add little lustre to the prospect of attendance. The wider context of Iraq, and therefore of containing Iran, however, is something that seems to have more cache here. In this respect the most significant recent event by far was the US announcement last week of a US$20bn arms package to the Kingdom. This, and the tussle over what Saudi is and isn’t doing regarding the presence of Saudi nationals in Iraq, and how opposed it is or isn’t to the current Iraqi government, were part of the background music to one recent, albeit fairly small, move from the Kingdom to “normalising” relations with Iraq. Considering opening an embassy, however, won’t bring peace to Iraq. Thus small steps, toward Israel, toward Iraq, but nothing that substantive from the Kingdom either. Meanwhile, the Saudi strategic alliance with the US against Iran is consolidated, providing reassurance to the Kingdom and shades of the 1980s, minus Saddam. However, this is not seen as war preparation but as a deepening of a defensive division in the Gulf, and that suits the Saudis very well.

Nafoura

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Jiddah Jive

First night out since I arrived here five nights ago. With much of the daytime spent in my hotel room working and having spent the last few nights in meetings or waiting to be in a never to materialise meeting, getting the chance to check out the corniche and the city’s famous nafoura fountain was very welcome. Driving in a taxi downtown from my hotel felt good. The Moevenpick, or Al-Amoudi as it will no doubt remain known for years, snuggles up to the main Tariq Medina highway, and is handy for nothing save the interior ministry, and tiresome western clothing chains spread in ugly fashion across the shopping area other side of the busy road. Felt even better to be buying cheap shwarma on the corniche road before checking out the unruly shebab on the seafront. They could do with mutaawa being shipped in from Najd out here. Hijazi liberalism was running riot as kids raced around in those superannuated go karts and boys and girls let off fireworks and bangers with (almost) wild abandon. At one point about ten shabab were riding the silly, unlicensed, vehicles the wrong way down the road at a main junction before then crossing it on red. Don’t let anybody tell you this is a police state.

I strolled around checking out the corniche restaurants, thinking of future evenings as I am here for another five nights. Other delights of this almost funky Saudi city are of course beggars, including old haji women who missed the boat back to Africa after the pilgrimage was over. Real restaurants and real shops are always a delight when you’ve been ensconced in hotel land. I soon found the delightfully named “Meed” supermarket and purchased a plastic snake and a Mars bar, eyed up the local garage with its arresting sign (see pic), before making my way down Palestine Street to catch a cab from a very pleasant disco cassette playing driver from Kerrala back to the Moevenpick. A real delight of an evening.

Garage offer

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Visa collection rituals

Spent the last three days engaging with the visa collection process at the Saudi consulate in Dubai. My work largely revolves around the Kingdom, so this is not as strange a temporary relocation as it might sound. The first step to gain entry into the Holy Land is to find yourself a sponsor of very high standing. Of course the need to have a sponsor to live and work is the stuff of common currency among residents of Dubai and other Gulf emirates. In Saudi however even a brief visit requires some form of local support. You might, if you're a journalist attending a government-related event, be rushed through the process. However the interior ministry would still have had to sponsor you, while the final “tick” will have to have come from the foreign ministry to which the consulate obviously reports.

On this occasion I have been lucky enough to secure support in the Kingdom and thus received a fax with the crucial visa authorisation number that has to be presented at the consulate in Dubai. However there is no point showing up at the consulate without a typed visa application in Arabic that a handy, round the corner, office located at one end of a supermarket will for a modest fee provide for you. If it is before mid-day, the deadline for lodging your visa application at the consulate, then you will have to elbow your way in alongside the “mandabs”, the attaché briefcase wielding agents who, for a fee, service your application…by the gross, or more. I am, by dint of personality and company budget, a solo operator.

