Thursday, 11 January 2018

A Little Bit Of Gas A Little Bit Of VAT

English: Nouadhibou, Mauritania, cooking gas f...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We got back off leave to the much-awaited introduction of Value Added Tax in the UAE. VAT is very much a fact of life in the UK, where it is charged at a charming 20%. The UAE's 5% pales in comparison but it remains that most unwelcome of innovations - a tax.

Living for 25 years in a 'tax free' environment has been something of a privilege, I know. It has long amazed me that here we have an economy capable of functioning (and no, it's not about oil) without gouging its citizens for 25 or even 40% of their earnings. When you look at how little you get back from the UK government for all the taxes, fees and levies we pay, the UAE model is pretty compelling stuff.

But last year we saw the soda and fag tax (no bad thing, mind, although it does rather tend to hit one hard in the Fevertrees) as well as a rise in the property registration 'fee' in Sharjah from 2 to 4 per cent (because a payment to government leveraged as a percentage of a transaction is a fee and not a tax, you understand) and now the dreaded VAT is here. The background noise of expats moaning has increased as a consequence, but there's no doubt that it has sneaked a lot of cost overnight into a life already become more expensive.

VAT was the last thing on my mind the other night as I was cooking dinner, especially as the gas started to gutter. Having refused Sharjah Electricity and Water's cunningly worded invitation to give them Dhs 1,000 and the blood of our firstborn each month thereafter, we still rely on Fast, Faster and Faster Than Fastest gas and they duly rocked up soon after my call. Dhs130 for the gas and Dhs7 VAT, the chap informed me as he rolled the cylinder around to the back of the house. Tired and frustrated by the derailing of my sumptuous gastronomical event, I paid without demur. Only later did I stop to reflect that the wee swine had a) rounded it up to the nearest dirham b) taken VAT in cash without offering a VAT receipt. Guess where that Dhs7 is going (and I'm betting it's not the MoF!)?

I must confess I'd expected the introduction of the new tax to be an Emirates ID style disaster and I appear to have been wrong in that - things seem pretty fluid in comparison. The overhead for businesses, mind, is significant. Not only is there the additional cost on 'value added', but the auditing and compliance costs are significant. One aspect I hadn't considered was outlined to me by a pal the other day - cashflow. Her business tends to run on big ticket contracts and payments rarely take place within 90 days. Paying VAT on each quarter's invoices means she's going to take a huge hit up front.

That's not going to worry the lads over at Faster Than Fast, of course. Firmly embedded in the cash economy, they're likely laughing all the way to Al Ansari to send all that lovely VAT back to Swat to fund the construction of legion sprawling mansions...

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Manama, Ajman And The 'Dunes' Stamps

Manama Post Office

In an odd quirk of philatelic history, several of the Trucial States (prior to the formation of the UAE) issued stamps in huge and incongruous editions. I say incongruous, because none of them had anything to do with the UAE. I have a full sheet of 'Kings and queens of England' issued by Umm Al Qawain and others include celebrations of the Moscow Olympics and the space race.


Ask American philatelic entrepreneur (say that quickly after a couple of shandies) Finbar Kenny. As I have related before, Kenny travelled to the Trucial States in the early 1960s and did deals with the rulers of various emirates to issue stamps on their behalf. He then produced massive runs of stamps, which were destined to act as filler in every boy's stamp collection. In fact he overdid it so much that these 'Dunes' stamps are totally worthless even today. Stamps from Sharjah, Ajman, Umm Al Qawain and Fujeirah dating from the '60s can be picked up for pennies still.

Kenny, a somewhat colourful figure, signed up Ajman and so you can find stamp dealers still selling, stamps issued from 'Manama, Dependency of Ajman'. Manama, an inland exclave of Ajman in Sharjah (it's East of Dhaid, just off the Dhaid/Masafi highway) consisted at the time of little more than an adobe fort, a few cinder block houses and a tiny post office. That post office, responsible for issuing what must have been millions of stamps, is why we nipped off the beaten path for a few minutes yesterday, in order I could track down and take a snap of the offending institution.

So here it is in all its sleepy glory. In its time, one of the great stamp issuing centres of the world!

