Friday, October 24, 2008

Mad rush

The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy explains the function if the Ident-I-Eze card like this:
    There are so many different ways in which you are required to provide absolute proof of your identity these days that life can easily become extremely tiresome just from that fact alone, never mind the deeper existential problems of trying to function as a coherent consciousness in an ambiguous universe.

    Just look at cashpoint machines, for instance.

    Queues of people standing around waiting to have their fingerprints read, their retinas scanned, bits of skin scraped from the nape of the neck and undergoing instant genetic analysis.

    Hence the Ident-I-Eze.

    This encodes every single piece of information about you, your body and your life into one all-purpose machine-readable card that you can carry around in your wallet, thereby representing technology’s greatest triumph to date over both itself and plain common sense.

The Emirates Identity Authority is administering this. In keeping with traditional local custom and practice, nothing happens for ages, and then an ambiguous piece of legislation suddenly pops into existence requiring instant action. Gulf News records the problems people are having trying and failing to register on line. And 7DAYS, under the headline threatening “Jail for false info” says that “Professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and teachers will all have to have ID cards which will contain face and fingerprint scans, passport and driving licence details, their addresses and residency status.” Along with allergies, sexual orientation, political persuasion and religious beliefs. I might be making up these last few.

After paying the Dh100 tax fee, the card will have to be shown for “…any kind of negotiations with government departments or banks.” and when …“opening a bank account, visiting doctors, registering for a mobile phone or registering children into a school.”

There will no longer be a need to produce a passport and visa copy when registering the car, applying for a phone or electricity service, or renting a flat. Well, that makes it all worthwhile, doesn’t it? Assuming, of course, that the jobsworth behind the counter doesn't continue to demand the passport copy in addition to the ID card because he's not been instructed otherwise. And I bet every official will need a photocopy of the ID card too; whizzing it through a card reader will certainly not be inconvenient good enough.

As for the sudden mad rush, what’s wrong with including the ID card process with Residence Visa applications or renewals? To simple I suppose. Too obvious, and far too sensible.


Thursday, October 09, 2008

Armageddon outta here

The current headlong rush towards global financial meltdown and supposedly the biggest crash since 1929 provides expatriates with food for thought. My guess is that a lot of us are here in the middle east at least in part because the salary and benefits exceed those we could get back home. And this in turn implies a certain level of saving might be happening. Certainly there are plenty of investment opportunities, with financial advisers available to direct savings into what are touted as high-yield tax-advantageous investment plans. Bank accounts that are fully legal yet invisible to high taxation regimes may be exploited, and these are surely bulging with wads of everyone’s hard-earned filthy lucre.

What happens if a bank goes bust? Well the money vanishes, doesn’t it?

Apparently not. A rather alarming letter in 7DAYS reports that 75% of the first £20,000 is safe with HSBC. That’s alright then: of my one million dirhams (Ha, ha!), if HSBC experienced fiscal Armageddon I’d be sure to receive Dh102,000. Eventually.

I rang HSBC to find out the truth. There was no reply from the branch other than a recorded message advising that I should call the phone banking help desk. There I was told that there was, to the best of Ms Helpdesk’s knowledge, no structure in place to protect depositors’ savings. Despite promises to the contrary, no-one from HSBC has contacted me to allay my concern. None of these experiences has served to boost my confidence.

I suggest that unless a bank - any bank - can offer its customers some guaranteed security, depositors will inevitably withdraw funds to protect themselves against loss. If one bank offers security and another doesn’t, it isn’t rocket science to work out the likely trajectory of clients’ savings. Thus the prophecy of doom becomes self-fulfilling.
    This post edited on 13 October to add that on Sunday evening I heard reported on Dubai Eye (103.8MHz) that the federal government had undertaken to guarantee deposits on banks operating within the UAE. Although local banks only were explicitly included, the interviewee (whose name I didn’t catch – sorry) stated that international banks with a local presence were included. Offshore funds were not.

    In today’s press we learn that UAE banks are protected but that foreign banks are excluded from this government protection.