Having got to the supermarket in the afternoon two days ago I found myself enjoying a super efficient service from the friendly and mainly Egyptian male typing pool there assembled. At 830 am sharp the next morning, heaving taken a pleasant late July stroll down there, I sweatily fought to ensure that, having arrived outside the door of the consulate first, that I would be granted the much prized ticket number 501 and thus have a reasonable chance of being served first. I was. I then paid a sizeable fee and was told to return the next afternoon.

This was the second time of going through this process, but I still marvel at its risible elements. Arrive before opening time at 2pm and you can, luckily, sit in the AC cooled waiting area for your lucky number to come up. You can however soon feel the increasing tension as the professional visa agents swoop around, checking for the right body language on the other side of the glass to confirm that their waiting might soon be over. These often big men with thick set features and hands like plates of meat, prowl about, waiting to jump when the passport largesse gets distributed. After 20-30 minutes the grubby plastic trays of passports replete (in sh’allah) with visit visas, are placed in position and the scrum rapidly forms. Those with the right numbers try to elbow their way to the front, past burly mandabs with ethnic and attitudinal advantages over many of the solo operators. My turn came fairly soon. A visa to visit the Kingdom. Free at last, Lord God Almighty, free at last.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Suits you Sir

Broke free from my usual routine this evening and headed straight for the creek and got the abra to cheap suit land near the Sabkha Station, Deira. Among the array of outfitters in the Twin Towers (sic) Mohammed from Damascus sold me a AED 1,200, 100% lightweight wool suit made in Paris (apparently). It fits me, possibly too well, but as long as the gym where I normally go of an evening doesn’t make too much impact on my impossibly rakish physique, then I will look like 10,000 dirhams. The abra back had taken us alongside the Ruler’s Court and the adjoining souk where they have installed some creek side coloured lights. The effect, on an empty stomach, was decidedly hallucinatory. In then collected a cheap pair of shorts from a shop in Bur Dubai with the friendliest bunch of guys from the "computer state" in India…..they offered me pepsi too, but had to grab shwarma from the friendliest kebab seller in Dubai who stands on the Faheidi roundabout. He hasn’t been back to Kerrala in ten years, and is married with children. Started pressing his buttons and I thought for a minute he was going to cry….but these guys are made of harder stuff than western males….

I am currently preparing for a return trip to the Holy Land, this time spending most of the trip in Jiddah rounding up a few summer sojourners before returning to the capital for some obligatory pain. Actually I kind of like the capital, such a good party scene when you are in with the right crowd. Hope I can find a gym back there as I have just started a routine that will make me irresistible by Christmas. Providing I do the right degree of networking out in Saudi, then I will have an interesting report to offer up to the world audience that my company attracts.

Bar fly country blues

Recognising that the audience I enjoy here is a tad smaller, I think it is time to start a debate about American Stars n Bars as the greatest and yet, strangely, possibly one of the most ignored Neil Young albums (well apart from, justifiably, much of what he produced in the 80s). Aside from the penultimate track that everyone knows (Like a Hurricane), which still kicks ass, there is all the booze fuelled country rock, that tears up a storm on numbers like Saddle up the Palomino and Bite the Bullet, the sheer romantic joy of Hey Babe, and then one of the most affecting songs in the singer songwriter, declamatory, vein I have heard in a long, long while, Will To Love. Essentially this is Neil Young as a fish fighting against the odds to get upstream on an impossible quest for love, going half mad in the process, and knowing it and not caring. This and the inspired accompaniment provided by the band, including various sound effects, and the crack of the open fire against which this has been performed live (like much of the set I reckon) gets me every time. Oh, and there’s the ode to the greenstuff, Homegrown, and Star of Bethlehem, which is more the classic mid tempo acoustic Neil Young, and still a damn fine tune all the same. There, now I know this debate will run and run…..

