Monday, January 30, 2006

Blowing bubbles?

Thinking about buying property in Dubai? Think again! I won't touch buying property here. I went round to look at the low-level flats at The Greens. At the time these were out in the back of beyond. They are now in the middle of a forest of high-rise construction. Even if we assume that Dubai can find enough people to stump up over Dh 1 million each for the apartments at Jumeirah Beach Residence, Dubai Marina, et al there remains a major issue concerning transport. The much-trumpeted light rail transit will run past the Jebel Ali Marina developments into Bur Dubai. But I for one would be unwilling to walk half a mile from my apartment to the station in 45C and 90% humidity, only to have to taxi from the central station to my office that is nowhere near the railway.

So most people will in fact drive. Sheikh Zayed Road, already between 4 and 6 lanes each way, already runs at capacity most of the day. It isn't rocket science to imagine what will happen once the new residences are all occupied:

0600 - seventy-five thousand alarm clocks go off;
0630 - seventy-five thousand cars exit the underground car parks and all hit SZR within ten minutes of each other;
0830 - everyone arrives in Dubai, some 15km up the road.

So in the long term, what is likely? I think the occupants will be left with luxuriously- appointed concrete cubes that no-one wants to buy because of the traffic nightmare. Result: collapse in property values, massive negative equity, ghost town.

There are no controls on the maintenance charges in these alleged 'freehold' properties. At the moment the annual fee is around Dh 10 per square foot - some Dh 15000 per annum for a moderate 2-bed flat. But what if next year some bigwig decides to set it at Dh 15/sq.ft? Or Dh50/sq.ft? 'Freeholders' who don't pay for over a year can be thrown out. It says so in the small print.

And the same goes for the "guaranteed residence visa". It's currently Dh 5000 for 3 years for the owner and family. What if it becomes Dh 5000 per year? Or Dh 10,000? Or per person? Again, no legal guarantees or assurances currently exist.

There is also proposed legislation to prohibit expat owners from renting their villas and apartments. Basically, under the proposed scheme expats could owner-occupy, but rental income would only be permitted for Emirati landlords. This would probably to kill a lot of the market at a stroke. All tenancies have to be registered with the Municipality. If you don't go and register, they send the boys round and pull the fuses so you get no power. So illegal tenancies are very dodgy ground indeed. Let us see if this particular piece of proposed goal post movement ever comes to pass.

Some of the towers will ultimately go 'commonhold', in which the owner- occupiers each have a stake in the building as a whole. I think in the US it's called a condominium. Where this has been done in Dubai, the original developer has retained 51% of the apartments and kept them empty just so they can veto any attempt by the occupiers to control rises in ground rent.

Politically, there is still no decision on allowing expats to own property. There remains therefore a slight but theoretically possible chance that Dubai might say, "No" and throw everyone out. It happened in Zimbabwe solely on the basis of how much melanin an individual owned. I am not suggesting that this scenario is likely, but it is possible.

A friend of a friend has made a tidy sum buying and re-selling houses and apartments off-plan. The developers have now caught on to this, and demand a cut of the resale price before they'll permit the sale to go through. Funny sort of 'freehold', isn't it? When asked if he was going to buy or had bought one to live in, his answer was an emphatic, "Good God, no!"

Incidentally, the local business papers have started running stories along the lines of 'when (not if) will Dubai's property bubble burst?' There was also a scare-story concerning how these buildings may be shoddily built and could be candidates for demolition in 30 years or less. My old rented villa in Doha was typical of the state a 30-year-old Gulf building could be in. I certainly wouldn't want to be 30 floors up in one. How much will an apartment be sellable for in 2030 when the mortgage has been paid off?

The Hydropolis, Dubai's underwater hotel, promises to be the largest, whitest elephant on the planet.The probability of being able to see anything out of the windows appears somewhat small. Nakheel, the outfit responsible for the Palms, had a choice of setting beach slopes at 1:10 or 1:6. With 1:10 the beaches would be stable, but at 1:6 they'll constantly erode and have to be replenished. Given the same waterline footprint in both options, which one gives the larger developable area? And as a consequence, which one did they choose? Nakheel is already on record to state that there will have to be a constant dredging regime, working on a roughly five-year cycle. So all these promises that the underwater environment will recover once the construction is over are so much hogwash. Nakheel is also on record as stating that, regarding the new developments, "Feasibility is not a must." And that's not rumour or hearsay; I was at the presentation. The same guy went on record to say that an environmental impact assessment was not carried out because there was nothing there before and therefore nothing to compare to an 'after' condition. No mention of the coral, dugongs or Jebel Ali nature reserve, then.