    No, wait! For a period of three years, foreign banks are protected.

    Different versions of the same rumour, as per usual. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Maybe I should have bought real estate. Or, after reading this rather scary article in Gulf News perhaps not. Immovable property in the UAE is even more difficult than bank accounts to sort out after someone’s death, and getting a Will into a format that UAE courts recognise is complicated, time-consuming and expensive.

What possible incentive do I have to invest in this country without guarantees of financial security for either myself or my heirs? I might as well store the cash in old socks under a mattress, but I’ll obviously not state here which mattress. Or perhaps instead of saving for the future I should enjoy a riotous and profligate lifestyle today. I mean, if the bank goes bust I’ll lose my deposits so I might as well be up to my eyeballs in debt. If I die here, my estate will be frozen for years by the courts, so I might as well have nothing to bequeath.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Bait and switch

We spent Eid Al Fitr in Cyprus. Having decided that it’d be a marvellous place to have our dream home, Beloved Wife made several appointments with various estate agents and land owners, I used a local contact to find a Cyprus contact, and off we flew. Business Class there and back (ouch my wallet) because those were the only available seats. Once I’d booked and paid for the tickets, Beloved Wife’s employer in his mercy then decreed that her office would be shut all week. I had to reschedule the outbound flight. Gulf Air wanted an additional fee to change the booking, “but you can pay this at the airport.” What no-one told us was that paying at the airport required an additional fee of Dh100 per person to be paid to DNATA as a service charge for doing precisely nothing.

Another thing that no-one had told us was that 1st October is Cyprus National Day, and everything would be shut. So our appointments to see all the land we’d arranged to view became rushed. Some holiday! We left the allegedly two- or three-star hotel immediately after our mediocre breakfasts and didn’t get back until well after dark.

Five days in Cyprus were extremely instructive:-

  • “Hotel has Wi-Fi internet access.”
    “There is Ye Olde Dial-Uppe computer in the foyer.”

  • “Hotel has all air-conditioned rooms.”
    “If you want us to turn it on there’s an additional charge.”

  • “Hotel has a swimming pool.”
    “Blue-tiled rectangular hole with some temporary fencing around it.”

  • “The plot is gently sloping.”
    “I’m trying to sell you a near-vertical cliff face.”

  • “Power and water are nearby.”
    “There’s an electricity pole about half a mile from the bottom of the aforementioned cliff face.”

  • “It’s this piece of flat ground as per the plan.”
    “The plan is wrong. It’s actually this cliff face overlooking the motorway.”

  • “The plot is 820 sq.m”
    “By the time the access road is built this 650 sq.m plot will reduce to 535 sq.m”

  • Cutting a long story short, we eventually found a perfect plot in a lovely location near Pafos. The land is fertile, a vineyard, reasonably flat, there’s decent road access and nearby power and water. It’s also big enough for our fantasy home with land enough for grapevines, fruit trees and livestock. It's close to a village but not on a housing estate. Beloved Wife and I discussed the finer details with the owner, developer and agent, after which I told them that we had a deal and would approach a solicitor to deal with purchase and transfer of land title.

    And then on Saturday morning as we were on our way to the airport the agent rang to say that there had been a ghastly mistake. Despite all financial discussions being in Euro, the published adverts being in Euro and the agent showing us a plot guided by our budget in Euro, we were told that the figures quoted had all been in Cypriot Pounds. A 71% increase. The C£ currency has been obsolete since January 2008. It took me about an hour to adjust to Euro; apparently it takes certain oleaginous and serpentine individuals more than nine months to make the adjustment.

    Apparently the adverts are all wrong and the land owner has tried to get the figures changed. But he never said so to our faces.

    Relating this sorry tale of the retail snake oil trade to the proprietor of a Larnaca taverna, his reaction was that the C£ is dead and, I quote, to “Tell him to piss off.”

    Quite. We’re still looking for appropriate land. Dependent on what the agent comes up with, I reserve the option to revise this blog with ‘name and shame’ hyperlinks. Their uppance will come.


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