Robo-Parking

December 15, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

roboparkYou know the feeling. The sheer exuberance experienced when a sweet parking spot opens up right before your eyes. It’s probably near the entrance of the place you are visiting and the perfect size to ensure your car won’t get dinged by the doors of your parking neighbors. Contrastingly, you might have experienced sheer disappointment after a stealthy driver swiped your parking spot right out from under your nose. Fights, shouting matches and even fatal attacks often occur over a parking space. This past summer, in Kuwait, a man stabbed another one to death over a parking space. Whether you live in New York City, London or Riyadh “parking space rage” is a very real occurrence.

The East & West Robotics Company located in Sharjah, which is a municipality of the United Arab Emirates, has seemingly come up with a surefire solution to parking woes for some citizens in Sharjah. According to the company website, “East and West Robotics was established by the Al Marwan Group to bring technological advancements and innovative ideas within the Middle East region and to give a new philosophy to industrial operations.” The company has created an automated parking garage in the heart of the city called The Robot Park Tower that features an automated parking system that makes parking a cinch.

The 31-floor parking garage is comprised of individual parking spaces to accommodate 200 vehicles. The garage features an intricate computer system that identifies empty spaces and fills each with a car. It is very user-friendly. Parking, and even retrieving, the car requires the user to send a “missed” call to a special telephone number. The system can park or retrieve a car in 45 seconds flat. While it is automated, human workers do keep an eye on it to ensure that it runs smoothly.

East & West Robotic predicts that more residential and commercial areas will soon rely on automated parking facilities, as parking in the country has been problematic for years. However, parking in such a state-of-the-art facility is not free. Those wishing to have their cars parked robotically pay in upwards of $1300 per annum. The hefty price tag will force many drivers to continue their battle-weary plight to find the perfect parking space in the least amount of time. Other drivers will gladly fork over the cash to enjoy stress-free parking, for at least part of the day.

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France Recalls Syria Envoy

November 17, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – France recalled its ambassador to Damascus and Syria’s suspension from the Arab League took effect on Wednesday, intensifying diplomatic pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to halt a violent eight-month-old crackdown on protests.

Syrian army defectors attacked an intelligence complex on the edge of Damascus in a high-profile assault that showed how close the popular uprising is to sliding into armed conflict.

Hours after the Arab League suspension took effect, Assad supporters threw stones and debris at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates and smeared its walls with graffiti, witnesses said. The embassy is in one of the most secure districts of the capital, near Assad’s home and offices.

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said France was working with the Arab League on a draft resolution at the United Nations.

Last month Russia and China vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have condemned Damascus, but since then the normally cautious Arab League has suspended Syria for failing to implement an Arab peace plan.

“New violence is taking place and that has led to the closure of the missions in Aleppo and Latakia and to recall our ambassador to Paris,” Juppe said, referring to weekend attacks by pro-Assad demonstrators on French diplomatic premises, as well as Turkish and Saudi missions, in Syria.

Arab foreign ministers met in Rabat for an Arab-Turkish forum, where a Syrian flag was placed by an empty chair.

Turkey, now a fierce critic of its former ally, said Syria had failed to honor an Arab peace plan to halt the unrest.

Speaking through a translator, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu compared Syria with Libya, where rebels captured, humiliated and killed Muammar Gaddafi last month.

“The regime should meet the demands of its people,” he said. “The collective massacres in Syria and … the bloodshed cannot continue like this.”

IRAN DEFENDS SYRIA

In Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi criticized the Arab League for “acting in a way that will hurt the security of the region.” He told the official news agency IRNA that Syria, an ally of Iran since 1980, had repeatedly pledged to meet legitimate popular demands and enact reforms.

“Unfortunately, some countries believe that they are outside the crisis … but they are mistaken because if a crisis happens they will be entangled by its consequences.”

Saudi Arabia, which is eager to loosen the ties between its regional rival Iran and Syria, said the Arab League was acting in Syria’s interest, not interfering in its affairs.

“What’s important is not about suspending or not suspending (Syria from the League), it’s stopping the bloodshed, starting the dialogue, and withdrawing troops from Syrian cities,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Al Arabiya channel.

Western countries have tightened sanctions on Syria and on Monday Jordan’s King Abdullah became the first Arab head of state to urge Assad to quit after ensuring a smooth handover.

In the early months of the uprising, attempts by security forces to crush mainly peaceful protests accounted for most of the violence. But since August there has been a growing number of reports of army defectors and armed civilians fighting back.

Activists said Free Syrian Army fighters fired machineguns and rockets at a large Air Force Intelligence complex on the northern edge of the capital at about 7:30 p.m. EST.

A gunfight ensued and helicopters circled over the complex, on the Damascus-Aleppo highway. There were no immediate reports of casualties. Syrian state media did not mention the attack.

The U.S. State Department said it had few details and no direct confirmation of the incident, but blamed Assad’s crackdown on protesters.

“It’s not surprising that we are now seeing this kind of violence,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. “We don’t condone it in any way, shape or form. But let’s be very clear that it is the brutal tactics of Assad and his regime in dealing with what began as a non-violent movement is now taking Syria down a very dangerous path.”

“HUGELY SYMBOLIC”

A Western diplomat in Damascus described the assault as “hugely symbolic and tactically new,” saying that if the reported details were true it would be “much much more coordinated than anything we have seen before.”

“To actually attack a base like this is something else, and so close to Damascus as well,” said the diplomat, adding that fighting in recent weeks involving army deserters in the town of Rastan and the city of Homs resembled a localized civil war.

“It’s not a nationwide civil war, but in very specific locations, it is looking like that,” said the diplomat.

The Free Syrian Army was set up by deserters and is led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who is based in southern Turkey.

It announced this week that it had formed a “temporary military council” of nine defecting officers, led by Asaad.

The statement said the Syrian Free Army aimed to “bring down the regime and protect citizens from the repression … and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls,” adding that it would form a military court to try “members of the regime who are proven to have been involved in killing operations.”

Syrian television showed thousands of Assad’s supporters rallying in Damascus and Latakia to mark the day his father Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970. It said the crowds were also voicing their rejection of the Arab League’s decision.

“God, Syria, Bashar, that’s all!” demonstrators shouted in central Damascus after turning out in heavy rain to wave flags and posters of the president. Two large posters of Assad and his father hung from a building. “Neither rain nor sanctions will stop us expressing our nationalism,” they said, according to the television report.

The Arab League has stopped short of calling for Assad’s departure or proposing any Libya-style military intervention, but its ostracism of Syria is a blow to a country whose ruling Baath party puts Arab nationalism at the center of its credo.

Syrian authorities have banned most independent media. They blame the unrest on “armed terrorist gangs” and foreign-backed militants who they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Hundreds of people have been killed this month, one of the bloodiest periods of the revolt.

Syria says it remains committed to the Arab peace plan, which calls for the withdrawal of troops from urban areas, the release of prisoners and a dialogue with the opposition.

State media said more than 1,000 prisoners, including prominent dissident Kamal Labwani, were freed on Tuesday. But human rights campaigners say tens of thousands have been detained since anti-Assad protests began.

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Gulf States Struggle to Shift Jobs to Choosy Locals

November 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Mahmoud Habboush

ABU DHABI, Nov 2 (Reuters) – Ibrahim Hasanain worked as a tour guide at a Dubai tourism company for four years but quit to study law at the University of Dubai, hoping to land a better-paying government job.

All eight United Arab Emirates nationals who worked for the company eventually quit, not only because of disappointingly low wages but also because of difficulties fitting in with their co-workers, who were mostly South Asian and Western, he said.

“We were all hired because the company had to fill their required quota of Emiratis,” said Ibrahim, 24, as he walked the aisles of a glitzy shopping mall in Dubai.
Across the Gulf, Arab governments are seeking to create more private sector jobs for their citizens while reducing their economies’ reliance on hundreds of thousands of foreign workers, who fill posts in sectors ranging from construction and public transport to tourism, retail and financial services.

The motive is partly economic; finding private sector jobs for citizens cuts the fiscal burden that governments must pay in the form of unemployment benefits or state salaries for workers at government agencies and corporations, which are traditional tools for job creation in the region.

But it is also political — social unrest across the Arab world this year underlined the risks posed by unemployed youths. Even countries which experienced little or no unrest on the streets, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, want to reduce unemployment among their citizens to avoid storing up potential trouble for the future.

“We should invest in people, not stones,” said Abdulrahim Naqi, secretary general of the Federation of GCC Chambers, a regional business association, referring to the Gulf-wide obsession with building skyscrapers, swanky hotels and shopping malls — and using foreign labor to do it.

As Ibrahim’s case underlines, though, governments face a tough task trying to change labor market patterns established over decades. Accustomed to social benefits and cushy jobs paid for by oil wealth, many Gulf nationals find employment at private firms unattractive because it involves harder work, longer hours, and in many cases smaller salaries and benefits compared to the state sector.