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Trouble With Stuff

English: Printed circuit board
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
During the recent hurricane Irma, a number of Tesla owners stuck in the traffic fleeing the path of the storm were delivered a software update by Tesla which upgraded their cars and extended the battery life and therefore range of their cars. Once the storm had blown over, another update removed the additional capacity and reduced their cars back down to the performance level they had paid for.

In fact, their cars were always capable of the extended range but they had chosen not to buy the full 75kw battery option. Few could have been aware that in fact their cars had the full battery installed, but that it had been effectively downgraded in software. Their cars were always capable of the extended range.

It all caused quite a bit of controversy, as you might imagine. But it's just an extension of a whole range of issues which are linked to the concept that you buy hardware but license software and that when you buy into any ecosystem, your rights are effectively limited. You might own that iPhone, bub, but you don't own the software or any of the content it stores and gives you access to. This is also true of your Kindle and your Apple TV or other box with your Netflix subscription.

We don't buy CD racks anymore and many of us don't have upgrade plans for those bookshelves. Content is digital, always-on and an Alexa command away. The ownership of content has changed forever. Of course, you never owned that book or music, you merely owned a physical medium containing the text or recording. The rights to the content subsisted with the author and publisher. But you could leave a book to your kid - you can't leave your Amazon account.

Worse, your iPhone, Kindle, Echo or Tesla is enabled by software which you only enjoy a grant of limited right to access. Amazon et al can simply turn your super-duper gizmo into a brick of e-waste at the blink of an eye.

Tesla extending that model to cars is sort of interesting. Next step is your house. An integrated home automation suite provided by the developer sounds really cool until you find out that if you break the terms of your licence (install the wrong type of shrub in your garden, say, if you've bought a Shiny) your kitchen will stop working.

Volvo has started down that road in a sort of legacy manufacturer trying to be hip with the kids kind of way with the announcement of a sort of extended leasing package called Care by Volvo.  You can bet other manufacturers are going to start exploring the delights of software/hardware industry models for disempowering consumers and disintermediating insurance companies and others who currently profit from the lack of a car 'ecosystem'. In this, Tesla is Apple.

Forget the threat of AIs and the like to our technological futures - here comes the spectre of the elife (and I don't mean Etisalat's crappy FTTH package) - your existence will be dominated by your parents' choice of life ecosystem for you and your world will be under license to The Man.

You mark my words...

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A Rare Descent Into Bookiness

English: Vintage portable Transistor radio &qu...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm going to be back on the radio on Saturday, from about 10.30am Dubai time on the revamped Talking Of Books show (103.8FM Dubai Eye radio or streaming). It's a rare return to booky things for me.

I've not been entirely lazy. I've just finished a hard edit of Beirut - An Explosive Thriller after spotting a couple of SNAFUs in the MS. I made a number of improvements, some based on reader feedback but many based on being a much more experienced editor now.

It's funny what a difference it makes knowing what you know now. There were a couple of joins showing where I'd knocked down walls and rebuilt them, which is a little embarrassing having shifted over 10,000 copies of the damn thing. Oh well.

Beirut is currently free on Amazon, which is driving a steady trickle of sales of the other books, particularly Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy but  also A Decent Bomber. I have a new project on the go, but I'm taking my sweet time and my wordcount is more like 1,000 words a month than 1,000 a day. I'm not really that fussed, tell the truth: life's quite busy enough right now.

But the chance to return to my favourite medium and talk about my favourite things was too great ever to refuse and so I'll be joining new host Annabelle Corton (she of Emirates LitFest fame) to talk about the three books in all the millions of books in the world I'd take to a desert island and to review Omar El Akkad's dystopian novel American War.

So there we go - now you know how to avoid me on Saturday morning!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Leave And That...

Airbus A330-200 lands at London Heathrow Airport.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So I haven't posted in over a month. Sue me.

We've been on leave.

I hate flying, much as I love EK. A380s rock, the films were awful. Kindles rock more than A380s. Except in turbulence which we saw almost not at all. Heathrow sucks lemons.

