Sunday, 29 December 2013

That Was the Year That Was.....

...and, to be honest, not a particularly good or memorable one in this parish at least.

Those of you who have stuck with this meandering series will probably have read last year's End of Year review where I marked 2012 as a 5 out of 10.  Re-reading it just now that seems about right, and makes it increasingly difficult to apply a rating to 2013.  I signed off last year reporting of my pending unemployment, and looking back I was very optimistic about this year to come.  As you will know from other entries (notably What A Difference a Year Makes: Scraping Past the Scrapheap) that optimism was ludicrously misplaced, and 2013 was a year of virtually constant struggles.  Apart from those on the work (or lack of it) front, there were others of a far more personal nature - thankfully not health related - that I will not go into on this forum but which caused an equal, perhaps greater, amount of stress and unhappiness.  Sadly, they are still lurking in the background and drag themselves forward from time to time, and continue to wreak a certain kind of havoc with my life and that of my nearest and dearest.  Whatever else happens this year, I intend to lay them once and for all and get back to a normal, happy life.  So if any of the perpetrators (you know who you are.....) are reading this, be warned.

So it took much longer to find gainful employment than I had expected, but I'm now about half way through a good six month assignment in Qatar (I've posted three or four accounts about the place, so I'll leave you to re-visit them at your leisure).  Suffice to say, it's going well and I'm enjoying my time (and the work!) there very much.  I'm off on the World's Five Star Airline again next weekend for another month in the sun.  But all things come to an end, and I'll be moving on to something else in the spring, all things considered.  I need to make plans and work on the options currently on the table once the holiday week is over - so, Constant Reader (to borrow from Stephen King - I hope he won't mind), if you have any bright ideas do get in touch.  And that is a serious request - use the Comments section below to do so.

What of the rest of the world?  Funny, maybe it's because of my own travails this year, but I've been somewhat detached from what has been going on elsewhere, and relatively little has captured my imagination as has been the case in past years.

Both the Catholic and Anglican churches have new leaders (Pope Francis and Whatsisname, the Archbishop of Canterbury).  The Pope seems a decent bloke, certainly one for the masses (if you'll excuse the unintentional pun) and if he can survive the Vatican Mafia that seems to have dominated the Church for too many years, and make the structural changes he seems committed to, then perhaps he will enter history as one of the best Popes ever.  The new bloke in Lambeth Palace seems pretty sharp too - at least with his past business life he's perhaps more in touch with what his congregation really thinks and needs than past more academic minded incumbents have been, but with a faith that seems even more riven by confusion and in-fighting than the Roman one he has his work cut out.

Both of them, of course, have to face up to the seemingly inexorable rise of Islam, and in particular its militant bastard offshoot.  For some time now Islam has been the fastest growing faith in the world, and sadly since the middle 90s Militant Islam seems to be growing even faster.  I confess to not being anything remotely resembling an expert in Islam, but it seems to me that up until then it was basically a peaceful faith, in much the same way as Christianity (in all its various guises).  Yes, there have been wars between Christian and Muslim, going back a thousand years and more to the time of the Crusades, but by and large both communities have got along side by side quite happily.  Quite what has caused this explosion (often quite literally) of Militant Islam I don't really understand, But it seems to me the gravest danger to non-Muslim people the world over.  How to deal with it should be uppermost in the minds of religious leaders and governments everywhere.

Ah, governments.  That is something I have noticed this year - a paucity of effective ones.  Obama, as I said last year, has got his second term, but so far it hasn't gone well.  All year he's been locked in battle with a Republican Congress whose every move has been to block everything Obama has tried to do - and yes, I know that is what "The Opposition" is supposed to do.  But when a law has been passed and signed into effect already, then trying to gets its repeal on funding issues and technicalities, using tactics that cause the entire government (in England it would be termed the Civil Service and public sector) to shut down seems to me to be taking Opposition way too far.  It's verging on revolution, not opposition.  Especially at a time when a Budget needs to be passed to avoid the potentially catastrophic default of the most powerful and largest economy on the planet, that would inevitably take down many people in many countries who have not the slightest interest in the petty squabbles of the Democrats and the GOP.  Thankfully, sense prevailed at the eleventh hour (well, nearer 10 to 12 actually) and a deal was reached to prevent that happening - for a few months anyway.  Look out for Round 2, sometime this spring I think.  The sad thing is, it's left Obama, who I honestly believed would make a massive difference not only to the US but to the rest of the world too, facing a legacy of two terms of failure. 

Things aren't much better in the UK.  As I said last year, the Coalition (as Coalitions do) is busy trying to be all things to all men, and thus managing to please nobody.  Mixed messages, obfuscations and downright lies seem to come out from the partners - if you can call them that - on an almost daily basis.  The Labour Party seems weak and ill-led and does not offer a meaningful alternative, except in the realm of mixed messages, obfuscations and downright lies.  The smaller parties don't matter. I remember many years ago, back in the days of the Blessed Margaret, attending a dinner where Jeffrey Archer (yes, him, when he was still popular and held political ambitions and had not yet been stung by the Press) was guest speaker.  He was actually (and I almost hate saying this) very entertaining.  But at the time, shortly after the Falklands War I remember, Maggie was unassailable and the Labour Party under Foot unelectable.  As part of the Q&A session, I alluded to this and asked him if Britain was in danger of becoming a one party state with a virtual dictator and was this a good thing for the country.  I can't remember his answer, but I do remember him saying it was the best question he had been asked all night.  It seems to me now, looking in from the wider world outside, that Britain is actually in a worse mess now as it's almost a No Party State.  I look and I don't see a politician worthy of the name and capable of running the country.  It's a very sad state of affairs.

Across the rest of Europe, there has been little to cheer either.  As expected, Merkel was re-elected, although perhaps not with the ringing endorsement she expected, the Greeks continue to battle their bankrupt way from one crisis to the next, as do the Spanish, Portuguese, Cypriot and Irish.  In Italy, Silvio's past finally came home to roost, he was convicted of various tax offences, bribery and corruption, kicked out of politics altogether and although escaping prison is effectively under house arrest - though probably without the usual electronic tag on his ankle as that would spoil his Gucci loafers.  The place just doesn't seem the same without him.  Eastern Europe continues to evolve.  On January 1, restrictions on Bulgarian and Romanian nationals being able to enter other EU countries, notably the UK and Germany, are being relaxed, prompting panic stories in the UK press about floods of benefit scroungers, thieves and hookers invading the country after UK jobs or, more likely, social security payments.    It's interesting to note that the other countries affected, if you can call it that, by the relaxation have made little or no comment and seem unconcerned.  So it seems the Little Englander mentality is in rude health even if the rest of the country is going to the dogs.  This is also a sad state of affairs.  It's also incredibly offensive to the vast majority of Bulgarians and Romanians, who are ordinary hard working people seeking only a better life for themselves and their families, and who are prepared to travel abroad to do so, perfectly legally and in a manner that very few British people seem prepared to do.

China continues to boom in a quite extraordinary way.  It's even managed to land a rover on the moon, the first country to do so since the Yanks and the Russians way back when.  As a further example of its continued Westernization, it's also allowed China Telecom, apparently the biggest mobile network in the world, to flog iPhones.  Apple and its fanboys (and stockholders) must be ecstatic.  The country has also been rattling sabres with Japan, as it does from time to time, over a handful of uninhabited islands in the South China Seas that both countries lay claim to.  Since the islands are just chunks of rock in the middle of nowhere, I assume mineral or oil wealth must be at stake or something.  Across in North Korea, the Man with the Dodgy Haircut celebrated the anniversary of his accession as Supreme Leader Mark III by having his uncle (apparently his closest advisor) publicly dragged out of a government meeting, tried, convicted and shot on various anti-government charges including "failing to applaud loudly enough", all in the space of a week.  The man is clearly nuts.

India continues to puzzle me.  For a country with such vast economic potential and a growing tech-savvy middle class, it is also in many respects a very backward country.  At the end of last year, a 21 year old girl was savagely gang raped on a late night Mumbai bus by 7 men, including the driver.  She subsequently died from her injuries.  The men were tried, convicted and sentenced to hang, apart from one bloke who did the job himself one night alone in his cell.  The country, from start to finish, was in uproar, with protest marches demanding better treatment for women and harsher sentences for sex crimes, and hand-wringing ministers insisting they would introduce measures to do so.  On the first anniversary, almost to the day, in the same city, another young woman, out alone, was gang raped, not once but twice on the same evening.  Clearly, the message that women are not inferior to men and not merely male playthings, isn't getting through.  Meanwhile, the majority of this rich country still lives in the most appalling poverty, lacking the most basic services.  Nothing changes.

