What I’ve Loved

Now that I’ve handed in my resignation, here are what I’ve loved or maybe just liked about living in the Middle East in general and Qatar in particular.

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1. Cultural Diversity

I sat eating sushi the other night with an American lawyer, a Syrian couple, a Canadian teacher and Nancy from Lebanon. Qatar may be limited in many ways but the cultural diversity in the country does lend it an interesting edge. This is especially reflected in food where restaurants of every cuisine can be found. My personal favourite is KFC. No, no I mean either the Pakistani or the Korean restaurant. With all the on-going strife I’ve worked with 10s of nationalities. There are 7 alone in that picture above. And you know what, they are mostly like me and you.

2.There is no crime, well almost

Well yes apart from the murder of an English teacher and the odd other murder, hushed up rapidly by the media, there is very little. Ask why Qatar has only executed one person in 10 years and the answer is they send them to Saudi Arabia to do it. That’s media management for you. But leave your laptop in the car and no one will smash the window to grab it.

3. Time to study

What I’ve noticed amongst colleagues is the amount of study that goes on. The Gulf is a stop-gap for many. An opportunity to gather cash and spend your free time studying for higher education. While I read only a little last year, I am back on it now and also my Japanese and Spanish study. This is linked to the lack of social life. And is time good for a restless mind?

4. Cheap taxis everywhere

Taxis are cheap here. I don’t think I have spent more than 6 pounds getting around. They are also everywhere. However the flip side is they can be incredibly annoying. There are many familiar tricks but it gets demoralising after a while.

IMG_20140102_1723245. Cheap sporting events

As stated in the sporting blog, Qatar subsidising every sporting event. The Qatar Super League is rumoured to lose $100m pounds a month as it pays out for players and facilities and yet has almost no audience. That means events are very cheap to come by, essentially free.

6. No real hassle

I’ve had no administrative problems here. My apartment is provided, hassles such as the aircon dripping were dealt with quickly. I get driven to work. I can walk to the office. Of course what this means is someone else deals with it.

7. Easy to get to immigrant countries

Qatar isn’t quite as well-connected as Dubai but it remains very cheap to get to migrant countries. Flights to Nepal or Sri Lanka were less than 170pounds return. Bargain!

8. Salary/no rent/no tax

That’s right and that of course is the main reason people come to Qatar. You save as much as you earn.

9. The locals

Qataris themselves, especially the adults are very nice and hospitable. They are generous and kind and willing to help. We do live parallel lives, rarely interacting but when you do meet them, they tend to be a touch wary but soon warm up. However formal generosity and friendship are very different things in my opinion. This is only true if they are not in a Land Cruiser.

IMG_20140109_16325610. Stuff you see nowhere else. Camel racing, camping out in the desert. Falconry. Shooting stuff. Sand dunes. It’s worth it once.

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11. The Rules Don’t Matter

Visit the Damien Hirst exhibit and see the signs saying No Photos? No problem. Buy cheap tickets for the tennis and walk into the expensive seats? No problem. Need to take a shortcut down a one-way street? No problem. Need some medicine without a prescription? No problem.

12. Opening times

Due to the weather and the times of prayer everything is open in the morning and until 10pm in the evening. Its only the afternoon that’s the issue.

PANO_20130208_16254813. T-shirts and sunglasses all the time

It’s nice in the morning to throw on some shorts and a t-shirt and wander to the shop. It becomes such a habit that a cold wind coming from the Persian Gulf is a genuine shock to the system. The weather is often cited as a reason to live in the Gulf but to be honest, 4/5 months of the year it is unbearably hot. The rest of the time it varies between warm and hot. Just as long as you can deal with the panda eyes.

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Cuckold United

unitedlosssunderlanddHas there ever been a more cheaply named cup as the Capital One Cup? It’s awful. Manchester United losing in the Capital One Cup in tragic, comedy style during the week felt appropriate and reminded me to write this up. Defeat is another kick for United but in any other time to lose to Sunderland on penalties in such cheapy-named cup would be a minor blip. Alas the season hasn’t worked out Moyes intended. They’ve been what Everton fans expected. Limited and tight-lipped. They look like an abandoned husband.