Drove to Wales to see me mum for a couple of days, she's fine, thanks. Bit shaky. She's over 90 now. Fierce independent lady. The office calls, can I come back early? No. I shipped our bikes from there over to Northern Ireland. Halfords think I'm a totes jackass. They're all hardcore bike freaks, we have two bikes we love to ride when we're home. I got a puncture a while back and took the bike into them. They're all, like, can't you fix your own punctures? And I'm 'No.' And then they're, like, it's a quick release wheel so you don't have to bring the whole bike in. And I'm, 'Sue me.'

They boxed the bikes for me. They still think I'm a nutter, but now I'm another store's problem. They're happy about that.

Back to London for a couple of days in a Premier Inn because the sister-in-law's house (AKA Twickenham Central) is full of neeces. We like Premier Inns, actually. We got a great night's sleep every night, which is their promise, after all.

Photon checks into a hotel. Receptionist says, 'No bags?' Photon replies, 'Nah, I'm travelling light.'

Lovely week, Hampton Court, Thames Cruise, shit service at Pizza Express at the O2 (just drop the express, love, and you're fine) and mad wannabe BBC 2 Children's Presenters at Hamleys Regent Street. We reckoned these kids are freebasing to stay that hyper all day. They're so over the top even the neeces think they're a bit, well, mad. The office calls and asks if I can come back early. Still no.

And then we're on the open road to Salisbury for three idyllic nights at the Beckford Arms, a truly magnificent pub. These people offer you Bloody Mary for breakfast. They're very likeable. We spend the days wandering castles and long walks. There's a Catholic cemetery nearby, packed with little snippets of social history linked to the area's immigrants. The barman at the Beckford convinces me to take black pepper in my Hendricks. Oh me, oh my, people. Black pepper and strawberries in Hendricks. This is the future.

Heathrow, crappy BA and then Belfast. Meet up with the neeces again and do much neecing around. Business stuff, solicitors, banks and accountants. Oh, joy. We did a 5k Fun Run in Rathfriland. The bloody town's on an enormous hill. The outward jog is downhill. It's only when we turn the corner that the bleeding obvious finally hits our dull monkey brains. Ouch.

Two men walk into a bar. Ouch Ouch.

Drives up into the Mournes, Camogie practice, Mary Margaret's pub and wandering along the seafront at Warrenpoint. The Green Pea Café and their insane BLT (Brioche eggy bread, smoked bacon and sundried tomatoes with rocket. Oh dear me) and then the Hotel at Hilltown - the Downshire Arms to you, mate - for Sarah's birthday. Scallops, steak and dancing. The office calls. I get the message. We rearrange flights and hop to Heathrow, do a night in Twickenham Central and take the all-day flight the next day. I love EK, but that flight doesn't suit us. Back in the office for Wednesday, wiped out but functioning.

The weekend's almost over and it's all a vague memory now. A frenetic, lovely charge around the place doing things and seeing things and meeting people and laughing fit to bust, drinking stuff and eating stuff and driving around and just basically living it up.

And now we're back. You know, that sort of what are we doing here feeling mixed with the sense that we're back home and that. Settling back down into things, taking a weekend drive around the place and getting back into the rhythm. I have my wallet back in my back pocket and have stopped obsessing about the car being nicked. I'm back on 24x7 broadband mobile access and not paying Vodaphone two bleeding quid a day for data.

Life's good...

Sunday, 23 July 2017

A Dabble At The Dhaid Date Festival

Sharjah's inland town of Dhaid has an annual date festival. Who knew? We were wending (actually, waddling or wobbling might be more accurate) our way home after a particularly pleasant stay at the Hatta Fort Hotel and caught an overhead billboard advertising the Dhaid Date Festival. And we thought, 'Why not?'

We'd been promising ourselves a stay at the newly revamped JA Hatta Fort Hotel since we played chicken there a few weeks ago. I can only report that we had a fabulous time. Quirky, independent and offering service standards and food quality that I would argue go beyond any other hotel in the UAE, the hotel's facelift has preserved the retro charm of the place and yet brought it up to date. It's all rather chic and we went large for the weekend. Hence the waddling.

Part of the reason why Hatta made us fatta...