Nelson Mandela died.  So did Peter O'Toole, a wonderful actor, and Iain Banks, a wonderful writer.  The Duchess of Cambridge (sorry, Kate Middleton) had a son called George, and the papers were full of the fact that Prince William changed the boy's shitty nappy and collected them both from hospital wearing Levi's rather than a lounge suit.  Well, good for him, says I. 

Time Magazine announced that from a short list including Butcher Assad of Syria and whistleblower Edward Snowden, sometime of Washington D.C but now living in Moscow until he can find somewhere better, its 2013 Man (or Woman) of the year was......Pope Francis.  A decent enough choice, but quite how Assad, who continues to slaughter his own people with a variety of weapons including chemical and biological even made the short list is beyond me.  It's also beyond me how, after nearly three years of this murderous activity, the rest of the world - in particular the UN, the US and the EU - continue to do no more than condemn it in "the strongest possible terms" - as if that will make any difference to the bastard. 

So all in all, it's been a fun place, this planet in 2013. 

But even for us it wasn't all doom and gloom.  In May my boy John got married, and we all flew over for the nuptials.  I'm delighted to say that Kuba and Ally were the most beautiful ring bearers ever, and that I was a very very proud and happy father watching it all.  I also finally have a photograph of me surrounded by all five of my brilliant kids.  It was a lovely weekend and we had a great time.

We managed to get our couple of weeks at the seaside here, despite all the shite at that time going on, and enjoyed ourselves (though perhaps not as much as other years).  For obvious reasons, we didn't manage our foreign holiday to Spain or somewhere, and I for one missed it.  Please God we'll make up for it next year - I quite fancy Croatia or Crete myself, but we'll see.

The kids are well, growing fine and more gorgeous by the day, and I'm glad to say doing well at school.  We have a First Communion to look forward to in May, and hopefully all the boys will come over from England for it.  That will be a fun few days, as the event is a couple of days before Ally's birthday.

A grading then?  Well, if 2012 was a 5 then this one......thanks to John's wedding and the last few weeks in Doha I can give it a fairly generous 2.5.  I really hope (and expect) 2014 to be a lot better.

So Season's Greetings to you all.  A Happy New Year, and may all your hopes and dreams come true.


Wednesday, 11 December 2013


So Madiba’s Long Walk has ended.  May he rest in peace.

I woke around 9:00 Gulf time on Friday morning and, as usual, switched on the tv for my breakfast News intake. I was just in time to hear Martine Dennis on BBC World News announce (again) his passing.  To be honest it came as no great surprise.  He was 95 after all, and had been fading for several years, spending some months in hospital this year with a lung infection.  I remember remarking to my wife when he was finally released and sent home that he was probably going to battle through to his birthday and then quietly slip away – which is essentially what happened.  Quietly is probably not the right word, given the street party going on outside his house the last week or so, but still…..he was at home, surrounded by his family, and I can think of few better ways of dying.  Certainly better than being lonely in an old people’s residence somewhere, ignored by all except the staff there and forgotten by the people who should care most.

Like most people outside of South Africa (with the honourable exception of anti-apartheid campaigners) I hadn’t heard of him until the bandwagon for his release from Robben Island started in the late 80s and early 90s, and came to prominence with the Free Mandela Concert at the old Wembley Stadium.  I didn’t watch it, but have since seen some excerpts and it must have been a pretty good day – the other night I watched Eric Clapton on YouTube, playing “strictly rhythm” like Guitar George with Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing”……and he seemed perfectly happy strumming away at “all the chords”, while Knopfler, as usual, made his old guitar sing.  Nice moment.  But the Concert served to bring the name of Nelson Mandela to a wider audience, and Labour councils the length and breadth of Britain - and indeed the world over - leapt onto the bandwagon, as politicians tend to do still, and named roads and parks and buildings in his honour.  Even the BBC got in on the act, with the Trotter family in the classic Only Fools and Horses living in Nelson Mandela House, Peckham.

But to many people, he was still a terrorist, and he and the ANC were blacklisted as such by, amongst others, the UK and the US for years, even after his release and elevation to the South African Presidency.  Which only goes to show that one man’s terrorist is another man’s statesman. As far as I could tell, the man was not a terrorist, if you accept the definition of terrorism being an effort to remove a legitimate government through means of violence and the widespread use of weapons on innocent parties and the general public.  Certainly he wanted apartheid to end, as did most right minded people, and was prepared to die for that cause, but I don’t remember him threatening violence to achieve those aims – like the Dalai Lama and others he favoured diplomacy and the ballot box.  Nevertheless, the South African government still banged him up for the best part of 30 years, for fomenting terrorism (though I would have thought their own police service’s operations in places like Sharpeville and Soweto did a far better job than anything Mandela might have said in that respect).

Over time, the Court of Public Opinion had its way and a more moderate President de Klerk released him from Robben Island.  I can remember it being broadcast live on tv, and watching it while on holiday in Cornwall.  It was raining there so the beach was not an option, and my kids wanted to know who he was and what all the fuss was about and when was the weather going to improve so that we could go out somewhere.  I remember too the way he walked out hand in hand with his wife Winnie, both waving and smiling to the massed cheering crowds at the gates, and realizing that here was a momentous moment but without really grasping all of its importance – I don’t possess a crystal ball, nor was I much interested in politics of any kind, let alone global politics.  But it seemed clear that the winds of change were blowing through South Africa, and that Mandela was destined to play a huge role in all that came to pass.

And so he did.  His subsequent election, as the first democratically empowered black President in the first multi- racial election in that country, changed not only South Africa but the world.  Whether he was a good President, or whether his various policies and initiatives were successful or not is open to debate, and for people more qualified than me to comment on.  But it seems inarguable that South Africa has changed for the better as he and his ANC successors have continued the process he started 30 years ago.  Certainly there is still inequality there, as indeed there is in most other countries in the world – the rich continue to get richer and the poor poorer everywhere, and rightly or wrongly this seems to be human nature, and neither capitalism not communism, nor any other political system makes a scrap of difference to that.  But most people are better off and have better prospects for a good life, an education and health care than was the case previously, where non-whites were at best ignored and at worst treated little better than domesticated animals.  It’s Africa’s tragedy that other nations have been unable to follow Mandela’s and South Africa’s lead and bloodbaths continue to proliferate the length and breadth of that vast Continent to this day, and show no signs of abating.

Mandela retired from the Presidency in 1999, and became a world statesman, feted everywhere, an example to everyone, young and old, that huge change could be attained through dialogue and patience and understanding.  He was a wise old man, and many of the things he said have been quoted over the last week or so on tv and newspapers and websites and blogs, and they all make huge amounts of sense.  My favourite is the one about no-one being born to hate, that you have to learn it, and if you can learn to hate you can learn to love too, and that’s a much better thing to do.   If only more people could actually do so…….

And so to yesterday’s memorial service, where the Great and the Good (and the Not So Good) gathered at the Johannesburg football stadium to celebrate his life and times.  There was music, and speeches, and over 100 world leaders and past leaders, pop stars and supermodels, and ordinary South Africans, came together in the pouring rain, and it seemed a fine time was had by all.  Of the bits I saw (not many as I was at work) Obama’s speech stood out – or at least the bit of it about not enough leaders trying to emulate Mandela by making things better and too many standing on the sidelines doing nothing to ease suffering the world over, struck a chord: I wonder who his remarks were aimed at (and whether they care very much anyway?).  The festivities, if you can call them that, will continue for days yet, with a Lying in State until the weekend and a final (allegedly quiet) family burial in his home village in the Eastern Cape.  And then Nelson Mandela will truly pass into the pages of history.

My memories of him are like many people’s, I guess – a smiling and genial old man, with a terrible taste in shirts.  But one with a twinkle in his eye (at least until old age and infirmity dulled them), who seemed to like a laugh and a joke with people – whether with the locals in Soweto, or popes or pop stars or royalty.   He loved his sport, as do I – the pictures of him in his usual loud shirt and SA baseball cap presenting the rugby World Cup to Francois Pienaar are wonderful, and for me capture the spirit of the man more than any other.  The exchange between them speaks volumes too – Mandela: “Thank you for all you have done for my country.”, Pienaar: “Thank you for all you have done for mine.”  And his love of music too resonates – the way he would suddenly start jigging around whenever the mood and the music caught him, even if he was up on a stage somewhere speechifying – brilliant (and I dance like him too, which is to say badly, but who cares).  I loved his quiet dignity in later years, on the rare occasions he was wheeled out (sometimes literally) into the public eye, when he bore it all peacefully.

