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-√†-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 attach√© 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.