Friday, 24 June 2011

The Euro

Two of the best holidays I've ever had have been to Crete (part of Greece) and the following year the Algarve in Portugal.  In both we stayed in lovely hotels, close to lovely sandy beaches, enjoyed beautiful weather and excellent food, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. 

Of the two, Crete was marginally the better.  The hotel was a small, family run affair, and we were given a split-level room on the top floor (of three), with a balcony overlooking the pool area and, perhaps half a mile away, the beach.  We hired a car for a week and had some good excursions, to Chania (the nearest big town) and further along the north coast to Heraklion where we met up with an old friend for work who happened to be holidaying at the same time.  It was a super drive along the coast road, winding alongside the seashore with lovely hills to our right.  We also drove across to the south west corner of the island, to Elafonisi, still the loveliest beach I've ever seen, and the drive through the mountains on a winding, narrow road with a sheer drop on one side and a gear change needed every fifty yards or so exhilerating.  I would happily go back there.

The Algarve was different.  We stayed in Vilamoura, a golfing centre that in comparison to our Cretan village was a thriving metropolis.   The hotel was massive, with a couple of pools and adjoining a long sandy beach.  Again, the food was excellent, and our 5th floor room offered a view across the pool and beach area and was very peaceful.  Again we hired a car for our expeditions, across the border into Spain and north to the Catholic shrine at Fatima (a long long drive for a disappointing visit).  It was also a long haul for our flights, as we flew into Lisbon so on arrival faced a 4 hour coach ride and arrived at the hotel in the early hours of the morning - not ideal with a three year old in tow!  But for all that, we had a lovely holiday.

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Now, of course, both countries are in crisis - in a financial meltdown that threatens the entire EU if either country defaults on billions of euros worth on government debt.  In essence, both countries have for years spent far more than they generated in tax revenues, and topped up the shortfall by borrowing from the international bond markets.  It's not a new thing, they were doing it long before the advent of the single currency in 1999.  The difference is that in those days, when they had their own currencies (the Portuguese escudo and the Greek drachma) they had control of their own destiny.  If they needed to devalue the currency to bail themselves out of a similar crisis, well that was purely their choice and affected only their own populations.

Neither country had a reputation for fiscal responsibility, even in those days.  Both relied extensively on tourism to boost their coffers, and Greece in addition had its shipping industries.  Both were relatively poor countries on the fringes of the European continent, with high levels of seasonal employment, and in Portugal's case also carried significant baggage from its colonial days.  Their populations also had a bit of a reputation for being workshy - happy to do as little as possible, for as much as possible, and to avoid paying tax as much as possible.  In that they were not (and indeed are not) alone - tax avoidance is a lucrative industry that has generated huge and profitable businesses in Switzerland, Luxembourg and many offshore centres (the Channel Islands, Bahamas, Netherlands Antilles and others).

Then came the euro.  The single curreency.

Every nation that joined (the majority of countries in the EU signed up for it) had to agree to very strict and measurable spending limits, restrictions on government debt issues and other tools aimed at stabilizing exchange rates prior to the creation of the euro, and thereafter maintaining its value in the world markets.  Countries were still permitted to set their own tax regimes but within those the scope for action in case of crisis situations was limited, since there would inevitably be a knock-on event to the other member countries.  In essence, if a euro member state got into financial difficulties the rest of them helped out by manipulating currency rates, lending to the problem state to help them out, and other measures.  When this happened (as it has periodically throughout the currency's life) the restrictions, known as convergence criteria, tended to go out of the window.  Even the Germans, who as the strongest economy in Europe and hence the euro, have always been very consistent and strong in their insistence that these criteria must not be broken, have seen fit to breach their own rules and temporarily exceed their own limits - to much derision from Britain who has never joined the euro (and hopefully never will) and others.

The financial crisis over the past couple of years, that cost millions of jobs globally and saw the demise of Wall Street giants like Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and, most famously, Lehman Brothers - financial powerhouses throughout the 80s and 90s who dominated the industry -  has resulted in the problems of Greece and Portugal (and to a lesser extent Ireland and Spain) becoming intolerable.  So called "austerity measures" (essentially pay freezes, increased personal tax liabilities, and the forced sale of government assets to repay the huge debts, now including bail-out loans from the IMF) have been introduced in all these countries, and of course been highly unpopular in them all.

Ireland has bitten the bullet and forced them through, and seems to have stabilized.  The population have grumbled about it, but by and large got on with it.  Portugal too, despite an election that resulted in a change of government, seems to be moving forward despite loud protests from their people.  Spain so far has stayed away from the worst of it, despite wide belief that it too is in serious difficulties.

But Greece..... That is quite another story.  There the people are implacably against the measures.  The country is riven by regular and wide-spread labour strikes in protest.  There are daily demonstrations, some violent, outside the Parliament building in Athens.  The country is essentially broke, and has taken a huge multi-billion euro loan from the IMF to tide it over and wants another.  It has no chance of repaying either loan, nor its existing government debt.  Default is not so much a question of "if", more a case of "when".  Quite what will happen then is unclear.  There is a real fear that a Greek default will lead to a knock-on effect and bring down Portugal and Ireland, possibly Spain, and cause widespread difficulties in the rest of the EU where other nations and their banks hold huge piles of debt in those countries.  The US too will take a huge hit, for the same reason.  The euro itself will plunge in value (it's already well down) and some of the more pessimistc views put the whole future of the European Union, not just its currency, at severe risk of breaking up - on the basis of survival of the fittest and every man for himself, probably.

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To be honest I'm not surprised.  If anything, I'm surprised it hasn't happened earlier. 