However, I may be wrong. Let's face it, that monument to conspicuous consumption Ski Dubai - yes, with real snow on an indoor slope a quarter of a mile long - seems to be successful. Wait until summer, when it will become the coolest part of Dubai both figuratively and literally. I wonder if the workmanship will be able to stand the 60-degree temperature difference between the inner and outer skins?

At the moment Dubai is extremely bullish about the whole development issue. Come and see this particular house of cards before it suddenly collapses around everyone's ears.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

"Taking you more personally"

So goes the motto of Qatar Airways, the state airline of Qatar. When it's working, Qatar Airways is brilliant, providing larger than normal seat pitch in a new fleet of Airbus aircraft. The airline is trying to clean up in the Middle East by using Doha airport as a hub for flights west as far as London and east to Manila. Further afield, partners include Lufthansa.

I am in the Business Class lounge in Doha airport primarily because today the Manila flight did not go like clockwork.

I booked return flights from Dubai to Manila via Doha. There was a multitude of problems at the Dubai office owing to flights being fully booked, block booked by travel agents and whatever. In order to get a guaranteed return ticket I paid the extra and booked Business Class from Manila back to Doha.

There was a small problem. As usual, the published telephone numbers to reconfirm the return flight always ended up in a call tree with an annoying robot woman explaining that no-one was available. They must work some peculiar hours, because Qatar Airways staff are never available in Manila. I suspect that the phone number terminates at a handset in a broom-cupboard somewhere. This is not just a Manila issue; it's similar trying to call the Dubai, Sharjah, London and Manchester offices. I do not appreciate paying for a 30-minute long-distance phone call being constantly told by the annoying robot woman that "your call is important to us."

Flying business proved to be a generally excellent decision. There were no hassles at Manila concerning the additional baggage allowance, the seats were huge, and access to the airport lounge was very welcome. Having made the effort to get up even before the sparrows had finished their sprout balti, it transpired that the flight was late into Manila and consequently would be an hour late out again.

No problem. Rapid transfer labels on the check-in luggage, and Doha airport is small.

The flight was uneventful, except that the much-trumpeted Movies On Demand refused to work. DVD movies were unavailable on this particular aircraft because of Movies On Demand. Bah, Humbug.

A 160mph headwind delayed the flight, and we landed in Doha at 2020 for a connection departing at 2045. Trying to check in, the airport staff advised that the Doha to Dubai had been delayed by an hour because of our late arrival. I tried to get into the waiting room, but was told that my boarding pass, as issued in Manila, would have to be reissued. I wan't told immediately, of course. First I was advised that despite the "Last Call" messages on the PA system I had half an hour before I had to check in. Half an hour later then, with 20 minutes before take-off, I was off to the transfer desk.

Queues in the Middle East are interesting affairs. They're always 50 yards wide and three people deep. Behind the desk, over-wrought staff were dealing with hundreds of passengers who, having handed over hundreds of US$ or equivalent, were now being told that they weren't allowed on the aircraft. One guy was particularly loquatious.

"I paid my money, turned up at the appointed time and now you are breaking your part of the deal!"

I was told that I'd have to deal with Qatar Airways staff directly to sort out why my perfectly good boarding pass was now useless. Why, after paying the extra to fly Business in order to make the connection, should I get bumped off the flight? I went off to find someone in a maroon uniform, making loud remarks concerning how I'd encountered Brownian motion that was more organised.

Eventually the QA rep explained that he might be able to shoehorn me on to the flight, but couldn't guarantee that my bags would make it. I had no desire to return to Dubai on Friday to collect my luggage, so suggested a compromise.

Surprise, surprise, an expired Silver frequent flier card got me the seat I wanted on the later 2345 flight, more or less, and access to the Business lounge. The rep assued me that the new boarding pass was for an aisle seat as I had requested. Incidentally the broadband internet connection in the Business lounge at Doha is the narrowest I have ever encountered. It was slower than my home dial-up by a significant proportion.