Looking back at my amateur analysis at the start of the season, I said it would finish Chelsea (1), Man City (2) and then Manchester Utd (3). I said Spurs would do well (7), Liverpool better(6), Everton even better (5) and Arsenal would finish 4th. There is one clear anomaly here and a few predictions which probably will be out-of-synch.

The top spot is far from decided but the presence of Manchester City must be worrying for the rest. Defensively without Kompany they remain suspect but they have the firepower upfront to pull rabbits out of hats. I’m glad I predicted that little Spanish lad on the right would be rubbish.

Alongside Chelsea and Arsenal they have the Champions League to worry about during the week. How they handle this or how seriously they take it will determine the league.  Europe will particularly affect Spurs pushing them down the table. The Europa League as Newcastle know from last season is a major drain rather than a financial bonus.

Arsenal, Liverpool and Everton have surprised me. Arsenal’s strength comes from te midfield stepping up and finally a striker looking almost good enough. Suarez is a near one-man team. Rodgers has pulled the team round him well. Coutinho is a creative card but they still conceded too much. Roberto Martinez has truly surprised. He kneeded a fast-paced team with real organisation and power.

When Moyes bought Fellani, he should have bought Jagielka. When he failed to get Fabregas, he should have bought Mata. Finally and for too much money, Mata is arriving. The media are talking some bullshit about how to fit him in but forget it, he’ll do fine. Now they need to get rid of the deadwood and bring real power into the middle. I wouldn’t recommend Tiote but a more disciplined version is a necessity. The term deadwood isn’t appropriate either. Driftwood would be more accurate. The players look out of their depth, unsure of positioning and emotionally spent.

At the bottom you see the middle too. The league seems to be becoming similar to the Spanish or German league. Serious wealth is concentrated in the top 5 or 6 while the rest scout the other leagues but pay better salaries. There are at least 10 teams still wrapped up the a relegation battle.  I predicted Cardiff, Crystal Palace and Hull. I might be wrong there. Let’s see.

2014 Resolutions

1. Think better and more patiently – I will finally do this.

2. Get back to Indonesia for a visit to Raju Ampat and the Banda Islands – slight long shot regarding the islands but Indonesia is very possible.

3. Read, read, read – last year was so poor in quantity and quality.

4. Continue Spanish/Russian- long-term projects but getting there

5. Take Japanese government exams – I’ve said it before but this is the year!

6. Life Mojo – I tend to burn long and bright and then burn out until I can renew myself. 2001, 2005 and 2008 were the last renewals. This run has lasted a long time. It’s been great but I am getting low now. Time for a change 🙂

7. Visit Norway/Iran/Moscow/Switzerland – It’s time! (and Belgrade for the wedding of the year!)

8. Finish 10k in under 50mins – That will be the time

9. Leiden University – time to return to study, specialising in Indonesia.

10. Who is ?? – I’ll let you know

Hope to see you along the way!

Satire and Public Expression in the Middle East

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The Pan-Arabia Enquirer is The Onion or Private Eye of the Middle East. Run out of Dubai it constantly runs ridiculous stories with enough truth and parody in them to make you snigger, giggle and laugh out loud. Its coverage of Dubai’s not-so-subtle EXPO 2020 bid was brilliant hinting at the endless bribery taking place. The endless and terrible photoshopping of Mahmoud Ahmedinejah into photos of the British Royal Family claiming he and Pippa Middleton are in a relationship, an obvious nod to Princess Diana, make me chuckle daily. But most of their stories reflect the spoilt, pampered reality of the expats who constantly moan about any inconvenience to their lives, be it, the maid is sick, the new coffee shop is closed or the lack of some item in the shop.

White expats are the most noted feature of the UAE. The towers that gleam (and most sit empty) were designed and project-managed by the white folk who come and live in Dubai for a few years and yet spend most of their time either telling people how much they are ‘loving, loving, loving it’ or morosely complaining about it. They tend to come from the same backgrounds psychologically. Under-educated and over-paid, their knowledge of the world around them is limited by their intense interest in the new mall that’s opened. They live in a bubble, meeting for brunches and leisure and remain constantly surprised when someone like myself comes around and sees little value in what they do. They are not offended but confused, eyes darting to each other seeking some confirmation what they thought is valid. They fail to understand how overvalued they are.