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Another Day in Bur Dubai

Arrived back two nights ago after a flight in from Gatwick. An Arab Iranian taxi driver from Bandar Abbas drove me from the airport. A chance to “speak” Arabic, a rare opportunity in this city state of new buildings and mass immigration. From feelings of despair over the first 24 hours I seem to have reached a more even keel emotionally. Pain at missing her, leavened by reacquainting myself with the solo life that I had almost perfected in the Hotel California in Deira. A day of largely indifferent tapping on the laptop yesterday gave way to a rare session at the gym, having collected three etisalat bills en route (why go the trouble of mailing them together?), and a return trip via the local supermarket Al Madina to cook a Rajastani vegetable dish hastily scribbled down from my wife’s cook book. I am consciously emulating her daily routine over the three weeks I was in Saudi Arabia last month, and it certainly lifted my mood, even if the rareness of a solo cooking experience meant I didn’t eat ‘til gone 1030. An evening in the kitchen listening to a Dubai Eye phone-in on labour issues proved surprisingly stimulating, helping me to feel more at ease with my surroundings, after the difficulty of leaving her in London. This pattern, with a more productive work day and the benefits of cooking food in large quantities, made the evening ritual today a decidedly easier affair, even if the gym was a physical struggle and Dubai Eye brought on waves of alternating elation and misery with its “John Lennon Profile”.

At Gatwick two night earlier I had sat despondent, reflecting on how over the previous 2 weeks in London I could ever have complained about anything when the increasingly rare ability to spend time together is pure delight compared to the feeling of being alone at the airport, waiting to return to a white-walled apartment devoid of character in an overheating desert metropolis. From feeling almost indifferent at the prospect of departure, I felt as sad as I had ever done at such moments. Part of me felt glad, however, satisfied that I had plainly not become the cold desiccated calculating machine that I sometimes fear is to become my fate. The previous night we had visited our neighbour, a beautiful man whose ill health has prematurely aged him and confined him to his home, an experience that made me resolve to make more of our time left together. We have less than 25 years until we reach his probable age. Seeing the new British film, This is England, that afternoon, set largely in 1982 (though it says 1983 on the promo) only underlined how fast the previous quarter century has gone by. From the Falklands to file-sharing, a lot has and hasn’t changed, but the conception of time certainly has as we have grown older, largely together.

I’d give anything to have known her then, or perhaps when I was a bit older. To chat, to drink, to have fun. I know she has always been sweet to those who are sweet to her. Of course she may have found me uninteresting at that age, a recovering Christian with hard left tendencies (testicles? Ed.), and therefore her natural sweetness may have been offset by decided boredom at the suburban blandness of a late flowering virgin. We first set eyes on each other, I think, at her parents’ house in Christmas 1987, although she does not remember the experience. We didn’t meet properly until a folk festival in Sidmouth (where else?) in the summer of 1989. She had interested me a lot then, but I was camped out in a far flung field and I think she had other things on her mind. I remember her that first year though. We entered a large pub near the seafront, with manifold would-be folkies in tow, got drinks (she probably paid), and for some reason began talking about a mutual love, David Bowie. She adopted a decidedly serious tone and stated that he was a very good looking man. I remember simultaneously feeling a bond with her, while feeling somewhat chastened at that remark.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hidden history

A Foreign Affair

Have moved out to the east side of the kingdom in an effort to find a different perspective on developments of late. Assessments of the differences of opinion within the family largely follow assumptions found elsewhere as to the usual suspects opposing the assumed urge for domestic political change emanating from the very top. However, when looking at affairs outside the kingdom’s borders, views alter from those that tend to be found in the capital. A sojourn on the east-side can see starker views on what is motivating policy among different key policy actors. An essentially consensual decision-making model motivated by the desire to project the kingdom’s Arabism without antagonising Iran whilst rigorously policing those in the family who over step the policy mark is a common explanation in the capital. Eastwards, one also hears that there is a consensus behind policy, however one based on more sinister machinations, apparently designed to re-export radicalism in advance of sectarian aims, partly in a bid to contain Iran and, in the process, some say, Egypt, which supposedly motivates the Saudi projection of strength in the Gulf. Around this, senior figures are apparently united. A brief Saudi flirtation with Palestinian unity is acknowledged in the capital and its eastern detractors as having been genuine. However both see little scope for any bold renewed effort to once again oversee national unity efforts in an ill-fated land for which most Saudis in the capital have little patience and those eastward have little knowledge. These views, if right, essentially leave the leadership watching and waiting, lacking any substantive vision, and preoccupied with subterranean tactical positioning in neighbouring disputes rather than any real desire to contribute to a way to resolve them.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Designer salafi