When you look at the EU, it's a collection of 27 or so individual countries and peoples.  Apart from being located on the same continental landmass, they have little in common. Each one has its own beliefs and customs and financial requirements, and histories that invariably contain wars between themselves and against each other.  How any sane person can believe that all this thousand year history can just be forgotten and swept away in a single generation is a mystery to me.  It will take many many generations before the years of mutual animosity between say Poland and Germany or France and Britain are swept away.  Let's face it, if the Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland, a very small part of a relatively small country in European terms, still can't get along then what chance have the rest of us got?  Similarly the Walloons and Flemish in Belgium (although at least they never seem to take that animosity to violent levels).  Or the Basques and the rest of Spain?

There are precedents, where countries have been cobbled reluctantly together to make a bigger and hopefully more powerful nation, and it always seems to end in pain and huge amounts of bloodshed.  Look at the USSR and its disintegration, or more painful still (and that's saying something!) the former Yugoslavia.  In both cases there have been few winners and many losers, and conflict still riddles both.

Back in 1998 I was working for a little company that was struggling to implement and launch a very innovative financial market in London and Europe - the details don't really matter, it failed anyway (at least our initiative did).  But at the time the Bank of England were preparing for the euro - even though Britain had voted not to join there was a massive impact on the country and more specfically the City of London and banking industries.  We were invited to attend a meeting with some officials in the Bank and give them our views.  We had some discussions in-house, then our CEO, our Head of Legal, and bizarrely myself hopped a cab to the Bank of England.  We met in a lovely old oak pannelled office: the furniture was probably 18th century and the IBM mainframe computer perched on the small and lovely old leather-topped desk looked a little incongruous.  The office window overlooked the courtyard that sits in the middle of the building.  I found it all very interesting, I must say.

Our CEO of course did most of the talking.  Our position was basically that on paper the euro was a great idea but in practice wasn't likely to last.  We referred to those Europe-wide animosities as a potentially de-stabilising influence.  We pointed to the lack of a continental regulatory regime that covered all member nations equally.  We suggested that since every country would still want to control its own budget and support its own financial and debt requirements, including the ability to raise taxes, there could never be a continent wide conensus.  We were of the opinion that at some point in the foreseeable future, there would be a debt crisis, probably sparked by what we called the Club Med countries - Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece) that could potentially bring the whole edifice tumbling down.

The Bank officials were absolutely stunned.  It seemed we were the most pessimistic representatives they had spoken to.  They thanked us for our time and showed us out.  When their report came out, some weeks later, our views were faithfully represented as a minority view, and we were duly listed in the appendix of contributors to the report.  Then the euro was launched, and over the ensuing years has been largely successful

But it's interesting that what I and my colleagues predicted nearly 15 years ago, a group of very minor workers in this huge multinational market, and now forgotten, now seems to be coming to pass.  We got the timing wrong though - we thought 10 years, but it's taken 13.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Family Matters

Variety, it's said, is the spice of life.

I don't know about that, but there is certainly variety when it comes to what makes up a "normal" family around the world.  I've got 5 wonderful kids, ages ranging from 30 down to 3, in two countries and by two different (but lovely) ladies and it's fair to say that's 4 more kids than I expected to have when I started out in life.  But it's what I would certainly call a "normal" family - none of them are nuts, axe murderers, politicians or lawyers (at least not yet) so there is absolutely no reason to dislike them - quite the opposite in fact, they're great kids. 

When I was a kid there were two families living next door to each other at the end of my road who, between them, had getting on for 30 kids.......whether you would call that normal, even back then when big families were very common, is open to debate, but as far as they were concerned there was nothing odd about it (which is after all a definition of normal).  In the same road there were at least a couple of other families with half a dozen kids each, so I had plenty of playmates. 

There weren't so many families around then with only a single child, and I can't think of many that stopped at 2 (my then best mate Nick and his sister Shelley being the exceptions) least in my part of England.  That was true right through to the 80s, I think, when careers started taking over from raising kids as an aspirational future for women, and then you started increasingly getting one kid families - not only in England but world-wide.  Having more than one was even prohibited in China (still is in fact) to prevent over-population.  Bit different in another madly populous country, India, where multiple kid families are the norm.  Then of course in Muslim countries, where polygamy is acceptable, there are families with multiple kids from multiple wives - and that's "normal" too.

So it's probably fair to say that a "normal" family is pretty much whatever you feel comforatable with and is acceptable to the society in which you happen to live.

But I saw something on BBC World News the other night that could, surely, never be considered remotely "normal".  It was about an old Nigerian cleric (Muslim of course) in his 70s, and a sprightly, sparkly eyed old sod he was too.  And no wonder - living in a big rambling old house, he is married to 90 (that's NINETY) wives and has 250 - odd children: it would have been over 300 but 50 or so sadly died in infancy.  They all seemed happy enough: wives sitting around chatting and laughing while they breast-fed their babies (the old fella is still banging them out quite happily - certainly no jaffa there) while others did the cooking, laundry and whatever else.  The local Muslim hierarchy are up in arms, insisting that in the Koran it clearly states that only the Prophet Mohamed can have more than 4 wives, but the old stud denies this and in any case insists that he's only doing exactly what God told him to do when appearing to him in a vision some years ago.  He's even planning to continue marrying and banging out more kids - at least another 10 wives he reckons, "maybe more" - and he laughed and shrugged his shoulders - "God's will!"

The bloke, whilst appearing very happy indeed, is clearly nuts - just think about it: all those mothers-in-law!  All that PMT......

Variety?  Insanity, more like!

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Gulf News - Part 3: Culture Shock and Coffee

Culture Shock.

It's an occupational hazard when you travel a lot, either for a living like me or just for vacation.  It does get less noticeable with experience and Airmiles, but it's never far away.

