rascott.com                                                                                 news, views and an occasional blog

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There are many other links on my AOB blog page.


Blooming in Dubai

1 February 2010

Bloomingdaless opened in the Dubai Mall today.

It is the luxury retailer’s first-ever store abroad. And it opened at a cost of about AED270million. It is very different from Bloomingdales in Manhattan with a focus on ultra-high fashion instead of accessible luxury. There are two Bloomingdale’s outposts in the mall, one dedicated to fashion and the other to home. The two are not connected which is rather strange.

Macy’s Inc., which owns Bloomingdales, has joined up with Dubai-based Al Tayer Group to open the store. Al Tayer runs the Middle Eastern operations of a ton of Western retailers, including Balenciaga, Stella McCartney and others like Harvey Nichols and Gap.

Bloomingdales cuts its overheads by having stores in store; including Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent.

In the Lower Ground floor home section you can find an outpost of Forty Carrots, the famed frozen yogurt shop and a Magnolia bakery; baking expensive cup cakes.

Bloomingdales plans on distinguishing itself from Dubai’s vast array of departments stores—including Galleries Lafayette, the aforementioned Harvey Nichols and Saks Fifth Avenue through a focus on brands you can’t find anywhere else in the region.

I had a quick walk around both sections of the store. It is upmarket. There are lots of staff all in smart grey/black suits. And the price tags are very small. But if you need to check the price tags in this store you should not be shopping there anyway. This is a store for people with money to burn. The rest of us are just sightseeing.

Will it work? Well, despite the fact that the entire country is in financial shambles, shopping is still the number one leisure activity in Dubai. So probably.

Flying Cheap

1 February 2010

One year ago, Continental Flight 3407 crashed outside of Buffalo, N.Y., killing 49 people onboard and one on the ground. Although 3407 was painted in the colors of Continental Connection, it was actually operated by Colgan Air, a regional airline that flies routes under contract for US Airways, United and Continental. The crash and subsequent investigation revealed a little-known trend in the airline industry: major airlines have outsourced more and more of their flights to obscure regional carriers.

In the USA regional airlines account for more than half of all scheduled domestic flights in the United States and have been responsible for the last six fatal commercial airline accidents. So TV's FRONTLINE producer Rick Young and correspondent Miles O’Brien have investigated the safety issues associated with outsourcing in their documentary "Flying Cheap" which will air on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010, at 9 P.M. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The captain had failed five flight tests in his career and received inadequate training on a critical safety system involved in the crash. The co-pilot was making less than US$16,000 a year and had commuted overnight the previous night from the west coast. There are a good number of regional airline pilots that are working second jobs and overnighting on lounge room La-Z-Boys.

The flights still carry the codes and colors of the major airlines. But fewer and fewer of the majors are actually flying the commuter planes. That job is increasingly outsourced to small regional companies with names most of us hardly know.

This is all a part of a fiercely competitive industry driven by passengers who want the lowest possible airfares. 

The link above is to a part of the broadcast. Frontline talked to two former Colgan pilots who agreed to speak publicly for the first time.

The industry turned to regional outsourcing in the wake of deregulation and competitive pressure from new low-cost carriers such as Southwest.  The major airlines created the regional industry as a way of lowering costs.

The regional industry argues that flying is safer than ever. Despite the string of accidents among the regionals, the overall fatality rate has continued to decline since deregulation.

But are the public willing to pay more for greater oversight, better training and more experienced crews?

The end of NASA as we know it

1 February 2010

The big news in the proposed US budget is that NASA's allocation for 2011 eliminates the funds for manned lunar missions

NASA did have a grand plan to return to the moon, built on President George W. Bush's (rather foolish) vision of an ambitious new chapter in space exploration.

The Democrat budget numbers show that the Obama administration effectively plans to kill the Constellation program that called for a return to the moon by 2020. The budget, expected to increase slightly over the current $18.7 billion, is also a death knell for the Ares 1 rocket, NASA's planned successor to the space shuttle. The agency has spent billions developing the rocket, which is still years from its first scheduled crew flight.

Quite simply the USA cannot afford it. They have two unwanted wars to finance and the impact of Republican tax cuts to manage. 

Obama's budget will instead call for spending $6 billion over five years to develop a commercial spacecraft that could taxi astronauts into low Earth orbit. Going commercial with a human crew would represent a dramatic change in the way NASA does business. Instead of NASA owning the spacecraft and overseeing every nut and bolt of its design and construction, a private company would design and build the spacecraft with NASA looking over its shoulder.

Essentially the Obama administration has decided that the USA is not going to be a significant player in human space flight for the foreseeable future. Which means if we want to see a man on the moon the next one is almost certain to be Chinese.

This is all bad news for Florida where 7,000 jobs will be lost when the space shuttle is retired next year.

Air Asia X pulls out of Abu Dhabi

1 February 2010

AirAsia X is to pull out of Abu Dhabi after just three months in operation, a setback for the fledgling carrier’s long-haul, low-cost business plan in the region.

The surprise withdrawal is effective on February 21. Strangely this was also the week that Emirates launched a third daily flight to Kuala Lumpur.

The Malaysia-based carrier, which launched its Kuala Lumpur to Abu Dhabi service with great fanfare on November 23, said it hoped to resume services as quickly as possible once it employed a more economical aircraft for the route. It flies a four-engine Airbus A340, but hopes to restart the route using an Airbus A330, which has fewer seats and is more fuel-efficient, with just two engines.

Once again it is clear that the long-haul, low-cost concept, is fragile. Witness last year's collapse of OASIS in Hong Kong. But Abu Dhabi was also an unlikely destination for Air Asia X as both Abu Dhabi and Dubai both thrive as transit airports for their local airline; Abu Dhabi in particular would not see much point to point traffic from Malaysia.

Reducing seat costs by cramming passengers into an aeroplane and offering minimal service is a tough business. That is precisely why the likes of Southwest Airlines and Ryanair have never ventured to go long haul – the concept does not work as well on longer routes.

The five most popular destinations from the Abu Dhabi in 2009 were London Heathrow, Bangkok, Doha, Manama and Cairo.

Dubai World Silence on Debt Standstill Evaporates Bailout Rally

1 February 2010 - Bloomberg

"Dubai’s failure to reassure investors its restructuring plan will succeed is causing the emirate’s benchmark stock index to drop the most in the world and forcing companies to scrap bond sales.

The Dubai Financial Market General Index lost 15 percent since Dec. 14, wiping out a rally sparked by Abu Dhabi’s bailout of Dubai World that day. Bonds of the state-owned company’s property developer Nakheel PJSC sank to 55.75 cents on the dollar from 67.5 cents, while credit default swaps on Dubai government debt trade at 493 basis points, the highest level since Abu Dhabi’s fund injection.

Dubai World, in talks to reschedule $22 billion of debt, failed to present an offer in a meeting with lenders in December and declined to say when a deal may be struck. Dubai Electricity & Water Authority said Jan. 17 it delayed a $1.5 billion bond sale as borrowing costs were too high.

Lack of clarity on Dubai World’s restructuring plan “is creating uncertainty that is weighing heavily on the market,” said Rami Sidani, the Dubai-based head of Middle East and North Africa investment at Schroder Investment Management Ltd., which oversees about $230 billion worldwide. “We’re not out of the woods yet and we know Dubai will continue to struggle with a debt burden.”

Dubai stocks and bonds tumbled in November after the government said Dubai World would seek to delay payments to creditors until at least May 30. Investors speculated that Nakheel, which is building palm tree-shaped islands off the emirate’s coast, would default after Dubai companies lost access to cheap financing because of the global credit crunch and a 50 percent slump in Dubai home prices.

Abu Dhabi’s $10 billion bailout on Dec. 14 ensured that Nakheel would have the $4.1 billion it needed to repay an Islamic bond due that day. Dubai is the second-biggest of seven states that make up the United Arab Emirates, whose capital Abu Dhabi holds 8 percent of global oil reserves. Dubai and its state-owned companies borrowed at least $80 billion until 2008 to transform the emirate into a tourism and financial hub.

The Dubai stock index jumped 10 percent and bond prices soared on the day Abu Dhabi provided the funds. Dubai credit default swaps, which measure the cost of protecting against the default of government debt, sank to 430 basis points from 540.

The Dubai stock index has since posted the biggest decline among benchmark equity gauges in the world’s 70 largest markets. While global stocks have retreated on concern China will take steps to curb economic growth, the Dubai measure’s 15 percent loss compares with a 4 percent decline in the MSCI AC World Index.

Nakheel’s $750 million of 2.75 percent bonds due 2011 lost 17 percent during the period, according to Citigroup Inc. prices on Bloomberg, while credit default swaps jumped 63 basis points. A basis point on a credit-default swap contract to protect against the default of $10 million of debt for five years is equivalent to $1,000 a year.

“The Dubai World restructuring is going to be a long and tedious process,” said Shehab Gargash, a managing director at Dubai-based Daman Investments who’s holding half of his $1.5 billion under management in cash. “That’s the main reason we decided to stay out” of Dubai’s “bear market rally,” he said.

Templeton Asset Management Ltd.’s Mark Mobius says the Abu Dhabi bailout ensured the worst of the emirate’s debt crisis is over. The manager of $34 billion in emerging market assets said in an interview there’s “value and opportunity” in Dubai markets and that Templeton bought shares during the selloff in November and early December.

“There has to be more revelations about what is being done and how, but the panic is over,” Mobius, the chairman of Templeton Asset Management, said in the Jan. 28 interview in Melbourne. “We are trying to buy at a good price given the fact that transparency isn’t complete.”

The Dubai stock index trades for 5.1 times analysts’ 2010 earnings estimates, the cheapest level worldwide after Nigeria’s All Share Index, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

While investors speculate on the recovery values of Dubai debt, the lifeline from Abu Dhabi is helping the state-owned companies meet their interest payments. Nakheel paid a $10.3 million coupon last month on its 2011 bond. Dubai Holding Commercial Operations Group LLC, the investment company owned by Dubai’s ruler, made about $100 million of scheduled payments last month on three bonds.

Dubai-based firms have to refinance $7.3 billion in syndicated loans and $2.8 billion in maturing bonds this year, according to Deutsche Bank AG estimates. Some of the biggest debt maturities include a $1.25 billion loan due in June by Dubai International Capital LLC, an investment company owned by Dubai’s ruler, and $1.5 billion in two floating-rate dollar notes issued by Emirates NBD PJSC.

Emirates Telecommunications Corp., the U.A.E.’s biggest phone company, has deferred plans to issue the equivalent of $490 million bonds as it has enough cash for expansion plans, Ahmed bin Ali, a spokesman for the company, said Jan. 28.

The Dubai government’s $1.93 billion Islamic bond issued in October was the last sale of bonds from the emirate. Drake & Scull International PJSC, a Dubai-based construction-engineering contractor that raised about 1.2 billion dirhams ($327 million) from its initial public offering in 2008, was the last stock sale from a Dubai- based company, according to Bloomberg data.

“It makes very little sense for a Dubai corporate issuer to go out now and just try to force the issue in the market,” said Abdul Kadir Hussain, chief executive officer of fund manager Mashreq Capital DIFC Ltd. “Right now the market is waiting for a strategy. How are we going to reduce the absolute debt level in Dubai and how quickly is this going to happen. Investors are taking a very conservative attitude toward the U.A.E.”"

Dubai's Business Bay

1 February 2010

A picture from January 2010 with Business Bay in the centre and the Burj Khalifa to the right.

Faye's return

31 January 2010

Now I know why Emirates needs to take the A380 to China. So we can all go and see the return of Faye Wong.

Hong Kong artist Faye Wong is currently making preparations for her impending comeback to the entertainment industry. After going on hiatus for more than two years, she recently recorded a theme song called "You Lan Cao" for the movie, Confucius, which has just been released in China.

Faye is now 40 years-old.  manager admitted that Faye's comeback schedule has been confirmed. She will be participating in the rehearsals for a television programme where she will either share a tune with fellow singer Eason Chan or perform her solo song from Confucius.

According to other reports, Faye's first comeback appearance was at a jewel fair held in Shanghai this month. She attended the opening ceremony with her husband, Li Yapeng.

The big rumour is of concerts before the year end. One of the locations for Faye Wong’s (王菲) comeback concerts in November 2010 will be Shanghai’s Pudong Expo Performing Arts Center. Ticket prices are expected to break all previous records.

She may also perform in Hong Kong.

Faye Wong (born August 8, 1969) is a Chinese singer, songwriter, actress and model.

Pre-empting Emirates??

31 January 2010

China Eastern Airlines has taken an initiative ahead of Emirates and will launch flights from Kunming to Dubai. One of my 2010 predictions was that Emirates would start this route.

Kunming is a southwestern Chinese city and acts as a gateway to South East Asia.

The airline, one of the largest in China, will operate the service three times a week from February 22, it said.

A 260-seat Boeing 767-300 aircraft will be used for the service and the flight to Kunming will take seven hours.

Only one of the three weekly flights, on Mondays, will be direct. The Wednesday and Saturday flights will have a stopover in the Bangladeshi capital of Dacca, which will add an extra hour to the flight.

"The opening of the new air route will help increase the contacts between China and Dubai," an airline spokesperson said.

Lagos Memories

30 January 2010

From 1970 to 1975 my parents were living in Nigeria, Home was the Government Residential Area at Ikeja, close to Lagos Airport.

35 years ago! Scary. There was only one hotel in Ikeja - the Lagos Airport Hotel.

The hotel is pretty down market now- with the Sheraton and Protea taking the foreign business. But the pool is still the same; with the same diving boards. I used to spend the morning at Ikeja Golf Club; it is still there and thriving - with new greens replacing the old browns. Afternoons were spent with friends by the pool.

Paul McCartney and Wings (actually just Paul and Linda McCartney, guitarist Denny Laine, and ex Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick - stayed there in 1973 recording Band on the Run - and also lounging around this pool.

There are many pictures of Lagos at this link.  But this picture brings back many memories.

Tanks in the night spark coup talk
Thai Takes by PHILIP GOLINGAI The Malaysian Star
30 January 2010

"Military coups have been part and parcel of Thai politics – friendly coup, judicial coup, TV coup, silent coup – and the nation may yet see a coup to get rid of the Opposition

TWENTY-TWO V-150 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) rumbled into the streets of Bangkok on Monday night. And – not surprising for politically-jittery Thailand – the immediate assumption was the military had launched a coup.

It turned out that the APCs were decommissioned from an operation in the country’s restive southern provinces and were on their way via Bangkok to Pathum Thani (a town north of the Thai capital) for maintenance.

The next day the military apologised for causing panic and for not informing the public about the movement of the APCs.

It also denied that the army would stage a coup.

“It is out of fashion to talk about a coup,” said army spokesman Colonel Sansern Kaewkamnerd.

On the contrary – thanks to recent events (such as the crack in the Abhisit Vejjajiva-led coalition government and the mysterious slap-in-the-face grenade attack on the office of the Army Chief General Anupong Paojinda) and conjectures (involving surprise, surprise Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thai Prime Minister who was ousted in a 2006 coup) – it is once again fashionable to talk about an imminent coup.

This week Thai English-language newspapers ran coup-related news articles (No impending coup, Anupong insists) and opinion pieces (Coup, what coup? and Full circle to another military coup?).

The Nation also Tweeted: “Here’s one for 2day: A 14-yr-old nephew of Pojaman’s told his school friends to ‘get out of Bkk’ on Feb 26. (Translated: Here’s a rumour for today – A 14-year-old nephew of (Thaksin’s former wife) Pojaman told his schoolmates to “get out of Bangkok” on Feb 26 (which is the day the Supreme Court decides on the 76bil baht (RM7.6bil) that was seized from Thaksin after the 2006 coup).

But a coup by an Abhisit-friendly military against the Abhisit-led coalition government? Mind boggling.

But this is Thailand. And there is such a thing as a “friendly” coup.

In his Friday column in the Bangkok Post, Abhisit’s cousin Suranand Vejjajiva, who served in the Thaksin Shinawatra Cabinet and is now a political analyst, wrote:

“The general analysis among political pundits is that, with pressure over the verdict on Thaksin’s 76bil-baht assets case to be handed down on Feb 26, the Red Shirts (a pro-Thaksin movement) could escalate their rallies and become uncontrollable.

“Riots could turn violent and there would be sabotage. The top brass have been dissatisfied with PM Abhisit and the Democrats in controlling the situation. There have been signs lately that they are distancing themselves from the government.

“Given the circumstances, if another putsch is to be carried out, it could be the first one in history with the intent of getting rid of the opposition rather than to overthrow the government. It is Thaksin who is the target, not Abhisit.

“Thaksin is viewed as a nuisance, and definitely a threat to the military’s security if he ever manages to stage a comeback. In addition, Thaksin is still widely popular, with polls indicating that if an election were held today, Thaksin’s Puea Thai Party would win more than 200 seats, if not an absolute majority in Parliament.”

The anticipation of a coup is the thing that I will miss the most when I end my stint in Bangkok as The Star’s Thailand correspondent (which began a month before the Sept 19, 2006 coup). Almost every other month since I’ve lived in Thailand, tongues have wagged that a coup was imminent.

Though the political pundits and fortune tellers have been wrong on their coup predictions, Thailand has seen:

a) A judicial coup (the court removed Pro-Thaksin Samak Sundaravej as Prime Minister for moonlighting as a chef in a television cooking show).

b) A TV coup (army chief General Anupong – flanked by the navy chief, the air force chief and the police chief – appeared on television to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law and Samak’s successor).

c) Several “silent” coups (including the Abhisit-led government declaring a state of emergency to allow the military to crack down on the Red Shirts protest during Songkran, the Thai new year, in April 2009).

Today as I fly back to Kuala Lumpur, I wonder whether there will be a coup in Bangkok tonight."

Blair's lack of regret

29 January 2010

Tony Blair was in front of the Chilcott inquiry from 9.30am until just about 5om today.

If he was nervous it was about the performance he was about to give rather than the certainty of his message.

By the afternoon, the old Blair had resurfaced.

His answers became longer, his head was held higher, and he was clearly in control of the situation and of his message.

He remains evangelical about the Iraq invasion. He was asked twice in a gripping final 30 minutes if he he had any regrets. None. Not a chance! He was asked if he wanted to say any final words at the end of the enquiry. No. Abrupt and clear. This ex PM is not for turning. i would do it all again was his message.

It is an inquiry only. No one is on trial. It is likely that the inquiry will find fault with the decision making process and the lines of communication in government.

But the inquiry members did not pursue the key issue of their most people's minds – why had he taken the country to war when the attorney general's advice had been lukewarm at least, on the legality of such action?

Blair was defiant and emphatic as one expected, but he chose his words carefully, seemed to go out of his way not to provoke needlessly. He was well rehearsed.

His big picture message warned of the danger of WMD in rogue state or terrorist hands, increased urgency after 9/11, the need to act rather than run the risk of rogue WMD etc – but he avoided any details such as where were the WMD. The system of decision making, the intelligence case, the law, the preparations, the equipment, the unforeseen problems in Iraq after the fall of Saddam, the deaths – all these are secondary in his mind.

The inquiry did not pursue the dubious intelligence about WMD, the confusion of WMD and toppling of Saddam as the justification for war, his stifling of legal opinion or the failure to plan for post-invasion Iraq.

Blair is something of a political outcast now. Once the dynamic leader of new Labour he has lost much of that credibility. Today was a chance to show some humanity; to acknowledge the sacrifice made by so many Iraqis and allies. But there was not the slightest regret from him nor any expression of penitence.

All Blair offered was that he felt a keen sense of responsibility "but not a regret for removing Saddam Hussein. He was a monster."

At a minimum he should have prepared a closing statement that would express at least sorrow for the men and women from all sides who had lost their lives.

It was an alienating rather than appeasing performance. For Blair there was nothing wrong with the grounds for the invasion, the planning of it, its legality, the decision-making process or the conduct of its aftermath. He believed strongly that Iraq was developing WMD.

The he created the 2010 question: where would Saddam be now if no action had been taken? Wouldn't he represent an even greater threat today than he did then?

To be honest Saddam would have long been yesterday's news. He had no WMD. His army was a ragtag mess with obsolete equipment. His people lived in fear. Iraq was already a failing state.

Blair even then used his greater afternoon confidence to bring up the subject of Iran; which is only minimally related to the Iraq invasion. The arguments that applied in 2002 – about WMD falling into terrorist hands – applied in spades to Iran in 2010, he said.

Blair clearly doesn't realise that the fastest way to damage any planned military action against Iran is to associate it with the catastrophe of Iraq.

Does Blair think that history will vindicate him – crediting him for seeing the menace of Saddam and Iran and that where others want dialogue he believes in strong action.

Reasons to swim in a Pool

27 January 2010

A surfer has been bitten by a shark just off Dubai’s Umm Suqeim beach.

Australian Michael Geraghty needed stitches and hospital treatment for a wound to his foot that he suffered as a result of the attack.

However, experts have told the public not to be alarmed as, although sightings of sharks are common in the Gulf, such attacks are extremely rare.

Geraghty told 7DAYS that he was riding the waves on Saturday when he was pulled from his surfboard.

When he looked down, he was shocked to see blood colouring the water.

The shocked 54-year-old was taken to Rashid Hospital’s emergency department where doctors told him there were teeth marks around the big gash across the ball of his foot.