In the office of a reformist cleric I waited. My irritation at a sweaty attempt to locate the place gave rise to a modest conflagration with his Amani suited, salafi bearded, assistant. As soon as I walked in, he strutted toward me, refused to indulge my weak Arabic, and displayed an almost effete but bitchy manner reminiscent of an office queen sensitive to their petty rank. Moments later he demanded my business card for presentation to the office director. Once he had thankfully departed, I slipped into the toilet to great my dearest friend. Upon my exit, the start of the call to pray had seen the waiting area fill with all the office’s foreign staff as the rolled up carpets I had previously spied were pressed into action and the nida was answered. I stepped between genuflecting devotees and stood awkwardly at the back as the prayers continued. I noted that those Saudis still present in the office (it was 330pm) continued to chat as their underlings got on with the serious business of respecting what is almost mandatory in the kingdom. Before long, a friendly Pakistani bawab ushered me into the meeting room where my things had been arrayed in anticipation for the arrival of the cleric. With prayers still continuing as he arrived, indifferent to any need to join in, he apologised for being late. I guess the hadith on exemptions to the imperative to observe the call to prayer and the cultural imperative to honour guests did not obligate his participation. I wondered also if, for all his religiosity, there is resentment with the regimentation that is officially required from the religious establishment, as opposed to the popular enactment of religious principles that he wants to see. He proved to very impressive, and highly pleasant to boot. I am intrigued by the scope of the transformation that would be wrought, should power be as consensually based as he wants.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Disorientation technique

It’s strange to be in Riyadh and to be reminded of my three month Hotel California incarceration back in Dubai. It’s not that I am wondering if I will ever leave my current hotel, off the Olaya Road, it’s just the familiar breakfast room scene. This time no over-attentive waiters I want to stab with my steely steely butter knife, but the same dismal selection of instant coffee, tea, cold egg and cardboard corn flakes lightly dusted with sweetener. Unlike the HC however, these guys don’t offer any kind of cold drink, not even tap water. On arriving in the modestly air conditioned “mezzanine” I had to engage in a complex exchange in Arabic and English with, I think, a Vietnamese guy, who I thought was telling me that water was "tap", to which I said "no problem", only to find that he was actually saying it was “charge”, a rather different concept to which my reaction was an angry “la”….I expressed to him later how appalling it was to offer your guests such a sumptuous selection of food and hot drinks, but to deny them complementary water. The next day I got them to bring me some chilled eau d’tap, a privilege, only upon request, I was treated to the following morning as well, albeit at more like room temperature. Yesterday, however, was a write off. I had previously been told at reception breakfast did not start until 8, but rang the desk anyway as I had woken early to see if this really the start time for the most important meal of the day. "Akeed".. 7'o clock it will start, I was assured, and arrived at the mezzanine to find only empty tables. This morning, deciding it was safer to arrive at 8, it was the same, however I discovered that breakfast had been relocated and in fact always begins at 7….."maloom". However not only was cold water still not standard, but the hot water for making tea was cold too. I placed my finger in my freshly made cup of tea to accentuate the point to the waiter

My first hotel upon arrival in this dustbowl was The Riyadh Palace. It took the driver an eternity to find as he wanted to take me to a backstreet three star. However this dubiously described five star was too far from where I needed to be. On reflection I wished I taken the three star as I am currently still in dispute with them about an extra night’s charges that they have deducted from my bank card – without authorization. This house of ill repute is in hiya’ al wazaraat (ministerial area). Be warned. (After 36 hours I have just been told that I will be credited what was taken in error…)