My first experience of it came with my first overseas trip, when I was 20.  My dad had died the year before and my uncle (my mum's brother) invited us over to his home in Ottawa, Canada for a holiday to help us get over the bereavement.  After a  lot of thought - my mum and sister weren't keen on the eight hour flight as none of us had been on an aeroplane before - we accepted the invitation.  It took the best part of year to get the money together and book the flights.  I've written about the trip on here before (see In the Beginning....) but the biggest surprise was the food.  We ate well when I was a kid in England in the 50s through 70s - my mum was a great cook, schooled during the war years and could conjure a good meal out of very little (I particularly remember her egg and potato pie, a concoction of mashed potatoes and sliced hard boiled eggs covered in a creamy white sauce - it doesn't sound much but was delicious - and her home made cakes).  The vegetables were always fresh and came from my dad's garden or allotment, as were the strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and rhubarb that went into the puddings. 

But the culture shock came as soon as we arrived in Ottawa - before we had unpacked my Aunt Maria (a lovely Austrian lady) dished up what Uncle Tom told us was a typical Canadian dinner: t-bone steak, mashed potatoes, vegetables.  The steak was about the size of my laptop and an inch thick, cooked to perfection.  It was superb.  It set the scene for the whole three weeks we were there as we were introduced to bog-standard Canadian eateries that were at that time (1973) unheard of in rural England where we lived.  Steak houses were two a penny, the A&W Drive-In hamburger joints (where your meal was delivered on a tray that clipped onto your wound-down window) a totally new experience to us.  Sadly A&W no longer exists, it was driven out of business a few years ago by the inexorable world domination of McDonalds.....a shame, because their burgers are probably the best I've ever eaten (and I've eaten a few now!).    Anyway, over the three weeks I probably put on over a stone in weight, and I've never lost it in the intervening 40 odd years.

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Let's put a definition on "Culture Shock" at this point.

For me, it's encountering something, anything, that is not usual where you live - not necessarily something you have never seen or experienced before (although that is usually the case).  Canadian food was one such culture shock for me.  Horse meat steaks with salad or minced in a cornish pasty concoction in Almaty was another.  Dallas, appallingly dubbed, on my first night in Poland was another, as was the totally different driving style and road-rules (or apparent lack of them) when I started driving there a year later.  This is something I've encountered everywhere, with Kazakhstan and Lebanon being by far and away the worst of the lot.   Saudi was very strange, and I never felt in the least bit comfortable during the few days I was there - the absence of visible women and the "Men Only" swimming pool at the hotel had a lot to do with that, as did the cobra that slithered across in front of the car on the way to work one morning as we sat at traffic lights.

So I expected more culture shock when I flew down here for a month - my first extended exposure to a Muslim country, albeit one that is very Westernised and has many ex-pats here, courtesy of the oil and banking industries.

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I haven't been disappointed.  Some of it I've already mentioned in Part 1 and 2 of Gulf News - notably the bizarre (at least to my Western sensibilities) toilet arrangements.

I've been here a week now, and it's been straightforward enough.  As befits a pretty liberal Arab/Muslim society, women are far more visible and acceptable, if I can use the term, than they seemed to be in Saudi.  There are many women in the office, for a start - something I did not see at all in Saudi.   Although the majority dress according to Islamic code - meaning the floor-length black robes and veils, some covering just the hair, others the entire head, still others the face too - others dress in a more Western fashion - jeans and tee-shirts, trousers, ordinary dresses.   Women clearly contribute more to society here than in many Muslim countries, and this can only be good.

That said, there is still a clear hierarchy here, but it seems to be dictated more by nationality than sex.   All the senior people I have seen at the bank have been true Arabs, complete with white robes and headdresses....and splendid they look too.  Below them, the middle management if you will, are more Arabs, but dressed in Western style - suits, ties and shoes - and a good smattering of ex-pats.  English is very common indeed: in most places I go to the backgound noise in the office is invariably the local language with a smattering of English but here, at least in this client office, there seems to be more English spoken than Arabic.  I've heard German in the lift too.

Outside the bank, all the taxi drivers so far seem to have originated in the Indian sub-Continent - Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi - and there is also a high number of, shall we say, Indians working at the hotel and also on the building sites that still proliferate in the city.  All the domestics at the hotel, cleaning rooms, maintenance and so on, are Indian.  Move into the many restaurants in the hotel and the staff are all Phillipino or Malay.  Interestingly, so far I have seen no more than 2 or 3 Negroes - gardeners at the hotel, raking the sand on the beach, sweeping the paths and so on - whether they are West Indian or African I have no idea, but I assume African.

So Abu Dhabi is clearly far being an equal opportunity state.

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But despite its relatively cosmopolitan make-up, there has still been a culture shock.

I mentioned it previously in Part 2 - this arse-about-face working week.   I am struggling with it, frankly.

Look at Europe or any other Western society.  Unless you're a clergyman or a doctor or something of that nature, the working week is Monday to Friday.  Saturday is also a working day, inasmuch as most people do their gardening or laundry or housework or whatever, as well as playing - football matches, partying or whatever.  Sunday is the day of rest (unless your team is playing this day instead of Saturday).  Church of whatever denomination.  Roast dinner.  Relaxing with the family and playing with the kids.  For me it's the natural order of things.  It makes perfect sense.  In most countries, there are shops and malls open throughout the weekend (unless you happen to be in Geneva where everything shuts down on a Sunday and there is bugger all to do if you're stuck there in a lower quality hotel or something).

Here and throughout the Muslim world it is different.  The working week is Sunday through Thursday.  Friday is the first day of the weekend, and the main day of prayer - yesterday (being Friday) everything outside the hotel was closed until about 3 in the afternoon.  There was little traffic and it was very quiet and peaceful.  Saturday is busier, not dissimilar to Saturdays elsewhere - the malls and shops are open from about 10 in the morning to 10 at night. 

It's normal here, and follows the Muslim culture......but to me, still it's strange.  I'm going to be here for another three weeks, and back in August (the month of Ramadan this year, which will be even stranger) so I'm guessing I will get used it, and the culture shock will go.