He was a unique man and a unique politician, that rarity that unites people rather than divides them.  I can’t think of another in my lifetime like him – Churchill maybe, but he did it during World War 2, before I was born, by which time he was on the wane.  No British Prime Minister since then, of any persuasion, has done anything except divide – Wilson, Thatcher, Blair, Brown, Cameron….all as bad as one another.  The same in the US and France and Germany and any other country I can think of.  It’s sad, but perhaps Madiba was the last of a dying breed, a politician who sought and worked in office through personal conviction, for the good of all his people rather than for a chosen few, for a lifetime, no matter the consequences. It was not a career choice to garner the wealth and power that by fair means or foul (and increasingly foul) these days comes the way of any President or Prime Minister, in and out of office, but a lifelong conviction and belief and determination to Make A Difference – and in this he undoubtedly succeeded.

He was a Great Man.

Friday, 29 November 2013

More Doha rambling -hotels, pubs and window cleaners

So after an enjoyable week at home, it’s back to Doha for a five week stint leading up to Christmas.  This will present an interesting challenge – getting an extension to my 30 day visitor’s visa that expires three days before I’m due to travel home.  Working on the assumption that Qatari civil servants are the same as those I’ve encountered in England, Poland and Trinidad – which is to say largely unhelpful, and at worst downright unpleasant – I expect to spend most of one day next week sitting in a waiting room in a faceless government building while the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly round.   The signs so far have been mixed.  Admittedly my experience of the local civil service is limited to the folks manning the passport control booths at the airport, but still….    

The first guy was very pleasant and welcoming and laughed as much as I did when the machine failed completely to take an acceptable photo of me while he processed the visa stamp.  You’re supposed to stare at this camera thing with your eyes wide open and it takes a mug-shot – my problem is because of a lazy eye medical condition I actually can’t open my eyes wide unless I hold them open between fingers and thumbs – which is of course unacceptable.  After ten attempts he gave it up and waved me through.  Same going home – the guy then let me off without a pic too, probably on the basis he couldn’t find a matching arrival snap.  Second trip, the bloke said hardly a word, except for “Pin please” when he processed my credit card payment, but at least (for the only time so far) the machine managed to get a decent picture.  Going home the guy said even less, merely comparing me with my passport photo, accepting with a shrug my explanation about the (again) failed mug-shot, and waving me through without another word.

On arrival this time, an hour earlier because of a change in flight times courtesy of the clocks going back in Europe (they don’t in Qatar) the Arrivals Hall was packed and it took well over an hour to inch to the front of the Immigration line.  At the desk I was greeted by a very surly and extremely boss-eyed woman in the usual black robes who refused point blank to meet my gaze (that’s if she could – she seemed to be looking over my right shoulder all the time).  To make matters worse, she mumbled in heavily accented English so that I couldn’t understand what she was saying.  She asked me where I came from, and didn’t like my “Warsaw” answer……   ”Which country?” she snapped.  I told her politely, and she frowned and demanded why I had a British passport.  I told her I was British.  With ill grace, she accepted that.  “Address?”  I started spelling out my Warsaw street name but she furiously shook her head – “Here. Doha.”  I had to repeat the name three times before she understood “Le Park hotel”.  Eventually after a snapped “Pin” (no please, which I thought was needlessly rude) she stamped my passport and slapped it down in front of me.  I wished her a nice evening (it was nearly midnight) and left her to it.  Three days later I noticed she hadn’t stuck the exit date label in my passport, as is customary – so that should make extending it next week even more fun.

So anyway, I got here ok, and initially to the same shitty hotel I wrote about last time, Le Park.  Rated 111 out of 115 hotels in Doha on TripAdvisor (the other 4 have not been rated….) – deep joy.  In common with that rating, in the 10 days I’d been away nothing, literally nothing, had changed or as far as I could see even been touched.  In the bathroom (they gave me the same room) was the empty shower gel bottle I had left.  In the fridge was an unfinished tub of Anchor spreadable butter and half a jar of apricot jam.  A half empty packet of Corn Flakes was on the side, and in the ash tray the loose change I’d left for the cleaners.  The bed had been made but not clean sheeted, and the towels unchanged.  I couldn’t be bothered to argue as I was only staying a couple of nights before being re-located to the Ezdan Towers.
Ezdan Tower 4 - my home from home

Now this place has also been slated on the internet.  It seemed marginally better than the Park, but the list of complaints was similar – poorly maintained, rude and unhelpful staff, dingy corridors, lack of amenities etc etc.  Clearly an open mind would be needed for this gaff, and some staying power too – the bank insisted it would not consider any more changes.  On the plus side, the location looked better as it’s in the West Bay area, just back from the Corniche and close to the excellent City Centre Mall, and within walking distance of a couple of bars that actually serve beer (even if it is overpriced beer).  It also was reported to have an outdoor, Olympic sized swimming pool – though a number of reports mentioned broken tiles, the risk of cutting your feet in the scummy water and verrucas…….

Well, actually, I’ve been here just over a week now, and I have very little to complain about so far.  The location is very good, exactly as stated, and from my 21st floor room I have a nice view of the Corniche and, beyond it, Doha Bay.  The place is huge, 4 towers all around 40 floors high, three of which look like Lego bricks on end, with black centres and white surrounds.  The fourth is just a bloody tall building, it’s the newest and apparently the best block and luckily I’m in it, about halfway up.

The room is functional but comfortable, and joy of joys has a proper kitchen, complete with ample crockery, cutlery, pots and pans, a dishwasher and a washer/dryer.  The fridge is huge and efficient (I had to turn it down as my water was turning to ice after an hour or so), the tv is ok if with limited channel choice – no sport again, bugger – and the bed comfortable.  As is the three piece suite – for a studio apartment it’s a good size and well stocked with furniture:  there is also a dining table and six chairs, a coffee table, a pair of decent wardrobes with loads of hangers (strong plastic ones not crappy wire monstrosities) and the desk and chair where I’m writing this.  As with everywhere else in this town the high-speed internet is actually slow and unreliable.   The bathroom is laughable, just a sink, a toilet and a shower stall with a plastic curtain on a decidedly wonky rail……but it’s clean and the water is hot, so I’m ok with that.

That will do nicely....

Amenities?  Yep.  Half a dozen restaurants that I haven’t tried yet, a gym (ditto) and the Olympic sized outdoor pool (also ditto).  I’ve had a look at it and I can’t see any obvious problems with the tiling so I guess it’s safe enough.   There is also an on-site K-Mart supermarket that has pretty much all you need in terms of food, drink and household goods even if you have to pay a bit more for it.  So I stocked up with important stuff and settled in.  It will do fine.

The weather has changed now.  It’s a lot cooler than on my previous two trips, not more than 25C so far, on some days only about 20 and even cooler in the evening.  Winter is clearly fast approaching, and it’s dark by 5 in the evening.

We also had rain.  Not just a shower but for three or four days, persistent downpours.  I had to buy an umbrella.  Because of the rarity of the event (the rain that is, not buying an umbrella) the drainage can’t cope so there were several places that turned into ponds and rivers, especially around the office (which is in an area that is being heavily re-developed – it’s one huge building site).  The rain has cleared away now and the sun returned, but there is still an ankle deep pond at the end of the road.  Thursday morning there was fog, and for the first time my sea view was obscured.  But this weekend’s forecast is for a return to sunshine and something like 26 or 27C so I may give the pool a try, in between doing my laundry and food shop at Carrefour.

Last weekend I went for a mooch around here, as the sun was shining.  I figured I’d give the Irish Harp a try.  It’s in the Sheraton Hotel, perhaps 15 minutes’ walk from here, at the end of the Corniche, and has a good reputation.  The menu looks pretty good, typical Irish pub grub (so stew, bangers and mash, fish and chips, burgers, pizzas but interestingly no cottage pie) and a good range of draught beers including Guinness and Kilkenny.  There is a strict no shorts dress code, and big screen tv’s for viewing your sport.  So despite it being pretty hot I put my jeans on and headed off.  Well I found it alright, after wandering around inside the hotel for a while – and a fine complex the Sheraton is: from the outside it looks like the superstructure on an aircraft carrier, and from the inside like being inside a pyramid.  The rooms are on three sides, and the atrium area looks from the ground floor to the topmost ceiling, with balconies all round where is the room access.  All very swish.  There are a number of cafes and restaurants and shops scattered round this area, and sweeping staircases leading up and down at various points.  The Irish Harp was at the bottom of one of these, next door to an Italian restaurant that had access to the pool area and private beach. 