It’s great to be in my present abode, however. Huge apartments without natural light and subtle over-head strip lighting have always been the best places to relax in. However the ample kitchen allows much room for storing cold drinks and Saudi salami, so I am most delighted. Less thrilling was my failed attempt to let in natural light, which made the ultra thick blankets that cover the windows impossible to unroll again, and a two day battle to get a bulb for the single bedside light. All is now resolved, however, and I am in accommodational bliss. Natch.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Saudi circles

The weather in Saudi Arabia is actually noticeably more hospitable than in Dubai. The dry dusty heat of landlocked Riyadh is more bearable than the humidity of the Gulf city of Dubai, although I know which I prefer.

Have been speaking to a mixture of officials, political analysts, and journalists so far, with the objective of further understanding internal and external developments in the kingdom. Relative progress is being made, but more interestingly perhaps have been the unexpected, almost off the wall, experiences. Visiting an office of a reform-orientated Islamist lawyer took me, thankfully, away from the mall scene of where I am based and allowed me to peruse an open street market where more ordinary folks come to shop. Highly observant in the mainstream religious tradition, and wearing his hatta in the loose manner of the like-minded, this man can amuse with the variety of the sources for his conspiracy based understanding of western politics. Although my facial reaction made him concede that the Da Vinci Code had some flaws, he was quite sure that this book captured the flavour of the secret powers of the Catholic Church. On his home turf, as it were, he is a more informative source, expressing the frustrations of those who want a more religiously orientated but apparently pluralistic model of authority, with legislative power held by an elected assembly and the powers of the executive clearly defined. Genial and generous to a fault, he asked if I would join him and one or two others of like mind for the maghreb (sunset) prayer when they would pay their respects to the family of a recently deceased senior government advisor. We set off in his beaten-up BMW, a measure of funding problems for this wing of political opinion, and arrived shortly to the melee that was the entrance to the departed patriarch’s home. My friend made his way to the mosque – I had assumed he meant that prayers would include me and all those paying their respects at the home – while I unhesitatingly stepped past the morass of police vehicles and limos to enter the grounds. I was the only westerner there and practically the only one not wearing regulation dish dasher and hatta. I was very soon approached and asked my business there, but in the most courteous manner. This was as much about curiosity about me and the desire to ensure that I could be properly received as an outsider, as an attempt to protect the relative solemnity of the occasion from a possibly inappropriate guest. An English speaker was produced, although I did not really want one, as my rudimentary Arabic really sufficed for the occasion. I proffered details about who I worked for etc, but emphasised that I too wanted to pay my respects and this was keenly facilitated as my “handler” introduced me to the two senior sons of the deceased and light-bulbs flashed and the crowds parted as I exchanged firm hand shakes with the two men and somewhat nervously made suitable obloquies about their father’s highly respected status and influence. There was genuine appreciation for the fact that this westerner wanted to join such an occasion. My handler, presumably satisfied that I was what I professed to be, was happy to leave me to the attention of the reformers who had invited me, and I was introduced to a more senior figure from the trend. The occasion proved to be an instructive flavour of how this “movement” seeks inside allies in its gentle but sometimes quite public effort to advance its case. That said, there had not been any insider encouragement of their recent initiative to propose changes, and arrests had followed. That though was a development that can seemingly be blamed on more conservative parts of the authority structure. It is also a measure of how those with radically different political views seek to find entry via official doors, not all of which are firmly closed, and how social and religious ties maintain a kind of unity, especially when the departed can garner relatively wide political sympathy.