The founder of research project Shark Quest Arabia, Jonathon Ali Khan, said shark attacks in the Arabian Gulf were “exceptionally rare”. And he said that even though dangerous species such as tiger, hammerhead and bull sharks have been spotted in UAE waters, he suspected that whatever attacked Geraghty was a lot less dangerous.

“Because the injury was not serious, it’s unlikely to have been one of the more dangerous types even though they are typically more aggressive,” he said.

“It’s possible it was a baby or one of the local species, like a black tip, just being curious and having a taste.”

The Doha debates

26 January 2010

"This House believes Dubai is a bad idea." It was the first time the city-state's financial misfortunes had been publicly discussed in the region.

Three successive panel members who agreed to speak against the motion, including Mark Beer, chairman and CEO of Dubai's British Businessmen's Group, had to be replaced after they pulled out at short notice, while five journalists representing Dubai newspapers and business publications also withdrew their accreditation and failed to appear.

Although most of the absentees cited "operational or health reasons" for their last-minute change of mind, those familiar with the debates said they appeared to have decided the event was too contentious.

Dubai's ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum was recently on record telling critics of Dubai to "shut up."

In the wide-ranging session, Mishal Kanoo, Chairman of the Kanoo Group, one of the largest independent groups of companies in the Gulf, attacked the motion saying Dubai was where every Arab wanted to be.

The city, he said, had become a beacon of prosperity for international companies and "a viable alternative to nationalism and extremism."

Rebutting suggestions that Dubai's rulers should have been more circumspect in the way they ran the economy during the boom years, he asked: "When you are in a speeding train, do you stop and ask whether everything is OK?"

A member of the audience replied to loud applause," why run a speeding train when you cannot handle it?"

Nasser Al Ghaith, an Emirati financial analyst also speaking against the motion, said he believed Dubai had taken "a wrong turn" after its construction boom but "a self-correcting mechanism" was already in operation.

"To say Dubai is a bad idea is to say the free market and globalisation are bad."

Simon Jenkins, former editor of the London Times, suggested that Dubai was doomed from the moment its ruler conceived his over-ambitious plan to build an "anything goes" culture of capitalism.

"All over the world lie the wreckages of cities that expanded too fast. Dubai failed through lack of government control. Uncontrolled capitalism ends in tears and causes huge human hardship.

"It was a property boom based on oil money and debt. The hysteria of the past five years will seem like a nightmare. The idea for growth went far too fast and when you go too fast you fall much faster."

Sharla Musabih, an Emirati who has been living in the US since running a Dubai-based centre for abused women and children, said the city had become corrupted by greed and the pursuit of wealth.

"I remember the Emirates 10 to 15 years ago when they were simple and life was sweet. Now there is intimidation and fear, a lot of people are afraid to speak up for themselves. The beautiful vision we once had has gone."

The video of the show is here.

As Olympics near, people in Vancouver are dreading Games
26 January 2010  - Sports Illustrated

"When I arrived in Vancouver, the first thing I noticed was the frowns.

The International Olympic Committee has leased every sign and billboard in town to broadcast Olympic joy, but they can't purchase people's faces. It's clear that the 2010 Winter Games has made the mood in the bucolic coastal city decidedly overcast. Even the customs police officer checking my passport started grumbling about "$5,000 hockey tickets." Polls released on my first day in Vancouver back up this initial impression. Only 50 percent of residents in British Columbia think the Olympics will be positive and 69 percent said too much money is being spent on the Games.

"The most striking thing in the poll is that as the Olympics get closer, British Columbians are less likely to see the Games as having a positive impact," said Hamish Marshall, research director for the pollster, Angus Reid. "Conventional wisdom was that as we got closer to the Olympics, people here would get more excited and more supportive." If the global recession hadn't smacked into the planning last year, with corporate sponsors fleeing for the hills, maybe the Vancouver Olympic Committee would be on more solid ground with residents. But public bailouts of Olympic projects have decisively altered the local mood.

I spoke to Charles, a bus driver, whose good cheer diminished when I asked him about the games. "I just can't believe I wanted this a year ago," he said. "I voted for it in the plebiscite. But now, yes. I'm disillusioned." This disillusion is developing as the financial burden of the Games becomes public. The original cost estimate was $660 million in public money. It's now at an admitted $6 billion and steadily climbing. An early economic impact statement was that the games could bring in $10 billion. Price Waterhouse Coopers just released their own study showing that the total economic impact will be more like $1 billion. In addition, the Olympic Village came in $100 million over budget and had to be bailed out by the city.

Security was estimated at $175 million and the final cost will exceed $1 billion. These budget overruns are coinciding with drastic cuts to city services. On my first day in town, the cover of the local paper blared cheery news about the Games on the top flap, while a headline announcing the imminent layoff off 800 teachers was much further down the page.

As a staunch Olympic supporter, a sports reporter from the Globe and Mail said to me, "The optics of cuts in city services alongside Olympic cost overruns are to put it mildly, not good."

But these aren't just p.r. gaffs to Vancouver residents, particularly on the eastside of the city where homelessness has spiked. Carol Martin who works in the downtown eastside of Vancouver, the most economically impoverished area in all of Canada, made this clear: "The Bid Committee promised that not a single person would be displaced due to the Games, but there are now 3,000 homeless people sleeping on Vancouver's streets and these people are facing increased police harassment as they try to clean the streets in the lead up to the Games."

I strolled the backstreets of the downtown eastside and police congregate on every corner, trying to hem in a palpable frustration and anger. Anti-Olympic posters wallpaper the neighborhood, creating an alternative universe to the cheery 2010 Games displays by the airport. The Vancouver Olympic Committee has tried to quell the crackling vibe by dispersing tickets to second-tier Olympic events like the luge. It hasn't worked.

The people of the downtown eastside and beyond are developing a different outlet for their Olympic angst. For the first time in the history of the games, a full-scale protest is being planned to welcome the athletes, tourists, and foreign dignitaries.

Bringing together a myriad of issues, Vancouver residents have put out an open call for a week of anti-game actions. Different demonstrations on issues ranging from homelessness to indigenous rights have been called. Protesters from London and Russia, site of the next two Olympics will be there. Expect a tent city, expect picket signs, expect aggressive direct actions. Tellingly, according to the latest polls, 40 percent of British Columbia residents support the aims of the protesters, compared to just 13 percent across the rest of Canada. Harsha Walia of the Olympic Resistance Network said, "We are seeing increasing resistance across the country as it becomes more visible how these Games are a big fraud."

The Games will also coincide with the largest and longest-standing annual march in Vancouver, the Feb. 14 Memorial Women's March meant to call attention to the hundreds of missing and murdered women -- particularly indigenous women -- in British Columbia. The Vancouver Olympic Committee asked the Memorial March organizing if they would change the route of the march for the Olympic Games. As Stella August, one of the organizers with the downtown eastside Power of Women Group, said to me, "We are warriors. We have been doing this for 19 years and we aren't going to bow down to the Olympics."

One thing is certain: if you are in Vancouver, and competitive curling doesn't get your blood pumping, there will be quite the spectacle outside the arena."

What happens to the Thaksin billions?

25 January 2010

The newspapers in Thailand seem to have determined that 26 February is critical to Thailand's political future. A decision is due that day in the Bangkok court case that recently concluded hearings and which many expect will result in the permanent seizure of 76.6 billion baht worth (US$2.3 billion) of exiled premier Thaksin's and his family's assets which are currently frozen in Thai banks.

The highly anticipated February 26 verdict has already weighed against political stability and could trigger volatile new street protests in the weeks ahead.

At the heart of the case is alleged government policy corruption, implemented, critics say, specifically to benefit Thaksin's family-owned businesses at the expense of their contractual obligations to the state.

Former information communications and technology minister Sittichai Pookkaiyaudom, who served under the 2006-07 post coup army appointed government, estimated in his testimony last week that Thaksin's excise tax policy cost the state around 60 billion baht in lost revenues.

He did not offer any statistical analysis to back that calculation. Combined with the 16.5 billion baht tax exemption Thaksin's government handed to his family-owned Shin Satellite on foreign-earned profits, the alleged corruption tally conveniently equates to the 76.6 billion baht in question.

Thaksin's defense has throughout maintained that the charges are politically motivated and legally invalid. His lawyers have argued that both the excise tax policy, implemented through executive decree, and the cabinet resolution that allowed operators to deduct the tax from their concession payments to the state were deemed legal by the Constitutional Court while Thaksin was in power and that those rulings should be considered final.

The defense has also argued that if Thaksin is found guilty of corruption, the court has no legal basis for seizing all of his assets because much of the money was earned legitimately before he took the premiership in 2001.

The current Thai government is clear that future stability in Thailand is contingent largely on Thaksin's access to funds. If Thaksin has funds he can finance the red shirt protests. Without funds he is impotent.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told foreign reporters at the FCCT on January 14 that he expects Thaksin and his supporters "will try to up the game" and that "we can't rule out attempts at violence".

There are also allegations that Thaksin could finance a coup led by disgruntled soldiers to pre-empt an expected guilty verdict. In the last two days both of Thailand's English language newspapers have reported coup rumours and quoted denials. But the fact is that discussion of potential coups has increased dramatically in the last few days.

The Asia Times reported that behind the scenes, a dialogue mediated by a Swedish parliamentarian interlocutor between the military, palace and Thaksin's camp has after several months failed to make headway towards reconciliation, according to a European diplomat familiar with the process.

The prosecution in the trial has made perhaps the strongest legal case yet against Thaksin. This case appears much stronger than the 2008 criminal conviction for a land deal between his government and former wife that drove Thaksin into exile.

In addition to the excise tax policy charges, the state prosecution has also focused on the unusual eight-year tax holiday given in November 2003 by the Prime Minister's Office-run Board of Investment (BOI) to Thaksin's family-owned Shin Satellite to promote its overseas operations. Thaksin was the BOI's chairman when the estimated 16.5 billion baht tax break was first announced in November 2003, but he was absent from the meeting where the waiver was decided.

Court-called witnesses have said that those and other alleged preferential policies caused Thaksin-linked companies - including AIS, Shin Satellite, Shin Corporation, iTV and Thai Military Bank - to outperform the stock market average in 2003 by 141%, as investors cashed in on what market analysts then referred to as the "Thaksin premium". The five companies accounted for nearly two-thirds of the total 320 billion baht market capitalization gains recorded on the Thai bourse that year.

But not all of the money seized is Thaksin's money. Some belongs to various members of his family and his (now divorced) wife's family. One solution is to seize some of the money based on who owned the Shin shares. And then return some of the money to his family members.

Attorney General Julasing Wasantasing has said that only a verdict acceptable to both sides will bring the political crisis closer to the end or at least will not amplify it. A bilaterally acceptable ruling would require seizing some of Thaksin assets and unfreezing the rest. He told the Nation that "justice means fairness and compassion." Adding that "national interests and unity must be taken into account every time.

Can both sides be satisifed? Thaksin seems resigned to losing some of the money, but how much?

No one in Thailand will be surprised at a history of politicians using their government position to support firms owned by their families. And maybe this is also the heart of the issue. The case against Thaksin does appear politically motivated - if only because this is the only case that appears to be actively pursued.

So the Thaksin supporters in the UDD complain with reason about judicial double standards. Thaksin's supporters look likely to put pressure on the legal proceedings through threats of chaos and street violence should the ruling go against him.

Prime Minister Abhisit has recently allowed members of his coalition government, including from his own Democrat Party, to resign over recent corruption scandals that through public disclosure and media attention have tainted his administration's image and credibility. He has also stood by a Forestry Department order issued last Wednesday that royal advisor Surayud must vacate the forest preserve land he apparently illegally owned.

Just maybe the rule of law will establish itself even among those previously considered exempt. And just maybe politicians will be held accountable for their past and present actions.

And if that is the case then it seems likely that Thaksin will be found guilty and his billions confiscated.

Understanding Dubai
Forbes.com Umaimah Mendhro

24 January 2010

""Get lost," a young Emirati woman howled at me as she snatched the cab I had hailed on Sheikh Zayed Road in Dubai. "Go back where you come from!"

After living in the U.S. for over a decade, my husband and I were considering moving to Dubai. The emirate's dual charm of being a plane hop away from Pakistan, the country I was born in, and having a cosmopolitan lifestyle in a Middle Eastern setting reminiscent of Saudi Arabia, the country I spent my childhood in, were great attractions--in theory. However, after spending one summer working in Dubai, in 2008, I was ready to go back anywhere I had come from. I didn't love it there, yet the tiny desert state's inherent East-meets-West contradictions and startling accomplishments continue to provoke and amaze me.

Dubai is not a democracy. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai's emir, is the 10th ruler in the Al Maktoum family lineage. He was hand-picked by his father, who ruled the state for 32 years. Since the 1580s the heads of the Al Maktoum family have designated their most able male offspring to replace them, with no possibility that any ordinary citizen could endorse, depose or run to replace them. They govern through royal decrees, which range from appointing crown princes to establishing efforts for environmental or financial sustainability. Every decree, as I saw during my summer in Dubai, creates rapid, sprawling waves across the public and private sectors throughout the state, with no counter-ripples in sight.

Dubai also cannot be proclaimed an unadulterated capitalistic society based on a free-market system. Granted the state's free economic zones, including Dubai Internet and Media Cities, contain more than 6,000 commercial businesses, many of them 100% foreign-owned. Yet Sheikh Mohammed himself is the founder, part owner and lead visionary of virtually every major local company, including Emirates Airlines, the region's most successful air carrier, Nakheel, the property developer that doubled Dubai's coastline with man-made islands, and DP World, the international marine terminal development and operations business. Sheikh Mohammed gets involved in key strategic decisions for these businesses (Nakheel's official corporate mission is to carry through his vision) and select tactical matters as well (he personally chose the insignia and color schemes for Emirates Airlines).

Is that too much power, primed to be abused, in one chosen man's hands? It certainly is enough to make an American-educated professional like myself very nervous.

The effects of the global economic crises aside, how is it that such a strictly directed economy managed to enjoy real gross domestic product growth of more than 8% a year between 2001 and 2006, one of the highest rates in the world? How did it manage to grow exports by an average of more than 28% annually between 2003 and 2008? Why did education, health and social development in Dubai continue to improve? Why haven't the rulers of Dubai simply amassed wealth and power for themselves at the expense of their nation, like so many other autocrats?

Neither democracy nor limited control ensures responsible leadership. After all, unilaterally powerful chief executives often make decisions in the best interest of their companies, and elected congressmen and senators often make terrible moves. The right governing or executive system can provide a good environment for good leadership, but the right seeds need to be sown first.

Sheikh Mohammed's grandfather, Sheikh Saeed, a deeply religious man, formed an advisory council to give ordinary citizens a way to become involved in executive decision making and to keep his own powers in check. He also diversified Dubai's economy by developing local commerce and trading posts, so that the state could prosper without depending on its limited natural resources. Sheikh Rashid, Sheikh Saeed's son, spent hours at a stretch listening to everyday citizens' concerns and requests as he propelled Dubai toward economic prosperity. The leadership principles of the Al Maktoum ruling family can be traced back to the teachings of Islam--if not to a side of Islam we see much of today.

Abu Bakr, the first Muslim caliph (i.e., the first successor to the prophet Mohammed and leader of the Islamic faith), said in his inaugural speech, in the seventh century, "I have been given the authority over you, and I am not the best of you. If I do well, help me, and if I do wrong, set me right. Loyalty is nothing but a sincere regard for truth; treachery is nothing if not disregard for truth." Sheikh Mohammed, then, has seemed simply to be doing his part in driving the cultural values and family legacy forward, much like the Tata successors in India, or the chief executives of General Electric carrying the weight of and wanting to live up to their grand legacies and responsibilities. Luckily, what the historic legacy has demanded of Dubai's rulers has been service and results more than power and obedience. "I have a vision," Sheikh Mohammed has said. "I look to the future, 20, 30 years. I learned that from my father. ... I follow his example."

He also has said, "The biggest war that any country can engage in is that of development. ... Let our victims be poverty, ignorance and backwardness. If the cart is politics and the horse is the economy, then we have to put the horse before the cart and not the other way around." Sheikh Mohammed has, like his forefathers, chosen business as the means of achieving social improvement in his state. Dubai's leaders have kept the entrepreneurial fires burning by taking on seemingly impossible feats (erecting the world's tallest building, building an indoor ski resort), being energized rather than discouraged by constraints (doubling the size of its tiny island by creating new artificial land) and staying agile, efficient and nimble--strengths any venture capital firm looks for in a start-up. The curious fact is that by going after real business and economic accomplishments, rather than milking finite natural resources or relying on foreign assistance for growth, Dubai's leaders have created a model for development like that of a for-profit business. They've achieved a rate of growth not possible from aid or oil and combined bold vision with smart means to create a virtuous, self-fulfilling cycle of rapid development.

Dubai had a strong pearl-diving industry that went into a steep decline in the early 1900s, overwhelmed by a depressed global economy and the introduction of cultured pearls in Japan. When that happened, Sheikh Saeed, Sheikh Mohammed's grandfather, invited foreigners onto his soil to help diversify the economy by developing local commerce and trading ports. In the 1950s gold traders looking to sell to the Indian subcontinent started to establish a base in Dubai, and Sheikh Rashid, Sheikh Mohammed's father, welcomed them. He rushed to build up the state's infrastructure to prepare the potential economic growth. In 1985 oil contributed half of Dubai's GDP; today it makes up just 5%, thanks to industries created with the help of foreign labor and investments. Today foreigners are 83% of the local population; Emiratis are a minority of 17%.

Strategic globalization has not only made Dubai's meteoric rise possible but has also positioned the emirate as an alternative voice against rising Islamic fundamentalism. After the Sept. 11 attacks Sheikh Mohammed donated $5 million of his own money to assist the victims, and he took the opportunity to call for "peaceful coexistence between all religions and sects." No question, peaceful coexistence is not only great for business but also necessary for Dubai's continued development.

The strong legacy of Dubai's leadership for more than a century has led the state's current heads to set grand, ambitious goals and build a self-propelling economic system that leverages global commerce opportunities to turn those goals into reality. However, whether Dubai's citizens, shrunk to a minute minority in their own state, appreciate all that commercial development or would prefer a simple desert life; whether they welcome the herds of us Pakistanis, Indians, Europeans and Americans on their soil, toiling away not only to better our own lives but also their state; or if they want us all to go back to where we come from--that is all another question.

For me personally, Dubai's dizzying progress seems to have turned the state into a lifeless artificial island where the natives have grown tired of the never-ending flow of guests and visitors. I found that it simply didn't feel like a warm, living, breathing community I could set roots in. Fortune must come with a price. Nevertheless, when I am in Pakistan, amid corruption, poverty and violence, or in Saudi Arabia, with no freedom to be myself, or in the United States, my chosen home, where business and government are theoretically kept separated and too much political or executive power makes us nervous, I find that perhaps there are some lessons we can take from this curious little state."

Umaimah Mendhro, along with Tony Mayo and Nitin Nohria at Harvard Business School, conducted research on Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai for an HBS case study to be published this year. Umaimah resides and works in Seattle.


Beware the vengeance of an angry flight attendant

24 January 2010

This appears to be a case that should never have made it to court. But note below the harsh penalties that were being claimed by the prosecution. And was the airline management in dealing with this issue and keeping it out of the courts.

The Gulf News reported on Friday that a flight attendant (this has to be Emirates) has been acquitted after being accused of groping his male colleague's buttocks.

The Argentinian flight attendant convinced the court that his colleague maliciously levelled molestation charges against him following a work dispute.

"I am not guilty. I didn't molest or harass him sexually," argued the Argentine attendant, A.B., when he rejected the molestation charge before the Dubai Court of First Instance.

The court cleared A.B. due to unfounded and uncorroborated evidence.

Prosecutors charged the suspect of molesting his Arab national colleague, A.M., by touching his buttocks.

A.B. strongly denied the charges and said in court: "He made up this case against me… he lodged it maliciously before the authorities. I caught him doing something wrong at work and informed our superiors. Due to the work dispute, he lodged this case against me out of malice."

The plaintiff testified to prosecutors that the defendant intentionally groped his backside while they were at a pub.

"I saw him touching A.M.'s back[side] in an obviously intentional manner," a prosecution witness testified.

An Emirati first corporal, who questioned A.B., testified that he admitted mistakenly touching the claimant's posterior.

"I touched him accidentally at the pub," the acquitted Argentine was quoted as saying in his statement to prosecutors.

Prosecutors asked the court to implement articles 121 and 356 of the Federal Penal Code, which stipulate that a suspect faces a temporary imprisonment between three years and 15 years followed by deportation.

The court dismissed the charges against A.B. The primary judgment is still subject to appeal.


China battles USA over Google

24 January 2010

I for one am delighted to see Google take a hard line with China (at last) and now stop its censorship of the google.cn search engine.

But what was then unfortuna is that Hillary Clinton and the US government weighed in and made this a political issue and not a business decision.

And this has allowed the Chinese authorities to launch allegations of political motivation and interference against the USA; a massive diversion from the simple issue of the validity or otherwise of censoring the web in China.

Now the Chinese can do whatever they like. They are not alone in censoring the web or allowing access only through proxy servers - the so called great firewall. Thailand, Burma, the UAE all regularly censor the internet, blocking sites that are allegedly politically or morally sensitive.

How far is google willing to go in potentially withdrawing its business from these countries.

The Chinese response is that google's position is political. China Daily states that "from her dining with Google executives at the beginning to her speech on Internet freedom on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could easily be seen in the process."