And the lack of enthusiasm cuts both ways. Many private firms in the region remain reluctant to hire Gulf nationals because of workers’ insufficient training and high salary expectations, said Azfar Khan, a senior migration specialist at the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva.

He said undertrained Gulf nationals even posed problems to governments which wanted to increase the proportion of locals employed in their public sectors.

“There is a funny paradox that the governments want to create jobs for their nationals, but are themselves reluctant to employ them,” he said.

EMIRATISATION

Localising jobs has been a long-term goal of many Gulf governments for years, but efforts are accelerating. At a ceremony in Abu Dhabi last month, labour ministers of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — handed out awards to firms in recognition of their role in employing Gulf nationals.

“When it comes to my number one concern, it’s Emiratisation,” UAE labor minister Saqr Ghobash said on the sidelines of the ceremony, using the local term for giving UAE citizens more of a role in the workforce.

The UAE is a prime example of both the potential for localization and the difficulty of implementing it. The country does not regularly release up-to-date jobless figures; an ILO estimate in 2009 put unemployment among its citizens at 14 percent, but UAE citizens account for under 20 percent of the population of more than 6 million, which is largely made up of South Asians and Southeast Asians.

Like most other government officials in the region, Ghobash said his country had no plans to reduce the number of foreign workers — it was simply trying to provide more access to jobs for qualified locals.

Although the UAE does not operate an official quota system for local employees, it uses incentives to encourage private sector firms to have certain proportions of UAE citizens in their workforces, a labor ministry official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the policy, told Reuters.

But if the government presses companies too hard, it could hurt private business and conflict with another plank of the UAE’s economic policy, which is to diversify the economy away from oil and spur the creation of innovative small and medium-sized firms.

So authorities are also planning to subsidize jobs for Emiratis at private firms — a move that would initially cost the government, but would ensure higher salaries and hopefully in the long run help to change the habits of job seekers. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have already tried similar policies.

“Why do we need subsidies?” said Ghobash. “It’s because the gap between the public salaries and the private sector salaries is quite big. Unless you do these subsidies, there is very little chance to succeed with Emiratisation.”

Another area under study is education. Heavy public investment has created a network of colleges and universities in the UAE; now there is pressure to orient them more closely to teaching job-related skills rather than just producing degrees.

Naqi at the Federation of GCC Chambers said GCC countries should tailor their education systems to cater to their local job markets. This would allow Gulf nationals to fill more technical and managerial positions that are now occupied by highly trained foreigners, he said.

But Khan at the ILO said localization would be hard to achieve in the UAE as 70 to 80 percent of the foreign workforce was employed in the construction sector, the services sector and as domestic servants — mostly jobs that locals would shun.

“Are they taking away the jobs from the nationals?” he said. “Or, to rephrase the question: would any national want to take up these activities? I think no.”

RED ZONE

Saudi Arabia, where locals account for just 10 percent of private sector employees and the most recent official estimate for unemployment is 10 percent, launched its latest localization program in June. The scheme codes companies according to the proportion of Saudis on their payrolls — red for the least and green for the most.

Companies in the red zone may face punitive measures, labor minister Adel al-Faqih said. For example, workers in red-zone companies may join firms in the green zone without having to ask their current employers for permission to leave.

“For many coming years, we will still be in need of a large number of foreign laborers to build our home countries in the Gulf region,” Faqih told Reuters. “But the main goal is to have balanced opportunities for our sons and daughters so that they can get jobs.”

Once again, however, Saudi Arabia has to move carefully to avoid damaging growth of the private sector, which is already lagging the oil-fuelled public sector. Pinak Maitra, chief financial officer of Kuwait Projects Co, a big regional conglomerate, said the localization program was a major challenge for business in Saudi Arabia.

“In the region, we have made the mistake of depending on expats. It was easy. We’re focused on trying to grow local talent,” he said.

Yet Saudi Arabia’s local talent has become notoriously choosy about where it works. So-called withdrawals, where employees who have been trained by one firm jump ship for another after a short period, have become endemic.

“The rate of withdrawals is among the highest worldwide. In our company, it has reached 60 percent,” said Abdulmajeed Alhokair, head of Saudi retailer Fawaz Abdulaziz Alhokair Co.

And some measures which the Saudi government is taking to reduce social discontent appear directly opposed to the goal of localizing jobs. Earlier this year, the government announced $130 billion of additional spending on welfare programs, subsidized housing and other social spending.

By strengthening the social safety network, the government may be reducing the incentive for people to join the private workforce. A foreign banker in Saudi Arabia recalls that on the day after social benefits were increased this year, few of the security personnel at his bank’s offices were at their posts — some had evidently decided that the benefits of staying in their jobs were no longer attractive enough.

LIMITS

With unemployment among its citizens low at around 4 percent, gas-rich Qatar has little economic reason to worry about giving more private sector jobs to locals, but officials say limiting foreign workers involves social and security issues. Qataris make up only about 16 percent of the 1.7 million population.

Qatar’s solution may be increasingly imitated across the Gulf: where it is unable to find local citizens to move into jobs, it appears to be encouraging the use of Arab workers from other countries, rather than the South Asians and East Asians who have traditionally done much of the hard labor.

“We have now started to limit foreign labor,” said Hussain Yousuf al-Mulla, undersecretary at Qatar’s labour ministry. “When I say foreign, I mean Asian workers.

“The instructions that have come to us from the government are to stick to Arab laborers. Foreign laborers caused many problems — their number is big, their customs and habits are not similar to ours, besides social and security problems.”

Oman and Bahrain, which have seen street protests this year, also aim to localize jobs, but they may have less room for expensive steps such as job subsidies since they are not as wealthy as bigger oil exporters. Both countries are receiving multibillion dollar aid schemes from other GCC governments.

Oman’s foreign minister said in March that his country planned reforms which could include reducing the number of foreign workers.

Khan of the ILO predicted the GCC states would need years of work to reduce unemployment rates among their citizens and cut their dependence on foreign labor.

“I don’t think the nationals are, at the moment, ready to ‘take over’,” he said. (Additional reporting by Amran Abocar and Asma Alsharif; Editing by Andrew Torchia)

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Backstreet Internet Call Shops Threaten UAE Telcos

November 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Matt Smith

DUBAI, Nov 9 (Reuters) – In the gritty streets of Deira, the old commercial heart of Dubai, lurks a threat to some of the region’s biggest telecommunications firms.

It is here on the northern bank of Dubai creek, among the grocery stores and barbers, the discount tailors and food stalls, where low-wage workers come after a day’s toil to phone their family and friends overseas.

Instead of using their pre-paid mobile phones, they cram into the sweaty booths of dilapidated backstreet Internet shops to call home at prices a fraction of those charged by telecom operators Etisalat , the United Arab Emirates’ most valuable listed company, and rival du.

These shops dodge government inspectors to offer unlicensed Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services — free Internet-to-Internet calls and cheap Internet-to-phone calls. The UAE’s regulator says only licensed companies can provide VoIP.

“It’s less than a tenth of the cost of Etisalat, that’s why I come here,” said Mansour, 21. The Afghan works in a Deira clothes shop and calls his family in Kabul three times a week from a 14-booth VoIP shop run by managers Mamun and Shajib, both 22.

The Bangladeshi pair have been offering VoIP services for more than a year and spoke on condition that their full names and company details were not disclosed.

“For internet we can only charge 3 dirhams (82 U.S. cents) an hour and that’s not enough to pay two salaries, shop rent, licences and broadband costs,” said Shajib. “We would have shut if it wasn’t for VoIP, but this is very popular and more and more people are telling their friends.

“Most people’s salaries are not even 1,400 dirhams per month and they can’t spend much on the telephone, so that’s why they come here. If Etisalat or du offered the same rates as us, we would close down tomorrow.”

Internet-to-phone calls via Skype, the global leader for consumer VoIP, are intermittently blocked in the UAE, but the Deira shops use other programmes such as Calls Telecom and Call World for Internet-to-phone calls, and these seem to work without hindrance.

Rates start at 0.1 dirham per minute to phone a landline in India, with Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka the other top destinations, Shajib said. Prices to these countries are about 0.25 dirham per minute on average.

To call India, Etisalat and du charge 1.89 dirhams per minute for off-peak calls between 9 p.m. and 7 a.m., and 2.40 dirhams at other times.

The regulator sets their tariffs, so the two operators cannot directly compete on price and instead tout various call packages. Etisalat offers subscribers a 60 percent discount on late-night calls to the subcontinent, but its fees are still much higher than the rates offered by Shajib and rival shops.

Etisalat operates across 18 countries but three-quarters of its revenue comes from the UAE, while du is a single-country carrier, and international calls are among their biggest income streams. So VoIP is potentially disastrous for them.

