Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Learnings I have had over the past few days (in no particular order):

1. When someone suggest sunblock, it's usually a good idea to put some on, regardless of whether you believe you will need it or not. Really.

2. Contrary to popular belief, brown people burn just as well as any other kind of people. Maybe not as obviously as other races, but we do burn...

3. A possible remedy for the common cold: lots of sun, water-related fun and frolic, hundreds of screaming kids, good food, afternoon naps, and more water-related frolic - can make you forget about your cold!

4. Its important that once in a while we all take a leap of faith. Metaphorical or real. A few months ago, I took a metaphorical leap by quitting my job and starting my own little consulting business. Yesterday, I took a literal Leap of Faith at Aquaventure at Atlantis Dubai (see point #5).

5. Recommended approach to the Leap of Faith slide at Aquaventure: Lie down. Cross your legs. (If you are a water slide afficionado, you will know why this important :). Cross your arms on your chest. (You can also hold your nose if feel like it). Keep your head back, and your eyes closed. Scream like a little girl on the way down. Review your life as it flashes before your eyes. Thank God for His mercy when you reach the bottom alive. Take a deep breath (important to remember this last one!). Pat yourself on the back and REPEAT!

6. I have liked & appreciated the MasterCard commercials that have aired over the past 10 years. They are based on a deep insight - that people don't mind spending money if it increases the quality of their experiences & memories (a vacation in Kenya, XXXX dollars... memories of a lion attack shared by you and your family, PRICELESS). Love it.

7. The prospect of being without electricity in Sharjah in this heat is quite frankly - intimidating. For those of you who will say it keeps you in touch with the realities on the ground in Pakistan, I very politely blow you a raspberry. BTW, in Pakistan, when the power goes, there are back-up options galore - UPS, generators, etc... in Sharjah, if you live on the 43rd floor, and the building generator malfunctions, you are up s*%t creek, and s*%t out of luck.

8. People don't appreciate random price increases, even if there is new management. The gym in our building has hiked their price from AED 2000 a year, to AED 9600 a year. We may switch buildings as a result ;)

9. Talk about taking a "captive" audience for a ride... there seems to be a concerted effort by anyone remotely linked to the real estate sector - developers, landlords, maintenance companies etc. - to totally SCREW the poor bugger who happens to rent there. Seriously guys, try to work out a win-win otherwise everyone just gets deeper into the hole.

10. And lastly, friends are the best and most important support a guy can have. Don't take them for granted.

Friday, June 04, 2010

So it's been a while since my last update, and I'm sorry. It's been a really busy and tumultuous time for me, personally and professionally. Here's what has happened, in a nutshell:

1. I turned 40 in April. Yes, the Big 4 0. It was a bit of a let down, really, because I felt exactly the same the next morning :)

2. I quit my job. Yes, after 18 years of relatively uninterrupted employment, I quit and decided to start my own brand consulting and training venture. I now have a (very) modest set-up in the Dubai Knowledge Village, and three lovely clients :) in three different countries :( that has me traveling a lot, but loving it :) So far, so good :) it's a bit nerve-wracking as I wean myself off the expectation of a fixed income at the end of every month :( but exciting too :)

3. I am working on book 2 of the Erikk series... it's coming along slowly but surely. I'm also negotiating with a major publisher for Book 1, but they are asking for some potentially major changes, so I'm not sure how that is going to play out...

4. I went from being a person who never imagined that they would be e-literate, to being a person with two websites, a blog and 10 e-mail addresses. This would not have been possible without my 2 blackberries (!!) - so I have finally had to embrace my crackberry addiction. They say that admitting to your addiction is the first step to getting better - so this is me saying - I'm a blackberry addict, and I'm not ashamed. The only problem is: I don't think I want to get better ... I can handle myself, I can control this urge to stay connected, it's not a "problem" :) really.

5. My family was to move back to Canada in the summer, and that's been put off for a year, so that's a huge relief.

So, pretty much everything in my life has changed, and yet, the most important parts of my life remain on solid ground - my family, my faith, my friends. Thank you God. Please allow me to continue practicing good thoughts, good words, good actions moving forward...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

There is a lot of debate these days about testing Western expats' driving when they apply for a UAE driving licence.

There are two reasons given.

1. The traffic accident rate in the UAE is very high, and rising.

2. It is not fair that these (predominantly white) expats should be exempted from driving tests that are torture for the non-white / non-Western expat population.

