Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Caltex Road Star

For the past eight or so years Caltex have been the major sponsor of the Road Star campaign in Dubai. During the promotion a group comprising Caltex staff, a Radio 2 personality and a senior police officer pull over an unsuspecting member of the public who has been driving well and shower him or her with gifts. They go out twice a day over the week of the campaign and dispense gifts to two lucky drivers in each session.

A cynic might suggest that being able to find only four motorists a day epitomises the typical standard of driving in Dubai. So I have.

Caltex's largesse takes the form of Dh 750 in 'cold, hard cash', goody-bag and a Bluetooth headset. We are told in the radio adverts that to qualify we have to wear seatbelts, use indicators and stay off the mobile phone. It's not exactly rocket science, is it?

On the radio today, the Road Star campaign was being flogged to death by a senior executive from Caltex aided and abetted by the D.J. They went on ad nauseam about how using a mobile phone while driving was even worse than drink-driving for slowing driver reaction time. Apparently something like 70% of the driver's attention is taken up with the phone call leaving insufficient for driving. This is then made worse if the driver has one hand holding the handset to his ear.

So in their wisdom, Caltex give away Bluetooth headsets. I was unable to get through to Radio 2 by phone or text message (after stopping my car, obviously!) to ask how Caltex could justify encouraging drivers to talk on the phone while driving.

Perhaps each recipient of this gift will only ever use it in the shopping mall, cramming the device into his ear so that everyone can see the little blue LED and be appropriately impressed.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Let's play Monopoly

The local telecomms monopoly continues to push its broadband special offer. Al Shamil, 'Surprisingly fast at amazing low prices' is a limited period offer that Etisalat has been plugging hard for months with no sign of the advertising campaign abating in the near future.

Why is Etisalat continuing to peddle the 'amazing low prices' that are clearly anything but low? Is it entirely because there is a total lack of competition?

A cursory comparison with broadband offers in the UK easily demonstrates the magnitude of Etisalat's less than realistic price structure. Aside from a 'mere' 2Mbps being the maximum speed on offer, Al Shamil is typically between two and three times the cost of the average broadband rates offered in the UK.

Or are British broadband providers cutting their own throats? Somehow I doubt it.

I have not included the effects of British 17.5% Value Added Tax. Neither have I considered the costs of wireless modems, installation, free or reduced rate months, or any bundled software.
I would however concur with Etisalat's claim that Al Shamil broadband is 'amazingly fast'. Compared with the dial up that typically runs at about 3kbps, even a 256kbps would feel blisteringly quick.

However, until Etisalat proposes a more realistic broadband pricing structure I shall continue with ye olde dial uppe at home. As my monthly internet bill is usually around AED 50 (less than £10) it is questionable whether I need broadband at all. If I do need a broadband connection I can always take my laptop to Starbucks and use wireless broadband at the same hourly rate as home dial up.

I contacted Etisalat through their official feedback website on 7th March:

"All Al Shamil broadband monthly rates are typically between two and three times those on offer in UK. A more realistic pricing structure (say Dh80/month for 256kbps to Dh120/month for 2Mbps) would make Al Shamil a much more attractive proposition."

Unsurprisingly, more than three weeks later I have yet to receive a response.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Rules are made to be...?

There's been a lot in the local press lately concerned with roads and traffic in the Emirates. The basic problems are twofold:-

1. Despite a comprehensive network of high-quality highways, traffic jams are becoming the stuff of legend.

2. The UAE has some of the highest traffic accident rates in the world.

The government's solutions to these problems are to construct ever grander highway schemes and to introduce increasingly Draconian traffic laws. Today's Khaleej Times carries a story about proposals for yet more road widening and yesterday's included an article about new federal traffic laws.

The trouble is one of enforcement, or lack of it. Until existing laws are applied equally and transparently, offences will continue to be committed. It is expensive to get caught driving on the hard shoulder, for example, but I've lost count of the number of vehicles that have gone roaring past me as I sit in a traffic jam. Without a credible chance of getting caught and punished there is little incentive to stick to the rules.

Highway carnage continues despite road safety campaigns. It remains commonplace to see the driver of a Land Cruiser driving without a seat belt and with a small child on his lap. I guess in an accident the driver will be protected from injury by his heir-bag. Accidents, it would seem, only happen to other people.