“It’s a losing battle – when you try to ban or restrict something on the Internet, the harder you squeeze, the more it gets between your fingers,” said Oliver Johnson, chief executive of British-based telecoms research firm Point Topic.

“As speeds increase, people will value VoIP more and more and they won’t see why they should make a normal international call instead. Margins on international calls are yesterday’s revenues.”
Four-fifths of UAE residents are expatriates, which spurs demand for international calls. Wealthier Western and Arab residents have better access to the Internet, at home and at work, and were the first to use VoIP services in the UAE; its spread to the lower-income majority could be a game changer for Etisalat and du.

“If VoIP was legal and widely available, it would be a disaster for Gulf operators,” said Pedro Oliveira, partner at consultants Oliver Wyman.

Many smart phones come ready-installed with Skype, which can be used for Internet-to-Internet calls. Operators are pushing these high-end handsets as they try to offset falling profit margins on voice calls by selling data packages, so they are aiding the rise of a technology that could hurt their own businesses. Etisalat’s profits have fallen in six of the past seven quarters.
“There are really three big competitors (in the UAE) and one of those is VoIP…you can see it on the street corner,” said Matthew Willsher, Etisalat’s chief marketing officer.

REGULATION

So far, the UAE telecommunications regulator seems determined to resist the rise of Internet-based phone calls as it tries to protect revenues in the government-controlled sector. Only Etisalat and du are licenced to provide VoIP services, and they have yet to do so. The two companies are majority-owned by government-linked institutions and the sector is an important source of state revenue.
“So long as regulators remain part of the government and the government continues to own controlling stakes, then protectionism will remain high,” said Oliver Wyman’s Oliveira.
In October, Etisalat unveiled plans for ePlus, an online platform it says will include social and instant messaging, plus VoIP calling. But it has not revealed likely prices for VoIP calls and the UAE regulator, which must approve these tariffs, has dampened expectations for any major savings for consumers.

“Do not expect prices to fall drastically just because voice over IP services are launched,” Majed Almesmar, deputy director-general of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, told reporters at an exhibition in Dubai. “We are waiting for them (the operators) to come with certain packages or proposals. We need to look at those proposals.”

As Mansour in Deira explained, low-cost calls are the main motivation for people using VoIP, so rolling out VoIP services that do not offer steep discounts to conventional services would be unlikely to satisfy consumers.

Du has also said it will launch VoIP services, but it is unclear when this will happen; other UAE innovations such as number portability were delayed for over three years and a deal to allow open competition on fixed line services is running late.

Ultimately, fighting VoIP could harm the UAE’s economic competitiveness, some analysts argue.

“Protectionism could harm economic development if it places other industries at a disadvantage to those based elsewhere — eventually, governments could decide these negatives outweigh the positives and loosen VoIP restrictions,” said Oliveira.

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Arab Spring Raises Hope for Era of Cleaner Business

November 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

2011-11-09T143612Z_1011185299_GM1E7B91KBQ01_RTRMADP_3_ABUDHABI-STRATEGY

Visitors look at models of the Saadiyat Island project during the Cityscape Abu Dhabi Exhibition in Abu Dhabi, in this April 18, 2010 file photo. When Abu Dhabi announced that it would delay establishing local branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, it was an important signal of the emirate’s economic strategy as well as its cultural priorities.The company gave no new dates for opening the museums, which were originally scheduled to start operating between 2013 and 2014 as part of a $27 billion art and culture development on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island. But the message was clear: getting the projects right and ensuring public demand for them would be given precedence over rushing them out quickly to gain prestige.

AMMAN, Nov 9 (Reuters) – Gulf investor Omar Ayesh flew to Tripoli to meet Saif al-Islam Gaddafi when the son of Libya’s now-deposed strongman wanted to talk business, only to be caught in a web of bribery and crony capitalism.

A deal for a beachfront resort project on Tripoli’s seafront was signed with Muammar Gaddafi’s government and excavation work began, but it stopped after people linked to Gaddafi began asking for payoffs, the 43-year-old businessman says. Now, Ayesh is trying to revive the project.

“I didn’t expect influential figures within the regime would take over the project because it was lucrative. I just hope the new Libya will not repeat the mistakes of the past,” says Ayesh, chairman of United Arab Emirates-based Nobles Investments.

Across the Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Spring uprisings have hurt many businessmen. Economies have slowed sharply as political uncertainty deters investment, new governments focus on trying to restore social stability instead of reforming economic policy, and labor unrest disrupts production and drives up costs.

But Ayesh is one of a substantial number of businessmen who say the economic climate is already improving in an important way: it is becoming easier to do business without the involvement of corrupt politicians and officials.

“Corruption was a major hurdle before the revolution and now it’s much less. This has improved the business environment in Egypt. We are much more optimistic,” said Issam Hijazi, chairman of Hijazi and Ghosheh, a Jordanian meat processing firm with millions of dollars of investments in Egypt and the region.

Patronage

Many businessmen are not as positive as Hijazi. In Egypt, for example, some small company owners still report struggles with corrupt officials and parasitical government bureaucracies that only their larger, wealthier competitors have the money to overcome.

But to some extent, the ousting of president Hosni Mubarak has loosened the grip of a clique of politicians, officials and their businesses cronies on commercial opportunities and the licences and financing needed to exploit them.

Companies linked to the former regime face legal challenges over past deals and must operate under greater public scrutiny; this levels the playing field and allows a wider group of businessmen to compete. Egyptian trade with Sudan, for example, is no longer dominated by businessmen linked to the Mubarak regime; it has become more open and diversified, said a business consultant in Egypt, who declined to be named because of the political sensitivity of the issue.

Cases such as that of former Egyptian housing minister Ahmed al-Maghrabi have sent a chilling signal to officials and businessmen involved in improper deals. Maghrabi was sentenced to five years in jail in May over an illegal land deal in the Mubarak era; he and a businessman involved were ordered to return a total of 72 million Egyptian pounds ($12.6 million) to the state and were together fined a further 72 million pounds.

Much the same is happening in Tunisia, where members of the family of deposed president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali once owned or controlled many of the country’s biggest companies, with interests in media, banking and telecommunications.

“The political support and access to funds that some of the leaders of private sector in the Arab world had has been lost,” said Walid Nassan, head of the Jordan operation of Egyptian investment firm EFG Hermes.

“They now need to present themselves on their own credentials and many are tarnished. Those who exploited the system can no longer do that so openly and blatantly.”

At a meeting in Istanbul last week between executives of international oil firms and Libyan officials, who discussed Libya’s plans to buy nearly $3 billion of gasoline, oil traders were struck by the change in how the Libyans operated. The newly appointed managers of Libya’s National Oil Corp refused invitations to lunch or dinner and kept to a tight schedule.

“Before, everything was done under the table and with bribes. Now I haven’t heard anything about bribes, and tenders are being used to buy and sell,” one trader said.

In countries that have not seen their governments overthrown, the change in the business climate has been less dramatic. But here too, the Arab Spring appears to be increasing popular pressure for more transparency and an end to political patronage of business — pressure that governments cannot entirely ignore.

In Morocco, King Mohammed has ordered that the antitrust authority be given more powers to enforce transparency and good corporate governance. The authority’s head said it would be even-handed in dealing with firms owned by the monarchy, the biggest private stakeholder in the economy — although it may have to wait until late 2012 to obtain the power to intervene.

Usama Fayyad, executive chairman of Oasis 500, a Jordan-based investment firm which finances start-up firms in the region’s information technology sector, said governments had become more careful about appearing even-handed towards companies, even in countries that have been relatively untouched by the Arab Spring.

“Abuse of authority by government entities has definitely decreased. I see it applying even to countries that don’t have protests,” he said.

“It doesn’t mean it’s disappeared, but it means that they are more careful and this holds true in Lebanon, Iraq and in the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, where people are more afraid of exercising undue influence because scrutiny is coming. They know there will be more scrutiny, definitely more than before and that creates more diversified economic opportunities.”

He said big companies as well as governments had become “afraid of exercising their old methods of intimidation, influence peddling and corruption. This is helping local companies that previously were marginalized.”

Omar Bitar, head of Middle East emerging markets at consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers, said bidding processes for government contracts in the region were becoming more stringent and transparent, to the point that the award of some contracts was slowing down.

It is not clear how lasting these changes in the region’s business environment will be. New networks of corruption and economic patronage may form as post-uprising governments become more stable; public indignation over crony capitalism may fade as governments around the region buy off the public with subsidies and increased welfare spending.

Some businessmen suggest that in the short term at least, the cleaner commercial environment is actually hurting economies by making it more difficult for deals to get done.

“Legitimate business is being hurt by the perception of impropriety and few people dare to exercise their authority for fear of a witchhunt, and this is paralysing business,” said one Middle Eastern banker, who requested anonymity.

“Graft has an economic value as you measure the cost of corruption — monetary versus facilitation of business…Although companies now don’t have to buy the deal from some guy, it takes longer to secure the deal, plus the political risks have shot up.