Let's address point #2 first. I agree - it is not fair that this category of expats is exempted from driving tests. The assumption is that they are coming from "civilized" Western societies, and therefore must possess the necessary driving skills. This assumption is a throwback to the colony era... and reflects many other similar exemptions made for such expats (let's call them WWEs - White Western Expats). WWEs can get a visa on arrival in the UAE. They get their driving licences issued directly upon having their residence permits issued and so on... this preferential treatment is entirely one way BTW. As far as I'm aware, UAE nationals are not eligible for visa on arrival facilities in any Western country that I am aware of, and if they do move there, they have to go through the driving licence application process just like everyone else there...

So why extend this one-way courtesy to WWEs? On the priniciples of equal treatment of all, I agree with the proposal to start some level of education & testing for all arrivals into the UAE.

Coming back to point #1...

The number of WWEs involved in the rising number of accidents (aside from the occasional bout of drunken joy-riding down Sh Zayed Rd) is quite limited, simply because the number of WWEs as a % of the population is quite small. The number of accidents due to rash driving by everyone else seems to be the over-riding factor... a recent Gulf News poll highlighted the actual nationalities involved in accidents, as well as the perceptions of the public, and they were not the same...

Let's face it. Whom among us has not been terrorized by a large SUV flashing headlights, honking the horn, and weaving back and forth between the fast lane and the hard shoulder in an effort to get us to vacate the fast lane IMMEDIATELY - even if we are overtaking someone at the time?

The most appalling example of reckless endangerment that I have seen recently was during the last foggy day in Dubai. There was nearly zero visibility on parts of Sh Zayed Rd, people were driving at 40 kph with hazards on because you could not see the end of your own vehicle. In that pea soup, a huge Merc went zooming down the hard shoulder doing at least 180 kph. I nearly had a heart attack... but more interesting to me was the question that has stayed with me since that day.

What was this person THINKING?

To me this is the very definition of insanity, but then that's just me.

I think the solution lies in education, and raising the value of a human life - perhaps that way we can convince everyone that a road is meant to help us get from point A to point B, and not a race track.

Of course one can argue - the Autobahn performs both functions beautifully. Although the SZR is far superior to the Autobahn in terms of number of lanes, road surface quality, lighting and other technical specifications, the quality of drivers cannot be compared - and therein lies the difference. You can have the most beautiful infrastructure in the world, but the users of that infrastructure need to behave equally beautifully...

The RTA (Roads & Transport Authority) has been doing a commendable job of trying to raise awareness of the consequences of speeding, reckless driving etc., through their Safe Driving Week / Month / For Life campaigns... We need a continued focus on education and communication to raise the value of these values in the driving community in the UAE - of all nationalities, origins and ethnicities.

After all, a road accident does not discriminate!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Open letter to Ms Gangaramani
Owner & Managing Director
Al Fara'a Properties, Dubai

Sent via e-mail to the "Customer Care" centre of Al Fara'a Properties on Sep 29, '09

Dear Ms Gangaramani

I hope that you and your company are doing well in these turbulent times. My name is Omar Abedin, Canadian citizen, and resident of the UAE.

I am a small investor in one your projects, Image Residences. In May of last year, I invested in apt # A-511, paying a down-payment of 10% (over AED 160,000) for the privelege of investing with your company.

Since then, we all know what has happened, and what has not.

e.g. One of the things that has happened is the lack of available credit, making it virtually impossible for small investors like myself to get a mortgage.

At the same time, however, another of the things that has not happened is any progress on the project (Image Residences) whatsoever, which puts your company in direct contravention of UAE law. I'm sure you are far more aware of this than I am, but my understanding (as confirmed by a lawyer) is that if a company has not started working on a project 12 months after announcing it, then all (ALL) funds paid into that project by investors are to be returned to them without penalties, and without delay. At this point, it has been 18 months since the project has been announced, and your company is sitting on my money, and the money of hundreds of small investors like me.

This is not fair. This is not moral. And this is not legal.

Is this what the Al Fara'a Company stands for? Where is the proud heritage of 30 years of effort put in by your family to create an enterprise that they - and you - could be proud of? Where is the "culture of care" that your campany has been advertising on the billboards of the UAE for the past year?

What I am requesting now is simple. Please arrange for a full refund of my funds. It is a small amount for a huge company like yours, but for a person like myself, it is the equivalent of years of hard work and sacrifice.