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I took a stroll around the Abu Dhabi Mall today, as it was open.  The idea was to buy some 'fridge magnets, which my wife, mother- and sister-in-law assiduously collect.  And maybe a book or two to keep me going the rest of the trip.   The Mall is a five minute stroll away from the hotel - and in 40+ degrees a stroll was all I was likely to do.  And here at least was familiar ground.

It's no different to any mall I've ever been to - Bluewater in the UK, the one close to my hotel in Beirut (the name escapes me), any of half a dozen in Warsaw.  All the normal stores were there - Zara, Tommy Hilfiger, Virgin Megastore, Mothercare, the Early Learning Centre, Samsonite and so on - and the food court on the top floor (why is the food court always located on the top floor?) had McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway, a Greek place and a Chinese place.  There were local stores and restaurants specialising in local goods, fashion and food, and on the ground floor a Tesco style hypermarket for all your household needs.  And a multi-screen cinema complex showing the latest releases (Green Arrow, Super 8 and so on) - in English.  I felt quite at home.  About the only thing setting it apart from Galeria Mokotow, where I live, was the majority of the people walking around, talking on their mobile phones or struggling to keep the kids under control, were dressed in full Arab robes.  I smiled at two kids, about 11 or 12 I guess, who were strolling around in their white robes, but instead of the headdress they were wearing baseball caps, one a Man Utd, the other Ferrarri.

I strolled around for an hour or so, and bought a couple of books, but there was not a 'fridge magnet to be seen.  But it's ok, I have another three weekends to find them.

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I felt even more at home when I spotted a Starbuck's.   Say what you like about them, but I like their coffee and I like their cakes, and I like their ambience.  There are loads of Starbuck's clones out there - Coffee Heaven, for instance, and Cafe Nero amongst others -  and I've tried them all at one time or another.  But I still love a Starbuck's grande latte and a slice of lemon cake, while I chill out in one of their deep and comfortable armchairs, listening to my music and reading my book.

Now I've found it,  I'm guessing it will be a regular Saturday destination.  The coffee is certainly better there than the stuff served at the hotel at any rate -  in my room I have individual sachets of Nescafe (regular and decaff) that keep me going, but the stuff on offer at breakfast is foul - probably Arab but way too strong for my taste.

Give me Starby's anyday.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Gulf News - Part 2: Taxis, toilets and other stuff

Catching a cab is straightforward enough here – at least from the hotel.  A colleague (Indian inevitably, since going on for 60% of the company is from there nowadays) picked me up this morning to take me to the bank.  It’s about a 20 minute ride, and I have absolutely no clue where in the city it is in relation to either the airport or hotel.  Anyway, we walked outside the front door of the hotel, stood there in 40-odd degrees of sunshine for a couple of minutes and a cab pulled in off the street.  Heigh-ho and away we go – didn’t even have to wave or yell or whistle.  All very civilized I’m sure.
The cab, too, was very civilized and, dare I say it, high tech – at least in comparison with London or Warsaw vehicles.   OK, it was only a bog standard high-end Nissan sedan, but it was very comfortable, and the excellent air-conditioning was an absolute Godsend as well as no doubt standard issue here.  The taxi driver was wearing a very smart uniform, and on the dashboard was mounted an iPad-sized screen that as well as displaying the guy’s picture and identification information doubled for a kind of sat-nav cum fare meter (with attached printer of course).  Essex mini-cab it certainly wasn’t.
Mind you, getting back to the hotel was a different matter altogether.   I was advised that getting a cab in the street was a bit risky (some of them apparently aren’t in the best nick and have drivers who are perhaps not up to scratch) and told to call the hotel to ask them to send one.  So I did that – wrong number: it seems there are 2 Meridien hotels here….mine and the Royal Meridien.  Having sorted that out, my hotel said it would be easier to send a limo not a cab, cost AED50 – not bad really, for a chauffeur driven Caddy so I went along with it.  A ten minute wait.  After 20 I called again…..the geezer had got lost somewhere. Terrific.  So instead of an easy 15 minute ride it took me just over an hour.
Memo to self: sort that out before tomorrow morning…..

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I know it takes all sorts, as they say – but why on earth do Muslim countries operate on a different working week to the rest of the world?  Waking up at 7 this morning to go to work on a Sunday is just not right, sorry.  Sundays are for sleeping as late as possible, then having a hearty breakfast, playing with the kids, maybe going for a walk or a bike ride in the forest, before a barbecue dinner.  Maybe even going to Mass. Right now, I can’t get my head around this at all…….
Good job I’m only here a month!

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Interesting toilet facilities at the bank. 

Each cubicle, as well as the usual bowl, cistern and bog roll, has a little hose pipe coming out of the wall.  It’s a kind of primitive bidet to wash your arse with, but how you’re supposed to do that without flooding the floor and, worse, soaking your grounded trousers and bill grundy’s is a complete mystery to me.  I went into trap 1 on my floor, and it awash with water – wellies would have been better footwear.  Trust me, it’s difficult sitting on the can with your cacks down and your trousers rolled up to keep them dry.

Thank God there’s a normal; john at the hotel.

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It always seems to be the same when you go to a new site.  No matter how much notice you’ve been given, and remember the client will have had the same amount of prior warning, the working environment is never ready for you.  Desk and chair?  Well, usually that can be taken care of.   Access to the client environment?   No chance.  E-mail and internet?   Don’t make me laugh!

In theory, setting my laptop to “Detect Settings Automatically” should mean I can come in, plug in the cable (or sometimes pick up the wifi network) and connect… least to mail and internet browser.  I will of course still need to wait for access to test environments and so forth, but that’s normal – might have to sign confidentiality agreements and things before that is granted.

Today has been typical.  No internet or e-mail.  No system access (not even close).  Both the bank’s and our project managers not on site.  No desk or chair (I was placed in the project manager’s office for the morning, then moved down after lunch to take over the desk of a guy who is shipping back to Chennai this evening.  The rest of our team is ensconced in a small conference room sharing a single desk not much bigger than a standard issue IKEA coffee table.