The China Daily article (released by Xinhau today) continues: "In fact, the Google incident has reflected the Internet strategy of the United States. The essence of the U.S. Internet strategy is to exploit its advantages in Internet funds, technology and marketing, and export its politics, commerce and culture to other nations for political, commercial and cultural interests of the world's only superpower. This is not merely sales, but coerced trade under the disguise of protecting "universal values"."

China Daily states that "Google has no evidence at all to prove it was intruded by hackers supported by the Chinese government." It really is down to Google to provide and make public the evidence to support their allegations and the links to the Chinese government.

To the patriotic flag waving Chinese this is just another example of US flag waving imperialism. "The Google incident is only one pawn on the sandboard of the U.S. Internet strategy; the United States is obviously seeking Internet hegemony. The United States is trying to make people believe that in the Internet age, there are only "high seas" without "territorial waters".

While on the "high seas", the United States, as a nation with superior power, can implement factual control in this Internet world. Therefore, it believes the Internet can be employed to establish hegemony which may be more difficult to achieve through other means. Internet freedom, though, could serve as a handy and disposable camouflage of today."

The gulf between the USA and China on information access is enormous, built on different value systems and different political regimes.

Whatever the faults of the American way, it has a basic belief in freedom of information.

In China the control of information is an essential element in the power structure.

There is no way in which China is going to accommodate Google. Google has uncensored (is that a word) google.cn. China will simply block access to the google service and google will lose its potential access to 350million internet users.

I am far from convinced that lining up alongside google does anything for the US administration which is already struggling in its relatiobship with a more assertive, self-confident China. This was evident during Obama's visit to Shanghai and Beijing in November and at the Copenhagen climate change conference. The Treasury in Washington believed that a softly-softly approach on the currency issue would induce Beijing to raise the value of the yuan, but has achieved nothing at all.

The G2 concept may be a mirage but China and America have to find ways of working together; one of the big disappointments of the Obama administration to date has been its lack of creativity in seeking to do so.

China has its own issue to deal with. An edgy relationship with Japan, a potential collapse in North Korea which would send millions of unwanted refugees into China, unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Taliban across the border and the Taiwan issue far from resolved.  With a seemingly hostile US it would be easy to arouse Mao-era fears of encirclement.

China has a long tradition of rule by law (rather than rule of law), which leads to the automatic conclusion that the likes of Google have to abide by the regulations, whatever they may be, or face the consequences.

There are no shared values on information access and control. If a business cannot accept the Chinese leadership's vision of the nature and flow of information it has to say so clearly and deal with the fallout. And that applies to government's as well.

A reality check at Cadbury

24 January 2010

Enough of the Cadbury patriotism. It is not good for Cadbury, Kraft or the perception of British business.

After all foreigners own everything else from ports to airports or football clubs.

It is time to stop waving the union flags and calm down. Dairy Milk bars are not going to disappear. The Curly Wurly isn't under threat.

Kraft is not buying Cadbury to destroy it. It is buying Cadbury because Kraft things that the Cadbury brands can significantly boost Kraft revenues.

Observing the British reaction Kraft's hometown paper the Chicago Tribune reported: "Kraft's bid has Brits cheesed off; idea of corporate America taking over their beloved Cadbury has nation in a snit."

A member of Cadbury's founding family described the deal as a "horror story". The union Unite asserts that "thousands of jobs are sure to go". The Liberal Democrats have even suggested that the government should use its shareholding in one of Kraft's lenders, RBS, to block the bank from extending finance to a "predator".

But Irene Rosenfeld and her colleagues want Cadbury because they like the confectioner's brands and products. The plan is that Cadbury will be a growth engine for Kraft, lifting its annual rate of sales increase from 4% to 5%. To achieve that, Cadbury's factories will have to produce more chocolate, gum and sweets.

Becoming a part of Kraft means that Cadbury's products will go through a far bigger global distribution network. Products such as Creme Eggs and Fruit and Nut will be introduced to giant economies such as Russia and China – two of the superpowers of the 21st century where, as an independent company, Cadbury has made little impact.

Yes there will be job losses. The $675m of annual cost savings sought by Kraft include merging functions such as customer service, purchasing and administration. But Kraft has gone out of its way to insist that production will remain in Britain, where Cadbury employs 6,200 people, and the US firm has even said it will try to save the Somerdale factory at Keynsham, near Bristol, which Cadbury was planning to shut.

Firms can prosper as part of a broader organisation. Who would have thought that Mini cars would be reborn as a cult, stylish hit with the US as their biggest market? It's doubtful if they could have achieved that without being part of BMW's global network. And they're still built in Oxford.

In the beer industry, the Belgian conglomerate Interbrew snapped up Britain's Bass brewing at the beginning of the decade. There were fears about brewery closures – but Bass beer continues to be made in Burton-upon-Trent. And when General Electric bought Britain's Nycomed Amersham in 2003, the US firm actually built on British operations by moving the headquarters of its GE Healthcare division from the US to Chalfont St Giles.

We tend to cry foul over protectionism elsewhere. The Americans were roundly mocked for blocking Dubai World's purchase of six of its ports on "security" grounds. If you believe in free trade then patriotic protectionism has no role to play.

Cadbury will thrive under Kraft without some of the financial and growth restraints that it had as an independent company.

Making bad worse

23 January 2010

It is not the Thai way to stand up and say - yes we could do better. It is not the Thai way to acknowledge that a foreign organisation might actually be expressing valid concerns.

But the government's response to the comments in HRW's annual report are enough to make grown men cry!

PM's Office Minister Satit Wongnongtaey said Saturday morning that the government would soon clarify against "distorted content" of Human Rights Watch report.

Satit suggested that the Red Shirts might have been involved in contributing some information. He said that the HRW has been given wrong information probably from pro-Thaksin groups. "I doubt this because the information of the organisation is the same of the red shirts," Sathit said.

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said the government did not violate any laws but he then said that he had not read the report. After all he is only the Foreign Minister ! Bizarre.

Meanwhile Deputy Interior Minister Thaworn Sennean said the world needs to know that Human Rights Watch can be biased. "Objective of some NGOs is only to criticise the government. They can be lobbied or hired," Thaworn said without further elaboration.

Thailand's human rights situation under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was getting worse over the past year, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its annual report Thursday. More commentary on the HRW report is below.

Living in denial is just the easy way out.

Growth of aid and the decline of humanitarianism
22 January 2010 The Lancet

"Picture the situation in Haiti: families living on top of sewage-contaminated rubbish dumps, with no reliable sources of food and water and virtually no access to health care.

This scenario depicts the situation in Haiti before the earthquake that catapulted this impoverished and conflict-ridden country into the international headlines. Now the latest target of humanitarian relief, international organisations, national governments, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are rightly mobilising, but also jostling for position, each claiming that they are doing the most for earthquake survivors. Some agencies even claim that they are “spearheading” the relief effort. In fact, as we only too clearly see, the situation in Haiti is chaotic, devastating, and anything but coordinated.

Much is being said elsewhere about the performance and progress of relief efforts in Haiti. It is crucial that the immediate needs of the Haitian people are urgently met. But it is scandalous that it took a seismic shift in tectonic plates for Haiti to earn its place in the international spotlight. Political rhetoric is familiar: domestic and international point-scoring during times of crisis and disaster is a common game played by many governments and politicians. But this dangerous and immoral play has many losers, especially since the rules include judging the needs of desperate people according to subjective perceptions of worth.

For example, just think back 5 years to the dismal international response to the catastrophic earthquake in Pakistan. Additionally, over the past 2 weeks alone, flooding has displaced 30 000 people in Kenya and 4000 people in Albania, and in Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by further fighting. All international agencies, including the World Food Programme, have recently withdrawn from Somalia—one of the most violent countries in the world with a population size similar to Haiti. It is unimaginable that international agencies and national governments might one day compete for attention in leading a Somali humanitarian relief effort. The reasons for their current inaction are most un-humanitarian.

We have repeatedly drawn attention to the fact that when viewed through the distorted lens of politics, economics, religion, and history, some lives are judged more important than others—a situation not helped by the influence of news media, including ourselves. This regrettable situation has resulted in an implicit hierarchy of crisis situations further influenced by artificial criteria, such as whether disasters are natural or man-made. As this week's special issue on violent conflict and health shows,* the health needs of people affected by conflict are repeatedly neglected.

Politicians and the media make easy targets for criticism. But there is another group involved in disaster relief, which has largely escaped public scrutiny—the aid sector, now undoubtedly an industry in its own right. Aid agencies and humanitarian organisations do exceptional work in difficult circumstances. But some large charities could make their good work even better. The Lancet has been observing aid agencies and NGOs for several years and has also spoken with staff members working for major charities. Several themes have emerged from these conversations. Large aid agencies and humanitarian organisations are often highly competitive with each other. Polluted by the internal power politics and the unsavoury characteristics seen in many big corporations, large aid agencies can be obsessed with raising money through their own appeal efforts. Media coverage as an end in itself is too often an aim of their activities. Marketing and branding have too high a profile. Perhaps worst of all, relief efforts in the field are sometimes competitive with little collaboration between agencies, including smaller, grass-roots charities that may have have better networks in affected counties and so are well placed to immediately implement emergency relief.

Given the ongoing crisis in Haiti, it may seem unpalatable to scrutinise and criticise the motives and activities of humanitarian organisations. But just like any other industry, the aid industry must be examined, not just financially as is current practice, but also in how it operates from headquarter level to field level. It seems increasingly obvious that many aid agencies sometimes act according to their own best interests rather than in the interests of individuals whom they claim to help. Although many aid agencies do important work, humanitarianism is no longer the ethos for many organisations within the aid industry. For the people of Haiti and those living in parallel situations of destruction, humanitarianism remains the most crucial motivation and means for intervention."

Thailand's deteriorating human rights record

21 January 2010

Thailand's human rights situation under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has deteriorated in the past year, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in its annual report last  Thursday.

"While Prime Minister Abhisit sometimes said the right things about human rights in 2009, his actions didn't match his words," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government continually undermined respect for human rights and due process of law in Thailand."

The 612 page World Report 2010, the organization annual review of human right practice around the world, said there were growing crackdown on protesters and other critics, including intensive surveillance of the internet, a failure to curb abuses by security force in Thailand.

There were also serious breaches of the country's obligations to protect refugees and asylum seekers, it said.

Mounting challenges from the red-shirted group has made Prime Minister Abhisit increasingly dependents on support from the military for his political survival, the report said.

The government's double standards in law enforcement worsened political tensions and deepened polarization. Leaders and members of the red-shirted group were arrested, detained, and criminally charged after the dispersal of their protests.

But the government has ignored public demands for an impartial investigation into politically motivated violence and human rights abuses committed by the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) during its protests and occupation of the Government House and Suvarnabhumi airport in 2008, which created conditions that enabled Abhisit to come to power.

Long delays in prosecuting PAD leaders are fuelling a growing public perception that they are immune to legal accountability, it said.

In deep south, where a separatist insurgency began in 2004, Abhisit's administration has allowed the military to continue to operate with impunity.

No member of the security forces has been criminally prosecuted for human rights abuses in the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala, even in high profile cases such as the Krue Se mosque killings, the Tak Bai crackdown, the torture and killing of Imam Yapa Kaseng, and the Al-Farquan mosque massacre.

The failure to act against official abuses extended to the police. Despite the government's strong opposition to the violent approach to drug suppression by the exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, it remained unwilling to bring to justice officials allegedly responsible for more than 2,500 unresolved extrajudicial killings and serious abuses committed during Thaksin's 2003 "war on drugs" and ongoing drug suppression operations by the police.

"Democracy in Thailand suffers badly from draconian laws on lese majeste and cyber crimes," said Adams. "A climate of fear looms over civil discourse and in cyberspace as a result of increasing restrictions on freedom of expression under the Abhisit government."

The government also has used both the lese majeste statute in the Criminal Code and the new Computer Crimes Act to suppress critics of the monarchy and persecute perceived government enemies.

Human Right Watch cited cases of Suwicha Thakor and Daranee Charnchoengsilpakul who were sentenced 10 years and 18 years in prisons for example.

Abhisit's government blatantly breached Thailand's obligations under international law to protect refugees and asylum seekers for its forced repatriation of more than 4,600 Hmong to Laos and bad treatment of Rohingya boat people, Human Rights Watch said.

"Prime Minister Abhisit did not honor his pledge to uphold human rights principles and international law in 2009," Adams said. "Getting Thailand back on track as a rights-respecting nation in 2010 is crucial both for the country and the region."

But HRW is not going to get much of a hearing in Thailand. Expect things to deteriorate before they get better.

Thailand's pathetic Haiti response

20 January 2010

All Thais should be embarrassed by their government's feeble response to last week's terrifying earthquake in Haiti.

On 26 December 2004 Thailand, mainly the island of Phuket, was hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Aid flooded into Thailand. Some 5,000 Thais and visitors were confirmed dead in Thailand. Another 4,000 missing.

Far greater numbers were killed in Sri Lanka and in Indonesia.

Foreign aid flooded into Thailand.

In response to some 200,000 killed and the complete destruction of Haiti's infrastructure what was the Thai government's aid response. US$20,000. This from a government that is determined to confiscate US$2 billion from former PM Thaksin Shinawatra. US$20,000. Pathetic. There was wide contempt.

And yesterday Thailand responded by boosting its humanitarian aid commitment to Haiti to US$100,000 (3.3 million baht). It will also send at least 20,000 tonnes of rice to help the victims of the quake.

The additional financial assistance was approved at a government meeting yesterday during which Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya was criticised by cabinet ministers. Mr Kasit was blamed for making the government a target of criticism by previously approving only $20,000.

Compare the Thai response to Canada: Canada has pledged $5 million in immediate aid and the government said it will match donations made by Canadians up to $50 million. On Monday, Quebec promised another $3 million in emergency relief.

There are already 1,000 soldiers from Canadian Forces Base Valcartier in Quebec supporting relief efforts in Haiti. Another 1,000 are also being sent.

In addition, the military announced Monday that Canada’s DART — Disaster Assistance Response Team — would build full field hospitals and concentrate on infrastructure reconstruction and rebuilding communication systems.

The Canadian government also announced Saturday it is fast-tracking immigration applications and prioritizing Haitian adoptions to reunite families in Canada. It will expedite an estimated 5,000 immigration applications to reunite families in Canada with relatives “directly and significantly affected by the earthquake in Haiti,” MacKay said.

Getting Humanitarian Relief Right
Laura Freschi, Forbes.com

20 January 2010

As international aid workers continue to descend upon Port-au-Prince they confront a human disaster that is both unique to Haiti and grimly familiar. Disaster response is tailored to the details of each emergency as it unfolds on the ground. But reports from previous relief efforts--like the response to the Asian tsunami that killed some 225,000 people in 12 countries in 2004--give a picture of practices that allow relief efforts to work quickly and effectively, as well as those that result in waste and delays.

Post-relief reports from the tsunami and from the 2005 earthquake that flattened the city of Bam in southern Iran, killing 30,000 people, emphasize the importance of local people as first responders. Locals are first responders by necessity since they are there when the disaster occurs, but their knowledge of local language and geography also makes them well-suited to the task. The majority of earthquake survivors are found by untrained local people digging through the rubble with their hands and whatever basic tools they find.

Similarly, experts recommend equipping local medical volunteers with supplies and logistical support over sending in teams of foreigners who are less familiar with the area. In Bam, expensive foreign field hospitals and medical teams arrived three days after the earthquake, but they found that people with major injuries had already been sent to hospitals in nearby provinces and treated.

The limits of this advice are being challenged in Haiti, where the public health system was weak before the earthquake, and damage to what health infrastructure existed was widespread in Port-au-Prince. Still, reports such as this one flagged Sunday in the New York Times Lede blog highlight the importance of taking full advantage of local medical personnel and facilities:

"I work for a hospital--Sacre Coeur in Milot, 75 miles North of Port au Prince. We were not damaged. We have room for 100 patients, we have over 20 Haitian doctors onsite including a medical trauma team and an orthopedic team arriving today. Helicopters can land very close to us, only ONE landed yesterday with 4 patients! People are dying in the streets AND in the hospitals in Port-au-Prince. We have a full-service hospital with two ORs and are NOT being utilized."

Second, coordination among government agencies, the U.N. and non-governmental organizations always has been and always will be a huge challenge in disaster relief. Many post-disaster evaluations discuss efforts duplicated and resources wasted because of the sheer number of different organizations and the chaotic conditions inherent to quick-response international relief work. In 2004 Aceh province in Indonesia was the closest to the earthquake epicenter and suffered massive casualties and infrastructure destruction, yet it received praise for setting up a relatively effective and flexible coordination agency.

In Haiti the challenge of coordinating the immense influx of actors seems particularly acute. The U.S. military has taken control of the airport, and the U.N.'s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is tasked with overall coordination of 12 different sectors (food aid, nutrition, protection, etc.), each led by different U.N. agencies. But news reports coming in over the weekend underscored the incapacity of the Haitian government and the feeling among residents and journalists that there is no one authority that could yet effectively take charge.

Third, it's crucial for organizations to work together to assess local needs. No one wants to hold up life-saving interventions to conduct a study, but making decisions based on political or media pressure, rather than on a comprehensive survey of needs--as donors admitted to doing in post-tsunami evaluations--leads to waste. Aid can end up being driven by supply: In post-tsunami Thailand, funding boats was popular among donors, so boats were supplied, without regard for how many boats and which kind of boats were actually needed.

Communicating these local needs to donors across the globe is the only way to avoid what aid workers call “the disaster after the disaster,” the avalanche of unneeded stuff that descends on a relief site and takes valuable time and money to sort through and throw away. There have already been several reports of unneeded and unrequested donations creating bottlenecks at Haiti's one strained airport.

A study on drug donations to Aceh province in Indonesia found that 60% of the drugs donated were not among those drugs needed by people affected by the tsunami. Seventy percent had labels written in a foreign language and couldn't be deciphered by local aid workers. These drugs wasted health workers' time, took up limited storage space in hospitals, and cost millions of dollars to destroy safely.

Unfortunately for Haiti, the success of relief and recovery efforts depends in large part on the condition of the infrastructure and public services before the disaster. Relief efforts in Port-au-Prince will do more for the people of Haiti if they heed the lessons of Indonesia, Thailand, Bam and other disasters before them. The persistence of similar recommendations from one post-disaster report to the next points to just how big these challenges are.

Laura Freschi is associate director of the Development Research Institute at New York University and a co-author of the Aid Watch blog.



From Bournville to Mournville

19 January 2009 - The Guardian

"It felt a little bit like a death in the family in Bournville today. Just about everyone in this leafy model village on the edge of Birmingham has worked at the famous factory or has a relative who has done so.

Even those few who had nothing at all to do with Cadbury had something to say. They wanted to talk about their favourite brand, their best memory of the company's many treats.

At Beryl's Florists, Julie Vaughan, said the whole village was in shock. "Cadbury is what Bournville is all about. We're really worried about what is going to happen," she told the Guardian.

Vaughan's husband, Carl, has worked at Bournville for 32 years driving forklift trucks. His father and grandfather also used to work there. "It's a family sort of place. People tend to stay there for years," she said.

The link between Bournville and the UK's most famous chocolatier goes back to 1879 when a "factory in the garden" was built by George Cadbury, the son of company founder and Quaker philanthropist John.

His idea was to create a profitable company but one that cared for and nurtured its employees. By 1900 the estate included 330 acres of land with 313 cottages housing workers from Cadbury and elsewhere.

Today at Bournville Infant School, built in 1910 by George and Elizabeth Cadbury, headteacher Pam Dexter was explaining how at one time almost all of the pupils were sons and daughters of Cadbury workers. That is slightly less so now but the factory is still a central part of the community. Dexter said she was "concerned" about the developments but said she hoped that the new owners would uphold the values that the Cadbury family had always lived and worked by. She didn't sound too convinced.

Stop anyone outside Bournville's neat row of red-brick shops and they have a memory. Jo, 22, recalled how her uncle had worked for 20 years at the factory. "It was the sort of place people loved to work at. They stayed for years. And wherever you went in the world, people knew about Cadbury. It made you proud."

Jo said her favourite bar remained CDM (Cadbury Dairy Milk to outsiders). Her friend, Sam, said her grandfather used to work there. He loved the company's generous sports facilities and often came home with reject chocolates or biscuits.

"That's another thing," said Stan Jones, not a worker but a chocolate fan. "Is it going to taste different? When you go to America the Cadbury's chocolate there doesn't taste as good. I'm worried that they are going to ruin the taste even if they keep the company going as it is."

Local councillor Nigel Dawkins sounded furious that another of Britain's "jewels" was being lost. "Completely mad" was his bottom line. This is a corner of the West Midlands that has already been badly hit by job losses over the last few years, not least the tortuous problems that have beset the Longbridge car plant a few miles up the road.

Cadbury workers were reluctant to talk but one described the mood in the factory as "very flat", adding: "We know it's been on the cards but you always hope it's not going to happen. Suddenly today we all feel a bit more insecure than we did yesterday."

It was a time for memories, as if it was a wake after a death. Someone wanted to talk about those languid, sexy Flake adverts; someone else recalled the iconic martian Smash adverts – the instant mashed potato was another Cadbury product. Another person fondly remembered childhood bed-times when she was comforted by Bournvita. "Can you still get that? And what about Old Jamaica chocolate?" Suddenly the questions seemed to matter."