For unknown reasons, all economy-class passengers are boarded through the back door of the aircraft. This is especially clever, given that my seat was at the other end of the aircraft. It was also neither an aisle nor a window seat, so I was sandwiched between two other huge passengers. Everyone was on board and ready to go, when at 2345 the announcement came stating that "due to technical reasons the departure would be delayed by 20 minutes." We all sat on the tarmac for 40 minutes before taking off for a 40-minute flight.

I am frankly fed up with the grief associated with trying to fly Qatar Airways. It is always difficult to book, sometimes even months in advance, and can be almost impossible to use frequent-flyer Q-miles. I have resolved to use up all my Q-miles on business upgrades and then change my allegiance.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Diving in the Philippines

I'm writing this post in the Frogfish Cafe in Sabang. Where is Sabang? It's situated around a bay on the most northerly part of Mindoro, one of the islands in the Philippine Archipelago. The largest nearby town is Puerto Galera.

The capital, Manila, is an hour's boat ride in an outrigger boat powered by an elderly Isuzu truck engine followed by a three hour white-knuckle ride in a bus along congested highways.

The diving has been quite super. The water temperature was around 25C, and it hardly ever gets colder. Some selected underwater photos are posted here under the 'underwater' section.

Apparently, the absolute minimum water temperature is 22C. Given that a lot of the divers were in full 5mm or 7mm wetsuits, I dread to think how much like the Michelin Man they appear when the water is cold. I was diving in a 2.5mm shortie and was quite warm enough, thank you.

Pier: All the diving starts and ends here

There is plenty to see and do around Sabang. Aside from the diving, there are numerous bars, restaurants and (as is evident from my typing here) internet cafes.

And food and drink is ridiculously cheap. A bottle of San Miguel has been regularly setting me back around 40p, which is roughly 40 Philippine pesos.

For five quid, how about a pound of Australian rib-eye steak with all the trimmings?

Biker Bar: There seems to be only one way to get here

I bought some new dive kit from one of the local dive shops. I have been promising myself a new regulator for years - ever since my old Dacor was rendered obsolete by the manufacturer and it became impossible to service it. The regulator still works perfectly, but I decided to treat myself.

The diving itself isn't particularly cheap. It's around US$22 a dive, but that does include the boat trip, tanks and weights. All the kit gets hauled to and from the boats by dive centre staff. The boat boys are generally very good, correctly setting up everyone's equipment on the right boat - and Asia Divers has several boats and a lot of customers with almost identical kit.

Asia Divers is only one of the many dive operations in Sabang. It is a separate operation to El Galleon hotel, and separate again to Tech Asia. However, the three outfits are very closely related, and it was super convenient to step out of El Galleon straight into the dive centre, and also to buy tekkie kit from an emporium just a short walk up the beach.

Nitrox was available from Asia Divers for a ridiculous US$8 a go, but a week's unlimited nitrox for US$40 (a theoretical maximum 28 dives' worth) represented much better value.

The hotel and dive centre staff were all genial and helpful. In particular, I should mention that the dive guides were all very good, being friendly and efficient. They tried to keep everyone happy, organising dive trips to sites that were requested by the punters as far as possible.
El Galleon provided good, basic accommodation, including ensuite shower and air conditioning. It was very relaxing to sit under the shade of the coconut palms between dives at the front of the resort.

Comments about the friendliness of the locals extends to pretty much everyone in Sabang. Yes, the local vendors did keep pushing their fake Rolex watches, baskets, rip-off DVDs (for movies that aren't out on DVD yet!), blowpipes, beads, bangles, belt buckles and baubles, but they did take no for an answer, at least for a few minutes.

"No, thank you. I don't want to rent a jet-ski. (Not at US$50 per hour!) Nor do I want a boat trip or a coconut.

Another special mention is Capt'n Gregg's restaurant, bar and dive centre. This is the 'home of the original Gin Juice', a highly acceptable mix of Gordon's, lime cordial and ice water. Capt'n Gregg's is also the home of some delicious steaks. There was never, I was told, an original Capt'n Gregg. The only one I've been able to find is from the movie The Ghost and Mrs Muir. 1947 and 1968 versions

I should also note the plethora of wee beasties. Everything underwater seems either to bite or sting, and it doesn't get much better on dry land. Just behind Sabang is jungle. Industrial strength insect repellent is definitely recommended, as is plenty of antihistamine to deal with the inevitable mosquito bites. Those green mosquito coils do work well. Left to burn in the room, they emit an eye-stinging vapour that ought to kill anything that flies, bites and sucks blood.