“Business in Tunisia and in Egypt, at least on the surface, is not as tidy. You used to know someone who would facilitate business. Now it’s a big muddle.”

In the long term, though, a cleaner, fairer business environment could, even more than other economic reforms such as deregulation and fiscal policy changes, help to solve one of the Arab world’s biggest problems: job creation.

A more level playing field could spur the growth of small and medium-sized firms, which according to a World Bank study contribute only 20 percent of the region’s gross domestic product but employ 70 to 80 percent of its work force.

These firms could in turn create the tens of millions of new jobs that the Middle East and North Africa, with 65 percent of their 355 million people currently below the age of 25, will need in the next decade to avoid social disaster.

“There is no chance that the jobs needed in the years to come are going to come from government or from large businesses, because they don’t generally generate jobs. So it all has to come from entrepreneurs and new companies,” said Darin Rovere, president of Amman-based Sustainability Excellence, a management consultancy.

He said there were already signs that the Arab Spring was encouraging the growth of a new group of young, entrepreneurial businessmen.

“I think it’s exploding around us. These are all kids, young kids. It’s tech-related and you look at their ideas…and so many people just did not feel empowered or a sense of active citizenship. They are feeling different and feel an opportunity now,” said Rovere.

Fayyad at Oasis 500 agreed: “The desire to launch businesses is stronger than before and as far as start-ups and new companies go, private sector entrepreneurs are seeing more opportunities. More closed systems are now open.” (Additional reporting by Jessica Donati in Istanbul; Editing by Andrew Torchia)

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Al Dah to Fight in US Next

October 27, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Parvez Fatteh, Founder of http://sportingummah.com, sports@muslimobserver.com

17-EisaAlDah9-cropUnited Arab Emirates welterweight boxer Eisa Al Dah, also known as The Arabian Warrior, is scheduled to fight his tenth bout against as yet unconfirmed opposition on December 16 in Tampa, Florida after an invite to the USA International Boxing Championship sanctioned by the International Boxing Council (IBC).

The 32-year-old Emirati (seven wins, three losses, from nine fights, four by knock-out) has been training in the United States for the past two months with British WBA Super and IBF World Light Welterweight Champion Amir Khan. Khan fights Lamont Peterson at the Walter E Washington Convention Centre in Washington DC on December 10 to defend his titles.

Al Dah, who will fly back into the UAE on Monday before returning stateside for early November for the big fight, is hoping his famous sparring partner will enable him to reach higher competency over eight and six rounds, instead of his current four round ability.

The two-time Arab, six-time UAE and three-time West European champion, will be busy stoking support for his fight when he arrives back here this week as he looks to raise the profile of the sport in this region. Local training sessions will be taking place at Bel Rematha Sports Centre.

Having first beaten Larry Foster in 2007 via technical knock-out (TKO) in the first round at Shaikh Rashid Hall, at the Dubai World Trade Centre, Al Dah went on to beat David Love by first round stoppage in 2008 at the same venue.

Al Dah also beat Karl Taylor on points at Newport Leisure Centre in Wales that same year before losing to Alfredo Valdes by second round TKO in Polanco, Mexico in 2009. Three more wins followed in the form of two points decisions either side of a second round KO against Wayne Downing and Steve Cooper in Wales, plus Matt Seawright in Knightsbridge, London [listed chronologically] all in 2009.

However, it proved to be too much in a split decision loss awarded to Anthony Woods in Florida 2010. Al Dah made up for it in front of a home crowd at the Trade Centre with a third round KO of Ignasi Caballero this February. He now seeks his first career win in the Americas, [US and Mexico] where he’s previously sustained his sole losses.

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Gulf Perfumers Smell Opportunity

September 8, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

* Increasing global interest in Arab fragrances

* Local manufacturers see opportunities but competition fierce

* Regulation, marketing muscle are obstacles

By Martina Fuchs and Rachna Uppal

2011-09-07T153956Z_660766678_GM1E7971TXU01_RTRMADP_3_GULF-PERFUMES

Men visit the Ajmal fragrance store in Dubai Mall, August 4, 2011. Saudi Arabia is the Gulf’s largest regional market for fragrances, accounting for $827.5 million last year; the UAE was in second place with $205.8 million. By 2014, it expects fragrance sales to have grown 14.4 percent in Saudi Arabia and 16.5 percent in the UAE. Some predict even faster growth because of tourism and business travel to the region, in addition to rising competition as an increasing number of international players move into the Middle Eastern fragrance market. Picture taken August 4, 2011.

REUTERS/Mosab Omar

DUBAI, Sept 7 (Reuters) – Walk through any of Dubai’s immaculate, air-conditioned shopping malls, and the scent of spicy perfume becomes an integral part of the shopping experience.

From boutiques to sales clerks offering samples, there’s no shortage of fragrances lingering in the air, part of a tradition dating back thousands of years.

“I don’t count the layers my wife puts on every day, but her smell always blows me away,” says Mustafa al-Muhana, a Saudi Arabian visitor to one of the specialist perfume stores.

Per capita consumption of perfumes in the Gulf region is among the highest in the world. Men and women equally enjoy applying layer upon layer of scents which linger long after the wearer has disappeared from sight.

“If a perfume doesn’t leave a trail, it’s not good enough,” says Abdulla Ajmal, deputy general manager at Ajmal Perfumes, a United Arab Emirates-based fragrance manufacturer.

That belief is providing healthy sales for foreign makers of perfumes in the Gulf and also supporting a growing fragrance manufacturing industry within the region, which is struggling to diversify away from its traditional reliance on energy exports.

Saudi Arabia is the Gulf’s largest regional market for fragrances, accounting for $827.5 million last year; the UAE was in second place with $205.8 million, according to consumer research firm Euromonitor International. By 2014, it expects fragrance sales to have grown 14.4 percent in Saudi Arabia and 16.5 percent in the UAE.

Some predict even faster growth because of tourism and business travel to the region, in addition to rising competition as an increasing number of international players move into the Middle Eastern fragrance market, including Giorgio Armani, Yves Saint Laurent and Guerlain.

“The growth of the Gulf perfume industry will be exponential,” says Shazad Haider, chairman of Fragrance Foundation Arabia, the regional outpost of the Fragrance Foundation, a group which represents the industry’s interests globally. “We will see a minimum twofold growth over the next three years.”

The people of the Arabian Peninsula have used oud, a perfume resin from the agarwood tree, as well as sandalwood, amber, musk and roses for over two thousand years; they are still the dominant ingredients in local perfumes.

Perfume is repeatedly mentioned in the Islamic hadiths, which record the actions and words of Prophet Mohammed, and it is reported that he himself never refused perfume, intensifying its significance for all Muslims.

Many perfumers say they have identified a trend in which traditional Arab fragrances are starting to attract broader, global interest.

“We have a strong line that uses other Western notes but the interesting point is that our European, American…customers are looking for the oriental notes, especially the oud oil,” says Shadi Samra, brand manager at Saudi Arabia-based Arabian Oud, which has flagship stores in London and Paris.

In Dubai’s warehouse district, Ajmal Perfumes operates a $10 million, 150,000-square-foot (14,000-square-metre) factory that makes around 50,000 bottles of Arab and French fragrances a day.

Abdulla Ajmal said the turnover of the family-owned business in 2010 was $200 million; sales were dampened by the political unrest in the Arab world this year, but Ajmal said he still aimed for 6 percent growth in 2011.

For now, however, many local manufacturers may struggle to achieve their international ambitions because they do not comply with global industry standards covering restricted ingredients and quality control.

“If you want to export to anywhere else, not just to the West, but also Asia, you are going to have to comply with IFRA standards,” said Stephen Weller of the Brussels-based International Fragrance Association (IFRA). He added that the association currently had no Gulf members.

And while Gulf Arab perfume manufacturers seek growth abroad, they face stiff competition from French and global players on their home ground.

L’Oréal Middle East, the regional arm of the French cosmetics giant, accounted for 9.6 percent of fragrance sales in the UAE in 2009, the biggest share, followed by Ajmal with 9.2 percent, according to Euromonitor International. The three largest domestic makers, Ajmal, Rasasi and Designer Shaik, together accounted for 21 percent.

“Most of the international houses work very closely with consumers here in the region…They adapt and introduce something customised, or they modify some of their product ranges to fit the taste of the region,” said Mohamed al-Fahim, chief executive of Paris Gallery, one of the largest regional fragrance retailers.

At the store’s Dubai Mall branch, Arabian-style glass bottles now carry the names of brands such as Guerlain and Clive Christian. Armani Prive and Tom Ford, among others, have developed ranges specifically for the region, and others plan to follow.

A 50 ml bottle of French brand Kilian’s Arabian Nights collection retails for about 1,500 dirhams ($410). In an ackowledgement of the heavier-than-average use of perfume in the region, a refill sells for half-price.