Abu Dhabi's depleted aid

18 January 2009

One month on from being Dubai's salvation Abu Dhabi's aid appears to have  shrunk to $5 billion.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting Dubai officials as saying that the $10 billion December bailout given to Dubai included $5 billion already committed by two banks controlled by the Abu Dhabi emirate, signaling Abu Dhabi's cautious approach to helping its debt-laden neighbor.

Analysts said news that Abu Dhabi had directly lent less than previously thought also indicated the wealthy emirate wanted more evidence of Dubai's fiscal probity, after helping it avert an embarrassing default on a state-linked bond.

It is also another indication of the overall lack of transparency and clarity in all the dealings over the Dubai debt issue.

A Dubai government spokeswoman said on Monday that the last minute lifeline on December 14, included $5 billion raised from Al Hilal Bank and National Bank of Abu Dhabi which had been announced on November 25.

Dubai rocked global markets that same day when it requested a standstill on $26 billion in debt linked to its flagship conglomerate Dubai World and its two main property developers, Nakheel and Limitless World.

"Obviously it's a lot less cash than we had assumed," said Raj Madha, an independent analyst based in Dubai. "The interesting thing is what it says about the behavior of Abu Dhabi: whether they are just rushing through a large amount of money or whether they are providing funding where required."


Airbus reaches 6,000

18 January 2009

Emirates Airline and Airbus marked a major achievement by celebrating the hand-over of the 6,000th aircraft in the airframe manufacturer's 40-year-history. The aircraft, an A380, was handed over to Emirates Airline in a ceremony in Hamburg, Germany. The aircraft is Emirates' eighth A380.

This is the 25th A380 to be delivered (I think SQ have 10 of them). It was also the 6,000th Airbus produced in the company's 40 year history. The words' Airbus 6,000th Aircraft' are inscribed alongside the Emirates livery.

With a total order for 58 aircraft, Emirates is the single largest customer for the A380. Established in 1985, Emirates became an Airbus operator from the outset. Today, Emirates' Airbus fleet has grown to 55 aircraft with a further 121 on order.

Airbus was formed in 1969, and by 2005 had reached more than 50 per cent of worldwide deliveries in a single year, of all aircraft of more than 100 seats.

Airbus delivered its first customer aircraft in May 1974 - an A300B2; The 1,000th aircraft was delivered in March 1993 - an A340-300; The 2,000th was delivered in May 1999 - an A340-300; The 3,000th was delivered in July 2002 - an A320; The 4,000th was delivered in September 2005 - an A330-300; The 5,000th was delivered in December 2007 - an A330-200.

Buying EVIL

18 January 2009

I have not looked at the new EVIL cameras yet - but just on size they look attractive - like taking a pocket digital camera with all the benefits of an old style Digital SLR.

EVIL stands for Electronic Viewfinder Interchangeable Lens, and is part of cameras like the Olympus Pen, the Lumix GF1 and the Samsung NX10. These small, mirrorless, finderless cameras can fit in a pocket and outperform bulky DSLRs. Will your next camera will probably be EVIL.

DSLRs are bulky. Their design comes from the film days when the only way to see the exact image that would hit the film was to divert the light coming through the lens with a mirror and send it to a viewfinder. This mirror meant the body needed to be deep, and the lenses — further away from the film than those in a mirrorless rangefinder — were also bigger.

Now we can see what the sensor sees either on a screen, or through an electronic finder. With the mirror gone, the body can be a lot smaller, just like a compact digicam. This means you can carry it with you everywhere, fit it in a jacket pocket and be ready for *that* picture, wherever you are.

The trick with the new EVIL cams is that they have large sensors. In the case of the Samsung NX10, this sensor is the same size as you’d find in a DSLR, and the others use the Micro Four Thirds format, a sensor which is half the size of a 35mm frame, but a lot bigger than the pinkie-nail-sized sensor in a typical compact. This gives the high image quality and low-light sensitivity of a DSLR. And because they have large sensors, the depth of field is shallower, and you can throw a distracting background out of focus.

And yes you Can Change Lenses.  And because the lenses are as compact as the camera you may actually carry them with you. And with an adapter you can use all your current DSLR lenses on the newer, smaller body.

Compacts have lost out to DSLRs by being slow. Slow to power up, slow to zoom and slow to actually respond to your trigger finger. EVIL cameras have fixed this, and are as responsive as any entry-level DSLR.

The downside; the EVIL is still relatively expensive, and you’ll pay as much for a body and lens as you would for a prosumer level DSLR. For many, even pros, the size difference alone is enough to justify this. For everyone else, you could wait until the likes of Canon and Nikon inevitably enter this sector. Then prices will start to fall.

Thailand: Faded smiles
By David Pilling and Tim Johnston - Financial Times

14 January 2010 (published 13 January)

"Like Banquo’s ghost, Thaksin Shinawatra still hovers at Thailand’s dinner tables, boardrooms and cabinet meetings. Few discussions about the social and political direction of the once-miracle economy are complete without a heated debate over the ousted prime minister’s influence – past, present and, quite conceivably, future.

The charismatic [that is the FT description - would not be mine - RS] Mr Thaksin burst on the scene in 2001 when his party won a landslide. He went on to become the first prime minister in modern Thai history to serve a full term. Wildly popular among the poor but mired in persistent allegations of corruption and tax evasion, his government was ejected from power in 2006 when the military mounted its 18th coup d’état since the country became a constitutional monarchy more than 70 years ago.

Yet the discarded leader, whose appeal to millions of marginalised rural voters uncorked the genie of social aspiration, has hardly vanished from the scene. Though living in exile in Dubai, mainly to escape a two-year jail sentence imposed in absentia over a conflict of interest, he has continued to exert a powerful influence through two proxy governments and the “red shirt” demonstrators who regularly take to the streets in his name.

This week those supporters promised to resume indefinite protests until the fall of the latest government, this one headed by Abhisit Vejjajiva, a sharp critic of Mr Thaksin.

Indeed, recent months have been dominated by clashes between Mr Thaksin’s red shirts and the yellow shirts, supporters of the monarchy who nearly brought the country to a standstill in 2008 when they occupied the international airport for a week just as the tourist high season was about to start.

Further violence around the Association of South-East Asian Nations summit last April damaged Thailand’s international reputation still more when demonstrators stormed a conference centre in the resort town of Pattaya. Regional leaders including a bemused Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, were hurriedly evacuated from the Land of Smiles.

The debate about the direction of democracy is being closely watched by many in the region. The interest goes beyond that of investors such as Toyota, Tesco and Seagate, which have looked on nervously as political instability has gathered force. In a region where fully democratic systems in Taiwan and South Korea are exceptions, Thailand is being seen as a telling example of a fragile democracy struggling to breathe.

Political analysts are predicting that the street demonstrations could erupt into even worse violence when the six-decade reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej comes to an end. Of the king’s protracted illness and fears of what might happen when his mediating presence is gone, Mr Abhisit says in an interview with the Financial Times: “When you have had a very strong, inspirational leader for six decades, there is always going to be a sense of anxiety about change.”

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, associate professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn university, goes further, describing Thailand as a “tinderbox”. He regards the government of Mr Abhisit, nominated by parliament in late 2008 after two prime ministers loyal to Mr Thaksin were removed by the constitutional court, as a dam against the flood waters of social change.

“Abhisit is their last hope,” he says, referring to the monarchists, members of the armed forces and well-to-do who benefit from the present social arrangements. “He is the last democratic stop to put a lid on the forces unleashed by Thaksin.”

Mr Thitinan does not dispute there were negative aspects of Mr Thaksin’s populist administration, which was dogged by accusations of crony capitalism and, in its war on drugs and southern rebels, of extra-judicial killings. But he also points to Mr Thaksin’s introduction of a popular “30-baht healthcare” scheme – allowing a hospital visit for less than a dollar – and his championing of infrastructure and lending policies aimed at improving opportunities for the rural poor. These, he says, began to address the social and political demands of millions of Thais that had gone unheard for decades.

“They should see this as a wake-up call instead of smearing or demonising Thaksin,” he says of those in Thai society who would like to put the Thaksin years behind them. “Thaksin was a catalyst for what needs to happen.”

The present government has sought to borrow Mr Thaksin’s political robes and win over his north-eastern voters by continuing his progressive social programmes. Yet in spite of Mr Abhisit’s attempt to shut Mr Thaksin out, the ex-leader’s influence has, if anything, intensified. Provocatively, last year Mr Thaksin accepted the position of economic adviser to Cambodia, sparking a diplomatic standoff between the neighbouring countries. In a rhetorical flourish, he even suggested he stood ready to counter any intervention from the military by marching on Bangkok at the head of an army of loyal north-easterners.

Thai leaders have consistently paid lip service to the creation of a stable liberal democracy. Few have given much shrift to talk of “Asian-style democracies” proffered by the likes of Singapore, dominated by one political party since independence. Nor do many Thais, in spite of the hyperactive role the military has played in politics, countenance the idea of authoritarianism.

The splutterings of Thai democracy have also become intimately bound up with analysis of the country’s economic development. In 1995, after a decade of growth that outstripped even China’s, commentators began to chatter excitedly about Thailand joining the ranks of the world’s top 10 economies within a generation. The reality has been otherwise. Thailand’s development has stalled. Income inequalities have widened.

True, the economy has regained a modicum of traction since the Asian financial crisis of 1997 slashed 15 per cent off its gross domestic product in 18 disastrous months. But even before last year’s global crisis lopped off a further 3.5 per cent, it had been struggling to grow above 4-5 per cent a year. That puts it towards the bottom of regional league tables, outstripped by countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, let alone China. Thai GDP per capita, at some $3,850 (£2,360, €2,640), remains less than one-quarter of that of Taiwan, an economy with which not long ago it was being compared.

Tarisa Watanagase, governor of Thailand’s central bank, lays the blame clearly on political turmoil. Private investment, growing at 12 per cent a year earlier this decade, has ground to a halt, she says. Bank lending to businesses languishes at two-thirds of 1990s levels, while the economy has become far more dependent on exports than it was before the 1997 crisis. “The biggest problem is the political situation,” she says. “With that, neither the private nor the public sector can really focus on what needs to be done.”

The reasons for Thailand’s disappointing performance go deeper than that. Stimulated by US capital inflows during the Korean and Vietnam wars and, in the 1980s, by a wave of foreign investment from Japan, Thailand’s economy grew beyond the tourism and agriculture on which it had traditionally relied. But it never fully developed an indigenous capitalist class able to compete internationally. Instead, local entrepreneurs – of whom Mr Thaksin was one – prospered by forging close relationships with politicians, carving out monopolies in service industries such as telecommunications and construction.

In Thaksin: The business of politics in Thailand, their book on the populist mogul, Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker write: “Big business was closely connected to politics. The businessmen shared some of their profits with the generals, who in return constructed a friendly environment for business, and rewarded their particular friends with contracts, favours and other profit-sharing advantages.” As well as stalling the creation of world-class businesses, that cosy arrangement also held back the social transformations, particularly land reform, that underpinned rapid take-off in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Much of the Thai elite is fearful of the aspirations stirred by Mr Thaksin. Even Anand Panyarachun, a former prime minister associated with more inclusive social policies, insists Thailand should shun the blind pursuit of economic growth. “We have ambitions, but we don’t have exaggerated ambitions,” he says.

Playing down social needs, he adds: “Here we are lucky in the sense that we have such a temperate climate, and you don’t need much shelter, and you don’t need much clothing and everywhere you go you can always get people to give you food.”

But Mr Thaksin has shaken those paternalistic convictions. Political analysts say it is not clear whether the status quo will survive the death of King Bhumibol, now 82, who is widely credited with using his moral suasion to keep Thailand’s delicate social peace – and that given that his unique role depends more on the man than the institution, he will be all but irreplaceable. Mr Abhisit says of the king’s unifying role: “Thai society has got to mature to a point where we can sort out our own problems.”

Some are less coy, predicting outright social conflict when the king dies. Mr Thitinan, implying some constitutional questions have been postponed out of respect for the king, says: “Some of the vestiges of latent feudal society will have to give way.”

Whether those vestiges go rapidly or gradually and whether they do so with or without the direct involvement of Mr Thaksin is anybody’s guess. But many Thai activists are braced for what they are certain are coming political convulsions.

“Even if you remove Thaksin, there are still a large number of people left to fight for democracy,” says Chaturon Chaisang, one of 111 opposition MPs banned from politics. “In certain aspects, Thai politics have gone far beyond Thaksin.”

As King Bhumibol ails, Thais contemplate a more fractured future

The formal title of Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thailand’s king and the world’s longest reigning monarch, runs to 35 syllables of exaltation, but for most Thais he is simply “Por”: father, writes Tim Johnston.

The king’s formal powers are circumscribed by the constitution, which says that the monarchy is above politics, but 63 years of hard work and astute positioning have earned him what is in practice almost absolute moral authority.

He has become the centre of gravity around which the dysfunctional political firmament orbits; the source from which the unelected power elite aspires to draw its legitimacy; and the revered embodiment of the qualities that most Thais want to preserve in the face of huge social and economic upheaval: community, charity and serenity.

But political divides that have recently widened seem immune to the traditional appeals for unity that the monarch has used in the past to bring the country together. The colour-coded battle between the red shirts and the yellow shirts – both sides say they are fighting for the soul of Thailand – is threatening to pull the “high institution”, as the Thais tend to refer to it, into the middle of the conflict. Palace insiders say the king is unhappy with the way his name is being invoked by different factions but is wary of intervening lest it be interpreted as being too overtly political.

King Bhumibol inherited the throne in 1946 from his brother, who died from a pistol shot to the head. The institution was already on its knees and the generals were firmly in charge.

During the following six decades, the king has criss-crossed the country dispensing largesse and comfort to the poor, and has provided a stable pivot in a country that swings erratically between democracy and military rule. His constancy has earned him undying love in a nation that has been serially failed by both its politicians and its generals.

But King Bhumibol is now 82 and in uncertain health. He has been in hospital since mid-September, originally with inflammation of the lungs and – although the palace says he has now recovered and is merely receiving rehabilitation care – it has rattled the population, most of which has never known the country without him. More than 1.8m people have signed a get-well book outside the Bangkok hospital where he is a patient.

Many people here say privately that the country is moving on from the patriarchal style personified by the king and needs to have a more open debate about the role of the monarchy in a post-Bhumibol Thailand. However, ill-defined lese majesty laws, which are supposed to shield the royal family from insult but more frequently are used by politicians to attack their opponents, have muzzled any substantive discussion""

"Foreign investment

After the airports paralysis, ground is fast lost to regional rivals.

Thailand’s political turmoil has come at a high price, with foreign direct investment tumbling in the short term. But given the worries for investors, FDI has been notably resilient over the longer term.

“It is still coming in,” says Tarisa Watanagase, governor of the Bank of Thailand, the country’s central bank. “We thought that last year, with the global situation and the political situation, FDI would dry up, but it still came in.”

The fall was steep, however. In the first 11 months of 2009, FDI disbursements were some Bt266bn ($7.7bn, €5.6, £5bn), down 43 per cent on the same 2008 period. The slide was much greater than Vietnam’s full-year fall of 13 per cent or Indonesia’s 28 per cent drop.

Analysts are reluctant to attribute the entire fall to political turmoil, pointing out that Vietnam has benefited from being a low-cost producer and Indonesia from its natural resources. Another factor in the mix was that Japan and Europe, Thailand’s main foreign investors, were themselves hit disproportionately hard, with Japanese FDI falling 75 per cent.

Long-term investors in Thailand are a hardy bunch, acclimatised to the unpredictable rise and fall of governments and the enthusiastic participation of the military in running the country. In the past, these upheavals had little practical effect on the business environment.

That changed in December 2008, when thousands of anti-government protesters took over Bangkok’s airports for a week, trapping tourists and businessmen and blocking air freight export routes. The Bank of Thailand estimated that the siege cost some $8.5bn.

Analysts say the problem is not so much that Thailand’s allure has declined in absolute terms, though it has, but that it has declined so much relative to rivals."


Sanctimonious Google gives up on China?

13 January 2009

Google was always going to get into trouble in China. It was depressing to see them acquiesce to China's insistence on hugs censorship of its google.cn site and the blocking of google.com.

Google was guilty of putting profit before ethics.

Now it may be trying to reverse that mistake. Google is saying that it is no longer willing to censor search results on its Chinese service.

The decision followed a cyber-attack that it believes was aimed at gathering information on Chinese human rights activists. It also cited a clampdown on the internet in China over the past year. Its statement (see below) raised the prospect of closing Google.cn and potentially closing its offices in China.

The Chinese government issued its first, cautious response several hours after the announcement, saying it was "seeking more information". The two sides spoke today. Google confirmed: "We have talked to the Chinese authorities and we will be talking to them more in the coming days."

To launch Google.cn the company had to agree to censor and block sensitive material, such as details of human rights groups and references to the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Google says that over the next few weeks it will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which it could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.

Human Rights Watch praised the decision and urged other firms to follow suit in challenging censorship.  That was predictable.

Google claimed the cyber-attack originated from China and that its intellectual property was stolen, but that evidence suggested a primary goal was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

Its inquiry had shown that, separately, the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights advocates in China who are based in the US, Europe and China appeared to have been routinely accessed by third parties.

The company added that it was sharing the information not just because of the security and human rights implications "but because this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech".

Acknowledging the potential consequences, it stressed: "This move was driven by our executives in the United States, without the knowledge or involvement of our employees in China."

I have not much sympathy for Google. When they agreed to comply with government restrictions the company knew pretty well what it was getting into. And now it is saying that the government action is a surprise. This is China they are dealing with.

Google has only a third of the search-engine market in China, which is dominated by the Chinese giant Baidu. Although its revenues have continued to rise, many analysts believed it was finding business hard going, particularly as it came under increased pressure from the government.

So is this a sanctimonious Google smokescreen meant to hide a retreat from the Chinese market that Google is unable to conquer for business reasons. Or is it really the moral high ground. 

A Google spokeswoman said the company doesn't know the likelihood of reaching an agreement with the Chinese government to run an unfiltered site, but if the company ultimately closes Google.cn down, it will have an "immaterial impact" on the company's revenue.

Baidu meanwhile has a predictable patriotic gloat. The firm's chief architect Sun Yunfeng claimed Google was just trying to play down its market failure. "Would Google top executives still proclaim that they would 'do no evil'," he said, quoting the company's code of conduct, "and quit China if they had taken 80% of China's search market?"

He added that the American company's move would "satisfy the imagination of those Westerners who have never been to China and understand nothing of China but still like to point fingers at China".

Baidu has strong links with the government and may be lobbying hard to gain business advantage from this row.

Meanwhile Facebook and Twitter have been blocked in China for almost a year.

Official Google Statement

Aussie and Loonie approach dollar parity

11 January 2010

This analysis of currency trends is from Bloomberg today:

"The biggest monthly rebound in the Dollar Index since January means faster gains for Australia’s and Canada’s currencies as the recovering U.S. economy boosts demand for their commodities.

The Canadian and Australian dollars will strengthen to trade at parity with the greenback or better together in 2010 for the first time in 34 years, appreciating at least 3 percent and 7.5 percent, three of last year’s four best forecasters for both currencies say. Traders are favoring the so-called loonie and Aussie over the dollar on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange even while betting more than ever on the Dollar Index advancing.

Accelerating U.S. growth will spur demand for Canadian oil and natural gas as China’s expansion boosts purchases of Australian iron ore and coal, pushing both currencies higher, said Sacha Tihanyi, a foreign-exchange strategist in Toronto at Bank of Nova Scotia. The loonie and Aussie both rose last week even as the People’s Bank of China took steps to curb lending.

“The global economy is going to strengthen, and the recovery is going to broaden out from what has so far been a China-, Asia-led global recovery,” said John Kyriakopoulos, head of currency strategy in Sydney at National Australia Bank Ltd., the most accurate predictor for both currencies last year.

“We’re forecasting parity for the Aussie dollar, and we actually think the Canadian dollar will go through parity” by March, he said. The bank is the most bullish of last year’s most accurate forecasters on the two currencies, predicting gains of about 11 percent for each by Sept. 30.

The Australian dollar rose 0.6 percent to 93.04 U.S. cents as of 11:01 a.m. in New York and was 2009’s third-best performer among the 16 most-traded currencies. Canada’s loonie, nicknamed for the aquatic bird on its dollar coin, was little changed at C$1.0301 after gaining the most since 2007 last year.

IntercontinentalExchange Inc.’s Dollar Index -- a gauge against the euro, yen, pound, Canadian dollar, Swiss franc and Swedish krona -- has rallied 3.5 percent since Nov. 25 after a 16.7 percent slide from 2009’s March 5 closing high.

Three of the four best loonie forecasters in 2009 -- National Australia, Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc, JPMorgan Chase & Co. -- predict parity by June 30; the other, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, sees it there by Dec. 31.

As for the best Aussie predictors, National Australia says that currency will equal the greenback by March 31; CIBC sees it there by year-end; JPMorgan estimates it will be stronger than parity in the second quarter and Commonwealth Bank of Australia is calling for it to stop 2 cents short of one U.S. dollar.

Of the most active currencies, the Aussie, loonie, Brazilian real, Norwegian Krone, South African rand and New Zealand dollar, known as commodity currencies, posted 2009’s biggest gains against the dollar. The Reuters/Jefferies CRB Index of raw material prices had its best performance since 1979, gaining 23.5 percent.

History shows that a U.S. recovery coincides with increases in commodities, the Aussie and loonie.