And we have to work like this.

A wasted day.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Gulf News - Part 1 I am in Abu Dhabi.  Gonna be here a month so I thought I'd try and do a regular feature while I'm here.  Here we go....

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I never sleep well the night before a trip.  It doesn't matter whether it's a short one to somewhere like Frankfurt or Geneva or London, and a doozie like Trinidad or Almaty or this one to Abu Dhabi.  It makes no difference if it's a business trip or a family holiday.  Sleep will not come, and if it does, it doesn't hang around for long.

There is no good reason for this that I can think of.  It's not fear or nerves: I've made so many flights over the past 11 years or so that boarding a plane is as mundane to me as getting on a bus or the metro is to most people.  It's not even concern about missing the flight - nowadays with internet check-in I always do so the day before travel, as soon as I can: that way I can more or less guarantee the seat I want, and it also means I only have a brief stop at the airport desk to drop my luggage off (there's usually no queue - or at least only a couple of people, so only takes a couple of minutes).  This means I could safely get there at the last minute and still make the flight.  But I don't do that either, I'd rather get there a good hour before the gate opens and relax in the Business Lounge, have a coffee and some breakfast.  I'm not worried about oversleeping and missing all that, because I set my alarm in good time to allow me to arrive as above.

But despite all that, I can't sleep.  I've tried going to bed early and late.  I've tried various nightcaps before going to bed, ranging from vodka through beer to Horlicks or hot chocolate, and none of it makes any difference.  It makes no difference whether I go to my bed, kick one of the kids out and try theirs, or bunk down on settee.  I've even tried sitting upright in an armchair, but that only gave me a chronic back-ache.

It's a bastard, and frankly it seems to be getting worse as I get older - insomnia is apparently very common amongst the (shall we say) older generation, so I guess as I'm now 58 and suffering from it I can count myself part of that.  I'm not sure how I feel about that, quite honestly......I've always felt more concerned about growing older than dying, and my kids certainly keep me feeling young and vigourous (even if my creaking body sometimes refuses to accept the still juvenile mind controlling it). 

So anyway, Thursday night I turned in about 10, after the usual kids' bedtime stories and shower, set  my alarm for 4:15 and went to sleep.  I then proceeded to wake up at 12, 1:00, 2:15 and 3:30 - at which point I gave it up as a bad job, and lay quietly, staring at the ceiling and listening to everyone else sleeping soundly.  I got up at a quarter past 4, had a coffee, made a quick status post on Facebook (first time I've done that before a trip....) and got my cab to the airport.  I'd dropped my bag, collected my boarding cards and cleared security before 5.... bloody awful time to be on the road.  Fortunately the Lounge was open, so I had more coffee and some breakfast, then had a mooch round the Departure area.  It has very definately improved since Poland joined the EU and spent a bucket of money extending the terminal to meet the increased passenger numbers - a much better choice of shops and bars, even at that early hour.  The place was very busy too.....I don't usually fly that early so the number of flights between 5 and 7 took me by surprise. 

The flight to Frankfurt was half empty and almost pleasant.  I managed to doze for about 20 minutes after my ham salad roll (it's all LOT provide - or sometimes cheese), which made a change - I can't usually sleep on flights either.  And then, at Frankfurt something very pleasant indeed happened.

I've mentioned here before how much I loathe changing flights at Frankfurt, where the security can be quite ludicrously intense, with multiple baggage checks between flights.  Well this time, it was an absolute breeze.....we parked way out on the apron, somewhere in the vicinity of Darmstadt, and got the bus into Terminal 2, in through the Schengen area door and up the escalator to the Exit and Gate area.  Turned right for Gates B32 - 56, through passport control - and that was it.  My due gate was just round the corner, by the stairs to the Business Lounge.  No security check at all.  Including the bus ride in, the transfer took all of 15 minutes.  Unbelievable!  Whether it was pure luck or whether the airport authorities have finally done something positive and sensible to make the journey a more pleasant experience I have no idea......but it left me with an unexpected 3 hours to kill.  More food and drink in the Lounge (I could have got really pissed if I'd wanted to....) and a bit of shopping - magazines and a book to keep me going over the next month - took care of that.

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The Lufthansa flight down to the Gulf was ok.  German beer, beef stroganoff on the menu, and a comfortable enough seat (despite the muppet in front of me dropping her seat so far back her bonce was in my lap).  But my Lufthansa issue headset for the in-flight entertainment was crap - you had to add the spongy bits yourself to the earpads and mine ripped in half as I was trying - very carefully! - to fit it.  The movie and music line-up wasn't all that good anyway, so I didn't bother - I switched the tv channel to the route map (don't need sound for that) and settled for my trusty iPod.  And the guy sitting next to me (American, maybe 22-23) was suffering from a serious gas issue.  Every 20 minutes or so, maybe less, for nearly 6 1/2 hours, another ferocious pong would waft its way up and engulf me.  Try as hard as I might I just couldn't respond in kind.  At least I assume it was him.....although  I guess it could have been the muppet in front of me or her mate, or even one of the couple immediately behind.  But whoever it was, it was fuckin awful!

Abu Dhabi airport was another pleasant surprise.  The building has a number of satellites thrown out around a central hub, all circular and domed and serving 4 departure gates, linked to the hub by covered walkways.....from above it must look like a beached space station from Star Wars or something.  But it was very efficient - off the plane, a five minute walk through to passport control (then a two minute pause for a comfort break), another 5 minutes queueing there to be processed, stamp in the passport (30 day visitors visa), through to the baggage hall, where the bags were already coming out on the belt.  Mine was about twelfth off, no more than a couple of minutes.  Through the exit, driver waiting with my name on his board, two minute walk to the exit and into an air-conditioned Cadillac limo for the ride into the city.  Painless, and so unlike the chaos I endured every couple of weeks in Beirut, another Middle Eastern destination I know well.