The pub was closed.  I had arrived early-ish, around 3:30, with the intention of watching the Everton – Liverpool derby over a Kilkenny or two and sausage mash and onion gravy, but that wasn’t going to happen – despite advertising on their Facebook page and various other sources that “big screen tv provides a great place to watch all Premier League matches” the place doesn’t open until 5:30 in the evening.  Outside the door there was an easel on which was pinned a list of House Rules, about 15 in all.  As well as the dress code (apart from a ban on shorts, apparently you’re not allowed to wear ostentatious jewellery – especially chains – or baseball caps) you are not allowed to talk too loud or create a disturbance that “may upset other patrons”.   For a place where, allegedly, football fans are expected to gather and sink a few beers while watching the game, this is clearly preposterous.  So I gave it a miss, and will not bother to go back there again.  Irish Harp indeed!

There was some power boat racing going on in the bay, so I strolled through the park beside the Sheraton to watch for a while.  It was a Formula 1 event apparently, and featured a team from land-locked Uzbekistan, which continues to puzzle me a week later.  The boats were small and sleek and ridiculously fast, and a few were placed on trestles for the public to examine and admire and photograph.  Of course I did all three.  A row of tents, fenced off from the public, was the pit area. A number of boats were being worked on here by the mechanics while others were being hoisted in and out of a calm sea.  Further along, another fenced off row of sun canopies comprised the “pit wall”, familiar to any F1 motor racing fan - half a dozen screens at each raised table with a couple of high chairs and assorted headsets where Ross Brawn and Adrian Newey and all the other great and good would have felt completely at home. 
Team Uzbekistan......

I sat on a wall a little further along the Corniche for a while, but apart from a couple of boats coming out for what seemed to be test runs nothing much seemed to be happening – certainly nothing I would recognize as “racing” anyway – so after a few snaps (one of which is actually quite good) I gave up and headed back to the hotel.

The West Bay area of Doha has some excellent buildings, modern skyscrapers that would not look out of place in New York or Hong Kong or any other modern city in the world.  Some are quite spectacular, especially after dark when a wonderful light show kicks off along the Corniche.  One, maybe 40 floors, is a vast rocket shaped structure with a twenty or thirty foot spike at its summit, looking for all the world like Flash Gordon’s spaceship.  It’s covered in an interesting metallic lattice work from top to bottom so that the windows which (I assume) are behind it cannot be seen.  At night it glows in ever changing pattern of light – golds, oranges, pale greens – like a Pink Floyd light show.  Behind it another building of similar height is shaped like a huge vase, circular and tapered at the waist, flaring equally at top and bottom, and the outside of that is covered by a diamond pattern of girders that are lit a vivid blue after dark.  Further along is the Doha World Trade Centre, again a good forty or fifty floors tall, and at the top is a circular disc-like structure jutting out over the pathway alongside the Corniche that I assume contains a very expensive restaurant – the views across the bay and city must be unrivalled from it.  This building is made of a very dark blue glass, and after dark it has its own light show – this time a constantly changing pattern of white and pale blue lights.

Check out the Images section on Google searching under “Doha skyline” – there are many pictures that illustrate it far better than I can describe it.   Suffice to say it’s without a doubt on of the most spectacular places I’ve ever seen. It fascinates me.

In idle moments, I had wondered how the windows of these skyscrapers were cleaned.  I had assumed that, like the towers at Canary Wharf, cleaners are lowered down gradually in big cradles, cleaning as they go.
Nope.  As I walked back I passed, just behind the WTC, one of my favourite buildings.  It’s a good 60 storeys, and at various points on its towering sides there are uneven places – imagine you have a square fence post in the ground, say six feet tall, and every couple of feet on each side you get an axe and chop a notch into it.  It’s a bit like that – you’ll see it on the Google Images I’m sure. Anyway, as I walked past, I noticed there were several guy ropes tethered to the wall beside the footpath.  I followed them up – and there, right at the top, I would guess no more than three floors down, a squad of window cleaners was absailing down, armed with buckets of soapy water, chamoix leathers and squeegee mops, cleaning the windows as they came.  I took some pictures, and through the telephoto lens they were clearly having a blast – laughing and joking as they came.  They all looked to be Nepali, so I guess being from a mountainous country like that where mountaineering is second nature, from the cradle, swinging off the side of a sixty storey building washing the windows holds no fears for them at all.  But it made me feel sick!

Sod that for a living!

But they seem to enjoy it......

They are probably paid a pittance for doing the work, too, if the stories of “Nepali victims of slave labour in Qatar” that are published with monotonous regularity in the Mail and the Guardian are anything to go by, living ten to a room in squalid barracks conditions in the hot desert outside of Doha.  But they certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves up there.

I’ve just noticed, as I opened Blogger to post this little ramble, that it is my 100th post.  Well, fancy that.  And in all that time I have amassed 8 followers (thank you, ladies and gentlemen for your loyalty and staying power!) and a mere 19 Comments.  Not a lot for three years’ work!   But I will continue to write because I enjoy doing it (even if no-one enjoys reading it) and it gives me something to do on these lonely winter evenings far from home.

So good night, one and all, and here’s to the next hundred!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Arrogance of America and Other Stories

The Arrogance of America

For a country that is (self-styled) the Greatest on God’s Earth, the United States of America is a bit of mess.  It has been for years.

Despite the admittedly great advances made over the past thirty or forty years, it’s still an inherently racist place.  Huge numbers of non-white Americans remain in low paid jobs and housing, without health care (at least until the introduction of Obamacare – of which more in a moment).  Sure, there are millions of whites in the same situation, but the numbers of non-whites in the position is disproportionately large.  The problem is not restricted to Negros – Hispanics are particularly vulnerable in many southern states, and across the country minorities suffer, especially the new global threat, Muslims.  And this is without the continued bias against Native Americans.  In fairness, this is not a uniquely American things – minorities are vulnerable everywhere: look at the Roma in France, Muslims in the UK and elsewhere, Sunni in parts of Iraq, Shia in other parts of Iraq. 

What makes it worse in America is that it continues to badge itself the Land of the Free, the Land of Hope and Opportunity.  Millions of struggling immigrants would dispute this sales pitch I’m sure – just as many more, successfully integrated, would strenuously agree with it.

Drug abuse is still rife.  Gun crime seems to be getting worse instead of better – every news bulletin at the moment seems to bring reports of another shooting at a shopping mall or a high school somewhere.  Despite public opinion being generally in favour of some kind of gun control, the wealthy and powerful National Rifle Association gun lobby group continues to obstruct attempts to bring in legislation to make ownership of weapons harder to achieve (and in the case of heavy duty assault rifles, banned entirely).  Their money talks in the corridors of power in Washington D.C.

This is an indication of the mess that American politics is in.  America is a democracy, and the vote is there for men and women alike, as it is in the majority of the world.  Americans, especially American politicians, insist that their form of democracy is the best in the world, a model for ex-dictatorships to follow as they gain their “freedom from years of oppression”.  But the way their democracy operates, with a House of Representatives and a Congress designed to act as checks and balances to each other and keep everything nice and friendly and fair in formulating new legislation, stopped doing that years ago.  Now it’s possible for a relatively small number of law makers with “extremist” views to make the whole thing grind to a halt.
This happened as recently as last month, when a handful of Tea Party Republicans prevented a Democrat Budget from being passed because they demanded extensive changes to Obamacare – a measure that was written into law a couple of years ago, and was even then being implemented.  The result was a partial shutdown of the government and hours of CNN coverage and debate, and almost led to the country defaulting on its financial obligations – which would undoubtedly have led to a global financial meltdown.  At the eleventh hour a compromise was reached that avoided this, but seems to have merely pushed the problem back into the New Year – no doubt we’ll go through ti all again in 2014.

A guy interviewed on CNN at a protest march in Washington at the time – just an ordinary Joe Public, trying to earn a living – made the very pertinent observation that the American political system is broken, and was broken when career politicians, in it for the power and prestige and (of course) money, gained the ascendancy over people who genuinely sought election to represent the people in their town, city, county or state.   But in a system where, nowadays, gaining political office, especially the Presidency, costs millions of dollars, money counts more than ideas, cash is more important than empathy with the needs of Joe Public and his family, and sound bites are more critical than decency, the situation is unlikely to improve any time soon.  This is  because “special interest groups”, like our old friends the National Rifle Association, are happy to pay those millions of dollars to buy influence, and keep their favoured (that is to say sympathetic) politicians in place and thus able to protect their “special interests”.