After the U.S. came out of the 2001 recession, the currencies rose 48 percent and 23 percent, respectively, in the two years ending with 2003 as the world’s biggest economy expanded almost 6 percent. After falling 31 percent in 2001, the Standard & Poor’s GSCI Index of 24 commodities rose 39 percent and 11 percent in the next two years.

The Australian and Canadian dollars have rallied about 49 percent and 27 percent from last year’s lows as U.S. growth rebounded to 2.2 percent in the third quarter after shrinking 6.4 percent in the first.

The U.S. economy’s expansion will accelerate to 2.6 percent in 2010, compared to 3.1 percent for Australia and 2.55 percent for Canada, according to the median estimates in Bloomberg economist surveys. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. predicts the S&P GSCI Enhanced Total Return Index of commodities will gain 17.5 percent this year.

“A lot of the Canadian dollar gains up to now have been happening in the absence of strong growth in the U.S.,” said Tihanyi of Bank of Nova Scotia. “Through this year, you’re going to see growth come back to what you might see in a normal year, and along with that you’re going to see a pickup in trade and demand for Canadian products.” Canada’s third-largest lender forecasts parity by June 30.

The Canadian dollar rose versus the greenback for a fourth day on Jan. 5, when the U.S. Commerce Department reported that automakers increased sales in December. The loonie climbed again the next day for its longest winning streak in two months.

The Canadian and Australian dollars are gaining support from the global recovery as China’s central bank tries to curb record lending. The nation may have exceeded its 8 percent growth target for 2009 by 0.5 percentage point, said Zhang Xiaoqiang, deputy head of the National Development and Reform Commission, in a Jan. 5 statement.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia, among the five most- accurate forecasters for the Aussie and loonie, expects both currencies to end 2010 short of parity after peaking in the second quarter as Federal Reserve interest-rate increases add to the greenback’s appeal. Median Bloomberg survey forecasts see the Australian dollar falling 3.4 percent by Dec. 31 as the Canadian currency drops 5 percent.

“The U.S. dollar will strengthen in anticipation of rate hikes,” said Richard Grace, chief currency strategist in Sydney at Commonwealth Bank.

Canadian policy makers will warn traders against pushing the loonie higher to prevent damage to the economy, said Sebastien Galy, a foreign-exchange strategist at BNP Paribas SA in New York.

“The problem with the Canadian dollar is the reaction function of the central bank; they’ve been pretty vociferous about talking down the currency,” Galy said.

Seven days after the loonie reached C$1.0207 on Oct. 15, its closest brush with parity since July 2008, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney said action to weaken the currency “is always an option.” Within two weeks, it fell 6.1 percent to a one-month low of C$1.0870. Measured in U.S. cents, Canada’s dollar hit 97.97 before falling to 92.

For the Aussie, the risk is a pause in rate increases. Reserve Bank of Australia Deputy Governor Ric Battellino described its monetary policy on Dec. 16 as “back in the normal range” because lenders had raised rates more than the policy makers had.

“Any paring back of those interest-rate hike expectations will weigh on the Aussie,” said Sue Trinh, a senior currency strategist at RBC Capital Markets in Sydney, who sees the currency peaking at 93 U.S. cents. “A sooner and stronger-than- expected recovery in the U.S. is going to benefit Canada more than the likes of Aussie.”

Currency strategists have pushed up first-quarter forecasts for the Australian dollar, with the median prediction now at 93 U.S. cents, from 65 cents in March, more than estimates for the New Zealand dollar, real, krone, ruble and Canadian dollar.

Futures traders are becoming more bullish about the loonie and Aussie even as they increase bets on the U.S. dollar, data from the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission show. Contracts profiting from gains against the greenback outnumbered bearish wagers by more than 40,000 on each currency last week, the most in five weeks for the Aussie and 10 for the loonie.

Investors had an unprecedented 51,050 bets that the Dollar Index would rise as of Dec. 29, according to the CFTC data. Even after such wagers fell to 48,623 last week, bullish contracts outnumbered bearish ones by more than 5 to 1, the most since March, when the dollar started last year’s slide.

Canada sits on the largest pool of oil reserves outside the Middle East. The nation is also the world’s third-largest exporter of natural gas after Russia and the U.S., according to the Energy Information Administration.

Australia is the biggest shipper of iron ore and coal. Merchandise exports to China, the nation’s largest trading partner, grew 29 percent in 2009’s first 11 months from the same period in 2008. Australia also sells gold, crude oil and liquefied natural gas.

The Aussie and the loonie last traded at parity together in 1976, before the November election of a secessionist Parti Quebecois government in Quebec helped trigger “a protracted selloff” in the Canadian dollar, according to James Powell’s “A History of the Canadian Dollar” on the Bank of Canada’s Web site.

The loonie most recently had the same value as an American dollar in July 2008 after rising to that level in September 2007 for the first time in three decades. It hit its strongest level of 90.58 Canadian cents per U.S. dollar two months later. The Aussie last reached parity in 1982, before the government allowed it to float freely the following year.

With the U.S. dollar showing renewed strength, Barclays Plc’s wealth management unit is advising investors to maximize returns on bets that the Aussie and loonie will rise along with commodity prices by purchasing the currencies with yen.

“If you had to pick a country in the world that’s most short of commodities, it’s Japan,” said Aaron Gurwitz head of global investment strategy at Barclays Wealth in New York.


Avatar fails to inspire

11 January 2010

Get this for a plot summary: A paraplegic marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home. Does not sound much like a best seller. And the movie cost an outrageous US$400 million. James Cameron may be the only Director who could or would take this risk.

"Avatar" is a Hindu word meaning incarnation or embodiment. Both this film and the Avatar series are named after this concept.

I cannot imagine why you would see this movie in anything but 3D. It is a very different way to watch a movie - on an IMAX screen it must look fabulous.

But as a story - it is little more that the usual action-flick-with-moral-and-loads-of-clichés. The Na'vi are the good guys, the greens, in tune with nature. The movie sees them in similar ways to the indigenous people that America has historically exploited. Their is nothing original in retelling the exploitation of the  Native American Indians, Vietnamese or Iraqis. Cameron nudges the film along with allusions to Dances With Wolves, Jurrasic Park, Star Wars, Alien and Apocalypse Now. He turns up the genocidal heat with such terms as "fight terror with terror" and "shock and awe." Dialogue is not Cameron's strong suit and in this film it is lame.

The bad guys are predictably military men verging on insane and weak corporate managers worried about their shareholders.

The last third of the movie is a battle between the Na'vi and their human destroyers. It is a remarkable blend of digital effects and live-action. But it is also load and very predictable. And it feels wrong for a movie preaching peace to hit its visual peak with scenes of mass destruction.

Avatar extends the possibilities of what movies can do. But it still feels like you are watching a cartoon. There is little sense of reality. Maybe because the story is just so predictable and the message is delivered without any subtlety.

The clarity of the 3D is remarkable, and it's all undeniably dazzling.

But I feel like I have been preached to by a zealot. The movie feels like a corporate production rather than one with any human personality.

It was described by one critic as: essentially, the CGI equivalent of Cirque du Soleil.

UAE Sheikh cleared in videoed torture case

10 January 2010

A member of the ruling family of the United Arab Emirates has been cleared of the torture of a business associate.

Lawyers for Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the president's brother, said the court ruled he had been drugged and so was "unaware of his actions".

The incident came to light when a videotape was circulated showing the violent beating, said to have taken place in 2004. It was the first reported investigation of a UAE ruling family member.

For details of the original incident and of the torture tape - which is truly revolting - there are more details here.

Lawyer Habib al-Mulla said the court had established that Sheikh Issa was "not responsible" for the torture of Mohammed Shah Poor. "The court accepted our defence that the sheikh was under the influence of drugs that left him unaware of his actions," AFP news agency quoted him as saying.

Strangely the Sheikh does appear to have been well enough to drive his 4x4.
The defence had previously claimed Sheikk Issa had been drugged by two men who then then recorded the beating in order to blackmail him.

The video, circulated last year, shows Sheikh Issa repeatedly beating Mr Poor, a grain merchant of Afghan origin, and running him over with a car. Several other men assist in the tape, including one in a uniform of the security forces.

The incident came to light after US television network ABC broadcast clips of the tape, which was smuggled out of the UAE by a former business associate of Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Reports say the merchant had lost a consignment of grain belonging to Sheikh Issa worth $5,000 (£3,300). He survived the abuse, but needed extensive hospital treatment.

Mr al-Mulla said the fact the trial had taken place was "a sign that the UAE is showing that everyone in this country can be put in front of law and judged".

The UAE is a federation of seven wealthy emirates with substantial oil reserves and a large expatriate population. Each emirate is run by a ruling family and citizens are granted few political rights.

This was the original news report from ABC of the USA.

UAE ranks low on Quality of Life index

10 January 2009

The UAE has been listed below countries such as Colombia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mongolia, Swaziland, Azerbaijan and North Korea in terms of quality of life, according to a new list compiled by a magazine specialising in moving overseas.

International Living magazine’s 2010 Quality of Life Index ranks 194 countries in terms of their quality of living and ranked the UAE 141st, just below Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan and North Korea.

Below North Korea !!

“This isn't about best value, necessarily. It's about the places in the world where the living is, simply put, great,” claims the magazine, which is based in Ireland.

The countries were scored in nine categories including cost of living, culture and leisure, economy, environment, freedom, health, infrastructure, safety and risk, and climate.

The UAE scored high in the economy and safety categories but low in the environment, freedom and climate categories.

The freedom category measures “a citizen’s political rights and civil liberties”, according to the magazine.

The UAE scored 50 points overall while France, which topped the list scored 82 points and at the bottom of the list on 194th was Somalia with 30 points.

Six of the top ten countries are in Europe. The top ten included France, Australia, Switzerland, Germany, New Zealand, Luxembourg, the US, Belgium, Canada and Italy.

Most of the Gulf countries ranked in the bottom half, with Jordan coming 104th, followed by Kuwait (106th), Syria (124th), Qatar (128th), Egypt (135th), Iran (150th), Oman (168th), Saudi Arabia (169th), Iraq (170th) and Yemen.

The UK was 25th, India was 88th, China was 97th and Pakistan was 178th.

Burj Khalifa – a bleak symbol of Dubai's era of bling

Dubai's stunning 828m skyscraper is an ideal monument for an era of credit-fuelled over-consumption – irresponsible and unsustainable
Geraldine Bedell The Observer, Sunday 10 January 2010

"Dubai defies logic. Skyscrapers rear up out of the pitiless desert where, a generation ago, there was only wind-blown litter. This city-state confected from subsistence has now witnessed the opening of the world's tallest building – the Burj Khalifa, steel-ribbed, glass-clad and completely unsustainable.

The 828m (2,717 foot) skyscraper boasts the world's highest swimming pool and mosque and is said to contain enough glass to cover 17 football pitches. Not since 1311, when the spire of Lincoln Cathedral first topped the Great Pyramid of Giza, has the tallest structure in the world been located in the Arab world. Some Arabs, not unreasonably, interpret criticism of the building as resentment at Dubai's presumption in setting itself up as a world city.

Stunningly designed by the Chicago firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrell, the Burj Khalifa is inspired not only by minarets and desert flowers, but also by Frank Lloyd Wright's 1956 plans for the Illinois Sky-City in Chicago. Neither the technology nor the money existed then to build such a structure. Now that it does, Dubai would like to see its audacious building as a metaphor for its role in the vanguard of globalisation, as a technocracy capable of yoking Islam and modernity.

The symbol, though, is already tarnished. Before and during construction, the building was called the Burj Dubai (Dubai Tower); its website still is. The surrounding area was to have been known as Downtown Burj Dubai. But at Monday night's launch, the name was abruptly changed to Burj Khalifa, in honour of the president of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

Last month, Abu Dhabi gave Dubai $10bn to stave off financial collapse. The name-change suggests the bailout may have come with conditions and that Dubai's blander, richer neighbour may now exert some influence over its anything-and-everything-for-sale mentality.

In the space of one year, Dubai has gone from having the world's best performing property market to one of the worst. The Burj Khalifa's developers insist that 90% of its 900 apartments are sold and its 300,000 square feet of office space filled. In fact, most of the apartments were bought at the height of the market by speculators. And while a way may be found, for the sake of face, to occupy the office space, elsewhere in Dubai large tracts lie empty.

It is impossible to get accurate information about this; Dubai is an opaque place, where the line between government and private enterprise is blurred. What we do know is that little attention was paid in the boom years to the social or environmental consequences of development. All but 10% of the population of Dubai are expatriates, whose interests really lie elsewhere. The government featherbeds its few citizens but offers its majority of foreign inhabitants little more than a dream of making money, encouraging a short-term approach to the place. Certainly, it wants no political or civic engagement from them.

Many of Dubai's construction workers live on starvation wages: £120 a month on average for a six-day week, with shifts of up to 12 hours. Housemaids can endure conditions approaching slavery. Laws exist to regulate working conditions and to prevent employers from seizing workers' passports, but they are not well enforced. Government figures are invariably owners, partners or shareholders in private companies. You only have to travel an hour into the desert to see the construction workers' shanty towns to get a sense of what life is like for those who are building Dubai's skyscrapers, but few do.

Construction workers on the Burj Khalifa have rioted on several occasions, including in March 2006, when 2,500 protested at the site, and again in November 2007. A Human Rights Watch survey found a cover-up of deaths from heat, overwork and suicide in the emirate. The Indian consulate recorded 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005, after which they were asked to stop counting.

Meanwhile, the Burj Khalifa's air-conditioning system is said to be the equivalent of melting 12,500 tons of ice a day, in a city that has the world's highest per capita carbon footprint. Dubai relies heavily on CO2-emitting desalination plants. The Tiger Woods golf course alone requires 4m gallons of water a day. Short-term profits have repeatedly been put before sustainability.

There remains an outside chance that the emirate may yet become capable of combining development with equity, transparency and environmental sustainability. But at the moment, Dubai is built entirely on a capitalism whose nakedness is clothed only in bling. And if that continues, the Burj Khalifa will stand as a symbol of a meretricious, credit-fuelled era in which no one with any choice would wish to live."

Not cleared for takeoff in the West

Don Martin, National Post

10 January 2010

"The world's largest passenger jet, a two-storey Airbus 380 behemoth, lands at Toronto three times a week packed with wealthy Arab tourists and energy-based business executives.

The pride of the Emirates Airline fleet routinely fills more than 90% of its 489 seats to and from Dubai, sharing a near-capacity load with the United Arab Emirates' other carrier, Etihad Airlines.

For 11 years now, Emirates Airline has been seeking permission to bring daily flights to Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver only to be told by Transport Canada there's no demand for increased service.

Being an airline recognized as among the best in the world with daily service to 102 major cities evidently means that Canadian bureaucrats, not its operators, know what's best for the airline.

Well, be careful Transport Canada, because Emirates Airline has almost had enough of a country that bills its blue skies as wide open for business, but routinely clips the wings of international competition.

Buffalo is showing up on its radar as an alternative location to Toronto and Seattle is calling for it give up on its Vancouver or Calgary daily flight dreams and fly south to its friendlier skies.

"It's a fair statement to say that of the developed world, Canada is the most restrictive and we'd argue the most protectionist of any country we are dealing with," cautions Emirates Airline senior vice-president Andrew Parker.

"The most powerful presentations we get are from American airports which lobby us to give up on Vancouver and come to Seattle," he said yesterday. "Now Buffalo says they're becoming a major player and want us to service them and capture that part of Ontario."

This would be a one-off aviation anomaly if not for the fact that Transport Canada's market interventions have already driven two global giants to depart Canadian runways.

Both Singapore Airlines and Air France pulled out of Vancouver last year after the federal government denied them daily flight access, relocating to Seattle along with hundreds of jobs and the business benefits of non-stop links to south Asia and Paris.

What's doubly bizarre is how wide and deep the support is for the UAE airline's service to expand. Transport Minister John Baird has been bombarded with pleas from Western premiers, mayors, MPs from all parties, Toronto business interests and tourism officials to boost gravity-defying links to the Middle East.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach is travelling to Dubai next week for a conference and to meet with UAE airlines to discuss ways to increase pressure for direct flights to Calgary.

Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier has met repeatedly with airline officials and sounds fed up with the foot-dragging. "They've got the fleet, they're willing to take the risk, they want to come to Calgary and we want them," he told me. "We need the federal negotiators to get the deal done. If we really believe in open skies, let's open them up."

Influential Calgary area MP Ted Menzies argues the airline's plans fit with his government's current focus. "This is a no-risk, no-cost proposition for our government that would provide an immediate economic stimulus."

The best Transport Canada can come up with to explain its reluctance to approve daily service -- and it took its spokesperson two days to find her speaking notes -- is "there is no shortage of seats to meet the demand."

That could be code for Air Canada protectionism, even though the airline doesn't fly to Dubai. It does, however, have partner links to Dubai through London or Frankfurt and it could well be using its domestic muscle to keep this direct-flight competitor partially grounded.

Giving Air Canada protection "is anathema to any logical business thinking and highly anti-consumer," argues the Consumers' Association of Canada.

For a pro-business Conservative government to obstruct its commitment to open skies, a policy renamed to fit with party colours as a Blue Skies policy, is unconscionable in a world where keeping our businesses globally linked and competitive is a key to the recovery.

While Canada has inked an overdue agreement with the European Union, its other deals are modest links to low-travel countries such as Iceland, Ireland, Barbados and New Zealand.

If this restrictive air traffic control persists, Transport Canada will be clearing more jobs and business investment for take off to the United States."

EK passengers charged

10 January 2009

Robert Fowles, 58, from Dover, Kent, has been charged with making a bomb hoax and being drunk on the Dubai-bound Emirates flight 004 last Friday night, the Metropolitan Police has said.

Another man on the plane, Alexander McGinn, 48, also from Dover, has also been charged with being drunk on an aircraft.

Armed police boarded the Boeing 777 at around 9.15pm on Friday, moments before take off, after remarks made to cabin crew prompted passengers to raise the alarm. Again it is unclear whether it was crew that raised the alert or passengers.

Fowles has been remanded in custody and will now appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court tomorrow. It will be interesting to see what he was alleged to have said and to who. Did crew and passengers over react?

McGinn has been bailed and will appear at the same court on January 22, also charged with being drunk on an aircraft. He is not the first man ever to be drunk on board an airplane and given that the flight was still on the ground the questions should be how he was allowed to check in and board the plane without being challenged.

A third passenger on board the plane who was arrested at the time - a man aged 36 - was released without charge.

More than 330 passengers were on the flight at the time of the alert. They had to leave the aircraft while officers carried out a search.

Police later said they did not find any dangerous substances onboard.

Emirates arranged hotel accommodation for stranded travelers overnight and they were allowed to depart on the aircraft on Saturday.

When silence is not the answer

9 January 2010

The story of the British woman assaulted at the new year in Dubai who was then arrested by the Dubai police when she went to report the assault has been prominent in the international media over the last two days. It is also a story that is widely tweeted and blogged. Assuming that the story is for the most part accurate it is a shocking story; and it is another story that is damaging to both the image of Dubai as a tolerant and enlightened Emirate and by extension damaging to the tourism industry on which the city depends.

Of course if you red the Khalaeej Times and The Gulf News it never happened; because they simply do not report it. This is of course part of the problem. If the story is not reported; then there is no outrage and officials are not held responsible or required to be accountable/

To their credit The National from Abu Dhabi has not such concerns at reporting the story which it did on Page 2 today; including large elements of the original text of The Sun's story.

The details as reported by the National are:

"A British woman on holiday in Dubai with her fiance reported a rape to the police only to be arrested herself for illegal sex and drinking.

The woman, a 23-year-old of Pakistani descent, was in the emirate for a three-day break, celebrating her engagement.

But on New Year’s Eve she was allegedly attacked by a waiter while semi-conscious in a hotel toilet. When she reported the attack at the Jebel Ali police station the following morning, she was arrested, after reportedly admitting to illegal drinking and having sexual intercourse outside marriage.

Her fiance, 44, was charged with the same offences.

The couple, both from London, have been released on bail and their passports have been confiscated. They are awaiting trial and could be jailed for up to six years if found guilty of the sex charge.

Reports say the woman, who is Muslim, admitted to having drunk too much as she and her fiance celebrated their engagement at The Address hotel in Dubai Marina. The waiter, believed to be Syrian, is alleged to have followed her into the toilets and raped her while she was semi-conscious.

Her fiance, whose religion is unknown, later helped her back to the hotel room, unaware of the attack, but when she told him what happened the following morning they contacted the police, where they were then questioned.

The woman was given a blood test to prove she had been drinking. A rape exam was administered following an appeal from the British embassy, which is providing consular assistance to the couple.

The alleged attacker denied the rape charge, claiming the woman consented, but has been charged with illegal sex.

Yesterday a spokesman for the hotel said, “The hotel cannot comment on the matter as it is sub judice and being investigated by the authorities.”

Major Abdul al Kadi al Banni, director of the Jebel Ali police station, confirmed that the woman had reported a rape on January 1. He said the police took all necessary measures. However, he added there was also a case filed against the woman and her fiance, for illegal drinking and sexual intercourse. “The woman confessed that she had sexual intercourse with her fiance and that she had alcohol. We cannot just ignore such an offence.”

All three suspects were referred to the public prosecution."

Today the UK newspapers are reporting that the assault victim has been advised to drop her allegation, admit she was drunk and marry her fiancé immediately - if she wants to go home.