The ride to the hotel took maybe half an hour, along modern and well lit motorways, and in quite heavy traffic, much of it coming in from Dubai along the coast.  There was parkland and smart housing on both sides, floodlit sports arenas and shopping malls, and link roads to the many islands and public beaches.  We came into the city with its Manhattan skyscrapers and well tended housing, smart car dealerships and more sports arenas.  In the centre we hit roadworks, and the traffic was a bit crazy and manic as everyone tried to cut everone else up as the streams merged and then separated again.  But throughout the drive my overriding impression was one of care......the roads and pathways and parks and buildings all had a well tended and highly maintained look - no sub-Banksie grafitti here.  Even the roadworks seemed less dirty than one would expect. 

It made me think that when a relatively small but oil-rich nation like the UAE (and, further up the coast Qatar and Bahrain) could invest wisely and provide infrastructure of this quality what a tragedy it is that the regimes in Iraq and Iran, across the Gulf and with equal or more wealth, could only manage to blow the lot on warfare, corruption and repression, leading their populations into nothing but misery, fear and deprivation.

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I slept like a log in the hotel, once I'd checked in and unpacked.  The room is very good, and the bed very comfortable.  I woke to sunshine streaming through the window, pulled the curtains and went back to sleep for another couple of hours, then showered, dressed and headed for breakfast.

A first disappointment.  The buffet was very good and well stocked with plenty of choice, and I went for a full English (since it's included in the room cost to be picked up by the client).  The sauteed mushrooms, hash browns and saffron rice (OK, not strictly English but what the hell....they were there) were nice, but the sausages and bacon were foul.  Being a Muslim country, pork is strictly taboo, so the substitute meat was veal.  Now I like a bit of veal - my wife made quite delicious veal cutlets earlier this week - but I'm afraid it doesn't lend itself well to sausages, nor to being sliced very thin and fried like bacon rashers.  The coffee too was way too strong and not very hot - certainly not Nescafe - but the apple juice and toast and apricot jam were fine.  But it was an ok start to the day.

Back to the room, and time to iron the shirts that came out of my suitcase looking like dishrags.  But first, quick Skype call home to say hello to my beloveds - I'm 2 hours ahead of Warsaw so they had only just got up.  It was wonderful to see them.

On my fifth shirt, there was an almighty bang, sparks and smoke everywhere and the iron was gone.....a nice big smudge of soot on the shirt too.  It could only happen to me......  I called the Front Desk, who sent someone along to take a look.  He seemed more concerned about the shirt, took it off and disppeared for half an hour. Then, with a beaming smile, he returned it, beautifully pressed and with not a mark on it.  I asked him again for a replacement iron, so off he went again.  Another half hour passed, and I called the Front Desk again.....where's my bloody iron?  By this time it was past lunchtime and I was getting nowhere quite fast.  I turned the tv back on....and found that it, too, was out - clearly the iron had fused all the power points.  I gave it up as a bad job, put my trunks on and headed for the beach (pausing only to stop off and bollock the Front Desk).

The hotel beach is ok.  It's small, evidently man-made and has plenty of loungers and umbrellas.  On both ends of the bay there is major construction work going  on - at one a new hotel, at the other a group of tower blocks labelled the new financial district of Abu Dhabi - so it doesn't have the best of sea views, but as I'm working here I won't get to make that much use of it (weekends only) so it's not a concern really.  I had a swim.  It was like diving into a hot saline bath - way too salty.  Things must be bad when you need to rinse your eyes out in a chlorinated pool to stop them smarting!  So I didn't stay in long and returned to my lounger, listened to my music and read my book for an hour in the sunshine.  Right now it's about 42C here, so that was quite enough......and besides, I was hungry.

As well as the main restaurant, the hotel boasts Italian and Thai restaurants, a sports bar and (happy days!) an Irish food will not be an issue (I'll just ignore the veal sausages and bacon).  I decided to try the Irish bar, and wasn't disappointed.  Inside it looked and even smelt like a proper pub - spilled beer, stale cigarette smoke, kitchen odours - and had a lovely dark and traditional pub decor, with tables and chairs scattered around the place and rustic tables and benches in little alcoves.  There was a good selection of beers and a decent menu of authentic pub grub.  I settled for a pint of Kilkenny (served chilled and quite delicious - my favourite Irish beer, much better than Guinness) and a steak and onion ciabatta with fries.    And very nice it was cost about AED 70 (so about GBP11 or if you prefer PLN52) - pretty good value, I thought.  More importantly, well within my per diem allowance.

By the time I got back to my room, the plugs had been fixed, and a new iron delivered so I got my ironing out of the way.  Now I'm all set for work tomorrow.  It's early evening here, the sun going down, The Weakest Link is on BBC Prime and time for dinner.....the Sports Bar tonight I think..

Friday, 3 June 2011

The Amazing Teflon Man


Such an unpleasant word, don't you think?  Whichever connotation you put on it.....

For instance: the original definition - decaying corpses, vegetation or whatever, rotting away from a once healthy life to a fly blown, maggot ridden, stinking mush.

For instance: government ministers, of whatever nationality and political persuasion, accepting money or gifts of varying (but inevitably high) value in return for services rendered.  There have been, and continue to be, many instances of this: in Britain's recent past we had peerages being dished out in return for cash contributions to political parties; in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in former Soviet bloc countries doing any kind of business without paying significant back-handers is still virtually impossible (as I wrote about in my post "Go East Old Man"), and in Trinidad a coalition government was elected last year on a pledge to specifically address such issues (see "Caribbean Dreams").

For instance: political leaders making or authorising payments and giving gifts in order to obtain special deals to their private (and ostensibly national) interests - think the Iran - Contra Arms scandal back in the 80s, or Silvio Berlusconi's constant denials of providing hookers and sex parties at his Italian villa in return for political favours (some interesting paparazzi photos on the internet for this one).