A favourite local party piece is not to queue to exit a highway, but instead to drive all the way to the diverge taper and push in. A typical arrangement might be four lanes of main line and two lanes on the exit slip road. Our ignorant friend and his many acolytes try to push their cars into the queue on the slip road. These cars block the main line slow lane. Thus, each car doing this has a double effect: it takes up space on the slip road and on the main road. On the rare occasions when a police officer stands at the diverge, notebook in hand and licking his pencil in an "if I see you push in you'll get a ticket" sort of way, the misbehaviour largely evaporates - and so does a lot of the congestion.

In common with other parts of the world, the authorities obsess about enforcement of speed limits. According to Dubai Police traffic accident report for 2002, the direct cause of 31% of accidents was 'overspeeding' and it was a contributory factor in over 43%. Dubai is a spectaculary dangerous place to be on the road. In terms of fatal accidents per population the report shows that in 2002 Dubai's roads were over three times as dangerous as the UK. There was a 1:5280 chance of dying in a car crash.

Page 24 of the report acknowledges that '...[speeding] violations bookings by themselves are not a strong enough deterrent...'. One of the biggest causes of accidents was 'lack of consideration for road users', causing over 31% of the accidents. Random lane switching, tailgating, obstruction, to name a few are perpetrated every day with apparent impunity, whilst speed cameras regularly flash anyone more than 10kph above the posted limit in that lucrative way that local authorities love so much.

Frankly, if you've just spent AED 500,000 on your new Mercedes are you seriously going to be worried if you have to pay a few AED 200 fines when the car goes for its annual registration? Even if the fines are AED 500 each or more, is this little more than an inconvenience? It's perfectly possible to drive without a licence, so why worry about disqualification? And what if your cousin's brother-in-law is the uncle of the Police Chief?

To those who seem to be above the law of the UAE: There are other laws that will eventually catch up with you. You might believe that laws about due consideration, speed limits, window tinting, safe stopping distances, driving licences or insurance only apply to other people.

But you can't avoid the laws of Sir Isaac Newton.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Air unfair

I have a holiday coming up in May, and as usual air travel features significantly in the itinerary. At the end of last November I went along to my friendly travel agent and he quoted me around £100 for a British Airways return flight from Gatwick to Majorca (where I'm led to understand the wa'er dun' taste like wo' i' ough'a). I could book my seats, but I couldn't pay for it yet, because May was too far ahead and flight schedules weren't finalised.

Last Wednesday - still over two months before the flights - I went with my credit card in hand, only to be told that British Airways now wanted £175. Outraged, I decided to shop around. Other travel agents quoted more or less the same fare, as did Expedia and my sister's pet travel agent in England. I eventually decided to swallow my pride. Further disgruntlement followed when I discovered that yesterday, merely five days after I was quoted £175, the fare had risen to £220.

What justifies more than doubling the ticket price is beyond my comprehension. I understand why BA chooses to behave in this way: they're one of the only shows in town, and can consequently charge whatever they darned well please. No wonder BA used to have a slogan that sounded very much like We'll take more fares off you.

Incidentally, the outbound flight is a mere £50. It's the return that keeps rising. Attempts to fly out on BA and back on some other airline are futile. Single fares carry surcharges so that even flying Air Berlin back to Stansted (at enormous personal inconvenience) works out no cheaper.

As for getting from the Middle East to UK, I'm risking the tender mercies of Qatar Airways again. As mentioned in a previous post, I'm trying to use up my frequent flyer Q-miles on Business class upgrades. Guess what? Although I can upgrade to Business on the outbound, the return sector is 'already full in Business class'. Two months in advance? How likely is that? It makes the probability of Elvis returning in a flying saucer look like a sure and certain thing.

I'm told that nearer the day most of the business executives will cancel their bookings and seats will become available. We all know what's really happening. Business Class is empty but all seats are blocked in case someone turns up with cash. Only when the airline realises that it'll be flying empty seats will it accept frequent flyer miles in payment for an upgrade. In fact I rang Qatar Airways and asked for a Business class seat and - as if by magic - it was available, but only for money.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Fun Drive - after

The Khaleej Times Desert Adventure has come and gone.

Several hundred cars turned out on the day, ranging from little soft-roaders to a full-blown Hummer, and everything in between. Driving abilities had a similarly enormous range. Bearing this in mind, the organisers had devised an easy route with just a couple of more difficult bits. I chatted with several participants during the day. Some had never been off road before, and were having a splendid time. At its most extreme, novice-ness was epitomised by:

"You have to lower your tyre pressures"
"How do I do that, then?"

The starting flag was waved 20 minutes behind schedule, in accordance with local custom and practice, and we headed off to the start of the sandy stuff. There were numerous opportunities to stop and take photos of the desert and its denizens, which is what a lot of people did.