Global fragrance houses which can adapt to brand-conscious Gulf consumers still enjoy hefty advantages over most local perfumers in the form of bigger marketing budgets, technology and general experience of the industry.

“We still have a way to go to produce something of the same level or even better than what is produced in Europe or the U.S.,” Paris Gallery’s Fahim said.

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The Business of Iftar

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

iftar tablebwMuslims from around the world forge onward with the Ramadan fast in hopes of being successful this holy month and reaping all the benefits. Year in and year out, the rites of Ramadan remain primarily the same. Fasting, performing the daily and nightly prayers, reciting from the holy Quran and rejoicing in the season are the activities that most Muslims find themselves engaged in during the auspicious occasion.

However, while most things stay the same from one Ramadan to the next, there is one thing that always changes. The Iftar meal, which follows the breaking of the daily fast, is as diverse as the leaves adorning a lush green tree. Muslims in the Middle East, most of which continue to thrive despite the economic turmoil affecting the rest of the world, are renowned for the Iftar spreads offered on their tables. Surplus oil wealth and heavily subsidized governmental social services ensure that cups runneth over and plates are filled to capacity during Ramadan as well as the rest of the year.

Yet Ramadan provides a unique opportunity for savvy businessmen in the region looking to cash in on the Holy Month. And it does not hurt that this Ramadan features a minimum of 14 fasting hours per day and in scorching day time temperatures. Why bother slaving over a hot stove when you can be feted like a king? Hotels and restaurants in wealthy Middle Eastern countries, like Qatar and Kuwait, cater to the fancies of Muslims fasting in Ramadan. Social-networking sites, like Facebook, are utilized to attract fasting Muslims with sleek ads featuring delectable dishes. Print media, such as newspapers and magazines, are also used to advertise sumptuous buffets offering international cuisine as well as local delicacies.

Some of the most sumptuous Iftar buffets can be found in the Dubai Mall located in the municipality of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. One of the most popular restaurants, Na3Na3, features live cooking stations during Ramadan and the Eid festivities.  Guests dine on traditional Arabic fare and sip freshly prepared beverages that compliment the meal. A traditional ‘Oud’, or Arabic stringed instruments, player keeps everyone entertained during the meal. Al Bahou restaurant, also located in Dubai, offers fasting Muslims a lavish menu featuring roasted lamb and freshly wrapped shwarma sandwiches.

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Ramadan: Light Up My Life

August 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

ramadan2The celebration of Ramadan, in the Middle East region, is a spectacular affair full of worship, fasting and just being kind to your fellow neighbor. Restaurants, cafes and local businesses pull out all of the stops by offering special late night menus and a special dessert menu to tempt just about any palate. While food is a big part of the Ramadan tradition, since the breaking of the fast is one of the great joy’s bestowed upon Muslims by God Almighty, there is also another tradition that continues to grow bigger with each passing year.

The holy season of Ramadan heralds in a whole month full of blessings that fill the Muslim’s heart with joy, from the crack of dawn until the sun makes its serene descent towards the gilded horizon. However, once the sun sets, there is nothing dim about the auspicious nights of Ramadan.  From Cairo to Palestine, tiny lanterns and strands of brightly colored bulbs ensure that the Ramadan nights sparkle. The skies are set aglow with brightly colored lights that either hang effortlessly midair or are manipulated into grandiose shapes in all sizes.

While most Islamic nations in the region do trim city streets with Ramadan fare, there is one tiny municipality that just does it better. In Abu Dhabi, which is a municipality of the United Arab Emirates, the streets are decked out in thousands upon thousands of tiny bulbs. Each year, teams of workers hang and dangle countless numbers of lights, lanterns and decorations all around the municipality. This year is no different, as the Abu Dhabi government shelled out a massive $136,000 to light up parts of the municipality’s infrastructure.

In just over two weeks, workers completed the gargantuan task in record time. Bridges and tunnels around the Corniche serve as the foundation for the elaborate decorations which includes giant stars, golden crescents and “Ramadan Kareem” signs. Heavy-duty cables, that have been inspected and approved by Abu Dhabi authorities, were enlisted to guarantee that the decorations and lanterns hang safely above. The whole undertaking is environmentally friendly as well. Light-Emitting Diodes, or LED lights, have been used to conserve energy. LED lights use an estimated 90% less energy than traditional bulbs and produce less heat which is a vital safety measure in the arid regions of the Middle East. The decorations will remain in place until after the Eid holidays have been celebrated.

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Should it Take a Village?

July 28, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

photo

You’ve probably heard the old African proverb that says, “It takes a village to raise a child”. However, it is doubtful that the person who first coined the phrase meant for anyone to take it literally.  It is true that raising a child, especially one who is considerate of others and mindful of being a contributing member of society, is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Yet still, in most parts of the world, a child’s parents are the primary caregivers and the ones responsible for raising the life that both brought into the world.

Conversely, there are several parts of the world where parents enlist a veritable army to assist in the raising of their children. In many parts of the Middle East for example, having a team of caregivers right in the comfort of your own home is a staple of the Arab culture. Chefs, chauffeurs, housemaids and nannies are the primary job titles that many families seek to fill even before junior is born. The annual surplus oil revenues that Middle Eastern countries like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Oman enjoy has paved the way for a life of ease for nationals. Why change dirty diapers or fool around with play time when you can hire someone to do it for you?

As a result, many children in the region are raised almost exclusively by their caregivers with ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ taking a backseat to the care of their child. Nowhere is this more obvious than on the gilded streets of the wealthy Gulf nations. Parents can be seen strolling hand in hand along sun-kissed beaches while a trio of nannies keep junior out of trouble or merely cart him around. Playgrounds are often full of rambunctious kids busily playing their hearts out. However, something is clearly wrong with the picture as nannies keep an eye on their wards instead of the parents. For many children in the region, there is not a parent around to watch their amazing feat on the jungle gym or one to snap a photo as he glides down a slide.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of a reliance on caregivers is that most are unqualified for the job. Most of the household staff enlisted to help raise the children of a family come from Southeast Asia. They are typically poor, uneducated and semi-skilled laborers that do not possess the skills, and often temperament, to raise children. There have been countless cases of housemaids and nannies turning on their charges, sometimes fatally, in recent years. Some cases revealed an abundance of housemaids and nannies physically abusing the children that they were supposed to protect. Worse yet, some have even gone as far as to poison or otherwise murder the children they were hired to raise.

A professor at Qatar University recently shed light on the issue in a recent discussion that attributed a host of societal ills that are linked to children being raised by household staff. Professor Rabia Sabah Al Kuwari said, “This phenomenon is prevalent in the Arab societies. In other countries such as Holland, for instance, there are no household helpers.” Al Kuwari also went on to say that some of the problems associated with relying on paid staff to raise a child include a lack of affection between a parent and child as well as learning deficiencies that will most likely affect the child for his lifetime.

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Farouk El Baz

July 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Syed Aslam

FaroukElBozGRAYFarouk El Baz was born in 1938 in the Nile Delta town of El Senbellawein. He received B.Sc. in Chemistry and Geology from Ain Shams University. In 1961, he received a M.S. degree in Geology from the Missouri School of Mines and Metallurgy. In 1964 he received his PhD in Geology from  Missouri University. In 1989, he received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from the New England College. Currently, El-Baz is Research Professor and Director of the Center for Remote Sensing at Boston University.

During the past 20 years in his research at Boston University, El-Baz utilizes satellite images to better understand the origin and evolution of desert landforms. He is credited with providing evidence that the desert is not man-made, but the result of major climatic variations. His research uncovered numerous sand-buried rivers and streams in the Sahara based on the interpretation of radar images. These former water courses lead into depressions in the terrain, which he theorized must host groundwater. His analysis of these data resulted in the location of groundwater in the arid terrains of Egypt, Oman, the United Arab Emirates  and Darfur,  Sudan.

From 1967 to 1972, El-Baz participated in the Apollo Programs Supervisor of Lunar Science Planning at Bellcomm Inc., a division of AT&T that conducted systems analysis for NASA. During these six years, he was secretary of the Landing Site Selection Committee for the Apollo lunar landing missions, Principal Investigator of Visual Observations and Photography, and chairman of the Astronaut Training Group.  After the Apollo Program ended in 1972, El-Baz joined the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC to establish and direct the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies at the National Air and Space Museum. At the same time, he was elected as a member of the Lunar Nomenclature Task Group of the International Astronomical Union. In this capacity, he continues to participate in naming features of the Moon as revealed by lunar photographic missions.

In 1973, NASA selected him as Principal Investigator of the Earth Observations and Photography Experiment on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint American-Soviet space mission of July 1975. Emphasis was placed on photographing arid environments, particularly the Great Sahara of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

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Australia Suspends Cattle Exports to Indonesia

June 23, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

CANBERRA (Reuters) – Australia said on Wednesday it was suspending cattle exports to Indonesia after an outcry over the inhumane treatment of cattle in its neighbor, as animal rights groups called for an outright ban on trade to other countries.