The next day I had an appointment with a foreign national, but long resident, journalist. Urbane, he proceeded on a long discourse about what he saw as the conflict of societal opinion in the kingdom’s modern history. More usefully he then related this recent events and how openings were occurring for popular grievances to be expressed against targets that some of the leadership want to be reined in. I scribbled away, feeling this to be a meeting providing genuine insights from a good, ear to the ground, journalistic source. The seriousness of the exchange would inevitably be punctuated by bawabs bearing tea and phones ringing, but, more unexpectedly, climaxed in an alarm call from his desk clock to the tune of My Way. I swallowed hard and kept focused on the hints of top family intrigue.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Art scene

Room with a View

Art trip turns violent

Went and checked out the Sharjah Biennale yesterday. The bus from Bur Dubai to Sharjah was a synch, though walking out to the Ghubaiba bus station at Shindagha was more of a challenge. The heat has shifted up several notches these days, and is akin to a broiling for much of the day. The breeze that the creek throws off can bring relief, though in the middle of the day this doesn’t seem to ease the discomfort. In Sharjah, a mere 15 minutes to the north once the driver got underway, we attempted to walk to the al-Ta’ayun street location for the Expo building, before coming to our senses and hailing a cab. The exhibition there was essentially installations related to environmental themes. Some, like the huge, billowing arrangement of gold and red metal, largely generated from whisky bottle tops and coffee packs (interesting cast offs), made a striking impact. Others, like table tops of sand in which you could draw a roadmap to peace were total bollocks. Our efforts to navigate our way to the Sharjah Art Museum for more Biennale delights proved fruitless. Asking a taxi driver in Arabic or English, or any of the “locals” where a major street is, proved equally pointless. After walking through the broiling heat, we decided to bail out and headed to the sprawling bus station near the Heritage area. Chaos never witnessed on a Friday in Dubai or Abu Dhabi could be seen, and for no apparent reason. South Asians fought each other to get on a mini bus, as the heat and exasperation overcame the relative queue discipline witnessed elsewhere. Having been shoved from behind, I mistakenly gave a mouthful to an old Haji who, it turned out, functions as the local enforcer. He waved his rather fetching hooked stick unceremoniously at the young guys who he had just single handedly hauled off the bus for daring to enter without his say so. Luckily I was with my wife, otherwise I would probably still be there now, as opposed to going straight to the front of the bus to sit in the Ladies’ seats…

Friday, June 1, 2007

Deira fridge fiasco

(May 25) Apologies for the lapse in communication. Firstly I was seeking to find some furniture for an apartment that was devoid of any furnishings, save for fitted wardrobes and kitchen cupboards, and then my wife arrived five days ago and we have been trying to refamiliarise with each other, as well as get more furniture, not always an easy process on either count. We had a day together, which involved an overpriced but very tasty Lebanese mezze selection in a hot little café, and a romantic stroll down creek-side Bur Dubai, before the next day I returned to keyboard pounding and phone calls intended to ease, ironically enough, my passage out of here to spend a few weeks researching on one or two neighbouring countries. This didn’t help our situation, but now with the local weekend upon us we have been able to get closer to each other and, as I put it to her, she has “unblocked the drain”…..

It is strange to now be living across the creek from Deira. However there has been one key event to remind me of my old home. Before she arrived I purchased a couple of white goods from Deira Souq, having hopped back over on the abra. Given the financial situation, buying seriously second hand items have to been to an extent forced upon us, but of course the reason why you wouldn’t do that back home can soon seem oh so clear. After nine days, and only shortly after my wife’s arrival, the fridge went kaput. A brief inspection of the receipt given to me in one of the back allies off Musallah Road Deira revealed the legend “NO GUARANTEE” emblazoned across the document. I rang a number on it and asked for “boss”. To my surprise the bloke who answered offered to replace it with the same hi-tech model that very same day. Too good to be true? Indeed. Lateness is one thing, but on checking when the exchange would in fact take place, to be told that “pick up” charges would be at my expense, sent me through the roof. My usual strategic skills in the course of the ensuing argument over the phone ensured that I had no way out other than to back down and agree that I was probably not going to go to the police armed with the receipt and would in fact pay the fridge collection charge. Said item arrived at nearly 11pm and was filthy. "Boss" had plainly found his way to the back of his storage depot of ageing white goods and found the most dirt encrusted item he could to remind me of who, in fact, was boss. Two hours later and much back pain, the design classic was almost gleaming. A couple of smuggled mini bottles of schnapps and a game of Scrabble later (the kind of gig one looks for these days), and we felt brave enough to switch the machine on…….sounding good……

Today’s exercise is to get to Times Square, that being one of a plethora of malls, and to check out some white goods etc…..money suddenly having become less of an object…..