All too soon it'll be time to fly back and get back to work. Thursday morning, actually. I expect to be back at my desk at 7:30 on Saturday morning.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Cinema etiquette

cinema 'si-ne-mar' (n) A large dark room with comfy chairs where people go to converse with their friends by mobile telephone.

Attempts by the cinema operators in the Emirates to install signal blockers have largely been thwarted by the authorities. Apparently, some people are so important that they can't afford to miss any mobile phone calls. These individuals, who are senior military officers, doctors on call and so forth, are apparently incapable of using voice mail, the silent or vibrate settings on their handsets, and are similarly incapable of stepping outside to chat.

There are a couple of Dubai cinemas where signal blockers do operate. This shuts up the ring tones but doesn't stop patrons from composing text messages, checking their diaries or playing Snake, all with the annoying backlight illuminating the auditorium.

No technology (aside from various medieval devices that are beyond the scope of this blog) is capable of getting people to be quiet. Of course the occasional remark, sharp intake of breath or laugh is inevitable with a live audience. But why oh why is it necessary for some cinemagoers to talk continuously throughout the entire movie? Is it so that their lips don't seize up, or as Douglas Adams suggested in The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy to block inadvertent telepathic transmissions or to prevent their brains from working?

It might be nice if the cinema staff warned (and if necessary expelled) disruptive audience members, but that seems unlikely to happen. We are promised cinema police. I await with interest the expulsion of a group of noisy, Nokia-wielding local lads, followed by the sudden unexplained deportation of the cinema official.

A current topic filling the Letters to the Editor page of 7DAYS concerns admission of minors. The law of the UAE is clear: The Ministry of Information and Culture decrees that anyone is allowed to see a G film. Admission to 15+ and 18+ movies is restricted to people above those ages. The cinema staff can hardly be blamed when someone who appears to be 16 turns out to be only 14. But it's commonplace to find toddlers in a 15+, which can hardly be appropriate. Of course, it's the parents' call as to what they wish their progeny to see, but I for one do not wish to have my viewing pleasure ruined by someone's wailing brat. Of course, it can be difficult and inconvenient when you can't get a babysitter, but as a non-parent I don't see that as being my problem.

In a G (or even PG) film, children are anticipated and must be tolerated. But in a 15+?

Learning to walk

Well, I'm now up and walking on Powerisers. To get the hang of walking took about 15 minutes in the privacy of the corridor outside my apartment, where there is a high ceiling, walls to lean against, no furniture to demolish and crucially, no witnesses to any embarrassing clumsiness. I'm now confident enough to walk, run and capriole, and have done so in Mamzar and Za'abeel Parks in Dubai. One thing that appears to be impossible is standing still. This is, I suspect, a direct consequence of being both biped and digitigrade.

The inevitable fall and subsequent struggle to get back on to my very long hind legs have yet to occur. It's only a matter of time. I suspect that it will occur as part of my attempts to leap 6 feet into the air, take 9-foot strides and run at 20 mph.

Small children are either fascinated or terrified. Bellowing "Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of an In-dee-un!" went down well and amused a crowd of Indian lads.

Another thing that is only a matter of time is the appearance of the next pair of Powerisers in Dubai. Maybe I should go for a wander up and down the half-mile long Dragon Mart shopping mall. There must be hundreds of Chinese retailers who would be happy to sell cheap copies of Powerisers (that are themselves a Korean copy of a very similar German device). Dragon Mart is the place for Chinese copies of just about everything else.

The opinions expressed in this weblog are the works of the Grumpy Goat, and are not necessarily the opinions shared by any person or organisation who may be referenced. Come to that, the opinions may not even be those of the Grumpy Goat, who could just be playing Devil's Advocate. Some posts may be of parody or satyrical [sic] nature. Nothing herein should be taken too seriously. The Grumpy Goat would prefer that offensive language or opinions not be posted in the comments. Offensive comments may be subject to deletion at the Grumpy Goat's sole discretion. The Grumpy Goat is not responsible for the content of other blogs or websites that are linked from this weblog. No goats were harmed in the making of this blog. Any resemblance to individuals or organisations mentioned herein and those that actually exist may or may not be intentional. May contain nuts.