Dhaid is an oasis, fed by water from aquifers and the man-made network of aflaj irrigation tunnels running down from the nearby Hajar Mountains. It has long been so, reports from ancient Gazetteers such as old 'mutton chops' Lorimer put Dhaid as an important centre for agriculture and the coming together of the inland and coastal tribes. Even today, it's a notable agricultural centre. So the idea of a Date Festival not only makes sense, it quite tickled us. Anticipating a mixture of Killinascully meets Craggy Island's Funland, we made tracks Dhaidwards.

This is the second year of the Festival, which takes place in the Dhaid Cultural Centre. The hall is decked out in shell-scheme and carpets, with a stage and seating as well as a raised diwan area. The stalls are a wonderful mixture and we wandered, wide-eyed around them chatting to a wildly eclectic mix of people. There were date traders, farmers, agriculturalists and, gloriously, apiarists aplenty.

You'd be amazed at the sheer variety of dates grown in the UAE (one of the world's leading producers of dates, if you but knew it) and they were all on display at the festival, from pick and mix stands selling loose varieties through to enormous weighed bunches some ranging above 50 kilos.

We chatted about date palm propagation (as one does) and sampled dates from farms all over the UAE, learning our klas from our medjoul. Everyone was very shy but very friendly and we got the feeling that foreigners taking an interest was a rare and welcome surprise. But the high point for us wasn't the dates, but the honey. Sarah's dad keeps bees and bottles his own honey and we had already come across the bee keepers of Dhaid, but the date festival had brought a handful of colourful figures from further afield. One chap was selling wild honey from the RAK mountains, eye-wateringly expensive, black as night and gloopy.

Then we came across Mr Honey. A bee-keeper with 500 hives in Al Ain and RAK, Ahmed Al Mazrouei cut a genial figure as he showed us the different qualities of honey he'd spun out the combs he'd lifted from his hives, from his black mountain honey through single flower varieties. Dipping little plastic spoons into the jars, he took us on a tour around some of the most amazingly flavoured honey we'd ever encountered.

He had started the whole thing with six hives. Now his two sons work with him and he runs a delivery service through Whatsapp (you can find him on Instagram, too!)

Ahmed Al Mazrouei

Entranced, we bought a little jar of the black stuff for Da back home - honey so thick it piles up when it's dropped from a spoon back into the pot, tasting darkly of liquorice, molasses and deep caramel. I wish we'd bought another jar for ourselves, but now we've got contacts, baba...

A final whirl through perfumes, palm frond weaving and organic herbs and we found ourselves back out in the sunshine, blinking and very, very glad indeed that we'd taken the opportunity to drop in and say 'Hi'...

It'll be on again this time next year. I'd heartily commend a visit, too!

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Pinky, Lucky, Latta and Khan

They sound like a subcontinental Trumpton fire brigade, but they're not. They're the rocks of Sharjah's 'antique' trade, those four. Latta's has always been upstairs in the Blue Souk, but Pinky's has moved around a bit since we first came across it in Sharjah's unrestored old central souk area, now known as the 'Heart of Sharjah'.

Named after the owner's daughter Pinky, the shop was a treasure trove of Indian furniture and assorted knick-knacks, from battered water jugs through to carved wooden textile printing blocks.

Our first visit to Pinky Furniture had us stumbling wide-eyed around the stacked jumble. An Indian bench caught our eye. 'Is this old?' Sarah asked the proprietor as we made our way between piled cupboards and dressers.

'Oh, absolutely,' he replied. 'Made just last week.'

How could you not warm to that as a response? We got talking. Mr Mukri had a 'godown' where there was more furniture, Omani doors and the like. And there, baking slowly in the ambient heat, was a wonderful collection of dusty things, some new but many 'original' pieces nestled in the tottering piles of furniture.

There was some sort of family fall-out (to be honest I can't recall any details), resulting in Pinky's spawning a rival - Lucky's. We visited Lucky's once or twice, but it was always Pinky what had 'the good stuff'. The other game in town was Mr Khan, located at the back of the street the Post Office is on, who tended to stock the 'new style' of Indian furniture - the iron-banded browny stuff which made Marina Trading's fortune. We started to see this sort of thing popping up in London, in Lewis' and 'funky' furniture places. The basic rule of thumb on pricing seemed to be what cost a rupee in India cost a dirham in Sharjah and a quid in London.