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But what the Pan-Arabian Enquirer really exposes is the hierarchal nature of the political systems in the Middle East and hence the tight grip on media. The PAE is satire. Its stories are all made up. It states so in the title. And yet too many commenters on the stories fail to grasp this. A story stating glamour model Jordan was planning to suit the country of Jordan for breach of trademark elicited hundreds of response from Jordanian saying she needs to get educated as they were there first. An article on a potential roped off lane on the motorway in the UAE for those with VIP passes allowing them to drive 10km/h faster brought equally confused results. An article about a whining expat finally leaving after 15 years of hell/luxury was followed by comments saying he should go home if he doesn’t appreciate it. It’s that completely failure to understand that what is stated in the media from a seemingly genuine source is not true that baffles. There is simple little history of it.

Most expats have a healthy distrust of political authority especially within hereditary systems. How would regimes react here to Spitting Image where Thatcher was an alcoholic and Prince Phillip a racist. Or The Daily Show in the US. In these forums, the power is on the other foot. Politicians dare not touch them. Criticising them shows a lack of respect for the public’s judgement.

But the word regime is the key here. Regimes don’t like and can’t manage political openness. In Egypt, a well-known political satirist was jailed for mocking the President. In Turkey, a democracy under tight control, its greatest modern novelist was put on trial for asking historical questions. A poet in Qatar was first sentenced to hang and then given 15 years for reciting a poem on democracy. Could they imagine the reaction to David Cameron opening a Twitter account? The first 10 posts all contained the word wanker! The political stricture, control over the media, lack of critical thinking and in the Gulf, buying off of political dissent mutes self-expression.

As mentioned, the PAE regularly highlights the complaining behaviour of the expats in the Middle East but never does it mention the Sheik. The Gulf Times and Dubai News are embarrassing mouthpieces of Gulf governments here, purporting to real journalistic enterprises but with every opening story a self-congratulatory update on what the Sheik has done today it is best ignored. The expats themselves seem to live in a non-political bubble. Everyone is a blogger, marketing executive, in construction or landscape gardening, all essentially to gentrify and glorify the place in some kind of Truman Show pastiche.

After a while you have to understand true value, what has true worth and why you should know that taking the money and deflecting your eyes to the 7-star brunch is not good enough.

FILMS

I haven’t really watched many of late. Socially, life’s been distracting. And I haven’t had fast internet at my place and the cinema isn’t an option. But below is my 2 pence worth on what I have seen.

Gravity

This is Speed in the sky. It’s very well-made and spectacular but again this is Sandra Bullock driving a bus in space. Her range of dialogue could have been pulled out of the Jan De Bont classic/piece of crap. The story is contrived and the constant battle against the odds gets a bit ‘yeah whatever’ after a while but in 3D it is entertaining if mildly ridiculous.

The Great Gatsby

Looks great, lushous and impressive with vast sets and paranomics that only looked like they were produced in a computer. I never really liked the book but the film makes it more accessible and less folly-pretentious. The build up to the dramatic ending was dynamic. Leo plays the same role he has in many movies while Toby Macguire does his best drunk Peter Parker impression. Its entertaining and memorable for its production and pacing over anything else.

American Splendor

Fantastic film splicing documentary and actors around the life of Harvey Pekar, a well-known comic book writer. Paul Giamatti is excellent as the social awkward, possibly autistic Pekar while his wife plays the biggest nerd helper I’ve seen. The documentary-fiction method could confuse some but it’s very well-made and despite never truly making you leap, it does hold the attention. The use of Pekar himself to explain moments is brilliant.

The Place Beyond the Pines

This is some film. Grainy and slow featuring Ryan Gosling being Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper actually doing some acting. Its actually difficult to believe it is him. The film is essentially divided into two parts which fold into each other. It’s pretty depressing, straight-out and well-made. Be in the mood.

Thor

Talking of entertaining and very ridiculous, Thor is here to save the world again. Despite being undefeatable he seems to make hard work of all these battles. Of course it’s mostly down to his conieving brother and his hard-on for Natalie Portman but he pulls it out in the end. This film is less earnest than the last, throwing in plenty of silly jokes and banter between the main characters except for Anthony Hopkins who’s never smiled in his life. The references to The Avengers were frankly idiotic and so laboured you know they were simply following a contract stipulation. It’s the kind of film you will talk through so see it with a real friend.