Dare I suggest that the American political system is not just broken, it is corrupt?  Sure, why not.  It is.

Finally, America is undoubtedly a powerful military state.  It has poured trillions of dollars into the development of an armoury that could win any conflict it chooses to participate in.  Used for good, this is fine.  But America sits on the sidelines while its client state, Israel, continues its Palestinian Genocide, using American manufactured weapons, doing nothing.  It storms into countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, toppling (admittedly evil) rulers but without a Plan B to control the power vacuum left over provokes decade’s long civil war and slaughter.  It uses drones to take out tribal leaders in the hinterland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, both nations notionally friends and allies, who are suspected of being terrorists – and takes out innocent women and children while so doing.  It does this time and again, the latest attack being on the eve of peace talks between the Pakistan government and Pakistan Taliban leaders aimed at resolving local difficulties that have no direct impact on America but could bring about a better life for both ordinary Pakistanis and Afghans.  It does so with no apology, and with no care about the effects on these already poverty stricken people. 

America spies on its allies.  This is not really news, most people realize and accept that spying goes on and has done so for years.  But usually such activities are confined to keeping track on what your enemies are up to.  What is new is hacking the mobile phones of your Allies’ leaders – prompting furious complaints from the presidents of Brazil, Spain, France and Germany, amongst others, who have either been directly tapped (Brazil and Germany – Mrs. Merkel was not at all happy) or whose citizens have been tapped (France and Spain protesting about millions of phone intercepts carried out in a matter of weeks).  Similarly, America spies on its own citizens, extensively.  Mobile phones and e-mails, Facebook and Twitter accounts are routinely “monitored” by the unapologetic National Security Agency, often with the assistance of the UK’s GCHQ.

This has come to light courtesy of a vast collection of documents liberated by one Edward Snowden, a contractor - in other words, an IT temp - working at the NSA who found it a little upsetting that this level of surveillance was going on and questioned its legality.  He did a runner to Hong Kong, and dumped the whole story on a couple of newspapers, notably the Guardian.  Then when the shit hit the fan, he wisely scarpered again, this time to Russia, where he now works for a local website while on a one year temporary residence visa.  The American government, predictably, is outraged, demanding his return to the US to face justice (for which read life in a high security facility for spying and crimes against the American government and its people).  The people, by contrast, generally applaud the bloke for bringing to their notice a whole raft of stuff, much of it barely legal, being done in their name but which they do not accept as being in any way justifiable. Especially when it’s being done to them without their knowledge.

With all this, Americans seem to be genuinely mystified why they are not flavor of the month.  It seems to be beyond them that playground bullies – which is what the American politicians have turned their country into – are generally unpopular.  They seem incapable of realizing that killing innocent people is not a very nice thing to do, whether it’s in the hall of a kindergarten in some Midwest town or some flea bitten hovel in a desperately poor mountain valley thousands of miles away.  They seem unable to realize that their version of democracy does not suit everyone, and that they do not have the right to force it upon everyone.  The usual defence that they are acting only to protect their own citizens, in this post 9/11 world, from terrorists who would not hesitate to maim and kill them just doesn’t wash…….because they are not the only nation to have been the victims of similar attacks – ask the citizens of Madrid and London, to name but two – without resorting to the duplicitous and murderous tactics that America employs.  Violence simply leads to more violence, but the cowboy mentality of America fails to realize or accept this.

There is a word in the dictionary that seems to have eluded them.  The word is “humility”

America should learn what it means.  Then practice it.  

The world may be a better place were they to do so.       

Hugo Lloris – brave or barmy?

Last weekend, Tottenham’s French international goalkeeper was wiped out (accidentally it has to be said) by Everton’s man-mountain striker Romelu Lukaku.  There was the best part of ten minutes stoppage while the Spurs medical team patched him up, before he played out the final 15 minutes or so, during which he made a brilliant match-winning save.  So all in a day’s work for the bloke.

But there has been uproar in the press and elsewhere over the incident.  Why?  Because for a short time, Lloris was unconscious, due to the whack on the head.  When he woke up, slightly woozy of course, there were conversations with him and his manager and the referee, as a result of which he insisted on continuing and his manager let him do so.   Both Lloris and the club and officials have been roundly condemned for allowing this to happen, citing that the risk of concussion or even – horrors! – death, should have meant he was withdrawn from play immediately.  But after the match, he underwent a CAT scan that proved there was not a trace of brain injury, concussion or anything else likely to affect his health, either short or long term.  So all the calls for action and rule changes by various head trauma charities, doctors (who weren’t present at the time and hence are in no real position to judge) and trade unions are, quite simply, a gross over reaction.

Lloris and Andre Villas–Boas (his club manager) are mystified at all the attention.  Both are of the opinion he did nothing particularly brave or outstanding.  Just doing his job.  This I fully agree with – the man is a very good goalkeeper, captain of his country, and earns a significant amount of money for doing exactly the sort of things he did against Everton.  Indeed, it’s good to see there are ‘keepers out there still prepared to take the inevitable knocks without making an issue of it or screaming foul play. 

As an ageing ‘keeper myself, it depresses me to see the way the game has gone nowadays.  Goalkeepers are overprotected – breathe on them and you’re likely to give away a free kick.  I could always expect to be knocked out in exactly the same way as Lloris at least three times over the course of a season, and often it was a deliberate assault rather than an accidental collision, and anyone playing at the time would expect the same.  You just got on with it – a bucket of cold water over the head to wake you up, a whiff of smelling salts (my eyes are watering now at the memory) to clear your head, and away you go.  The only time it happened to me and I didn’t carry on was when some pillock of a centre forward relocated my nose somewhere around my left ear.  Happy days. 

No, Lloris is neither brave nor barmy.
He’s a goalkeeper.  ‘Nuff said.

Time for Change at FIFA.

I’ve said it here before, but old Teflon Sepp Blatter really should step aside from his day job of running FIFA, and while he’s about it take with him the ageing bureaucrats who work for him.  For a multi-billion dollar organization charged with running the most popular sport on the planet, they really do make some funny decisions.  Maybe all those rumours of brown envelopes stuffed with dosh being handed around behind the scenes are true after all, despite the organization’s strenuous denials.  Just consider their choices for hosting the next three World Cups.

Next year it’s Brazil’s turn.  That could be very good – the country over the years has turned out some of the best teams and individual players ever to grace the game, and they’re always good to watch.  The country, too, is turning into an economic powerhouse, the B in the BRICs emerging market group (the others being Russia, India and China).  The weather’s nice too.  But right now, the place is riven by civil unrest, as the average Brazilian takes to the streets complaining about the billions of dollars being spent re-building football stadia, putting up new hotels, developing new airports and roads to ferry teams and fans around that vast country, and tearing down the favelas, the slums many of the population still call home, instead of building badly needed new schools and hospitals and other basic amenities.  This week the annual Soccerex beano was due to be held in Rio, but was called off at the last minute because the local government decided it couldn’t spare the manpower to police the event.  Fifa and the World Cup organizing committee insist everything will be alright on the night and the tournament will go off without a hitch, but given that a lot of the projects are running late I wouldn’t bet on it.

Next up is Russia, in 2018.  BRICs again, notice.  No longer Communist, of course, a fledgling democracy and wealthy as Croesus, so worthy of a World Cup in Sepp’s tunnel vision.   Well, yes.  It’s a democracy of sorts, but for pretty much all of this century run by Vladimir Putin, officially a President (and sometime Prime Minister) but in reality not much more than a dictator.  Anyone who dares to speak out against him and the way he runs the place is more or less guaranteed ten years in the gulag.  “Opposition” is not a word in his vocabulary.  The country is deeply homophobic.  It has passed laws that discriminate against homosexuals, and gay activists have been beaten and banged up.  It’s considered an illness, a sickness, rather than a way of life, something that should be cured by beatings or hidden away by imprisonment.  Lovely – I’m sure gay football supporters will have a blast there.  It’s also inherently racist.  Black players – and there are a number of them playing in the Russian league – are continually abused by their own fans, subjected to monkey noises and banana throwing the same as players in Britain were back in the 70s and early 80s.  One club has even written a statute into its rule book, at the insistence of its supporters, stipulating that the team remains 100% white – no blacks allowed.  CSKA Moscow have just had a partial ground closure applied after Manchester City star Yaya Toure (from Ivory Coast, currently the best African player in the world) suffered this kind of crap in a Champions League match.  So African teams and supporters will have a good time too.