The minority Labor government has been under fierce pressure to suspend the A$320 million ($342 million) Indonesia live cattle business after television footage showed cattle being beaten, whipped and maimed prior to slaughter in some abattoirs.

Canberra would impose a six month initial suspension on Indonesia shipments, and the government would also review the live export trade to all overseas markets, including the Middle East, Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig said.

“Trade will not be able to be resumed until the government, community and industry are confident that we have safeguards in place to ensure appropriate animal welfare,” he told ABC radio.

“The Australian government is committed to reaching the best possible outcomes for our livestock, the industry and our important relationship with Indonesia,” Ludwig said.

Lyn White, who shot the graphic footage and is the campaign director for Animals Australia, welcomed the news of the suspension but said it should have come sooner.

“There has been an extraordinary outpouring of rage that our cattle have been treated like this and have been supplied for such treatment. So this is a first step,” White told Australian television.

Australia exports about 500,000 head of cattle a year to Indonesia, representing 60 percent of its live cattle trade.

The live trade to all countries is valued at A$730 million, with sheep exported to Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Israel, and cattle shipped to Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Jordan, Japan and Brunei.

“This industry over a period of time has shown that it can’t be trusted. We have no control over what happens to our animals in importing countries, and the only way to safeguard their welfare is to not supply them,” White said.

Australia’s cattle industry on Monday put forward a plan aimed at reducing the suffering of animals sent to Indonesia.

Industry group, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), said under its plan cattle would only be supplied to 25 accredited Indonesian slaughter houses currently meeting World Organization for Animal Health standards.

The conservative opposition, which has strong support from farmers, said the suspension was a blunt instrument that would hit all Indonesian abattoir workers, as well as risk trade and security retaliation from Australia’s fellow G20 member.

“We’ve made a statement also about our nearest neighbor Indonesia, who we are totally reliant on for other things like border control. I don’t think we have thought through the ramifications,” Nationals party Senate Leader Barnaby Joyce said.

The previous conservative government banned live cattle and sheep exports to Saudi Arabia between 1991 and 2000 after hundreds of animals died from heat stress en route to the Persian Gulf.

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A Summer of “Sandboarding”

June 16, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

extreme-sports-wallpaper-sand-boardingOne of the biggest complaints often heard by residents, and visitors alike, is the lack of sporting activities in the Middle East. The lack of outdoor activities is not surprising given that eight months out of the year are sweltering with temperatures easily reaching well above 100-degrees Fahrenheit. The greatest pastimes for most denizens of the wealthy gulf regions of the Middle East are usually fine dining or shopping in heavily air-conditioned malls. However, a new breed of daredevil is weathering the scalding desert sun and taking advantage of one of the most plentiful resources in the desert. Sand.

Sandboarding is believed to be a sport invented by the Egyptians, however, there is not credible data available today crediting Egypt with developing the sand sport. Over the past year or so, sandboarding has swept across the Middle East and become the most popular desert activity. Sandboarding combines the best moves and techniques from three sporting activities- skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding. And it requires a very large sand dune in order to fulfill all the twists, jumps and tricks that sandboarders dare to perform.

It can take several minutes for a sandboarder to ascend his sand dune of choice and a mere couple of minutes to cruise down it. For this reason, a sandboarder must be aware of the effects of performing a high-intensity sport in the scorching desert sun and must take preventative measures to ensure his safety and the safety of those sandboarding with him. As a rule, most sandboarders choose the early morning hours just after the crack of dawn to ride the dunes. The heat of the sun in the region reaches full capacity in the early afternoon. Sandboarders must carry several liters of water with them in addition to their sandboard.

One of the most popular sandboarding sites is located in Dubai, which is a municipality of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). There is an abundance of naturally occurring sand dunes in the UAE, some scraping the sky at over 200 ft. However, the largest one stands at a dizzying 300ft. It is known by sandboarders as “Big Red”, however locals refer to it as “Al Hamar”. Regardless of the name, the sand dune is very steep and it is bright red due to high-levels of iron oxide. Daredevils congregate near “Big Red” on weekends and a crowd gathers at the base to watch the show.

Sandboards can be purchased in local sporting good shops in most Middle Eastern countries and are even available online. Ingenious businessman, in both the UAE and neighboring Arab States, have created special sandboarding excursions which provide sandboard rentals and transportation to and from the dunes.

13-25

Smoke-Free by Force

June 2, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

no-smoking-signSmokers around the world are somewhat used to having certain smoking privileges revoked for the sake of their health and the health of those around them. One of the most recent anti-smoking laws to go into effect, in the US State of New York, is a statewide ban on cigarette smoking on public beaches and parks. The fine for anyone stubbing out the law is a $50 fine. However, the NYPD will not be held responsible for enforcing the ban. According to Mayor Bloomberg, it will be up to park rangers and regular “New Yorkers” to keep smokers from lighting up on any number of New York’s 1,700 parks and 14 miles of beaches. Back in 2003, Mayor Bloomberg also banned cigarette smoking in bars and restaurants.

Just across the Atlantic Ocean the miniscule sheikhdom of Dubai, municipality of the United Arab Emirates, spearheaded a grandiose 24-hour ban this past Tuesday on the sale of cigarettes. Smokers in the oil-rich Gulf state could not buy a pack of cigarettes if their lives depended upon it as grocery stores and gas stations were emblazoned with placards announcing the daylong ban of cigarette sales. The majority of Dubai’s restaurants and cafes also supported the ban by refusing customers the “shisha” pipe, which is a water-filled pipe that releases steamed tobacco smoke into the smoker’s mouth.

The reason for the ban is to highlight the problem of smoking in the region. Smoking and second-hand smoke are known carcinogens that have been proven to cause certain forms of cancer. Smoking is rampant in Dubai with people from all ages and walks of life “lighting up”. Dubai takes great pride in its anti-smoking initiative and offers free smoking cessation courses at various centers across the municipality. According to Dubai’s Minister of Health, Dr Hanif Hassan, more than 800 smokers have kicked their cigarette habit since 2009 thanks to the cessation centers. Hassan also revealed, in a recent interview, that Dubai plans to build even more cessation centers to help Dubai residents stop smoking once and for all.

In addition, Dubai authorities are mulling over a new law that would double the price of all tobacco products right across the board. The hope is to deter cigarette smoking by making it more expensive. There is also a new initiative to raise public awareness over the harmful effects of cigarette smoking, special attention will be given to children and teens that may face peer pressure that encourages smoking.

Dubai passed a Federal Anti-Smoking Law back in 2009, however only recently have the bylaws been approved and it has yet to be enforced by the appropriate governmental departments.

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Precious Cargo

April 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

sleepycraYou can see them popping their heads through an open car sunroof as it speeds down the highway or bouncing up and down in the back of a car in motion. No, they’re not animals such as a cat or dog traveling with its master. They are unrestrained children living in some of the world’s richest nations. It’s a startling phenomena given that America’s legal system has gone to great lengths to protect American children traveling in motor vehicles in the United States by making seat belts and car seats for young children a part of the law. However, the utter disregard for the safety of children traveling in motor vehicles in the Middle East is alarming. In fact, it is an epidemic that threatens entire generations of children.

This past winter a father in Kuwait paid dearly for his lesson in passenger safety. A family trip to the desert turned tragic as the SUV the father was driving jostled under the bumpy desert terrain. His son was standing upright inside the car as his upper body was outside. All it took was a single bump to throw the son from the car and into the path of his father’s vehicle. With no time to regain control of the vehicle, the father ran over his son and crushed him to death. Stories like this are common all across the Middle East as many parents take the road less traveled by not securing all passengers before turning that ignition key.

The problem is widespread and, while most countries in the Middle East pay lip service to restraining children inside of motor vehicles and do have laws requiring car seats and seat belts on the books, there is no enforcement of vehicular laws meant to protect children. It is up to parents to decide whether or not to restrain their children inside the vehicle. Unfortunately, most parents pay little attention to the safety of their children inside the car.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, has one of the worst records for unrestrained children in the Middle East. According to recent research, car accidents are the number one killer of children in the sheikhdom with 63% of child deaths last year alone being linked to car or roadway accidents. Further, UAE authorities have determined that an estimated 98% of children in the country are not restrained when traveling by motor vehicle.

There is little data regarding children and road safety in other regions of the Middle East as research over the issue in scarce. However the problem will most likely continue to deteriorate, as countless children will undoubtedly pay for the negligence of adults with their very lives.

13-17

Putting an End to “Scavenger” Hunts

April 14, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, TMO

DumpsterAs the old adage goes, “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” However, for hundreds of thousands of poor day laborers in the Middle East, it is an unfortunate way of life. They come by the planeloads to countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in hopes of a better life for their families. Hailing from countries in Southeast Asia, like Pakistan or Bangladesh, the day laborers are often exploited, forced to work an inhumane number of hours and paid very meager salaries.