For instance: police taking payments from bar owners, shopkeepers or other establishments of perhaps questionable reputation to safeguard them from raids or closure (by all accounts rife in New York for most of the 20th century, common in London in the 50s to 70s - and possibly beyond - and documented elsewhere worldwide). 

There are plenty of other examples of corruption, but I think that's enough to be going along with.    Usually, sooner or later, the perpetrators get caught out and punsihed more or less severely.  Reagan got away scott free over the Iran - Contra affair by claiming no knowledge of it - given his subsequent death from Alzheimer's quite plausibly - , but Nixon was shamed totally after Watergate and never recovered.  In Britain a number of MPs of various parties have been kicked out of their parties and offices and in some cases imprisoned for a variety of relatively small-beer corruption (expense fiddles mostly), while the bigger fish acused of selling peerages and war crimes are still out there, making bundles of cash from the lecture circuit and high paying quangoes or company directorships where their networks of high level contacts (no matter how formed) are a source of profits and protection. 

And then there is the biggest shark of the lot.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Amazing Teflon Man, President of FIFA, Mr. Joseph "Sepp" Blatter.

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Unless you've just returned from a trip to the Andromeda Galaxy or somewhere, you will have heard of him.  He's been President of football's world governing body for getting on for 20 years now, and before that was the organization's General Secretary.  In his time in charge, FIFA has grown from a relatively small organisation that organized the World Cup every four years (and seemed to do precious little else) to a global power player that still organizes the World Cup every four years, but has turned it into such a money-making machine what with television and advertising rights that make huge profits for the organizing countries (and even more huge profits for FIFA itself) that it is able to demand - and receive - unbelievably beneficial tax concessions from the host couintries to further swell its coffers.  It has also introduced a host of rule changes that make football today a different sport to what it was twenty years ago. 

It has also produced possibly the most corrupt organization in the history of sport and quite possibly the world.  It is run by an Executive Committee of 24 members, led by good old Sepp.   Ostensibly, every member federation (there are just over 200 globally) have the final say on most matters through regular Congresses, but in all the major decisions they are presented with a fait accompli by the Executive Committee and merely vote to rubber stamp them.   The members of the Executive Committee are incredibly well rewarded - $10,000 a month retainer, $500 per diem on trips plus a further $200 a day for any travelling companions, business class travel, first class hotel accomodation, chauffeur driven limousines, free tickets in the best seats to all the top events (and not a receipt required) - and that's on top of any salaries they may earn from the parent federations.  Lucrative game, football administration!

Of course what that means is that once somebody reaches the Executive Committee they only leave it in a pine box.  Sepp has been on it for 30 odd years and top dog for nearly 15.  Some of his fellow Committee members have been on board a similar time.  They are old men - Blatter himself is 75 - and are used to a certain way of life and certain privileges and will clearly do whatever it takes to hang on to it.  They all have their little power bases, "friends" in the other federations and regional groupings - Europe, Asia, Oceania, the Americas and so on - that are carefully cultivated and kept onside by little favours and gifts in return for support in key elections and votes.   Teflon has the biggest and most carefully cultivated network of the lot, and it's helped keep him in the position all this time, through three elections.

The elections themselves have historically been farcical and an insult to the democratic principles that most organisations - including FIFA - insist they follow.  Usually come election time, a year or so's in-fighting and deal making ensures that the reigning President, if he is prepared to stay in the position, is the only candidate and thus guaranteed an election victory - coronation is probably a better description.  Blatter, being a very smart and clever political operator, has played this little game to perfection over the years.  Despite some of his more outrageous proposals he is still there and more powerful than ever.  He comes across in his interviews and press conferences as a pleasant enough man, if a little doddering now - although fluent in 5 languages his English pronunciations can be a little tortuous and rambling - but behind the Kindly Grandad image lies a very keen and machiavellian mind - not unlike other famous political manipulators and, yes, dictators, like Stalin and Peter Mandelson.  He always insists that he is only interested in serving the best interests of football and the "global FIFA family" (whatever the hell that is!), and his own opinions and feelings are secondary to this.  What bullshit!  The man is incapable of taking criticism, no matter how justified ot well meaning.

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In the past few months, Blatter and FIFA have really shown the world just how corrupt they are.

First came the vote last year for the hosting of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.  Countries spent millions preparing their bids, enlisting the help of world famous local footballing celebrities and politicians to help sell their offerings to the FIFA members.  Billions of dollars in infrastructure projects were pledged - new stadia, new roads, new railways, new airports, all of which would benefit their citizens once the tourney were over.  Billions more were pledged in tax breaks to FIFA, broadcast and advertising rights to business partners like Coca Cola, Visa and adidas.  The organising committees toured the world pressing the flesh in a bid to secure votes and of course promises were made.  Now this is where it gets interesting - and corrupt.

Because the final decision is made not by the 208 member federations but by the 24 members of the Executive Committe, by secret ballot.    In theory, the Executive Committee members represent groups of federations and hence vote as instructed by those groupings, but in practice, it doesn't happen.  Jack Warner for instance, the Trinidad Minister for Transport and a man constantly accused of bribery and corruption, "controls" the votes of the entire Caribbean, Central and North American bloc - something like 24 votes.  Whether he carries out the wishes of those 24 nations is open to question - but what is certain is that after promising those votes for the 2018 tournament to England (promised to Prince William, no less, with a smile and a handshake) he then delivered them in favour of a competing bid - which one is not known, since the ballot is not in the least bit open to scrutiny.  There were for sure other broken promises, as the tournaments were awarded to Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022). despite their bids not being rated very highly at all by any press reviews or even by sources within FIFA itself.