Finally, we have Qatar in 2022.  I blogged about this one a couple of weeks ago, and previously way back in 2010 when they were awarded the tournament.   Now there is no absolute proof that the voting process that awarded them the tournament wasn’t all above board with no brown envelopes, but still – let’s say it was.  It’s still an odd decision, given the size of the place and its summer climate.  It may be the wealthiest country in the world, and it may still deliver a terrific tournament, but again, I have my doubts.

But all these examples – and there are many others – demonstrate that FIFA needs to change, before it loses all credibility.  It’s close to that already, and Sepp’s latest announcement (that qualification play-offs should be scrapped because the losers “might be upset”) doesn’t help.

Can someone please explain Twitter?

 Facebook, when it launched its IPO a couple of years, got the price wrong and bombed.    Twitter has launched today, at an opening price of $26 that is expected to climb to above $40 by close of business – time will tell.  But I can’t get my head around how a company that has never turned a profit, and is losing a hundred odd million a year, can have a stock market valuation of $18billion.

I don’t even understand the product.  OK, Facebook I can get.  I use it as a tool to see what my friends and relations back in the UK and elsewhere are doing, I can use it to post pictures of my kids and my trips so that they in turn can see what I’m up to.   I advertise when I’m adding a new blog post like this one.  I can see how Facebook uses adverts to make money, and how Likes can generate income by driving the ad process.  There are things about it I hate – the flood of posts that end up on my Wall (or whatever you call it) inviting me to play games in which I have no interest and that regular participation in can cost money.  The depressing and frankly Little Englander and racist, anti-everything sloganeering from some of the most disgusting websites in existence.  The posts that encourage you to Like something or post it on your Wall or you are the lowest of the low for not supporting that charity or this organization.  But weighing it all up, I can live with it because of that family element.

But Twitter?  Why??  What???  How????   From what little I have seen, mostly from articles or blogs in newspapers and websites, or posted on my bloody Wall, it seems no more than a way for publicity seeking “celebrities” or footballers to tell the world how wonderful they are, or what they ate for lunch, or something equally trivial.  Or to complain about something - #Sack Mourinho, for instance, after Chelsea had the temerity to lose a match.

How is that worth $18, let alone $18billion?

Sebastian Vettel – genius or lucky?

I’ve followed F1 since the good old days of James Hunt and Nikki Lauda back in the 70s, Hill and Senna and Prost in 80s and 90s.  Schumacher of course.  But I can’t say I’m that interested nowadays, mainly due to the processional nature of the races these days, where I think technology – whether it be the car or the tyre – is more important than driving ability.  The dominance of young Sebastian Vettel over the past few years hasn’t helped either.

The guy is 26.  He’s won the last 4 drivers’ championships in a Red Bull.  To date, he has 37 wins in a total of 118 races.  43 pole positions.  He’s won 11 races this season, including the last 7.  Most of these wins have been by wide margins – half a minute at the last race, which is nearly half a lap.

He has a simple tactic.  Get on the front row (first or second seems to be immaterial).  Get a good start.  Take the lead through the first corner.  Then toe down and disappear into the distance.  Build up a good lead, then change tyres, and let the car do the rest.  Very rarely does he drop down the field and have to race, to overtake people, and for this there are observers who doubt his abilities – but when he’s had to do it, he has, and very well too.

So personally, I think he is a superb driver, even though I don’t particularly like the boy – that one finger salute when he either gets pole or wins a race drives me up the wall.  But I have to say he delivers.
But how much of this is down to his abilities, and how much to luck – specifically, the luck in driving what has clearly been the best car for the last few years - as many believe?  Luck plays a part, in F1 more than perhaps any “sport” of course.  He is lucky to be driving an Adrian Newey car, certainly, but I think he has used his natural ability to make the most of that luck.  Mark Webber, a fine driver in his own right, has the same machinery by the same designer but, particularly the last couple of years, has been blown away.  Webber’s car breaks down more than Vettel’s – luck?  Team orders (even if no-one admits it) tend to favour Vettel – luck or (more likely) design?  Initially, I think it was luck, and Vettel had the breaks more often than Webber, but more recently I think it’s been a case of the team making the car just a little bit more suitable for Vettel – as he’s amassed points and wins and championships the team has been more and more built around him.  I can’t see anyone stopping him.

But Newey is the key.  The man is a genius at designing racing cars.  He’s done it for McLaren and Williams too, and won championships for both of them in the past.  Ask any driver, past or present, and they will all say they would love to drive one of his designs.  Those who have, invariably say it’s the best car they’ve ever driven.  So for Red Bull it’s been lucky that the right driver has come along at the right time to get the best out of the right car.  And dominate the sport.  And they’ll keep doing that until something changes.  Vettel is going nowhere – why should he?  He won’t get a better position.

But Adrian Newey might.  I saw an interview on BBC’s HARDtalk program last week with Sir Ben Ainslie, the bloke who’s won loads of Olympic sailing gold medals and this year led the US America’s Cup team to a 9-8 series win (after being 1-8 down).  He’s trying to raise funding to put together a British team to compete next time.  Interestingly, he let slip that he’s had some conversations with Adrian Newey, who is apparently also a keen sailor and has in the past expressed an ambition to do something different one day and design a racing yacht…….  When pressed, Ainslie looked sheepish, I thought, and insisted they were just chats over a glass of wine.  The probably were – but if he gets the funding together, and a team together, would it not be the perfect opportunity for Newey to realise his ambitions?  And where will that leave Red Bull?  And Vettel…
Watch this space, I think. 

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Home Comforts in Doha?

This week I’ve been fighting battles over sub-standard accommodation.  Oh, what fun it’s been!

I was back in Poland last week, working on a training course I have to deliver and spending quality time with Ania and the kids.  Unfortunately, one of them brought home an appalling stomach virus that of course we all went down with on successive days.  It was most unpleasant, what with projectile vomiting and worse, hot and cold flushes, and enough gas to refloat the Titanic…….  Not the best preparation for Kuba’s birthday either, what with the planned bowling party, complete with pizza, snacks and a rather nice cake.  Luckily by the time Saturday came around, he and Ally and Ania had recovered, so I was the only one still suffering (in part with nerves: I was flying down to Doha immediately after the party, and a six hour flight is not recommended when you have residual Montezuma’s Revenge……).  But the party was fun, everyone had a great time, especially Kuba and his mates who only managed to break one lane by bowling multiple balls in a kind of Let’s See Who Hits The Pins First Competition…..  The staff were not happy, I can tell you.  And despite the illness, I thoroughly enjoyed being back in my little home, with my family and all the comforts that go with it.

Which brings me back nicely to my battles this week.

Now one of the more entertaining and at times challenging things about This Travelling Life is where you end up lying your head when you’re on site.
Normally of course that means a decent (more or less) hotel, and regular readers of these epistles will have seen already that I’ve been fortunate enough to have had some really good quarters provided (my original apartment in Warsaw springs to mind, various Hiltons in London and Luxembourg, a couple of superb spa hotels – one in particular where I had a private pool and sundeck that alas I never got to use – in Malta).  I’ve also had some, shall we say, less than satisfactory billets too – creatures running around the room after dark in Bucharest, cockroaches in the apartment in Trinidad (although to be fair, the damned things are endemic out there and I think everybody suffered from that to a greater or lesser degree)….probably the worst was the first one I had in Almaty – check out Go East Old Man from September 2010 on here for much more about the place (the apartment, and for that matter the city and country).  I still have bad dreams about that one.

Anyway, Qatar is one of the richest nations on Earth, courtesy of King Oil, so my expectations on first coming here last month were pretty high that this time (my first trip for a year, remember) I would be fortunate on the accommodation front.  I wasn’t disappointed – although not perfect, the Wyndham Grand Regency Hotel in Doha is pretty good (take a look on TripAdvisor: I posted a review of it last week), well-appointed rooms, decent food, a good gym and outside pool, and loads of Premier League footie on the box – with English commentary and punditry to boot.   But as we are going to be here some months, and the Wyndham is quite pricy, the bank decided to place us in apartments.  Which is fine by me.