Pacific Rim

I saw this on a flight. Somebody save me. The lot was so formulaic, the action was ridiculous and it even failed to be entertaining. Serious disappointment but then what do you expect!

Now You See Me

Well I did for a while but then I fell asleep. Hey, I was flying. It was too smarmy for its own good.

What a critic. I am sure you agree.

Sport in Qatar: A Means to an End

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long, long time but new surprises keep popping up making it more difficult to write something final or at least definitive. (I’m out the country right now and the long summer doesn’t afford much sport). Qatar of course is trying to make its name culturally primarily through sport. While in Doha there is the Islamic Museum worth a visit for the building alone, a new Damien Hirst exhibition and various other artistic endeavours, it’s mostly known for the coming World Cup and its sponsorship of Barcelona.

Forget the idea the World Cup will be moved. It simply won’t. It will however be a winter World Cup which makes sense for all. Qatar is too far into the building process and the politics of getting the World Cup means litigation must be avoided. The point I’ve rarely heard raised is the mentioned is the fate of the fans in the summer weather. While much talk focuses on the players running for 90 minutes in the summer heat, they’ve barely mentioned the fans sitting there for the same amount of time. I’ve watched a few games live here and you sweat breathing. Imagine a stadium with 40,000+ fan sweating fans trying to get involved and you have kebab heart attack central. These guys are no athletes. Standing in this kind of heat will kill them. St John’s Ambulance will have seen nothing like it and you can guarantee the Red Crescent or Qatar health board will not be prepared for this.

That brings me to the point of this piece. In Qatar I’ve happily attended football, cycling, beach football, athletics, tennis and motor sport from the international calendar. These are big events we hear about when flicking on the TV. ‘The Tour of Qatar cycle race, the Exxon Qatar Tennis Open’ or ‘the Diamond League meet’ in Doha. The highlights rightly emphasis the sport itself but being at the events live, the cameras clearly miss and the directors obviously direct the viewer away from the fact apart from a few, mostly foreigners, there is barely anyone there.

Witness the stark example of the World Cup beach football qualifiers. We arrived in time for Japan vs Thailand, a good match (if beach football can ever be) dominated by the Japanese in particular by their tall, rangy, black defender who seemed to score from the back at will. Yes, I said black. He was black. Not Japanese tanned. But one of the world’s most insular cultures had a black guy playing for them. Good on them and he was clearly the player of the tournament.

After the Japanese win came Afghanistan vs Qatar, a real cultural battle and one you would think might be difficult for the disparate and divided Afghanis to pull off. I used to volunteer at a refugee service and when a Pashtun entered a room full of Hazari, he would immediately exit and wait his turn outside. Neither side would mix. The Qatari team was typically full of non-Qataris, much like the stadium seat. In fact at sporting events, one of the biggest games is spot the Qatari. If they come along at all, they’ll be mostly grazing the buffet at half-time and then leave or are constantly on their phones oblivious to the action. This might sound like a criticism but it is an observed fact.

As the game approached, something inspiring occurred. From all sides streamed in Afghanis of different social grouping, almost all men but in the whole gambit of dress. Dress of course, as discussed in the thobe blog, is a clear indicator in the Middle East of who you are. The game began and we moved to be next to them. They chanted and hugged each other, standing up and cheering as their team, made up of differently sized men destroyed Qatar 8-3. Despite living and working in Qatar, it was difficult to not support Afghanistan given the atmosphere around me. The crowd enjoyed the spectacle while the Qatari played on his phone.

There are advantages to this for myself. All tickets are a matter of pounds. The ability to pay for VIP tickets and the lack of organisation and fairly laid-back attitude of the security means you can get close to the players. I’ve met Mark Cavendish, Sergei Bubka and Seb Coe recently. The existence of large expat communities gives all international events potential. The greatest sporting sight was the Kenyans and Ethiopian supporters singing at each other as their runners lapped the track at the athletics.