We were furnishing our first villa, filling the vast yawning white spaces, so we bought benches and other stuff from Pinky, visiting regularly as his stock was topped up by containers coming in from India.

A while later, we'd fallen off the 'antique' furniture buying bandwagon and tended to look to Ikea rather than the furniture warehouses. We visited the brand new Souk Madinat Jumeirah, wandering around the alleyways of the fake new souk and realising that we were among old friends. Sure enough, all the traders were the boyos from upstairs at the Sharjah Blue Souk. After the third or fourth encounter it started to get surreal. 'Why are you here?' I asked one of the familiar faces.
He beamed back at me. 'Here it is fixed price! No haggle!'

It was indeed - the outrageous starting prices of Sharjah had become the fixed prices of Dubai and the tourists were, get this lads, paying them without so much a murmur, let alone a howl of 'Are you telling me that's not worth twenty shekels?'

And so, a while later, when I saw a shop close by Mall of the Emirates labelled 'Pinky Furniture & Novelties' I knew the exodus was complete. Pinky's, too, had clearly fallen for the bright lights and the allure of 'fixed prices'.

Only, as it turns out, they didn't. These days Pinky's is still to be found in Sharjah's industrial estate, run after his death by Mr Mukri's son and daughter, the eponymous Pinky. The Dubai adventure was brought to an end by outrageous rent increases (I mean, would you believe that? Really?) and the realisation that, actually, Pinky's customers are happy to make the journey and also that these days, Facebook is a vastly more powerful shop front.

We went for a visit and a wander down memory lane over Eid and walked away with two cupboards. It was just like old times - and I remembered (too late) how hard it always was to leave Pinky's without buying something.

Here's a pin. You're quite welcome.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Dubai Radio Ads

This is not a radio ad, but only marginally less annoying.

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Sorry. I forgot to turn the radio off after the news this morning and ran into the ad break. It was almost over before I realised and switched off.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Hatta Fort Hotel Makeover. And Chickens.

Sheikh Rashid opens the Hatta Fort, 1981

We walked into the reception of the Hatta Fort and peered around the transformed area. 'Good morning,' smiled the receptionist.

'Good morning,' we replied. 'We're here for a chicken.'

His smile faltered. 'Check-in?'

'Oh, no. Chicken.'

You could see him realising that perhaps this was going to be a long, long day...

The small and delightful Hatta Fort Hotel nestles way up in the Hajar Mountains, the rocky range that runs down the spine of the UAE and gives rain to the country's Eastern coastal towns. The hotel's been there since Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, first declared it open back in 1981 - a weekend treat for romantic couples and a destination for various groups from bikers and wadi bashers to companies organising team building events and conferences.

1981 again: the Gazebo restaurant notably absent!

Back in the day, it was home to all sorts of expatty events, murder weekends and meetings of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs (Ah, darling, the quenelles of crustacean were simply divine). We've been going there since the  late '80s to enjoy quick getaways in the tranquility of the mountains, walking in the grounds or driving around and exploring the Hatta tracks. These peregrinatory pleasures are now, thanks to the hardening of the Omani border, no longer possible - and the road to the hotel is no longer the Dubai-Awir-Lahbab-Hatta highway, again because of that border. You have to take the Mileiha road, which snakes around the Omani border. But the Hatta Fort nevertheless still makes for a glorious weekend away from it all.

The Hatta Fort was for many, many years managed by the same chap, one Sergio Magnaldi. At one stage he tried to retire but came back again. He ran a small but tight ship, the happiness of the staff was always notable and over the years it became clear that the people who worked at the Hatta Fort tended to stick around.

The hotel's really something of an old friend. The chalet-style rooms with their round '70s spotlights and tall wooden roofs, the Jeema restaurant with its classical French menu enlivened by some truly glorious curries and, of course, the amazing Roumoul Bar - my favourite bar in the world. I kid you not. The interior of the Roumoul Bar was pure James Bond: a huge, curving leather-sided walnut counter dominated the brown velour-walled room with its rich walnut panelled ceiling home to little glittering brass spotlights. You were instantly transported back in time when you pulled up a chair at the counter. Cocktail shakers would rattle. Home made crisps and - for a while - dishes of canapes would appear. And all was well with the world.