Scavenging through the garbage dumpsters in some of the most luxurious streets in the world is the only way that most day laborers can support themselves. The scavengers search for precious metals and recyclables, like cardboard and plastic, that can be sold by the kilogram to recycling companies for a pittance. They also look for undamaged fruit crates and Styrofoam boxes. These kinds of packaging materials are resold to unscrupulous fruit shop owners who refill them with fresh fruit and sell them to unsuspecting customers.

This past week an environmental group in Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates oldest city, named “Bee’ah” teamed up with the Immigration Department to put an end to the scavenging through dumpsters in the region. According to the Chief Executive of Bee’ah, Khalid Al Huraimel, individuals who supposedly have no business being in the rich emirate are responsible for the scavenging epidemic. “Waste scavengers residing in Sharjah are usually illegal residents and, in best cases, fall in the low-income groups. Or they are individuals with expired visas or residency permits or people who have absconded from their employers or entered the UAE without any proper documents.” There was no mention of accountability for the wealthy businessmen who bring the laborers into the country in the first place without properly caring for them or keeping an eye on their activities.

A newly inducted anti-scavenging task force will now patrol garbage dumpsters in Sharjah and bring scavengers caught digging through the trash to justice. Huraimel believes that, by preventing scavenging, the garbage can be processed safely for the sake of the environment and human health. As part of the initiative, garbage dumpsters have been fitted with signs warning would-be scavengers in six different languages not take anything from the dumpsters. The anti-scavenging task force has planned a series of raids to stop dumpster “divers” in their tracks. The Sharjah municipality has also appealed to members of the public to report scavengers in their neighborhoods. A special hotline has been set up to handle calls.

13-16

Bahrain Foreign Minister’s India Visit

April 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nilofar Suhrawardy, TMO

NEW DELHI: Bahrain Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa was in India last month as a part of diplomatic drive to assure the Indian government about the security of Indians living there. He held detailed discussions with his Indian counterpart SM Krishna on issues of mutual interest, including recent developments in Bahrain and the region (March 30). Ahead of their talks, the two ministers laid stress on “traditionally friendly relations” between India and Bahrain, “which are based on historical and civilizational ties.” This “long standing relationship” is reflected by presence of a large Indian community in Bahrain.

During their meeting, over lunch hosted by India in his honor, Bahraini foreign minister gave “firm assurance” about “safety and security of Indian community” in Bahrain. He also appreciated their contribution to “progress and development of Bahrain.” There are around 350,000 Indians in Bahrain. Khalid drew Krishna’s attention to his having met more than 200 Indians in Manama on 26th March, 2011. On his part, Krishna thanked Khalid for his reassurance with regard to Indian community’s well being. The former also expressed confidence that “law-abiding Indian community would continue to be a partner in Bahrain’s growth story well into the future.”

Referring to recent developments in Bahrain, Krishna expressed the hope that “peaceful resolution of all issues through dialogue would pave the way for continued development and prosperity of friendly people of Bahrain.”

During an exclusive interview with this scribe, Khalid acknowledged: “There is no doubt a wave of transformation in the Arab world.” Accepting that winds of transformation were sweeping across the region, he pointed to the human development index in the six Gulf Coordination Council countries – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar – being much higher than that of other countries. In other parts of the region, the people on the lower end of the scale were vying for a change, he said. Referring specifically to Bahrain, he said that though sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias have prevailed for “around 1400 years,” they have taken such a major turn for first time, reaching the “stage of polarization.” “Sectarian turn is the biggest threat to whole region,” he said.

Laying stress that there was a need for “true transformation” in many parts of the area, Khalid expressed that this “movement” had been “hijacked and had taken a sectarian turn” between Sunnis and Shias. Expressing favor for a political dialogue to sort out the problem, he said: “Political dialogue would be way forward in future.” The priority at present was to maintain law and order, Khalid emphasized.

Refuting the impression generated about Bahrain taking help of Saudi forces to control protestors, Khalid said that these belonged to Peninsula Shield Force. “We take our security seriously,” he stated. The troops would stay as long as they were needed, he said. Khalid specified that their help was essential to prevent the tension from escalating into a civil strife. The situation was “under control,” he said.

A “very negligible” population had left Bahrain because of tension in the country, he said. Though certain elements’ aim was to scare the expat community, Indians were not targeted, he emphasized. “I am visiting India before Europe or America. This is more important. We are regional stakeholders. Without India, we do not have a solution. We need to reassure India about the Indian community in Bahrain,” the minister asserted.

Elaborating on security architecture in the region, Bahrain cannot envisage this without India, Khalid said. India’s Deputy National Security Advisor Vijaya Latha Reddy called on Khalid ahead of his meeting with Krishna. She discussed issues of bilateral interest with him.

Bahrain also favors a role for Pakistan as well as Iran. “We want Iran to be part of this security architecture. We want it to prosper and be as active as in the past as a responsible country in the region,” he said.

Without elaborating on diplomatic tension between Bahrain and Iran, Khalid categorically stated: “We are for good relations with Iran.” “The result of bad relations with a neighbor can be more lethal than that of a nuclear bomb,” he said.

Diplomatic tension between Bahrain and Iran has been marked by the former holding latter as responsible for provoking Shia-Sunni tension in the region. Bahrain has warned Iran to keep away from “meddling” in its internal affairs. On its part, Iran has strongly criticized the arrival of external troops in Bahrain.

Bahrain is also not pleased with external strikes supporting rebels in Libya. When asked to comment on this, Khalid said that Bahrain had no objection to maintaining a “no-fly zone” over Libya. He was, however, skeptical about role of external strikes. “We were a part of the GCC and Arab League resolutions supporting no-fly zone. But we feel there is no clarity whether external strikes can really help in protection of people and their security.”

This was Khalid’s second visit to India. His visit, according to official sources, “has strengthened the excellent relationship between the two countries.”

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How Dubai Unraveled a Homicide, Frame by Frame

March 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

A mix of old-fashioned legwork and high-tech razzle-dazzle, scouring hundreds of hours of surveillance videos, helped police home in on suspects in a Hamas man’s slaying, blamed on Israel’s Mossad.

By Borzou Daragahi, LA Times

  • Hatem Moussa / Associated Press

Reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates — Lacking witnesses but blessed with hundreds of hours of video, the cops and spooks worked the case of the slain weapons smuggler like a movie in reverse.

Dubai’s cameras never blink. The security system allows law enforcement to track anyone, from the moment they get off an airplane, to the immigration counter where their passport is scanned, through the baggage claim area to the taxi stand where cameras record who gets into what cars, which log their locations through the city’s automated highway toll system, all the way to their hotels, which also have cameras.

Which brings us to the Bustan Rotana hotel on the night of Jan. 19, and an assassination made to look like a run-of-the-mill heart attack.

The dead man, as the world now knows, was a 50-year-old Hamas commander named Mahmoud Mabhouh, wanted by Israel in the killing of two Israeli soldiers. Once Dubai investigators narrowed the time of death to 8 to 8:30 p.m., they quickly found that seven people in the Bustan Rotana had no business being there.

Using facial recognition software, a source familiar with the investigation said, a team of 20 investigators pored over hours of security camera videos to sketch out a picture of the suspects’ movements and accomplices, a group that has grown to at least 27 people.

They tracked down taxi drivers and grilled them about the suspects. They even traced the trip of a female suspect to a shopping center and discovered what she bought.

For years, the United Arab Emirates has been using its considerable oil wealth to build up its defense and security infrastructure, including the National Security Agency, the secret police, which is playing a key role in the investigation.

"They buy the best," said Kamal Awar, a retired Lebanese army officer and editor of Beirut-based Defense 21, a regional military magazine. "They bought the latest technology in satellite and communications."

In the end, a mixture of high-tech razzle-dazzle and old-fashioned investigative work cracked the case.

"What it takes is a few skilled police officers putting stuff on the board and figuring out who relates to what," said Col. Patrick Lang, a former U.S. military intelligence officer who served in the Persian Gulf for years. "It’s not a magic thing. It’s a question of thinking clearly."

A homicide in disguise

The middle-aged man was splayed out dead in his hotel room as if he’d gone into cardiac arrest. The door was chained from the inside. Coroners surmised that he’d died of natural causes.

But one doctor noticed an abnormality in the blood. He later spotted strange puncture marks on a leg and behind an ear. And after the Palestinian militant group Hamas informed Dubai authorities that the dead man was Mahmoud Mabhouh, they decided it couldn’t hurt to double-check. Blood samples were sent abroad. Days passed.

When the toxicology reports showed that he’d been given a lethal dose of a powerful anesthetic, Dubai authorities knew they had a high-profile homicide on their hands. Though Mabhouh was no friend of the Emirates, authorities were furious about the killing.