But this brings us to the fundamental reason of this blog and sport in Qatar to raise political and cultural capital. 20 years ago almost no one without direct contact with the region had heard of Qatar. Since the previous Emir, they’ve been on a quest to make the country politically and economically important. Its raised its profile through overt and covert regional diplomacy, real estate investment and following the Dubai model of hosting international events (though it should be noted the first international Dubai event, the Dubai 7s was in fact foreign project and most events remain outside managed). Qatar sponsor FC Barcelona to untold millions and overpay for numerous sporting events. The women’s tennis tournament’s prize money rivals Wimbledon. All of this is to put it on the map.

The World Cup is the ultimate signifier of having ‘made it.’ Its a means to an end. While the World Cup should be placed in the Middle East at some point, Qatar is an illogical choice and this is not about the weather. Turkey, Iran or Saudi are a far better bet for such a tournament. A game in Qatar attracts a thousand at best and mostly these are non-Qataris. The stadiums presently being built will be ripped up afterwards and shipped to Africa. The underground system will shift few to nowhere.

Dubai recently bid and won Expo 2020. Ignoring the Pan-Arabian Enquirer’s ridiculously funny send-ups of the voting process and Dubai News’ equally ridiculous questioning of the countries who didn’t vote for them (Pakistan and Afghanistan were publicly queried why they didn’t vote for their Dubai brother!), at least Expo 2020 fits the Dubai model as a finance, tourism and business hub and therefore money reasonably sensibly spent. The World Cup in Qatar is illogical.

The government is trying to improve the situation by encouraging sport. There is a national holiday called Sports Day in February were all government departments must take part in sports in the morning and the Emir along with his family come out to play. The health department runs campaigns on healthy lifestyles. But Qataris remain over-weight. Despite Qatari men being the longest living men in the world, the newer generations passion for cars and fast food alongside the lack of facilities to walk/run (pavements are poor except at the Corniche) or ride a bike (taking your life in your hands) sends the wrong message.

Without a fundamental commitment to a lifestyle change, Qataris will get fatter. The adult generation generally appreciate their fortune and understand the changes that have taken place. The next generation will see this as nothing earned but given. Their passion for sport is ridiculed as simple shift from Barcelona to PSG when times change. Gaming and sitting around the majles are the social norms. Saudis and Kuwaitis have a terrible reputation for arrogance and petulance. Qataris so far are not there. They remain humble. But despite best intentions, this becomes inevitable in hierarchal systems. In a feudal state, the local lord with his servants and hanger-ons gets fat and lazy. Unless sport and activity beyond a single national day become the norm, the benefits of sport will be lost and simply be the very wasteful means to a geo-politicial end.

Too Young to Get Old

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My friend Jan once remarked that I couldn’t sign another contract here in Qatar as I’d rot away. I knew it was true but failed to heed his advice.

Rotting of course happens from the inside, a hollowing out of all the vitality and worth. It comes from being unhappy, frustrated and angry at your own impotence. I’ve felt it in myself. I simply feel like I’ve lost life mojo. I am not the package (never complete!) I was and am. I’m often assumed a social and optimistic person. But the exuberance has gone. My energy’s been sapped. I’m running on empty and pretending. I’ve lost something good about myself.

I feel doubts there sometimes right now. A nagging, listless feeling. Life’s become a calculation and I’ve lost my sense of humour. I remember speaking to Christine who reminded me how I felt in Korea. Its the same now. This confusion in my head is a weight affecting me physically and mentally. The unhappiness in my soul makes me question who I am, puts me under pressure and stress I need not and am not due. I feel now less capable when I know the opposite is true.

I spoke to my great mate AC on Christmas morning. I informed him how he came up in conversation in Barcelona recently. When Olivia asked how Claudia and I met, she told the story of the home-warming at Dr Luke’s house in 2008. AC arrived with a bottle of red wine after drinking an equal amount at dinner with his brother. He gave that smile I’d seen many times, the smile that told me he was gonna do something silly that night. He did. And he smiled.

But looking back I am envious of that smile. That’s the sort of feeling I remember from times only a year earlier. That knowledge of inevitable turmoil. That confidence in yourself. That ability to look people straight in the eye, energise and comfort them that what is going to happen will be fun and worthwhile.

The view needs to change. The colours I see and people I meet must be more eclectic. Plans are afoot. Happy New Year everyone.

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