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Med quintet play Blue

Managed to get out of the empty shell that is my new abode in Bur Dubai and met a journalist friend at the Blue Bar at the Novotel in Za’abeel. I was pleasantly surprised, even if there wasn’t much Belgian beer on draft, there was Belgian beer. And then the Olivier Collete Quintette kicked in, a mix of a Lebanese rhythm section, Belgian keyboard player, Spanish guitarist and I think a French sax player. And they started with Footprints (from Miles Davis’ Miles Smiles album)….From there it was Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" and then a third number that grooved along nicely but which I still can’t recall even after we quizzed the band in the interval. Footprints, like even the shlocky numbers they covered later, would begin in the tradition and then go off into a funky jam that was essentially ‘70s, driven by the electric keyboardist who gave it a period movie soundtrack feel. As my friend observed, an approach not unlike Coltrane covering “pop” from his era, though I kind of prefer the original Inch Worm to one or two of the lamer disco tunes they jammed around. In many ways the performance established a standard that could only go downhill in the second and third sets, but the band remained tight and engaging, and gems were still to come in the form of Mercy, Mercy (Canonball Adderly) and a blues cover (name unknown to me). We left as they headed into Knockin' on Heaven’s Door in the third set, though by this point the beer had made me more or less capable of being impressed by anything, short of the fat women with bare backs and plastic bra straps that cut swathes into their ample flesh. In general the drawbacks of the Blue Bar are few, aside from the name (if you tell your wife) and the food. The latter does enable you to stay in place though, which when these guys are playing, most weekends I gather, is worthwhile.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Deira souq

Hotel California

You can never leave?

Back at the California Hotel, it was as if I had never been away, so pleased were the staff to welcome me back to what has become home. I am on the second floor this time, that much closer to the music action on the lower floors. However I am also labour camp side again, which means less early morning traffic hassle and marginally less mosque…..how have I come to feel like I am going to miss this place? Have I like some long stay in-mate, become institutionalised? In simple terms, two months is the longest I have spent living abroad since we lived in Jerusalem, and in this area you get a greater exposure to the life. Even if you are obviously a complete outsider, who isn’t? Most people just know their patch, and many little more than that. Spending time eating in many of the local food places, chatting to those who work around here, and shopping in the local shops, I have more familiarity with this area than I acquired in E17 after more than three years…….

Today I finally secured a flat. The property is in Bur Dubai, west of the river (creek) in the so-called OPC area (Al-Hamriya). I am feeling like I have somehow sold out. To me the creek is a real divider of life in this city, and part of me revels in the underbelly that is so alive -n the Deira side of the water. Still, the creek itself has its charms, either side of the divide, and our new place will be within walking distance, so there can still be plenty of nights down by the riverside. It’s funny, I’ve sat on the beach and looked at the Gulf, and caught glimpses of it from a speeding taxi going down Mina Road, but I don’t have any affinity with that rather more strategic waterway, compared to the old trade route that provides one of the more interesting features of the city. I will miss the madness of the Nasser choc (square), even though lunchtime walking around there can leave you almost feeling you are going to drop, especially as the year careens toward June. Still, Khaled ibn Al-Walid street in Bur Dubai is a pretty buzzy place whenever I have walked down it. Even if it is not the same buzz of this area, it is seemingly more of a mix of business and clientele. I don’t, however, recall it having the bizarre quality of a fur coat store catering mainly to overweight Russian women in unflatteringly tight and or cropped clothing alongside shops selling broiling chickens….Where the hell I wonder are the coats made, cant surely be Russia, or perhaps they’re Pakistani fakes….they sure as hell don’t look it…..I need to check them out before I, finally, check out of the California Hotel….Looks like this blog is going to have to have a name change….”Bur Dubai Diary” just won’t be the same…..