"The whole operation was based on one key assumption: that the death will be recorded as a natural death," Mustafa Alani, an analyst at the Gulf Research Center, a Dubai think tank, said of the assassins. "And that was the downfall. The reason why they were so careless was because they thought there would be no investigation."

At least half of the passports used by the 27 suspects bore the names and registration numbers of Israeli dual citizens who held British, Irish, Australian, French or German passports, leading many experts to believe that Israel’s spy outfit, Mossad, had forged the identities.

Israeli officials have been tight-lipped about the case and refused to confirm or deny the nation’s involvement. None of the suspects captured on video or identified in passport photos, including a bottle-blond and an assortment of beefy, balding guys wearing rectangular glasses, have come forward to deny or confirm their involvement.

Interpol announced last week that it was joining the international investigation.

"Investigative information provided by the authorities in Dubai bore out the international links and broad scope of the number of people involved, as well as the role of two ‘teams’ of individuals identified by the Dubai police as being linked to al-Mabhouh’s murder," Interpol said in a statement.

An unlikely place to strike

Perhaps no hotel in Dubai is less amenable to an assassination than the upscale Bustan Rotana, in the Garhoud district adjacent to the airport. The circular building’s rooms are arrayed around a vast airy atrium.

"If you’re sitting in the lobby you can see the door to every room," said Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Affairs, a think tank with offices in Dubai and Beirut. "If there’s a scuffle, you can see and hear it."

Security experts around the world have also puzzled over the apparent size of the hit team: 27 bearers of Western passports and, according to Hamas, two or three Palestinians.

Some security experts said the assassins knew what they were doing, organizing themselves into evacuation, surveillance and execution teams.

But others see a classic bureaucratic blunder.

"You have a surveillance team and a counter-surveillance team and the technical people as well as the security people around the perimeter," said Lang, the former U.S. military intelligence officer. "Once you start doing that, you have to have shifts. You have to have two or three sets of these people and rotate them. Once you start doing it that way you’re going to have a lot of people."

The assailants apparently entered the hotel room without any struggle, suggesting that someone on the team knew Mabhouh. A fatal dose of the powerful muscle relaxant succinylcholine quickly paralyzes its recipient and ultimately mimics the effects of a heart attack. It should have killed Mabhouh within 15 minutes.

But something must have gone wrong, said the source with knowledge of the investigation, because the assassins pressed a pillow against Mabhouh’s face for one or two minutes until he suffocated. "They were panicking for one reason or another," said the source.

The hit team tidied up the room and laid Mabhouh out as though he’d suffered a massive heart attack and dropped dead.

Dubai Police Chief. Lt. Gen. Dhahi Khalfan Tamim told satellite channel Al Arabiya that "the murderers tried their best to mislead us."

A knack for putting things together

Just as police were about to conclude that it was a natural death, a Palestinian man trying to contact Mabhouh learned of his death and telephoned his family in Gaza. It was only then that Hamas officials contacted Dubai police, Tamim said.

"Dubai police are very good at piecing together crimes," analyst Karasik said. "I’ve seen it before when you had robberies or murders occur and you’ll forget about the story and then six months later the guys are arrested via Interpol, brought back here and then they disappear into the system."

Although Mabhouh’s assassins managed to enter the country, kill him and get out without getting caught, the case has generated what most analysts consider unwelcome fallout for Israel, which most suspect of being behind the attack.

Authorities are now reexamining the death of Faisal Husseini, a charismatic Palestinian leader who died in his Kuwait hotel room in 2001.

"Now we know their tradecraft," said Alani. "We know how they operate."

If Mossad agents were behind the attack, the operation blew the identities of 27 agents; it takes up to five years to train each agent.

"They’ll never be able to go outside of Israel again, even with disguises," Karasik said. "Biometrics means all of the contours of your face are on file."

daragahi@latimes.com

Kingdom Donates $50m for Haiti Quake Relief

February 4, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Sultan Al-Tamimi, Arab News

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia will donate $50 million in aid to earthquake-devastated Haiti. “On instructions from Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, the Kingdom will donate $50 million to assist the Haitian people,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Osama Nugali said Monday.

The cash donation is thought to be the largest given by a Middle Eastern country, although some have made significant donations in kind. The funds will be channeled through the United Nations.

Last week, the secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, urged all OIC member states and Islamic organizations to provide help to Haiti following the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Meanwhile, the Riyadh-based Arab Gulf Program for United Nations Development Organizations (AGFUND) has become one of the first organizations in the Kingdom to donate to Haiti, with a contribution of $100,000. “The contribution is an extension to the role of the Arab Gulf Program and its humanitarian stand in alleviating the suffering of victims, and it is in response to the urgent call from the Haitian government for humanitarian assistance,” AGFUND spokesman Abdul Latiff said.

Other Middle Eastern countries have chipped in. The United Arab Emirates said a plane carrying 77 tons of basic relief supplies has been sent by the government to Haiti. Jordan sent six tons of relief supplies to Haiti shortly after the quake hit. A field hospital was also dispatched there to help treat survivors, including members of Jordan’s 700-strong peacekeeping contingent in Haiti. Three Jordanian peacekeepers were killed and 23 wounded in the quake.

The United Nations said Monday it has so far received pledges of more than $270 million in emergency relief funding for Haiti, representing nearly half of its target. The funds are meant to go toward food, medication, water and tents for three million people affected by the earthquake, which according to the Haitian government, claimed around 150,000 lives.

Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive urged donors Monday to swing behind his nation’s massive reconstruction, as aid groups called for Haiti’s billion-dollar foreign debt to be wiped clean.

“I just want to say that the people of Haiti will need to be helped to face this colossal work of reconstruction,” Bellerive told international officials as closed-door talks in Montreal began.

“The government of Haiti wants to assure the entire world that it will remember and be worthy of the exceptional sympathy that it receives,” he added. The talks are aimed at defining key strategies to rebuild the country from the ground up in the wake of the quake.

An umbrella group of Canadian and Haitian aid organizations called on donors to cancel more than $1 billion in foreign debt. “We hope that you use the weight of your governments to convince international financial institutions to cancel Haiti’s entire foreign debt,” said Eric Faustin, director of Rocahd, the Coalition of Canadian-Haitian Development Organizations.

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Piercing the Skies

January 18, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

By Sumayyah Meehan, MMNS Middle East Correspondent

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In a flurry of fireworks, more blinding than beautiful, and without even a shred of the financial turmoil that has been brewing for the past few weeks showing, the city of Dubai opened the doors this week to the world’s tallest building. Formerly known as ‘Burj Dubai’, the building was renamed ‘Burj Khalifa’ to honor the President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahayan. Although, some critics say the renaming of the structure had everything to do with the recent $10 billion bailout that the President handed out to Dubai more than prestige.

Standing at a vertigo-inducing 828 meters, the Burj Khalifa is the crowning jewel in a region that has been marred by war and controversy for decades. Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum unveiled the radiant monstrosity of steel and glass with as much hoopla as a Hollywood premiere. “Today the United Arab Emirates achieves the tallest building ever created by the hand of man… and this great project deserves to carry the name of a great man. Today I inaugurate Burj Khalifa,” said Sheikh al-Maktoum to rounds of furious applause.

And then the real celebration began. Several parachute artists jumped out of airplanes high above dressed in the UAE flag colors of black, green and red. Once they landed, an enormous portrait of Sheikh Khalifa was projected on one side of the burgeoning building. Then fireworks exploded from every crevice of the structure and were soon followed by a dazzling laser show that lit up the sky in a rainbow of colors.

The city of Dubai is pinning all of its future aspirations on the giant tower to repair its heavily damaged reputation as the financial hub of the Middle East. A series of poor business judgments and debt repayment complications on the part of some Dubai financial houses have made most of the world’s biggest corporations think twice about doing business in Dubai. With a $1.5 billion price tag, the ‘vertical city’ of Burj Khalifa is expected to turn around the crisis before the paint even dries on its walls. Out of the 200 floors, only 160 will be residential while the remaining floors will be devoted to prime office space. Burj Khalifa also houses a Giorgio Armani hotel amongst other posh additions sure to woo foreign visitors and hopefully an investor or two.

The opening of Burj Khalifa also coincided with the 4 year anniversary of Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashed al-Maktoum’s ascension to power. Sheikh al-Maktoum has been the visionary behind the construction boom that has made Dubai one of the world’s most beautiful concrete creations. However, the unprecedented rate of growth has proven to be the city’s potential unraveling as it has always relied on foreign investments which have been hard hit ever since the global credit crunch sunk in.

Hundreds of building projects in Dubai have been indefinitely halted as the emirate tries to pull itself up by its bootstraps and regain its former self. And even if that feat is possible, it will be a long time before Dubai will be able to stand tall in the global financial arena as critics and pundits alike question the rationale of gambling the future on a tall building.

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