There was a bit of an issue, in that their idea was that we three project team blokes would all share one gaff..…far from ideal, and none of us were keen on that one.  Nevertheless, we were taken to view one particular complex, fairly close to the airport (but not obtrusively so), and a bit of investigation on TripAdvisor showed it to be rather good.  It was.  The complex is pretty new, and very well decorated – the size and quality of the apartment and its fixtures and fittings is much better than home – and the amenities included a very good outside pool, well equipped gym and – whoopee – a pool and snooker centre for residents.  So that was all good then.

It turned out that the place is pretty much fully booked – which makes you wonder why they bothered to show it to us in the first place! – and besides very expensive at QAR33,000 per MONTH.  Hmmmm………  So the day before we flew home for our breaks, we were told we had been booked into an alternative, Le Park Hotel.  It’s next door to the Wyndham, so close to the office, and cheaper so that we get an apartment each – much better.  On the face of it…..

TripAdvisor was less optimistic.  The place advertises itself as a “four star luxury hotel and apartment centre with rooftop pool and sun terrace, well equipped fitness centre and comfortable, well decorated suites with kitchen units”.  But of the 9 visitor reviews, no less than 8 rated it as 1 Star, and “appalling” (to quote one of the more polite comments).  The only positive review was by a Japanese guy, and that could have been a Lost in Translation moment.  So we weren’t too hopeful when we flew in Saturday night – and even less so when the hotel driver (booked by the bank) was conspicuous by his absence.  We caught a cab – and the driver had never heard of the place.  We found the Wyndham and drove around the block…..and again….and a third time.  We stopped and asked directions.  It turned out the entrance is down a dimly lit side street.

We checked in, and by half past midnight I was in my Executive Suite with kitchenette, taking pictures of all that was wrong.   First up, the kitchen with no crockery, no cutlery, no cooking pots or saucepans.   Oh, and the fridge you have to unplug to use the microwave.  The holes in the bathroom ceiling, and grubby poorly cleaned bath.  The shelf over the sink so badly screwed to the wall that it slopes down over the tap so you can’t use it.  The wardrobe with no coat hangers.  The lounge area is actually ok, with a cheap and nasty (but comfortable) three piece suite and an equally cheap and nasty flat screen tv that works fine but has limited English tv channels (the usual news suspects and that’s about it).

We complained the next day at work, and someone from the bank came out to inspect it.  She was not too impressed either, and insisted that the hotel made some improvements.  It seems there have been some negotiations, but the hotel have dug their heels in about certain things – like kitchen ware.  A compromise was reached whereby the hotel provided a couple of plates, glasses, cups and saucers, plus cutlery, but the bank have to supply the (more expensive) cookware.  Which makes you wonder why they have suites with kitchens in the first place, it they’re not going to properly equip them……

Anyway, over the past couple of days, things have gradually improved.  At least the place is cleaner and the bed is comfortable, and I can brew up a cup of coffee (after sweet-talking the waitress in the restaurant to flog me a carton of milk and donate a bowl of sugar sachets).  I went out yesterday evening and bought bread and butter and Nutella, and some biscuits and KitKats, so it’s a start.   The bank people are still dragging their heels a bit on the cooking front, so I can’t do anything ambitious, but the hotel grub is ok – nothing to write home about (as you would expect, given the rest of the place), but edible and cheap enough.
But then we come to facilities.  The tv first.  It turned out that my mate’s 2000 odd channels far outstripped my 30 or so, suggesting somewhere there must be lot more English stuff available.  Then the Internet……BIG fail: neither the wifi nor cable connection worked.  What about the gym?  Well, it’s there, but very tatty – my colleague has used it and reckons half of the machinery doesn’t actually work.  Haven’t tried it myself yet.  So – the pool and rooftop sun terrace (as it’s still hot and sunny here).  Now comes the biggest joke of all.  I went to look, and came out of the lift onto the roof, where there is no signage nor lighting.  To the left is a bloody great air conditioning unit and a satellite dish about six feet across.   Back to the right a flight of steps leads up between too old toolshed-like buildings.  At the top – a building site.  A pile of sand waist high and about 15 feet across.  Scaffolding.  A little crane.  A cement mixer…..and beside that – the pool: or at least, where the thing will be when it’s finished.  Right now it’s a concrete shell with a deep end and a shallow end, but not tiled, no terrace surrounding it, and most certainly no water.  If there is such a thing as an advertising standards authority here, these guys are there for the taking – the website is no more nor less than a pack of lies.

But let me be fair, now.

On my way out this morning, I delivered a list of 7 things I needed sorted out in my room – the internet, the plumbing, tv.  I told the girl I expected them fixed today and offered to discuss the matter face to face with the manager tonight if they hadn’t been done.  I passed a copy on to the bank for information.

To my amazement, when I got back this evening, every one had been addressed.  The internet now works fine (hence this post).  I now have the best part of a thousand tv channels to enjoy, including at least 10 English language news and movie channels.  Unfortunately sport is still an issue – the ones showing Premier League and Champions League matches are subscription only so I’ll miss out on them – but I’ve located an Irish bar here (as I’ve said elsewhere, they are everywhere….) that covers them so my Saturday is taken care of.  The plumbing is fixed.  I have coat hangers.  I have all my crockery and cutlery so all I need to do is give the bank a nudge for the cooking gear and I’m all set. 

It is not perfect, by any stretch of the imagination, and I would certainly not recommend Le Park Hotel to anyone – I will add a TripAdvisor review saying as much at some point.  But as a base for work here, it will do – close to the office, shops nearby to buy food and supplies (I went exploring yesterday evening) and within walking distance – a long walk admittedly – from the touristy bits like the Corniche and fishing harbor and various malls.

Bit light on home comforts – but then, it’s not home.

Friday, 4 October 2013

World Cup 2022 - Can Qatar really deliver?

Qatar has been all over the news the last few days, and not in a good way.

As I'm sure you've all seen, there are continuing concerns about the country's ability to deliver a successful World Cup in 9 years time, and some pretty appalling allegations about the way migrant workers, mostly Nepali, are treated here.  There have been calls for investigations from Human Rights Watch and the International Trades Unions Organizations, which went so far as to accuse Qatar of being a slave state.  Football people - players, managers and journalists - have expressed concerns about playing the tournament in the summer, and have called for it to be moved away from Qatar to an alternative (and cooler) venue.  Proposals to move it to winter months have largely met resistance because that would mean massive changes to league schedules across the world, and cost billions of dollars in lost revenues - something the English Premier League have been particularly vociferous about.

So what is the truth?  Is the tournament doomed, at least for that year?  Or will this oil rich little desert nation actually pull it off?

After spending the past couple of weeks in a still scorching Doha, let me give you my five penn'orth.

First of all, let's deal with the climate issue.  Yes, it is bloody hot here.  When I landed, at midnight a couple of Saturdays ago, the temperature was still in the high 30s.  During the day, for most of the last two weeks, it's been over 40 (though cooler the last three days at around 37 - 38) - but then today, it's shot up again.  As I write, it's 4:30 in the afternoon, it's early October, and it's 42C in the city centre.  Today, as in all Muslim countries, it's the first day of the weekend, a day of prayer, so no work....for me, a good opportunity to do a bit more sightseeing.

Last weekend, I walked the three kilometres from the hotel to the Corniche (that's like Southend Promenade only without the beach or fish and chip shops or amusement arcades).  It was hot and sunny and I had forgotten to take water with me, but after risking life and limb through the roadworks - of which more in a minute - I got there.  I even managed to find a patch of sand about the size of the interior of a BMW 7 series saloon, and had a paddle in the bath-warm Gulf waters.  I needed a coffee or an ice cream after that, so headed along the path towards the modern part of the city, expecting to find somewhere along the way.  I didn't, and ended up exhausted in a Starbucks in the huge (and really rather good) City Centre Mall.  I guess in total I walked a good 7km, during the hottest part of the day - and felt terrible.  I caught a taxi back to the hotel.  Today, I went in the opposite direction, again strolling along, but left earlier, hoping to catch cooler weather.  I found the Corniche, this time along near the old traditional fishing harbour at the far end of the bay from the shining new business district and the City Mall.  Again, I got caught up in roadworks, and again found nowhere to get a drink.  Forewarned is forearmed, and I took a couple of bottles of water with me, but by this time the water was warm verging on hot - you could probably shave in it - where I had carried it in my pocket.  Most unpleasant.  There were few taxis around, so I walked back to the hotel.  Probably I did another 7 km, and I felt even worse this time when I got back.