Emotional trip

On the plane back from Europe, after a week of meetings at head quarters, I spent much of the time fighting against exhaustion and attempting, pointlessly, to read material related to my work. It was a definite downer after a pleasurable time meeting the staff at base and finding meaning in the organization that for so long had been just a collection of names, a number of whom I had simply harbored resentments against and yet many of whom could have done little more to have eased the long haul that has been setting up shop in Dubai.

On the plane I could not resist listening to a BBC recording of a Van Morrison performance at Glastonbury in 1987 which was available as part of the BA in flight entertainment. For some strange reason I had not been there, though almost felt like I was listening to it now. Missing my wife very much, “In the Garden” almost made me breakdown and I struggled to hold it together over the airline meal on which I was feasting. The emotion that the counterpoint of vocal and melody express, even if some of its overt religiosity is uncomfortable for some, surely has a universal resonance in its celebration of love whose intensity, devotion, and spirituality can make you feel “born again”.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Southern Rock

At the California Hotel just off Nakheel street, there were, on the last count, four so called night clubs, at least three bars and at least two restaurants. None of these start up til at least 830, save for the Indian bar which is open all day. I headed to the latter round about 7 on the basis that it was Thursday night and the weekend somehow should start here. Killed more than 90 very slow minutes drinking Heineken draft waiting for the basement nightclub to kick in, watching three screens, eating tasteless popcorn and trying to read Gulf News in the dim, seedy light of a bar that, were it not just inside the entrance of a three star and policed by the manager every ten minutes, would very nearly be cool. I have lived in this place two months and tonite is the first time I have very checked out any of the music venues that actually the hotel very popular over the weekend. Trouble is, visiting these places at 8 or 9 o clock in the evening means that you’re catching the performers in rehearsal mode. I stumbled into the Omar Khyam night club, the Pakistani venue in the basement, and found myself in an audience of six , of whom four were staff. Around a discrete corner an African woman nursed a beer while the tubby male singer seemed to be singing at me while heavilly made up young girls in brightly coloured saris and head scarves for the most part did desultory moves while occasionally one would step up and make a reasonably serious effort at dancing, throwing off the head covering and concentrating on shaking her very long locks around like an extra from a hippie dance troupe. At one point the oldest, plainest, female grabbed the mic and matched the male singer for commitment, and more or less for volume. This was essentially for these singers, dancers and musicians a tepid warm up. Overly amplified, were two tabla players, very average in competence, but the sound of their instruments was exciting to hear in additon to the commonplace south Asian keyboard heavy music.

Heading for a food break on several pints is always a disappointment and hotel food, especially in this place, is never good as I, surely, should know. What I consumed was at least a means to fill a gap, before checking out the other venues in this hotel. Heading back down to the bowels of the building I had a choice of the Indian nightclub or the Bollywood dancers revue. Opted for the latter and soon wished I had had the detachment that allowed several other punters to check out the scene and promptly leave. The male musicians in this place did nothing except play tapes and the girls danced, or rather moved occasionally in a stiff unenthused fashion to whatever was played. At this point, I was reminded of Bowie’s "Queen Bitch", knew for sure that “I could do better than that”, and texted my totally sober wife to inform her of this revelation. I then reminded myself that I do not have pert breasts and that is what the young men in this audience are paying AED20 a can of Heineken for, and seemingly giving the maitre d one dirham coins to lavish on the solo dancer for. I soon made my excuses and headed back to my room for a tap water, and a blast of southern rock on my MP3 player c/o Neil Young, before writing these observations in a less than able state. These places needs checking out after midnight, then it fills out, and then I suspect the musicians have to play, regardless of whether the girls can dance….