The Hatta Fort's rooms circa 1981. Spot the wall decoration.

You can perhaps imagine how we felt when word reached us that the Hatta Fort was being renovated. Clearly the potential to ruin the whole thing was enormous. Sergio's wife had already had a go at updating the rooms years ago and had made an awful job of it, installing insane tin dogs, huge red bed-heads and utterly inappropriate lighting fixtures, as well as introducing faux-antique 'Marina Trading' style chests and strange chaise longues into the rooms. And, for some reason, odd swathes of leopard skin print material draped around. The hotel managed to rise above the whole thing. Would it survive a complete makeover?

The room post Mrs Sergio - note the chicken has survived the changes.

And if they were going to completely remodel the rooms, what about the brass and enamel chickens that used to hang on the walls? They had been there since the year dot and had even survived Mrs Sergio's reforms. They were pure '70s, fantastic dangly things made up of sweeping leaves of brass and bronze with shiny enamel-centred flowers and things. Sarah nagged me for weeks to get in touch with the hotel and see if we could rescue a chicken. Finally, I sent them the email. Did they by any chance save any of the chickens when they'd redone the rooms? Could we buy one?

Just before the weekend, the reply came. Yes, they had managed to track down a chicken. Yes, we could have it. They'd be pleased to see us whenever we came next. Sarah couldn't wait. Nothing would do but that we hoiked off up there tout de suite. And so Saturday saw us noodling through the mountain roads on our chicken rescuing mission.

The Hatta Fort Hotel today

We had made up our minds to be brave. Change is inevitable and you can't get mired in the past. What to us was a comfortingly familiar, retro delight probably looked to the rest of the world as dated and dowdy. We told each other these things as we pulled up to the hotel. It was something we'd just have to take on the chin.

A new pergola outside the reception was the first sign of change. There were 'on brand' new burgundy umbrellas around the pool. And the reception area itself was transformed and made funky: slate tiled floors, silver and gold furnishings, a lot more airy and spacious. This time round, someone had brought in a real interior designer. It is different, very different. But it is also very nicely done.

We met the older members of staff, one by one. What did we think of it all? The Jeema restaurant and Roumoul were closed by day because of Ramadan, but the chaps took us up for a quick peek around. The restaurant has been rethought totally - airier, lighter and more open. The buffet had been brought into the main dining room. And then, gulp, on to the Roumoul Bar.

Oh, my dears, but it's gone. The new bar is a faint, flickering shadow of former glories. It's nice, mind - again whites and silvers and blacks, slate and grey. All very modern and even a tad chic. But it's not the Roumoul Bar As Was. And you know what? We lived through it. We had a shrug, agreed with the chaps that yes, it was a little sad and its loss a shame but we all have to move on.

And that was that.

We went downstairs and explored one of the rooms - they've been done up very nicely, in fact. In place of the chicken on the wall is a framed piece of calligraphy and the dark wood beamed roofs have been painted white - pale ash bedheads and furnishings add to the airiness. They've kept the Hatta stone walls and the bathrooms have just been teased a little to lift them to the new style. Had other old regulars been horrified? Yes, a couple, the duty manager smiled. But while a few had found it hard to settle, the vast majority had approved. We knew what he meant - it was a lot of change to a place that had become, for many, something of an institution.

The new chalets - beautifully bright, but *gasp* chickenless!

But as we drove home and chatted, our Hatta Chicken safely in the back of the car, we realised that what hadn't changed about the Hatta Fort was the most important thing of all. The staff were still there and were still the same happy, friendly, helpful and smiley bunch. They're as clearly happy to be there as you are. You rather feel like royalty, wandering the grounds and being recognised with grins and murmurs of 'Welcome back' from everyone you encounter.

Apart from the outstanding food (including one of the better breakfast buffets to be had in the Emirates) and the whole tranquility of the mountains thing, it's the staff who always made the Hatta Fort Hotel that little bit more special. And they're still there, as they always are.

And last, and by no means least, we've got the chicken!

From The Dungeons

Book Marketing And McNabb's Theory Of Multitouch

(Photo credit: Wikipedia ) I clearly want to tell the world about A Decent Bomber . This is perfectly natural, it's my latest...