Predictably, there was uproar.  Accusations of brown envelopes stuffed with roubles and oil money being passed around the hotel pre-vote abounded.  Calls for a new vote were brushed aside.  Demands for the entire Executive Committee and, of course, Blatter to resign were laughed off.  Stronger demands to open FIFA up to a thorough review of ethical practices and governance were equally refused by the organisation, with Blatter insisting there was nothing wrong, the voting was free and fair and in any case FIFA was quite capable of policing itself, thank you very much.   The whole shambles was swept uinder the carpet.

Now it just so happened that a Congress was scheduled for this year, at which there was due to be a Presidential election.  The Amazing Teflon Man announced that he would be delighted to continue with the honour and privilege of running this wonderful organiztion for a further 4 years - his usual pre-election statement.  He sat back and waited to be elected unopposed.  In the meantime, the cries for a reform of the organisation continued and strengthened, particularly after a British parliamentary enquiry made specific claims against certain high ranking FIFA officials (step forward again Mr.Jack Warner of Trinidad) and the FIFA Ethics Committee upheld the suspensions handed down just before the World Cup vote to two very senior officials (Executive Members no less) for accepting bribes (both continue to protest their innocence - appeals are pending).  Then surprise surprise, two challengers to Blatter's positions appeared.  The first was a US sports journalist, Grant Wahl, basing his bid solely on a platform to open up all FIFA's correspondence (sort of a Wikileaks expose) and reforming the entire Executive Committee and voting processes.  Predictably, he was unable to find a member Federation to support and nominate him.  The other was more credible: Sheik bin Haman, the head of the Asian Federation from (now here was a little surprise....) Qatar, who had served on the Executive Committee for many years, had been seen as a Blatter ally and headed up the successful (and suspect) bid to host 2022.  He too pledged reform, but on a less grandiose style.

Blatter was not happy, but kept his comments reasonably restrained.  Campaigning carried on for the first part of this year, both parties jockeying for position and support at the election - this time voting would be down to the entire 208 members, not the Executive Committee.  Then in the last week it all went crazy and Blatter showed his true character.  First the English FA publicly stated it could support neither candidate - they were still pissed off with losing out on the 2018 bid process and also questioned the Qatari's credentials, based on the popular and wide spread rumour that Qatar had paid a significant amount of bribes to win the 2022 bid.  Then more allegations were levelled against Warner and others, and amid the furore bin Haman withdrew from the election process.  FIFA's Ethics Committee met to consider the allegation against Warner, the Qatari and others, and even Blatter was implicated (in that it was alleged he knew sosmething might be going on but said nothing).  Warner was suspended, and responded by producing a sheaf of documents he insisted proved his innocence of any wrongdoing, including an e-mail from the FIFA General Secretary stating that Qatar had indeed "bought" the 2022 World Cup - as had been rumoured.  The General Secretary admitted sending the mail but insisted it had been taken "out of context".   Blatter was, entirely predictably, totally exonerated and walked away stating the verdict and suspensions had proved how effective and fair the internal disciplinary procedures had been.....  Finally, as delegates began arriving in Zurich for the Congress and election, the English and Scottish FAs announced that they were calling for the election to be cancelled as the lack of an opposition candidate made the entire process undemocratic and made Blatter's continued mandate untenable.  The night before Congress opened, Blatter hosted a press conference in which he insisted there was no crisis in FIFA, blamed all the "difficulties" on a scurrilous press corps and jealousy from, primarily, England, and demanded the respect of the world that he saw as his right as the long standing President of this organization.  When journalists asked perfectly acceptable questions about the validity of the election process and whether changes to the disciplinary process were being considered, he was basically very rude, ended the conference and stormed off with a final demand for respect and due deference.  It was quite extraordinary and more than a bit delusional.

Come election day, and the English delegate made his plea for cancellation from the platform and left the stage to an embarrassing silence, broken only by lukewarm applause from the English and Scottish delegations.  Thereafter federation after federation used their allotted time to accuse England of treason, attempting to poison the "FIFA family's" minds against the Blessed Sepp and all manner of collusion with the gutter press.  Of course the motion to cancel the election was kicked out by a huge majority (of 208 delegates only a handful supported the motion and a similar number abstained - but of course who those supporters were is not in the public domain).  The vote went ahead and Blatter was duly elected for another four years, by an even bigger majority.

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So there we are.  The Amazing Teflon Man remains in charge of the world game, surrounded by his power base of loyal retainers (who no doubt have been - or will be - lavishly rewardedfor their loyalty).   What will happen to bin Haman and Warner and the other officials awaiting a full disciplinary hearing is unclear - probably nothing.  Will FIFA change and become more transparent?  A little perhaps - Blatter has started his new term by promising that in future voting to host the World Cup will be open to all 208 members, but of course restricted to those candidates whose bids the Executive Committee deem worthy of consideration.  So effectively the power of Blatter and the Executive Committee has not changed at all.  He has also suggested a new committee will be formed to review the organisation's governance and disciplinary procedures, although as this review committee will be formed from within FIFA rather than from independant outside sources little is likely to change there.

How the English FA will come out of all this is anyone's guess.  They have been sidelined from the major decision making processes for years as successive delegates have failed dismally to work the politics and committee systems within FIFA, and that will certainly not change in the foreseeable future after this latest lame stand against what it (albeit honourably) sees as the continued corruption at the heart of FIFA and its President.  One thing is for sure: we'll never host a World Cup again, which means will probably never win it again either.

And the Amazing Teflon Man?  He will continue on his way, running the organisation as he sees fit.  He will probably stand again, should health allow, in four years time, and in any case will for sure continue grooming his successor behind the scenes, whoever that may be, so that his legacy will be writ in stone as the longest serving and most forward-minded President ever, who took the game to the world and made it the cash cow it undoubtedly is.

And there will be not a word about the corruption that he has brought to the table, and continues to manage in a way Uncle Joe Stalin would be proud of.