Now I like the sunshine and hot weather.  Give me a sandy beach, factor 30, some sea to cool off in, and I'm a happy chappy.  Well, here there is sunshine.  I have my factor 30.  But there is no beach (unless you're staying in the Hilton or the Sheraton or one of the other luxury hotels, all of which have their own private ones, but my budget doesn't run that far, I'm afraid).  But basically, it is just TOO hot.  And again, we are in October here......  I'm reasonably fit and healthy, better than many people my age, and active enough to go on expeditions like this without keeling over (and thank God for that!), so if I'm having issues with the climate what is the average English or German or Norwegian fan (assuming their countries qualify in 2022) - or anyone else from outside of Africa really - going to feel about it, in the height of summer, when temperatures can reach (and sometimes exceed) a killing 50C?

The Qatari's official answer to this is air conditioning.  They plan to install state-of-the-art aircon plants at all venues and fan zones and training grounds, to keep everyone cool.  It sounds the stuff of science fiction, but if the air conditioning at the hotel and office is anything to go by, they will do it quite comfortably.  They have 9 years to perfect the system, after all.

My hotel is perhaps half a kilometre from the office.  I've walked it a couple of times, in the relative cool of the evening, but I wouldn't want to do it during the day - especially after the experience of the past two weekends, and in a suit and tie to boot.  So the bank pick us up in either a BMW 7 series or a Mitsubishi Shogun 4 track, depending on which is available.  Both ferry us to and from our destinations in air conditioned comfort.  The hotel is cool and comfortable, and of course each room has its own temperature control.  Sometimes the cleaners seem to fiddle about with the controls while I'm at work, so I come back to an ice box.  The project room at the bank is also comfortably cool - indeed, one of the guys keeps his jacket on all day (which seems a bit much to me) - so clearly, Qatar are Air Conditioning Masters.  So if they say they can build 60 or 70,000 capacity stadia that are fully air conditioned so that pitch temperatures for the players are in the mid 20s, even when the atmosphere outside is twice that, then I for one am not going to argue.  They will do it, I have no doubt.  And if they can manage that, then equally I'm sure they will be able to provide outdoor Fan Zones that are equally cool and comfortable.  (I take it as a matter of course that all the hotels will be fine).

But what will they be able to do outside of these areas?  If you assume there will be off-days, when there are no matches (and that will certainly be the case, especially after the group stages are over and the knock out rounds commenced) then will these air conditioned Fan Zones still be open for use?  Because during these times the punters will still be in town, in their thousands, and will want somewhere to go and something to do. What are you going to do, when there is no match and a day or two to kill, in 50C temperatures?  From experience, I know hanging around in hotels can be soul destroyingly boring, and it will be even worse here, because alcohol is prohibited in the country - so no sitting in the bar necking chilled Heineken or whatever. That will go down well with the average football fan, of any nationality......

I'm assuming the organizers are aware of this and will plan accordingly.  One condition that FIFA insist on for any host country is that the approved beer sponsor (currently Heineken) is able to sell its wares in vast quantities, so Qatar must have agreed to comply with this clause, and relax their licencing laws at least for the duration of the tournament.  Who knows, Blatter and his merry men may just have opened a Pandora's Box in this region - and everyone knows how hard it is to close that, once it's been prised open.....just ask any ex-Communist Bloc country that allowed free (or at least less weighted) elections back in the 80s and 90s, or more recently the string of countries that overthrew their governments in favour of some form of democracy during the Arab Spring a couple of years ago.

The issue of workers' rights is less easy for me to write about.

The country (or at least Doha) is a massive building site.  There are cranes and building plots and roadworks everywhere.  Not all of it is directly related to the World Cup - no construction work has started on the new stadia yet, for instance - but there are many hotel projects under way, many new residential and office buildings going up, and many long term transport improvements.  A metro system is under construction, to ease the appalling traffic congestion around the city.  New roads are being built too, and existing ones improved, with traffic light controlled intersections replacing roundabouts.  Major work in this respect is taking place along the Corniche, hence the gauntlet I've run the past two weekends getting there.  Qatari drivers are typical of many others in this part of the world - which is to say generally poor - and the situation is made worse by the cars.  Now in Lebanon and Egypt, for instance, most vehicles seem to be rust bucket Asian motors from Hyundai and Kia, Nissan and Toyota, or else old Mercedes barges.  Here, the vehicle of choice is a big white Toyota Land Cruiser (usually with some really nifty pastel shaded go-faster stripe patterns along both sides - some of them are really cool).  Or BMW 7s.  Or Mercs.  Just along from the hotel I saw today three car dealerships, side by side: first came Bentley, then McLaren, then Lamborghini.  Very nice.  I saw a Lambo and Mustang having a drag race away from traffic lights last weekend (the Lambo won easily).  So in this ludicrously rich country, the locals do love their cars, and do love to drive them fast.  Hence the high accident rates.

Equally, someone who drives a Porsche or a Land Cruiser is not going to be working on a building site. Which is why something like 80% of the workforce (at least that outside of offices and shops) is imported labour.  This is not at all unusual - the same is true in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and many other countries across the world, not only in the Middle East.  What is also not at all unusual is that the construction companies who hire the labour want to get away with the minimum they can manage to provide, both on wages and all the ancillary bits that go with it - the accident insurance, accommodation and so on - in order to maximize their profits.   I'm not sure the concept of a minimum wage, so beloved of human rights and labour groups world wide, has really permeated the construction industry as it has elsewhere.  It's not unusual for migrant workers to live in below standard barracks, work long hours for peanuts, and lose their limbs (or tragically lives) in avoidable accidents.  What makes the situation worse here, it seems, are two factors.

First the weather.  If it's uncomfortable enough to go for a stroll during the day here in October, how much worse is it digging holes to lay new water mains, or building a new hotel, or whatever?   There have been many deaths on the construction sites across Qatar and many of them have been attributed to heart failure caused by working outside, for long hours, in these intolerably hot conditions.

Second is the way workers have allegedly been treated,  The papers and news services have run many stories in the past week, ahead of FIFA's meeting this weekend, highlighting abuses that range from the abnormally high death rates (65 from the Nepali community alone in the past two months - that's one a day) to workers being forced to live seven or eight to a room in squalid barracks in the middle of the desert with rudimentary facilities, to passports being held by employers to prevent people who have had enough jumping on the next boat out of here.

I have no idea how much of this has been exaggerated by the press for the sake of a good story - the pictures on CNN have been pretty convincing.  But it is a fact that most of the workers on these sites come from countries like India and Pakistan, Bangladesh and (particularly) Nepal where even the allegedly slave wages earned here exceed anything they are likely to earn back home.  It's also true that across the Gulf region, the oil-rich Arab does look at the migrant worker as very much a second class citizen, somehow sub-human.   It could be argued that, to a lesser extent, this casual racism exists in other cultures and circumstances too - look at the vitriol that pours out from the disgusting I'm British and Proud website every day, the hate that shows in the message boards on Yahoo News aimed at (mostly honest and hard-working) Eastern Europeans, or French plans to round up all 30,000 Roma - including many born in the country and holding citizenship (out of a total population of France of over 65 million)  - and dumping them back in Bulgaria and Romania.  So sadly this sort of thing is not confined to Qatar.

To its credit, the government has pledged to set up an independent commission, headed by an international lawyer, to investigate the situation and make whatever changes are needed to improve it.  That will be interesting: let's see what punishments (if any) are dished out in the months to come.

But back to my headline question - can Qatar deliver a successful World Cup in 2022?

My belief is that if any country in this region can do so, then Qatar is that country.  The place is sitting on a seemingly bottomless pit of petrodollars, so money is no object.  Nothing can be done about the climate (arguably global warming could make matters worse before a ball is kicked), but if the cutting edge technology is there to make things more comfortable for everybody, then the authorities here seem more than ready to embrace it.  The organizing committee is certainly committed to the project, and is happy to provide a change to a winter tournament if that is what FIFA decide they want to do - it makes no difference to them whether the matches are held in January and February or June and July 2022: the same facilities will be built and provided in either case, for the same cost.  For that, I applaud them.

So it really comes back to FIFA.  Blatter and others have already admitted that they may have been a little hasty in awarding the tournament to Qatar, but at their annual meeting in Zurich today insisted that no decision would be made until after Brazil's 2014 tournament.  Ever the showman, Blatter also announced separately (and probably unofficially) on his Twitter feed that the tournament "would be held in Qatar" - only the date, summer or winter, is to be decided.

Which is a typical FIFA fudge.