If the story is genuine as reported then the lack of concern for the alleged rape is alarming. And any faith or form of rule must see rape as a severe crime. The troubling aspect of this case is that the victim and her fiance are British Muslims who really should know better than to be so drunk in Dubai that at least one of them passes out.

The trouble is that the foreign media and the online community are up in arms at the Dubai authorities over this case. And there is no one giving the police version of the incident; how it was handled at the police station, the status of the investigation or an account of the actions of the couple.

And that is where the media silence does not help Dubai. We all end up getting the real news about Dubai from the foreign press. There is more to this story than we are being told.

It is worth remembering that a huge number of westerners live in or visit Dubai every year but it is still relatively rare for Britons to fall foul of its morality laws.

But when they do the consequences are serious.

Three lousy drunks arrested on Emirates plane at Heathrow

9 January 2010

Armed officers stormed Emirates Airline flight 004 at London's Heathrow airport as it was about to depart for Dubai and arrested three men on suspicion of making a bomb threat.

The Emirates flight was preparing to take off late Friday when a “verbal threat” was either heard by a crew member or heard by another passenger and reported to the crew. News reports are conflicting on what happened.

“Police were alerted and armed officers boarded the plane,” a police statement said. “Three men aged 58, 48 and 36 were arrested and are now in police custody.

They have been arrested on suspicion of making a bomb threat.”

Passengers said officers brandishing guns and in body armour burst onto the plane and hauled the suspects away. They also said that the men arrested were English and appeared to be drunk.

The alert came amid heightened security at airports around the world following an alleged attempt by a young Nigerian to bomb a plane landing in Detroit on Christmas Day by concealing explosives in his underwear.

The flight was due to leave at 20.00 for Dubai. After a late push back the Metropolitan Police said they were alerted after the threat was made at around 21.15.

The remaining passengers were taken off the plane at a secure part of the airport and the airplane was searched. The airport — one of the world's busiest air hubs — remained open throughout.

Passengers were also to be individually questioned and all their bags searched.

So three idiots drink too much, start saying stupid things on the airplane; enough to alarm the cabin crew. And those actions massively inconvenience over 300 people. Selfish and stupid.

There is one necessary solution; stop selling alcohol at airports and on airplanes; close the bars and stop selling duty free alcohol. Drunk passengers are rarely stopped from boarding a flight and regularly course offence or exhibit threatening behaviour onboard.

The airplane, crew and passengers are still in London and expected to leave on Saturday morning for Dubai.

Executive Towers - the depressing reality

8 January 2010

Executive Towers was originally due for completion in Q1 2008.

Then this was the press release put out by Dubai Properties on 27 March 2008. It is, in hindsight, either shameful, embarrassing or simply hilarious. Because it was clearly a bare faced lie. Yet no one is held accountable.

"Dubai: 27 March, 2008 - Dubai Properties, leading master real estate developer, today announced the AED 3 billion Executive Towers, which are markedly visible from Sheikh Zayed Road and Al Khail Road, is nearing completion, and the anticipated Handover date will be during the fourth quarter of 2008.

Work is proceeding simultaneously on all 11 buildings of the Executive Towers, which include nine residential units, the Aspect Tower, and the Business Bay Hotel. The development's outdoor component, the Bay Avenue, is also on its way to deliver 175,000 square feet of retail space as well as water-front terraces.

With all the units of the Executive Towers sold out, the handover of all towers will commence in the fourth quarter 2008.

Dubai Properties' first project in Business Bay, the region's new business capital, will also be the second major project to be handed over by the Master property developer following the successful release of Jumeirah Beach Residence in 2007, handing over 6000 apartments. Yaqoob Al Zarooni, Deputy CEO, Dubai Properties, said: "While we are committed to adhere to our delivery schedule, we are equally keen on providing our investors with latest updates on each project. The feedback we have received from our partners and contractors has been positive as we work together to ensure we deliver on our promises to investors."

Al Zarooni said: "With 5,400 on-site workers, we are delighted to inform that our ambitions for the Executive Towers will soon achieve fruition. The towers and the lifestyle they represent are geared towards people who celebrate success and an intelligent way of life, and we are confident the development will set new benchmarks in the industry."

With two-level shopping mall, clinics, health clubs and other facilities, the Executive Towers will boast a contemporary design and architectural theme reflecting Dubai's progressive outlook.

The main contractor for The Executive Towers is Al Habtoor Engineering, while the Business Bay infrastructure is being handled by Halcrow Engineering. -ends-"

Termination and refund clauses for failure to deliver the project within a year of the original completion date contained in the sale and purchase agreement were worthless. As a buyer you could have tried to fight Dubai Properties in a local court but you would have needed great patience, a good lawyer and to afford significant legal fees.

So the only option was to wait for completion and handover of the property.

On 21 June 2009 Samer Zabian, the Director or Customer Service (never has a department been so badly named) wrote to the owners to announce - " We are delighted to announce that the completion date for the Executive Towers project is now confirmed as 20 July 2009."

More fiction. Just an attempt to bring in some cash from the final payments.

Another email (this time) on 15 November said that Tower B would be handed over from 30 November. And the threats started - failure to book your handover appointment by 26th November 2009 may result in your account being marked delinquent.

No matter that the building was already almost 2 years late.

A December appointment was then replaced by a January appointment; although I only knew that when I rang to confirm the December appointment and was told there was a further delay.

Now lets look at the process. How this should work; the purchaser examines the property; prepares the snagging list (defects to be addressed before handover) and ensure the snagging list is resolved before the final payment is made and the property is handed over by the developer.

Not so with Dubai Properties. We will take your money first thank you.

Then you can go to the property and prepare you snagging list. You are now paying utilities and management fees for a property that is not yet fit to inhabit.

The customer service function at Dubai Properties head office is an embarrassment. So I will move onto the handover.

Dubai Properties did not put management of Executive Towers out to tender. They just appointed their subsidiary management firm - Salwan LLC. A company that has no history of property management and that appears able to charge whatever management fee it wishes.

Salwan did retain some UK consultants to advise on the handover process. The consultants said complete the pool, gym, public areas. Ensure there is safe access to the building etc.

Some of the consultants have been retained by Salwan to manage the handover. They are openly embarrassed to be handing over the project in this condition.

Simply Executive Towers is not ready to be handed over.

The pool may open in a month.

The gym may open in three months.

The mall area may open in six months.

But remember these are Dubai Property dates so are subject to lengthy delay.

There is no landscaping. The towers sit on a mud patch.

Access to my tower, Tower B, is available through the car park only. Only one of the three elevator banks is working. The car park is dirty, dusty, poorly lit, full of building materials and is base camp for the many labourers still on site. I am sure they are delightful people but I do not think my wife should have to walk through them all if she comes home alone to the building. I do not regard it as either safe or secure.

And finally you get to your apartment and see it for the first time.

The view out over the Burj Khalifa. Lovely.

Inside - I have never been more disappointed. The plasterwork, grouting, paintwork, looks like it was completed by five year olds using playdoh.

The flooring is stone tiles; it looks like the tiles that you might use on a garden path.

There is mould/fungus on the walls. There are panels missing. There are chips, marks, damage throughout. Door fames are damaged. Doors are chipped. Switches and sockets are missing. Cracks in the plaster work have been painted over. Tiling is uneven. Doors do not fit properly etc.

The saddest part is that there appears to be absolutely no quality control and no sense of a duty of care. Isn't this what customer service is supposed to do. There can have been no check of my apartment to ensure that basic fixes had been done; that obvious damage had been repaired. None of this is rocket science. The contractor should be signing off on this apartment before I am expected to review it.

The schedule of finishes in the sale and purchase agreement said that "All finishes, fixtures, construction and installation will be to relevant international and local standards." That must have been in the fiction section.

The Dubai Properties web site eulogises on Executive Towers : "The Executive Towers comprise 12 towers: ten residential towers, one commercial tower known as Aspect Tower; and one hotel called the Business Bay Hotel. The apartments come equipped with modern amenities, high-tech facilities and internationally designed interior spaces that embody superb architectural innovation and breathtaking views of the winding Creek." It makes you weep to see the reality.

Khalid Al Malik, Group CEO of Dubai Properties Group, said: "The handover of The Executive Towers confirms Dubai Properties’ commitment to the continued development of Dubai’s landscape by delivering projects that surpass our customers’ expectations."

My expectations were pretty low already - and they could not even meet those !! Pathetic; shameful; incompetent.

I have no confidence that the snagging work will be done - let alone expedited. It is a shame. The people on site from Salwan and Idama do appear to care. But the contractor is not interested and Dubai Properties management have simply taken the money without any thought of their customers.

And finally just a few of the pictures of the interior damage in the apartment. There is no way that the apartment, or the building, should be handed over at this time and in this condition.


Tips to surviving the handover
The National (UAE)

First published on January 4th 2010

"It should be an exciting time for homeowners who have waited years for the keys to their new villas. But the rapid decline in prices has left thousands moving into properties that are worth less than the amount they paid.

Now many are feeling the pain as the final handover usually means the first mortgage repayments or the final payment to the developer.

At the same time, developers are rushing through completions, often before projects are fully ready to occupy, to book desperately needed revenues.

“Some developers obviously do try to speed up the handover because they want their money in,” says Charles Neil, the chief executive of the brokerage Landmark Properties. “They say the property is ready but there are still a lot of issues, including in the finishing, for instance.”

Tamweel, the country’s second-largest home finance company, refused in November to accept the handover of the first completed properties from The Villa development built by Al Mazaya Holding, located within the Dubailand project.

Tamweel is the financier and an owner of the estate, which comprises about 200 homes.

Khaldoun Abdul Kader, the executive vice president of Al Mazaya, said late last year that the buildings were completed and infrastructure would be finished by the start of this year.

Developers are also starting to hand over new towers within Dubai’s Business Bay and Jumeirah Lake Towers developments.

“In reality, people can’t move in for all sorts of reasons,” says Matthew Hammond, the head of agency at Jones Lang LaSalle. “No connection to power, though, is the biggest cause for developers not to be able to hand over.”

Owners have clashed with developers over handover issues at Business Bay, which was originally planned to include 200 towers.

Many homeowners in the project’s 12 Executive Towers paid their final instalments in August before being told by Dubai Properties, the master developer, that they would not be able to move in until late last year.

“People have been able to move into some residential units in Business Bay but I am only aware of one of the Executive Towers and the electricity is on the generators,” said Porush Jhunjhunwala, the manager of commercial leasing at the brokerage company Better Homes.

“As for the office space, a few landlords are still doing the fitout. No business has moved in. There are still challenges in terms of infrastructure, electricity.”

Disputes over “snagging”, or fixing problems relating to the finishing of new homes, are also becoming more prevalent, brokers say.

Investors in Al Reef Villas, a development in Abu Dhabi, have been asked for snagging lists even before their homes have been connected to power and water supplies.

“We started the snags in September for the first phase of the project …” said Faiza al Zarouni, the chief operating officer of the developer Manazel, late last year. “Yes, power and water connection is under implementation, but obviously we will not hand over to the owners without the utilities.”

Some residents in the handed over villas of Al Reef, however, are still receiving their power from generators, although they were promised a connection to the federal grid soon.

“The day I came for the first time, I did not know that it was the official snagging but I pointed a lot of defects,” says Khawar Sheikh, 35, an Indian banker who moved in last month. “They treated that particular day as the official snagging and I paid the balance.”

Mr Sheikh says he pointed out several flaws, such as uneven walls, damaged kitchen fittings and broken tiles. “On December 15 I got the key and I said I would be moving in with my family by the 25th,” he says.

“But now, even though I have moved in, nothing has been fixed. And I am still getting electricity through generators.”

Brokers say owners should be especially vigilant of snagging issues and should not accept properties that have not been properly finished.

“It is not usual to do the snags without having power and water,” says Mr Neil. “You’ve got to check all the equipment, whether the AC is working or not, for instance. You need to see that the water is running – all this before the handover.

“You should not accept the unit unless the water and electricity have been connected up.”

Developers are also likely to encounter more problems on buildings where 70 per cent or more of the purchase price is required on completion.

“Many buyers have not secured a mortgage for their last payment,” says Mr Neil. “That is one of the big issues at the moment. The majority of the payment plans for off-plan properties here include a big payment in the end, after completion, often about 70 per cent.

“The reason the developers did this was to sell, as buyers wanted a small payment upfront to flip the units and make a premium.”

Some buildings in the Jumeirah Lake Towers development reaching completion are understood to be under this kind of payment plan. Some towers in Abu Dhabi were sold in the same way.

“Many investors who bought those properties at Dh2,500 (US$680) per square metre before the downturn thought it was not necessary to get a mortgage,” says Susan Cronin, a consultant with Al Jar Properties. “They had a year and a half to resell the property before delivery.”

Ms Cronin says securing a mortgage at this price is now close to impossible.

“I bought two apartments with a group of seven friends,” says Francoise Harris, an investor in the Marina Blue building on Abu Dhabi’s Reem Island.

“The last instalment of investors was due on completion, which according to the company is December 31. But the building was obviously not going to be ready by that time. We only want to pay on real handover.”

For their part, developers say many investors are seeking excuses to delay or avoid making their final payment because they do not have the funds or their homes are now worth substantially less than the price they paid.

“People are much more critical,” says Markus Giebel, the chief executive of Deyaar Properties, Dubai’s third-largest developer.

“Sometimes they really look and try to find something wrong, which afterwards can be used against us in order to stall the last payment.”

Deyaar’s Citadel tower, an office high-rise building in Business Bay, which had a last instalment of 50 per cent due on handover, has been the scene of problems with some owners on delivery.

“We have no issues with about 50 per cent of the customers,” says Mr Giebel. “But with the other 50 per cent, we have to negotiate.”"


Contractors set to suspend work on Dubai metro

7th January 2010

Contractors on Dubai’s metro are poised to suspend work because they are owed $10bn (£6.27bn) by the client.

A consortium comprising four Japanese contractors and one Turkish firm: Obayashi, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi and Kajima, received $5.7bn (£3.57bn) worth of orders from Dubai’s Roads & Transport Authority in 2005 to develop the Dubai Metro.

In a bid to collect its outstanding bills, which due to actual construction expenses may be twice that of initial projections, the consortium is understood to have slowed down the pace of work and could fully suspend further construction on the Dubai Metro.

This could delay opening of the Green Line, scheduled for 2010.

Japanese firms in Dubai, working on a total of 18 projects in the emirate, are owed collectively an estimated $15bn for work done before October 2009, according to local press reports.

This reinforces earlier stories about foreign contractors not being paid. The story gets plenty of coverage in the construction trade press but not the local UAE media. The green line does not look like it will be ready for a mid year opening; or maybe it will see a partial opening as did the red line which now has 11 of its 29 stations open.

Labour party attempts suicide

6 January 2010

The Labour Party in the UK looks like it wishes to commit electoral suicide just five months before the likely date of the next general election.

Two ex Labour cabinet members (now assassins of Mr Brown) have written to the Labour party MPs calling for a secret ballot on Gordon Brown's leadership; the text of the letter is below. The Conservative opposition must be gleeful at this apparent split in the Labour Party ranks. And the Tory media will lap it up.

My bet - Gordon Brown will lead the Labour Party into the next election. And that the Labour Party will rally around him; and just maybe he will win the election or lead a coalition with the Liberal Democrats.

Anything but the vacuous Cameron.

I like Gordon Brown. He is not telegenic like a Blair, Cameron or Obama. But he is a smart man; he does care; he works very hard; and he is sincere about what he does. And he has a decent team around him. The Milibrand bros, Balls and others. 

"Dear Colleague,

As we move towards a General Election it remains the case that the Parliamentary Labour Party is deeply divided over the question of the leadership. Many colleagues have expressed their frustration at the way in which this question is affecting our political performance. We have therefore come to the conclusion that the only way to resolve this issue would be to allow every member to express their view in a secret ballot.

This could be done quickly and with minimum disruption to the work of MPs and the Government. Whatever the outcome the whole of the party could then go forward, knowing that this matter had been sorted out once and for all.

Strong supporters of the Prime Minister should have no difficulty in backing this approach. There is a risk otherwise that the persistent background briefing and grumbling could continue up to and possibly through the election campaign, affecting our ability to concentrate all of our energies on getting our real message across.
Equally those who want change, should they lose such a vote, would be expected by the majority of the PLP to devote all of their efforts to winning the election. The implications of such a vote would be clear – everyone would be bound to support the result.

This is a clear opportunity to finally lay this matter to rest. The continued speculation and uncertainty is allowing our opponents to portray us as dispirited and disunited. It is damaging our ability to set out our strong case to the electorate. It is giving our political opponents an easy target.

In what will inevitably be a difficult and demanding election campaign, we must have a determined and united parliamentary party. It is our job to lead the fight against our political opponents. We can only do that if we resolve these distractions. We hope that you will support this proposal.

Yours fraternally,

Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt"

Abu Dhabi - we have a problem

6 January 2010 - Only 18 seconds - do watch to the end !

Thailand Unhinged

6 January 2010

In the following paragraphs Khi Kwai (Federico Ferrara, assistant professor at the University of Singapore) introduces his latest book manuscript Thailand Unhinged.

You can download this passionately written, powerful and yet irate analysis here.

Khi Kwai provided the following summary to "Absolutely Bangkok" where he introduces his analysis looking back on Thai history to explain why the country is in such a mess:

"Thailand’s 2007 constitution begins with a tawdry, obscene fabricaton. With Orwellian audacity, its preamble states that “Thailand has been under the rule of democratic government with the king as head of state for more than 75 years.” No mention is made of aborted transitions and military takeovers. No significance is granted to the decades of repression Thailand experienced under the thumb of ghastly military dictators – men who governed the country with a level of savagery only exceeded by their greed. No meaningful role is attributed to the hundreds of brave young Thais who lost their lives in the mass protests of 1973 and 1992, just so that others would have a say on how they should live theirs.

Not so much as a footnote is reserved for pro-democracy students at Thammasat University, whom paramilitary death squads raped, murdered and hanged from trees – their eyes ripped out of their sockets, their mouths stuffed with old shoes – in October of 1976. The official, comic-book version of Thai history that the government routinely imparts to millions of school children nationwide has no place for the Thai people’s painful struggle for democracy. Those who died, lost limbs, went to jail, or fled to the jungle for the cause did all of this for no reason whatsoever.

Of course, plenty of elections have been held in Thailand since the 1930s, at a frequency which has at times surpassed that of countries with rather more distinguished democratic records. But many such elections took place under conditions of severely limited competition, had their outcome predetermined by fraud or massive deployment of state resources, or in any case turned out to be irrelevant to the exercise of real political power. For much the intervening time, moreover, government alternation has typically been accomplished through coups, not elections.

And though introducing, restoring, or otherwise saving democracy has reliably served as the rationale for many of the plentiful coups that have forcibly, if often bloodlessly, removed a succession of Thai governments, most of the “permanent” constitutions that have cyclically been promulgated, suspended and unceremoniously repealed were designed as a way to provide the regime of the day with the veneer of a legal foundation more than to regulate anything vaguely resembling democratic competition. Government propaganda notwithstanding, Thailand has only been a “democracy” in any meaningful sense of the word for a relatively small portion of its history. In each such instance, the military had to step in to “restore order” and “protect the unity of the nation.”

Thailand Unhinged offers a trenchant analysis of Thai politics and society over the tumultuous years that followed the ouster of the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. It explains Thailand’s ongoing political crisis by bringing important lessons from the country’s post-absolutist history to bear on recent events. At the same time, it takes Thailand’s current predicament as exemplary of the myriad ways in which prominent unelected institutions have typically sought to undermine the country’s notoriously fragile democracy.

Whatever the constitution might say, in particular, the book argues the real story of the past eight decades is not the development of democracy. It is rather the systematic sabotage of any meaningful democratic development, the routine hijacking of democratic institutions, and the continued suffocation of the Thai people’s democratic aspirations engineered by an unelected ruling class in an increasingly desperate attempt to hold on to its power – all the while, cloaking its “dictatorship of the big men” in the benign, legitimizing language of “Thai style democracy.”

To be sure, since at least the 1980s, elected representatives and ministers drawn from their ranks have enjoyed ample freedom to use their positions to get rich, help their protégés get ahead, and repay contributors for their support by plundering state coffers with impunity. What elected officials cannot do under the present circumstances is place the military under civilian control, take control of the machinery of government, and set national policy – especially the kind of national policy designed to re-distribute some of the country’s wealth to the provincial masses. In fact, whether an elected government acts within or without the constitution is immaterial.

It’s when it begins to operate outside the confines set for it by the “network” that the country’ elites spring into action. If they can, they will use their control of the courts to overturn the results of elections through means that have the appearance of being legal. If they need to, they will send onto the streets gangs of paramilitary thugs to castrate the government and paralyze the country, all the while guaranteeing that the nation’s laws will not apply to them. And, if they absolutely must, they will roll out the tanks and the special forces – formally taking power just long enough to write a new constitution capable of insulating them from the nuisance posed by elected officials.

In light of Thaksin’s sickening record, one could be forgiven for having sympathized with the argument made in support of the 2006 coup. But we should have known better than to think there is any such thing as a “democratic coup d’état.” Much like Chatichai Choonhavan before him, at the end of the day Thaksin was done in less by his efforts to establish an “elected dictatorship” than by his attempt to project his government’s power deep into institutions traditionally impervious to encroachments by elected officials. After his bone-crushing victory in the 2005 elections, however, Thaksin was much too strong to be effectively undermined, let alone removed, through any of the gentler means at the disposal of Thailand’s economic, military, bureaucratic, and aristocratic elites.