Denizen: And offspring

There were three intermediate stops along the route, where free refreshments were provided. The chilled chocolate milk shakes were welcome, but I have to admit that a mango-flavoured ice lolly was akin to a sugar factory explosion in my mouth. Definitely not recommended for diabetics or dieters.

I arrived at the end point of the run quite early on. The Planet campsite had hot (well, warm) Middle-Eastern food, and cushions to sit on under canvas. Being in a bowl, the campsite was a sun trap. I imagine that at night with a campfire it would be a marvellous place to spend an evening. The same cannot be said about mid-afternoon because of the heat. And it's only March. The music was too loud and entirely tech-tech-techno, so minus points to the organisers there. I must be getting old as well as fat.

Campsite: The site is visible, but the appalling music isn't!

Other feedback after the event suggested that the route was too easy. This came to me from people who have driven in the desert before. Whilst I would normally have agreed with the comment, having spoken to some of the newbies it was apparent that a more challenging route might have been less enjoyable for them. I did suggest that if they liked this, more was available through ME4x4. I'm a member, so I'm biased.

A major source of disappointment for me came from some of the marshals. These people had failed to realise something fairly fundamental , and that is Leading By Example. At least part of a marshal's job is surely to be a leader, a guide, a nursemaid and a shepherd. Marshalling is under no circumstances a platform to show off. When leading part of a convoy of novices, traversing a slip face is less than clever. The expert might know what to do, but what of the inexperienced punters following faithfully in his wheel tracks?

Wearing seatbelts was another point. I reminded several participants, all of whom immediately strapped in. But it is very difficult for my credibility as a marshal if other marshals are driving unbelted. Quite apart from it being a legal requirement, the potential consequences of running into a dune or a hole, or rolling the vehicle are too nasty to contemplate.

My final gripe involves litter. Several hundred people applying self-adhesive stickers to their cars, drinking tea, milk shakes or Bouncy Bubble Beverage from disposable containers, and eating ice cream generates an enormous quantity of paper, plastic and aluminium waste. There was nowhere to dispose of the trash, and Take Your Litter Home appears to be illegal. I would like to think that the trash was picked up at the end of the day, but I suspect it was left in the desert to blow around.

Was the event a success? I personally had a fun day out and so did people I spoke to. The Khaleej Times thinks so, there will doubtless be another one next year. Could it have been better? I believe so, and have sent the organising team my suggestions.

Some photos of the event can be found here. Henk is another ME4x4 member.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Fun Drive - before

The Gulf News Fun Drive has been something of a national institution here for a number of years. It always seems to be oversubscribed, so not to be outdone, this year the Khaleej Times is organising a separate event that is along similar lines.

The basic concept is that in the UAE there are an awful lot of 4x4 vehicles. "Thank you Einstein; I think we could guess that much." But most of these never go off road any further than the shopping centre car park. Despite there being several off-roaders' clubs, there are many 4x4 owners who would love to drive in the desert but don't know how, don't know anyone to go with, are afraid of breaking the car, any number of reasons.

Enter the Khaleej Times' The Great Escape. For a nominal fee, the participants drive around a predetermined route along tracks and over sand dunes for about 70km. At the end there is some organised entertainment: live music and a desert barbecue. Hopefully it'll encourage more people to enjoy going off the beaten track.

My involvement is as one of the marshals. I've driven the route several times. Actually I've driven multiple variants of the route, but we now have an official one that is to be issued in a booklet to the competit...sorry, participants; it's not a race. To any rally drivers who might be reading this, apparently it's called a tulip diagram. Why? No idea. Maybe it looks like a street-map of Amsterdam.

WAITING: Marshals taking a brief break from the driving

Last Friday was the final final marshals' drive-through. It was the third (of two!) Tiger Tape runs, in which strategic bushes along the route were tagged with striped hazard tape, apparently to give the camels some variety in their diet. It was a motley crew that consisted of the Jeep Wrangler Fetishists Society, Dubai 4x4, ME4x4 and miscellaneous others. We started off in Dubai with a huge and hearty breakfast and then headed off to the official start for petrol and Standing Around drill. At Al Awir we deflated our tyres. In my case that's about 1 bar, or 15psi in the old money. Then we all set off for a nice gentle bimble in the sand.

QUEUE: Dubai's traffic jams are becoming legendary. It's even starting to happen in the desert...

It is nice and gentle too. There should in theory be few stucks and fewer (I hope) broken cars next Friday, provided that the participants remember to drop their tyre pressures and don't drive too fast.


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