And so the military had to step in, not merely to unseat Thaksin, but perhaps especially to lay the groundwork for his prosecution, confiscate his assets, dismantle those provisions in the 1997 constitution that protected his dominance, and put new safeguards in place against his return. When Thaksin did come back, if only by proxy, out came the PAD’s paramilitary thugs that softened the government’s support by raising the terrifying specter of an ugly civil war. And when the people had had enough of that, out came the constitutional court with its tendentious decision to dissolve the People Power Party.

The book includes scathing critiques of Thaksin’s administration as well as the military-backed governments that came to power in the wake of the 2006 coup and again in late 2008, following the week-long siege of the country’s busiest airports. Individual chapters explore Thailand’s long history of so-called “democratic coups d’état,” the build-up to the 2006 coup as well as the organization, operational strategy, and worldview of the PAD, the events that led up to Abhisit Vejjajiva’s elevation to the office of prime minister, the nexus of prostitution and class structure, the compatibility of Thai culture with democracy, and Thailand’s prospects of finally setting on a path to genuine democratization. The essays are written in a provocative, confrontational style – making Thailand Unhinged a decidedly unconventional mix of academic scholarship, literary journalism and radical pamphleteering.

As for some of the more memorable quotes from the book, here is a sampling of relevant passages:

Page 32 – But if the chasm between city and countryside is an important reason why Thailand never quite ceased to drift in and out of military dictatorship, the conventional wisdom offers little more than a caricature for the interests and aspirations of both urban and provincial voters. We should not be misled, moreover, into exchanging the politicization of demographic differences, however real and important, for inevitable. Nor, for that matter, should we fall for the notion that, at its core, this fight has anything to do with democracy. Beyond the apparent lifestyle differences, the rift is arguably about self-image – in particular, the long held stereotype that portrays northeasterners as lazy, halfwitted grunts – more than it is about any coherent, deeply held ideology. And at stake here are not competing visions of democracy, but rather the kind of naked power that the vanguards in both camps value far more than any principle or idea. In this very old-fashioned struggle for the right to control and plunder state coffers, to hoard the people’s money, “democracy” is but the rhetorical bludgeon wielded by each side to score political points against its rivals, earn itself the enlistment of useful idiots it may use as cannon fodder, and cloak its hegemonic aspirations in the shallow trappings of polite international discourse. In this fight, just as provincial voters could be said to often fall prey to the machinations of unsavory local bosses, the urban middle class – vast differences in education, wealth and status notwithstanding – is every bit the pawn of the Bangkok elites.

Page 50 – It should be noted that the use of the word “Democracy” in the title of an organization devoted to the disenfranchisement of tens of millions of people should not be mistaken for mere chutzpah or hypocrisy. Nor is it just a definitional question about the appropriate size of the demos. To claim the mantle of true democrats while denouncing democracy as a dangerous utopia is rather reflective of a far more insidious worldview. The PAD, specifically, claims to speak “for the nation” because the natural order made it their role to think for the masses. As such, not only is there no contradiction in asserting that the PAD embodies “the will of the people” even though its entire agenda is predicated upon substituting the people’s choices for their own. The PAD’s is in fact a superior form of democracy – one that recognizes the functions proper to each of the various components of Thailand’s social organism. Those who oppose the PAD’s vision are “traitors” and “enemies of the nation” because the idea of individual equality undermines natural hierarchies whose preservation is integral to the survival of the organism as a whole. For the PAD, what the majority actually thinks is irrelevant. The “will of the people” is what they say it is. It’s simply not the purview of the uncouth peasantry, the ignorant drudge, or the feckless cab driver to hold political opinions.

Page 51 – The PAD finally got its long sought-after bloody shirt on October 7th, when skirmishes outside the Thai parliament building left at least two people dead and scores injured. To the surprise of many, the violence on October 7th did not precipitate the coup the pad had been clamoring for – the familiar kind of coup complete with the deployment of tanks, the proscription of political organizations, and the imposition of martial law. In fact, the PAD got something much better than that – the slow but inexorable cooking of the government’s goose. At the end of the day, that amounted to a coup all the same, but the
pretense of bourgeois legality was carefully preserved through the outward observance of otherwise worthless constitutional provisions and parliamentary procedures.

Page 56 – In fact, the democratic movements of times past have never enjoyed the kind of protection that institutions like the military and the Privy Council have afforded the PAD. Nor have they ever received much in the way of financial backing from Bangkok’s feudal and capitalist elites. Each of these constituencies, whose long-standing dominance over Thai politics and society is threatened by the possibility that Thailand might embark upon a path to real democratization, has rather more commonly sought to crush past democratic movements.

Page 69 – In fact, whether an elected government acts within or without the constitution is immaterial. To be sure, since at least the 1980s, elected representatives and ministers drawn from their ranks have enjoyed ample freedom to use their positions to get rich, help their proteges get ahead, and repay contributors for their support by plundering state coffers with impunity. What elected offcials cannot do under the present circumstances is place the military under civilian control, take control of the machinery of government, and set national policy – especially the kind of national policy designed to re-distribute some of the country’s wealth to the provincial masses. It’s when it begins to operate outside the confines set for it by the “network” that the country’s elites spring into action. If they can, they will use their control of the courts to overturn the results of elections through means that have the appearance of being legal. If they need to, they will send onto the streets gangs of paramilitary thugs to castrate the government and paralyze the country, all the while guaranteeing that the nation’s laws will not apply to them. And, if they absolutely must, they will roll out the tanks and the special forces – formally taking power just long enough to write a new constitution capable of insulating them from the nuisance posed by elected officials.

Page 86 – The biggest challenge to the dominance of the military, the Privy Council, and the Bangkok elites is not Thaksin or even Thai Rak Thai, but rather the emergence of any strong, organized, national political party that takes its electoral mandate seriously. So long as Thai politics remains factionalized, fragmented, personalized, parochial, corrupt, and patronage-based, their ability to run the show behind the scenes remains intact. At the same time, should anyone call them out on it, they can always point to the ineptitude and corruption of elected politicians as evidence that powerful unelected institutions are actually needed to protect Thailand from the inanity of its own citizens.

Page 87 – Of course, Thailand’s problem is not that it has had too much democracy, as some in the blue-blood jet conveniently allege, but rather that what little democracy it has experienced since 1932 has been systematically undermined and then subverted whenever it produced results its unelected masters didn’t like. As such, having never been given the chance to develop into a functioning system of government, democracy has cyclically produced the kind of inept, fragmented administrations that made the rise of a brash, decisive, populist leader like Thaksin Shinawatra possible in the first place.

Page 109 – Follow the money. For every miscreant who descends upon Thailand, weighted down by the oversized baggage of smug condescension Westerners carry with them everywhere they go, there are thousands of enablers in this country. These enablers benefit – of course, some more directly and more bounteously than others – from the Farang Juice Company’s sustained cropdusting of Thailand in imported, protein-rich fertilizer. They have a deal, you see. It’s an unspoken one, but as iron-clad as any contract you could sign in this country. And, thus far, successive generations have seen it fit to honor it. All the modernized, urbane elites are asked to do to is refrain from making too big a stink about the wide availability of plebeian girls. So long as they don’t do a damn thing about it, in return they get to publicly berate the white man’s shocking degeneracy, bemoan his influence on the ignorant, impressionable little people (whom they have always argued in need of guidance from the civilized urbanites), and thus proudly wear the mantle of strenuous defenders of Thailand’s national identity. All the while, behind closed doors, millions of their own men engage in much the same behavior.

Page 111 – For the Thai bourgeoisie, the great thing about the status quo – beyond the fact that tourism makes businesses more prosperous, jobs more remunerative, and taxes less burdensome – is that while the measly sum families upcountry receive from their daughters keeps them afloat and hence mutes the clamor for a more interventionist role of the state, in the absence of real economic development millions of provincial bores never go far beyond mere subsistence. Incidentally, though “sufficiency” is all the elites and the local press say provincial Thais should aspire to, the continuing reality of rural poverty perpetuates the incentive structure that makes prostitution the best possible career choice for upcountry girls by the hundreds of thousands. You can force people into mere sufficiency, but it is quite another thing to permanently extinguish any yearning for self-advancement, to forever sear upon people’s faces idiotic smiles of contentment. Nor, for that matter, would the elites really want for the slogging proles to surrender all hopes of a better life — not lest they piss away the steady supply of cheap labor that makes their parasitic lives so comfortable.

Page 121 – Notwithstanding the lip service frequently paid to the customs, practices, values, norms, and beliefs that cumulated over centuries of Thai political development, there is nothing “Thai” about lining up scores of dissidents against the wall of a Buddhist temple and mowing them down with machine guns. There is nothing “Thai” about the shameless hypocrisy required to praise a military dictator who stole billions and murdered hundreds, with the blessing of the country’s highest authorities, and in the same breath adduce “corruption” and “human rights violations” as justification to stage military coups against elected leaders guilty of a fraction of those offenses. There is nothing “Thai” about turning religion into an instrument of political legitimacy. There is nothing “Thai” about cults of personality. There is nothing “Thai” about the enlistment of mass media and schools in the dissemination of propaganda. And there is nothing “Thai” about repressing the poor to benefit the rich. These are not the hallmarks of culture, Thai or otherwise. These are rather the attributes of authoritarianism – the main features of which were pioneered, for the most part, by generations of Western dictators.

Page 135 – Culture is now the first refuge of dictators. But it’s important to recognize that “Thai-style democracy” doesn’t amount to anything more glamorous or exotic than your average European-style dictatorship. In fact, the real hindrance to democratization in Thailand is not Thai culture; it is rather the interest of elites who are otherwise eager to borrow from abroad what can be used to entrench their power at home. As such, to reject democracy on cultural grounds, is not to protect Thailand from Western impositions. It is rather to acknowledge the authority of pompous, inbred big men to define what is compatible with tradition and what is not."

EK announces Madrid

5 January 2010

This is turning into a big year for new routes for Emirates - Prague, Tokyo and Amsterdam are already announced.

Now the Dubai based carrier is to open services to the Spanish capital, Madrid, from 1 August this year.

The airline will operate daily non-stop to Madrid from Dubai.

Emirates will use Airbus A330-200 aircraft on the route, configured with 12 first-class, 42 business-class and 183 economy-class seats.

Madrid will bring to 25 the number of Emirates destinations in Europe, says the carrier.

The Burj Dubai Khalifa opens

4 January 2010

After six years construction the building formerly known as the Burj Dubai was formally opened today and was immediately renamed.

Inevitably renaming the tower the Burj Khalifa looks like a part of the price that Dubai has paid in return for a financial bail out (called support by the local media) from Abu Dhabi.

There will need to be a lot of new signage produced very quickly. The announcement of the name change seems to have surprised everyone.

The opening fireworks were spectacular - my pictures are here - there are probably far better ones elsewhere.

There were also six parachutists at the opening of the event. Rather oddly both Arabian Business and Dubai One tv are insisting that they parachuted from the top of the tower. No they did not. They came out of an airplane.

Traffic was a nightmare. It is always OK for the helicopter arriving, police escorted dignataries; but it seems that every major UAE event is beset with traffic problems. And that just looks like bad planning.

Tonight Sheikh Zayeed Rd came to a standstill in both directions. All six lane of the highway were a parking lot approaching the Dubai Mall junction. Road access from Sheikh Zayeed Rd to the Old Town was also closed off and Al Khail Rd looked like a parking lot as well. Many people will have been watching the fireworks from their cars.

It is far from clear how much of the Tower will be occupied and when but the observation deck on the 124th floor will be open from tomorrow. Tickets for admission to the At The Top observation deck will cost from Dh100.

Admission for immediate access to the tower can be purchased at Burj Dubai for Dh210 (US$57). Or you can pay AED100 and join the queue.

Just don't look down

4 January 2010 - The Guardian

The world's tallest building may be a triumph of beauty and ambition, but the soulless cityscape surrounding it is another matter.

We're going to need a new word. The Burj Dubai doesn't scrape the sky; it pierces it, like a slender silver needle, half a mile high. It's only because Dubai never has any clouds that we can even see the tower's top. And, judging by the images released so far, the view is more like looking out of a plane than a building. It has made reality a little less real.

The facts and figures about the tower are equally surreal – like the one about how it could be eight degrees cooler at the top than at the bottom, or the one about how you could watch the sunset at the bottom, then take a lift up to the top and watch it all over again. It's a new order of tallness, even compared to its nearest rival, Taiwan's Taipei 101, which it exceeds by more than 300 metres.

But, beyond height, is there anything to celebrate here? From our current perspective, the Burj Dubai symbolises catastrophic excess – of money, confidence, ambition, energy consumption. And the fact that it will most likely stand empty for years to come has been noted with great satisfaction here in the west. But isn't this how we've responded to every tall structure of note, from Babel onwards? And even its many critics have to admit the tower is a rather stunning piece of architecture. Chiefly designed by Adrian Smith, formerly of skyscraper specialists SOM, and engineer Bill Baker, it is beautifully sleek and elegant, rising in a graceful series of silver tubes of different heights. It looks less like a single tower than a cluster of towers, an organic formation rather than a self-consciously iconic object. This is surely the best-looking tall building since New York's Chrysler and the Empire State in the 1930s.

In environmental terms, the Burj Dubai is way too tall to justify itself, but there is at least some structural efficiency to the form. Its Y-shaped plan – three wings extending from a central core, like the roots of a tree – "confuses the wind", in the architects' words, while the core stops the wings from twisting (which would give top-floor occupants nausea). For super-tall buildings – and surely there will be more, one day – this "buttressed core" design is likely to become the prevailing form.

More worrying than the tower itself, however, is what's around it. In 1956, Frank Lloyd Wright unveiled a scheme for an elegantly preposterous mile-high skyscraper for Chicago, safe in the knowledge that he'd never have to figure out how to build it. It was undoubtedly an influence on the Burj Dubai. It even had a similar triangular structure. But Wright's intentions with his mile-high skyscraper were to create a concentrated human habitat, the better to halt Chicago's unstoppable urban sprawl, and free up ground space for parks, nature and leisure.

The Burj Dubai, by contrast, has become the tentpole for several more acres of anonymous, soulless, energy-hungry cityscape. You can apparently see for 60 miles from the top, but when you look down, the immediate landscape is the same schematic real-estate tat you see everywhere else in Dubai: vast shopping malls, bland office towers, sprawling residential developments semi-themed to resemble "traditional" Arabian villages, outsized ornamental fountains. The Burj Dubai might be a triumph vertically, but what about the horizontal?

Thaksin's gains under court threat

4 January 2010 - The Bangkok Post

"Thaksin Shinawatra's multi-billion baht fortune rides on the outcome of his trial on conflict of interest charges before the Supreme Court's Criminal Division for Political Office Holders.

His family fortune of 69 billion baht has been frozen by banks pending the court's verdict.

The trial started in July. Last month, the court extended its hearings, with the next date set down for Jan 11.

Fugitive former prime minister Thaksin and his ex-wife, Potjaman na Pombejra, have been tried for an alleged illegal shareholding in Shin Corp.

They are also being tried for allegedly dubious business transactions leading to a 76.6 billion baht profit which his family made from the sale of its 49.6% stake in Shin Corp to Singapore's Temasek Holdings in 2006.

One question which the judges must answer is whether Thaksin and Khun-ying Potjaman held shares illegally during Thaksin's prime ministership from 2001 to 2006.

Other questions centre on the extent of his alleged unusual wealth and whether Shin Corp benefited illegitimately from telecoms policies which Thaksin introduced.

The court has sought a long list of documents and reports from state agencies and companies.

The now-defunct Assets Scrutiny Committee asked the court to seize the Shinawatras' share-sale profits on the grounds the couple directly owned the shares and benefited from the share value increase and other gains which stemmed from Thaksin's telecom policies.

But Thaksin's lawyers claim he had made a significant portion of his wealth before he came to office in 2001.

The ousted prime minister's witnesses, including an official from the Stock Exchange of Thailand, have told the court the increase in the Shin Corp shares' value was influenced less by Thaksin's policies than natural increases in the share price.

The court has asked for an assessment of Thaksin's telecoms policies from Thailand Development Research Institute economist Somkiat Tangkijwanich.

It has also sought papers from the National Economic and Social Development Board and SET records showing the stock value of Shin Corp and related companies.

The ASC alleged Thaksin's introduction of excise tax on telecom services provided advantages to telecoms company Advanced Info Service, in which Shin Corp held a 42.9% stake.

The policy weakened the financial status of state-owned TOT Plc and blocked full competition by others in the industry, the panel said.

One Somkiat study found that right after the telecoms excise tax policy announcement in February 2003, listed companies with close connections to the Thaksin cabinet, including Shin Corp and its affiliates, enjoyed an increase in capital gains of 4.65%.

On Thaksin's policy to give a tax exemption to Shin Satellite Plc for its investment in an IPStar satellite project, the study suggests the company was not entitled to the privilege, which gave it a profit of 16 billion baht.

The Somkiat study says Thaksin's policy to reduce AIS's revenue-sharing obligations to TOT for its mobile phone pre-paid services, from 25% to 20%, helped AIS gain 13.4 billion baht in value from October 2001 to September 2006.

However, the ASC's estimate of Thaksin's "unusual wealth" goes beyond the gains which the family made from the sale of its stake, to include future gains estimated until the end of the firm's concession in 2015. For the pre-paid service policy, it gave a total figure of 70 billion baht as part of his alleged unusual wealth. For Thaksin's policy on network sharing for mobile phone operators, it gave a total figure of past and future profits of 18 billion baht.

The court has yet to set a date for its verdict"

A marvel, a folly, or both

3 January 2010

By tomorrow evening Dubai will have officially opened its mammoth tower; the Burj Dubai. The next day it will be largely closed again as the builders work on competing the surrounding infrastructure and fitting out the building.

Here is the tower - pictured over the last three and a half years. At some US$20 billion for the Burj Dubai and the surrounding developments the tower was not cheap, and perhaps it was even unaffordable.

The Burj Dubai is the world's tallest building and will be inaugurated on January 4, 2010, by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, UAE Vice President & Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai.

As a building it is decently attractive; it is shiny, elegant and confident looking. And it is part of am emerging new city centre of Dubai that has a growing energy and life. There is no questioning the audacity of those who said build it and those who undertook the engineering.

To add to the fun there is an open observation deck on level 124. The views are not exactly Manhattan or Paris but the mix of sand and sea and old and new will be interesting. And you are still 36 floors from the top !

Monday's ribbon-cutting is not a the best time for Dubai. The city's ambitions have been severely dented by the financial woes of the property sector. The lack of transparency and information have added to concerns over the credibility of the city's vision. The white knight, so far, has been Abu Dhabi, but the cost of their bail out is unknown.

The grand party, fireworks, laser show and fawning and lavish commentary from the local media will be too lavish; this might have been a good time to show a little restraint; to show responsibility. But we are already being promised the party of the year. 

Skyscrapers have become rather less iconic since the awful events of 11 September 200; and like many of the world's past tallest buildings, the Burj Dubai was planned and built during the boom years, and finished during a property crash. The Empire State Building was completed during the Great Depression in the 1930s and the Petronas Towers in Malaysia during the 1990s Asian financial crisis.

Will there be life after the opening? In time probably; but not overnight; except for tourist buses heading for the observation floor and gift shops.

The tower is likely to stay empty for the foreseeable future. Though most of its 900 apartments have been sold, virtually all were bought three years ago -- near the top of the market -- and primarily as investments, not as places to live. There is little demand in Dubai at the moment for office space. The Burj Dubai has 37 floors of office space.

The BBC reports one Mohamed Abdul Hadi, a local investor who made millions out of Burj Dubai long before the building was completed. "In 2007 we bought three floors on Burj Dubai," he told the BBC. "The first investor paid 2,500 UAE dirhams ($680; £420) per square foot. We bought at AED 3,500 and one year later we sold at around AED 5,000. Look at the profit, where else can you have this but Dubai? And with no taxes."

But not everyone wins. Those who invested late will be nursing large losses. Late stage investors are suffering from property prices that have come down by 50% and may still fall further.  There  is an oversupply in the property market today. Analysts say that vacancy rates may be 25% to 30% for residential property in a year's time, and for commercial property the vacancy rate is already 40%. Burj Dubai is not immune to that. Location and quality will help, but over time.

Megalomania or a Grand Achievement?

3 January 2010 - Der Spiegel

"Dubai, like no other place in the world, epitomizes globalization, "innovation" and "astonishing progress," as US President Barack Obama said admiringly in his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June. But it also stands for mind-boggling excess. In Dubai, utopias almost feel real sometimes, and reality is sometimes nothing but a mirage.

Nevertheless, the excessive building of cities and towers seems to be a cross-cultural constant, a dream and nightmare alike for mankind, from the Babylonians to the heroes and villains of the present. The ruler of Dubai isn't the only one who has carried out his plans in reinforced concrete and gleaming facades.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan had Astana, an entire city of monumental avenues, triumphal arches and pyramids built as his new capital, where marble contrasts with granite, buildings are topped by gigantic glass domes and, on the Bayterek Tower, every subject can place his or her hand in a golden imprint of the president's hand.

In the Burmese jungle, dictatorial generals had an absurd new capital, Naypyidaw, or "Seat of the Kings," conjured up out of nothing. Yamoussoukro, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire and a memorial to the country's now-deceased first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, is even a step closer to the brink. The city is filled with grandiose buildings, but there are hardly any people to be seen. The Basilica of Notre Dame de la Paix is a piece of lunacy inspired by the Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican, but the African church is even bigger than St. Peter's. Indeed, it is the world's largest Catholic church.

It is easy to ridicule the megalomaniacs and their hubris and to rail against the record-breaking mania reflected in their ostentatious buildings, phallic symbols of the rise to power of nouveau-riche potentates.

And yet, aren't Brasilia and Canberra, the South American and Australian versions of the man-made model city, remarkable successes? Hasn't history proven at least a few visionaries right, people whose achievements we continue to marvel at today: the creators of Giza on the Nile, Machu Picchu in the Andes and Angkor in Cambodia, or the planners of St. Petersburg?

Today, the pyramids of the pharaohs, the mountain fortress of the Incas and the sacral ruins of the Khmer are admired as part of the world's cultural heritage, places that attest to man's greatness. They are the great and magnificent achievements of past eras. Nowadays, the center of St. Petersburg—designed on the drawing board, like Dubai today, more than 300 years ago—is still considered an ideal city and an example of successful urban planning.

Where the emirates are built on sand, the banks of the Neva River were once swampland. At the behest of the czar, St. Petersburg was not just created as Russia's window to the West, but as a reflection of what the modernists of the day defined as utopian. "Now, city of Peter, stand thou fast, Foursquare, like Russia; vaunt thy splendor! The very element shall surrender And make her peace with thee at last," Alexander Pushkin, the congenial poetic counterpart to Peter the Great, wrote in his poem "The Bronze Horseman." It was pure hubris, cast in the form of magnificent verse.

What happens today in Dubai—or in Shanghai or Astana—generally happens under the conditions of an authoritarian form of government. In democracies, people cannot be dispossessed and driven off their property but, instead, can hire attorneys to assert their rights. In democracies, more or less reasonable building codes and ordinances, as well as licensed appraisers, ensure that uncontrolled growth and injustices are kept in check. But this limiting effect also applies to creativity, spontaneity and "positive" megalomania, resulting in a general leveling of things.

"This society is mediocre," the poet and sharp-tongued contemporary critic Hans Magnus Enzensberger once wrote about German reality. "Its political leaders and its works of art are mediocre, as are its representatives and its taste, its joys, its opinions, its architecture, its media, its fears, vices and afflictions." And then, in his essay "Mediocrity and Delusion," Enzensberger writes: "There is something cathartic about this realization."

Somewhere between Western suburbs and Yamoussoukro lies Dubai. Whether its Burj, its tower, will ever become a part of the world's cultural heritage is still open, as is the question of how long it will remain the world's tallest structure. China, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are already planning towers that will be much taller than the Burj Dubai, reaching more than 1,000 meters into the sky.

In the Book of Isaiah, the Bible describes the fall of Babel as follows: "And suddenly your downfall will come, and it will come unexpectedly." If the words of the Old Testament are to be believed, the megalomaniacal tower builders of today cannot expect external support: "Thus shall they be unto thee with whom thou hast labored, even thy merchants, from thy youth: They shall wander every one to his quarter; none shall save thee."

The Burj Dubai was not cheap, and perhaps it was even unaffordable. But at least the sheikhs of Dubai have taught their contemporaries one virtue: the virtue of taking the plunge."

Talking up the fight

3 January 2010

The Nation newspaper and the PAD are allied in talking up a potential showdown with former prime minister Thaksin and his red shirted supporters.

Now former Army commander and now president of the king’s Privy Council, General Prem Tinsulanonda has appeared in military uniform in public for the first time since the 2006 palace-military coup.

PTT and Bangkok Pundit in their blogs have highlighted that Prem recommended a newspaper article by Thaksin critic Chirmsak Pinthong (แนวหน้า, 28 December 2009). Prem recommended the article to those who were visiting him, saying it “important and a must-read.”

As I cannot read Thai I will paraphrase PTT's summary of the article.

Firstly note that Chirmsak Pinthong is a supporter of the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy and has been an important intellectual critic of Thaksin and the red shirt movement.

In his article, Chirmsak’s basic point is that Thailand has entered the first phases of a yet to be decided civil war. On one side is the “legitimate government” of the “kingdom of Thailand.” On the other side there are the Thaksin forces. They aim not just to overthrow the Abhisit government, but to radically change the system of government, eventually establishing a republic and a dictatorship.

Chirmsak argues that the Abhisit government is legitimate as it came from the same elections as the Samak and Somchai governments and there should be no reason to reject it.

This is typical PAD/Democrat rhetoric which ignores the 2006 coup, the airport occupation and subsequent legal proceedings that established a Democrat-led coalition.

But Chirmsak exonerates the PAD from any responsibility because he like the rest of the PAD sees them as nationalists, while the red shirts are traitorous.]

There is also the media feud; with both groups aiming to confuse and divide the public by inventing stories and misleading people so that there is hostility towards the other group. The trouble is that Chirmsak sees the government and its supporters as faultless and points to DTV and complains that it is media established solely with a political purpose to undermine the state and the Kingdom of Thailand.

But the PAD pioneered this inflammatory journalism with ASTV/Manager.

Chirmsak sees the recruitment of old soldiers to Peua Thai as highly dangerous as it threatens a split in military ranks when a “final showdown” looms. The government supporters also see the pro-Thaksin loyalty of the police as dangerous.

The recurring theme from Chirmsak is to accuse Thaksin and the red shirts of traitorous acts. Either that of of simply being in it for the money.

Among the red shirts he argues are republicans and like-minded red-shirt academics who hate the idea of “democracy with the king as head of state.”

The implication is that either there are no principles involved or if there are principles, they are held by those who are dangerous to the monarchy.]

Chirmsak regards the poor as being people with insufficient information. They look to Thaksin to resurrect their failed dreams. This is an old and alarming PAD argument. The PAD's appeal is to a middle class, alarmed and concerned at its role in society; meanwhile the poor are a nuisance who should not have the vote in teh first place.

The civil war analogy contunues; Chirmsak's article talks of the “big boss” who is firing off the “intercontinental missiles” that “drop from the skies on the Kingdom of Thailand”. Some red shirts are the “infantry” creating all the problems in the country. Others are the “artillery,” using television as their weapon. The Peua Thai Party in parliament are the “cavalry in tanks,” protected by their parliamentary position but causing confusion. The “spies” are the senior government officials who are provide secret information, impede and disrupt.

The PAD wants to see greater use of state power to crush the red shirts. So that the government may maintain stability to protect the interests and happiness of “the majority.”

What majority? Or is this just a majority of those that Chirmsak and the PAD would accept as enfranchised. After all the coup overthrew a government that was elected by the majority of the voters.

But the question asked by blog writers is why Prem singled out this account. The views are not new and underpin the actions of the Abhisit government.

But the new theme for 2010 is of a civil war. This is claimed to be the red shirt strategy and it is to be opposed by any means available to the Thai state.

The question is whether a showdown is inevitable.

Confusion over service charges

3 January 2010

Apparently restaurants and cafes must immediately stop adding any service charges to their consumer bills in compliance with the decision of the Higher Committee for Consumer Protection, said the Director General of the Ministry of Economy, Mohammad Ahmad Bin Abdul Aziz Al Shehi.

But - and it is a big but - Al Shehi has confirmed that it was illegal for non-tourist restaurants to add service charges.

So what is the difference between a tourist and a non tourist restaurant. And why does the no service charge rule apply only to non tourist restaurants.

Apparently restaurants and cafes operating inside hotels and those paying fees to the local governments are allowed to charge service fees. But how does the consumer know if a restaurant is paying fees to the government? And surely the 10% service fee is meant to go to staff - not to offset the government fees.

The Ministry of Economy had earlier declared that imposing a service fee is illegal, and that it will soon come up with a bylaw to prevent outlets from charging customers the extra fee.

So do restaurants in the malls pay service fees? Do restaurants at JBR walk pay service fees. Mystery.

New best friends !

1 January 2010

Found lurking this evening in the Butcher Shop and Grill at the mall of the Emirates: actually he was eating with a group of friends and was very gracious about our interruption.


The Burj Dubai and architecture's vacant stare

1 January 2009 - The Los Angeles Times - arts section

"One of the odder, more complicated moments in the history of architectural symbolism will arrive Monday with the formal opening of the Burj Dubai skyscraper. At about 2,600 feet high -- the official figure is still being kept secret by developer Emaar Properties -- and 160 stories, the tower, set back half a mile or so from Dubai's busy Sheikh Zayed Road, will officially take its place as the tallest building in the world.

Designed by Adrian Smith, a former partner in the Chicago office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the Burj Dubai is an impossible-to-miss sign of the degree to which architectural ambition -- at least the kind that can be measured in feet or number of stories -- has migrated in recent years from North America and Europe to Asia and the Middle East. It is roughly as tall as the World Trade Center towers piled one atop the other. Its closest competition is Toronto's CN Tower, which is not really a building at all, holding only satellites and observation decks, and is in any case nearly 900 feet shorter.

Monday's ribbon-cutting, though, could hardly come at a more awkward time. Dubai, the most populous member of the United Arab Emirates, continues to deal with a massive real estate collapse that has sent shock waves through financial markets around the world and forced the ambitious city-state, in a significant blow to its pride, to seek repeated billion-dollar bailouts from neighboring Abu Dhabi. Conceived at the height of local optimism about Dubai's place in the region and the world, this seemingly endless bean-stock tower, which holds an Armani Hotel on its lower floors with apartments and offices above, has flooded Dubai with a good deal more residential and commercial space than the market can possibly bear.

And so here is the Burj Dubai's real symbolic importance: It is mostly empty, and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. Though most of its 900 apartments have been sold, virtually all were bought three years ago -- near the top of the market -- and primarily as investments, not as places to live. ("A lot of those purchases were speculative," Smith, in something of an understatement, told me in a phone interview.) And there's virtually no demand in Dubai at the moment for office space. The Burj Dubai has 37 floors of office space.

Though Emaar is understandably reluctant to disclose how much of the tower is or will be occupied -- it did not reply to e-mails sent this week on that score -- it's fair to assume that like many of Dubai's new skyscrapers it is a long, long way from being full. In that sense the building is a powerful iconic presence in ways that have little directly to do with its record-breaking height. To a remarkable degree, the metaphors and symbols of the built environment have been dominated in recent months by images of unneeded, sealed-off, ruined, forlorn or forsaken buildings and cityscapes. The Burj Dubai is just the latest -- and biggest -- in this string of monuments to architectural vacancy.

The combination of overbuilding during the boom years, thanks to easy credit, and the sudden paralysis of the financial markets in the fall of 2008 has created an unprecedented supply of unwanted or under-occupied real estate around the world. At the same time, rising cultural worry about environmental disaster or some other end-of-days scenario has produced a recent stream of books, movies and photography imagining cities and pieces of architecture emptied of nearly all signs of human presence.

And so in the same week that you could read the news that the Sahara Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has entirely sealed off two of its three towers (and its buffet!) for the holiday season, citing slow demand, you could head to the multiplex to watch the movie version of Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road," in which a father and son wander through a post-apocalyptic landscape where buildings for the most part have been reduced to burned-out shells.

And it's not just "The Road": The Roland Emmerich destruction-fest "2012" and the upcoming Denzel Washington vehicle "The Book of Eli" are full of similar images; Jason Reitman's "Up in the Air" moves its characters through a series of downsized companies where abandoned desk chairs swim in empty space.

Or you might discover online a group of photographs called "Empty L.A.," part of a series completed recently by Matt Logue, showing a number of recognizable intersections and stretches of freeway in and around the city where people, cars and other signs of life have been scrubbed away, presumably through digital manipulation -- and in the same trip around the Internet find a Q&A in Entrepreneur magazine with a man named Mike Enos, who runs a firm that encloses foreclosed houses, half-built hotels and other objects in plastic wrap and reports a surge in business since the economic collapse last year.

This movement in the direction of emptiness is profoundly difficult for contemporary culture -- and particularly American culture -- to grapple with. Occasional recessions and other setbacks aside, we assume that our national trajectory always moves toward fullness, that our cultural progress can be measured by how much new square footage we've created and occupied.

But that process has completely reversed itself in many of cities hardest hit by economic crisis. Detroit, as Rebecca Solnit put it in Harper's Magazine, "is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild." And as P.J. Huffstutter reported recently in The Times, Hantz Farms is planning to buy and plant as many as 5,000 acres of land within the Detroit city limits.

In Los Angeles, there are parking lots where great towers, planned during the exuberant middle of the last decade, were supposed to be. At Rick Caruso's Americana at Brand complex in Glendale, every one of the development's 100 condominiums sat empty during 2009, even as shoppers browsed in the stores below. Occupancy wasn't allowed until more than half of the units had been sold, a mark that was finally reached in December

As super-tall buildings go, the Burj Dubai is elegant. Smith is an unusually talented shaper of skyscraper form, as he proved at Shanghai's 88-story Jin Mao Tower, which he designed before leaving SOM in 2006. The Burj Dubai's profile, which Smith says is inspired by a range of local influences including sand dunes and minarets, grows more slender as it rises, like a plant whose upper stalks have been peeled away.

But the extent to which the building had to battle worries about the wisdom of its construction even before it was finished -- the way it seemed doomed, at least in financial terms, while it was still going up -- may be unique in the history of skyscraper design. In that sense it seems impossible to write about the Burj Dubai without at least mentioning the Tower of Babel, which also, if the biblical story and various historical sketches are to be believed, combined a tapering, corkscrew design with heaps of overconfidence.

Dubai's economy will recover, at least in some chastened form. But the hyper-confident Dubai that Smith's tower was designed to mark and call global attention to is already dead, as is the broader notion, which the emirate came to symbolize over the last decade, that growth can operate as its own economic engine, feeding endlessly and ravenously on itself.

If the Burj Dubai is too shiny, confidently designed and expertly engineered to be a ruin itself, it is surely the marker -- the tombstone -- for some ruined ideas."

Terror and the west: A decade of misjudgment

Editorial The Guardian, Friday 1 January 2010

"The revelation in this newspaper that the kidnap of five British men in Iraq in 2007 was masterminded by Iran's Revolutionary Guard caps an unhappy week, the last of a parlous decade. The kidnap had two motivations – to bargain for the release of the Shia cleric Qais al-Khazali, and to prevent Peter Moore, the only British hostage to have survived, from installing a computer system that would have prevented millions of dollars of international aid from falling into the hands of Shia militia groups in Iraq. This story should serve as the epitaph for the invasion. Far from stabilising, or spreading democracy, the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan and Iraq proved combustible. But the follies of the old decade are set to last into the new one.

Ten years ago, when Tony Blair hosted a bizarre entertainment to open the Millennium Dome, things looked different. Financiers thought they had created an economy that defied the laws of gravity and basic accountancy. Generals thought invasions were quick and painless. Scientists were optimistic that global warming could be contained. Mr Blair emerged from the Dome brimming with optimism. So much so that he said he wanted to bottle it. The events that followed punished judgments like these.

The trigger to the decade's woes did not come out of the sky over Manhattan and Washington in 2001. There were many precursors, but they were ignored or misinterpreted. Like the bombings in Madrid and London, these attacks brought the best out of ordinary people – witness the heroism of the New York firefighters – and the worst out of their governments. Al-Qaida's attacks may have looked and felt like a declaration of war (the Guardian said so in its headline) but that, in retrospect, was the least appropriate reaction.

The inability to see how non-state actors functioned across state borders, and the continuing belief that a malign sponsoring state must be pulling the strings in the background, led to the deaths of innocent Iraqi and Afghan civilians. Terrorists were conflated with insurgents. Anti-terrorist operations became invasions and wars. Consequently, neither anti-terrorism nor counter-insurgency succeeded. Osama bin Laden was allowed to slip the net around his bunkers in Tora Bora, but his leaving card was a conflict that lasts to this day.

The chaos continued this week. The suicide bomber who struck a remote base used by the CIA in southeastern Afghanistan appears to have used a stolen uniform from the Afghan national army. The alternative is even worse: that the army's ranks are infiltrated by the Taliban. And the generals advising President Barack Obama are still slow to respond in the right way. Like a judo throw, the Taliban (still mostly lightly armed) are using the kinetic force of the lumbering military machine to tip it over. Meanwhile, almost 10 years after 2001, midair horrors continue. Al-Qaida affiliates in Yemen have ended the decade as al-Qaida central started it, by trying to crash airliners landing in the US. But if Yemen becomes the next target of the US drones, where next?

If there is one lesson to be drawn from all this, it is that a military superpower no longer has effective supremacy. The next decade must see the re-establishment of a co-operative international system that was badly damaged by the unilateral endeavours of Britain, America and their few committed allies. Western military powers, especially weakening ones, should bend all their efforts into transforming and supporting international institutions such as the United Nations and the international criminal court. The idea that governments in London and Washington should handpick a general secretary of the UN for his weakness, as they did the current one, is absurd; that was perhaps the greatest error of a decade strewn with mishap and misjudgment."

EK to link KL and Melbourne

31 December 2009

Emirates from 01FEB10 is adjusting service to Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne.

EK408/409 nonstop Dubai – Melbourne will be replaced by Dubai – Kuala Lumpur – Melbourne routing, aircraft remains with Airbus A340-500. As a result, there will be:

3 Daily Dubai – Kuala Lumpur (increase from 17 weekly, replacing current EK344/345 timing)
1 Daily NONSTOP Dubai – Melbourne
2 Daily 1-stop Dubai – Melbourne via Kuala Lumpur and Singapore respectively.

Schedule as follows:

EK408 DXB0225 – 1320KUL1450 – 0125+1MEL 345 Daily
EK409 MEL0310 – 0800KUL0930 – 1230DXB 345 Daily

After tough year, Dubai expats pack up, eye Asia

31 December 2009 - Reuters

"For lawyer Wilfred Goh, the sign it was time to leave Dubai came early in 2009, when the financial crisis took its toll, plunging the emirate's main stock index down roughly 70 percent in a matter of months.

After speaking to friends and government officials, Goh decided to return to Asia, with the thought that Hong Kong, China or Singapore offered better job opportunities. Goh, 47, eventually got a job back home in Singapore.

"We just felt Dubai's economic climate was not very good and they had started to retrench people," said Goh, who works at the Central Chambers Law Corp in Singapore.

The flight of top foreign work talent from the Gulf's financial hub began in early 2009, and levelled off as the market recovered toward the middle of the year. But then Dubai dropped a bombshell in November, disclosing a delay on a massive debt pile.

The $26 billion debt debacle sank Dubai's markets and spurred many foreign professionals to hasten their retreat from the city-state for more job security.

Precise numbers of job losses is unknown, but estimates say thousands of foreigners have been fired or forced to leave Dubai this year.

The defection of executives from Dubai to places such as Hong Kong looks to reverse a trend seen about four years ago when financial and legal executives from Asia flocked to the emirate to capitalise on its rapid expansion and economic growth.

Dubai's zero percent tax rate also helped lure executives.

Not all foreign workers are shipping out.

But should the situation worsen, a further brain-drain from Dubai could have serious implications for its economy. Estimates say that expatriates make up more than 80 percent of Dubai's 1.7 million population.

On Nov. 25, Dubai requested a delay in payments on $26 billion in debts linked to conglomerate Dubai World and its two property units, Nakheel and Limitless. The news was especially bad for Nakheel, which cut 400 jobs in July on top of the 500 jobs it eliminated in 2008 after Dubai's property sector sank.

Stock indexes in Hong Kong, Mumbai, and Shanghai rose at least 50 percent this year. Dubai's rose around 13 percent.

Its stock index hit 8,500 points in November 2005, dropped, and rose back up to 6,300 points by February 2008. The index is now trading around 1,800 points.

Kara Keough, a marketing manager for an international real estate company, moved from Dubai to Singapore in September after completing a three-year contract with a major property developer.

"My husband and I decided to evaluate our long term options. Job opportunities in Dubai were becoming rare," she said.

Keough, 26, and her husband, who works in recruiting, moved to Dubai from Brisbane, Australia in 2006. The couple ultimately decided Singapore would be a better city to live and work in.

Still, others see promise in Dubai's economic future despite the recent turmoil.

Steve Brice, head of global markets for Standard Chartered in South Africa said fears of a large exodus of financial service professionals were overblown.

"Assuming you can keep your job in Dubai I don't see any problems of the long term viability of the region," Brice said.

Brice left Singapore for Dubai in August 2005 to become head of research at Standard Chartered for the Middle East and Africa.

"Obviously oil prices are still very high and don't look like they are going down significantly over the next 5-10 years," said Brice who moved away from Dubai for personal reasons. "In that environment I think the region is still going to thrive and Dubai is still the financial and trading hub for that region."

Brice's colleague Philippe Dauba-Pantanacce was also optimistic.

"Despite the noise surrounding Dubai's debt debacle, this region is still one of the most resilient and promising regions in the world," said Dauba-Pantanacce, a senior economist at Standard Chartered who has worked in Dubai for two years.

Where they are optimistic, others are however packing up.

A senior executive at a multinational company and his wife who have worked and lived in Dubai all their lives said they are planning to move to Singapore in 2010.

"We would rather experience the professional working environment in Asia," she said, adding that Asia's growth prospects were also a major factor.

A senior executive at the National Bank of Abu Dhabi who moved to Abu Dhabi from Dubai after 11 years said the prospects for Dubai are dim. Both the executives did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

"Companies are unable to raise finance, job opportunities have disappeared, the real estate industry is in quagmire and tourism is down," said the executive.