I am attaching links to several locations on the web where I am posting this letter. I trust you, and your company, will do the right thing - the fair, moral, legal thing.

Waiting to hear from you,

Omar Abedin

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Jonathan Cook, Foreign Correspondent

The extremist group Ateret Cohanim is buying up property in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City with funds raised in the US.

NAZARETH // Israeli peace activists are planning to ratchet up their campaign against groups in the United States that raise money for settlers by highlighting how tax exemptions are helping to fund the expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank. Gush Shalom, a small peace group that advocates Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories, is preparing to send details to the US tax authorities questioning the charitable status of several organisations. Adam Keller, a spokesman, said these operations’ tax-exempt status meant that “settlement expansion is effectively being subsidised out of the pockets of the US taxpayer and government”. The campaign is designed to increase pressure on Barack Obama, the US president, to demand action from Israel on his repeated calls – so far largely ignored – to end settlement building. Last week, Israel announced plans to build 455 new homes in West Bank settlements and 500 apartments in East Jerusalem.Mr Obama is expected to unveil a Middle East peace plan this month. In a related move, Gush Shalom is encouraging Palestinians who have suffered from settler violence to file lawsuits in the United States that would redefine the settlers’ fund-raising work as support for “terrorist activity”. The peace group has accelerated the pace of its campaign, according to a “confidential memo” it issued on July 29 that was leaked to the Israeli media, after the Israeli government heavily criticised human rights groups over the summer for receiving funds from foreign donors, particularly European governments.In particular, the foreign ministry lambasted Breaking the Silence, a group of army veterans, for publishing testimonials from 26 Israeli combat soldiers suggesting the army committed war crimes during its assault on Gaza last winter.Mr Keller said: “It’s the height of chutzpah for the foreign ministry to be hounding Breaking the Silence, which is doing something entirely legal and transparent, while keeping quiet about the settler organisations’ dependence on foreign income for their illegal activities.”Gush Shalom said it was not divulging details of the organisations it will target next month to ensure an element of surprise. But Mr Keller said all of the 120 main settlements, which are illegal under international law, have fundraising arms in the United States.Gush Shalom has already accused one organisation, Shuva Israel, which is registered as a charity in Austin, Texas, of channelling funds to the Shomron Liaison Office, located in the West Bank settlement of Revava, south of the Palestinian city of Nablus. According to Shuva Israel’s website, donations are used to support several outposts close to Revava, such as El Matan, Havat Gilad and Havat Yair, which are illegal under Israeli law. The 100 or so outposts, satellites of the main settlements, have been the settlers’ most effective method of extending their control over Palestinian territory in the West Bank. Israel has repeatedly promised the United States it will dismantle the outposts – so far to no effect.Shuva Israel also funds Yitzhar, a settlement that hit the headlines last year when its inhabitants rampaged through the neighbouring Palestinian village of Asira al Kibliyeh in what the prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, called a “pogrom”. Referring to Shuva Israel and the Shomron Liaison Office, Mr Keller said: “From our investigations it is unclear whether these are actually two organisations with close links or two faces of the same organisation.” David Halevy, the head of Shuva Israel, told the Jerusalem Post that donations subsidised projects in West Bank settlements and outposts such as schools, libraries, youth centres and empowerment training for women. Mr Keller said most of the organisations were quite open about their fundraising activities, but that donations in support of the settlements almost certainly broke the terms of the US tax-exemption laws. “On the public relations side they say they are involved in humanitarian and non-political work, but to their supporters they play up their assistance for the settlers’ nationalist and expansionist activities. This is the way we hope to catch them out.” A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a group of academics and former diplomats, identified several other settler organisations fund-raising in the United States. It noted that the settlement of Sussya in the South Hebron Hills raised funds through a tax-exempt US organisation called PEF Israel Endowment Funds, registered in Manhattan. In 2007, Forbes, the business magazine, ranked PEF as one of the 200 largest charities in the US. Other US tax-exempt charities named were the One Israel Fund, which raises money for projects in outposts, and the Hebron Fund, which raises an average of US$1.5 million (Dh5.5bn) a year on behalf of a few hundred extremist Jewish settlers encamped in the middle of Hebron. The One Israel Fund claims on its website to be “the largest North American charity whose efforts are dedicated solely to the citizens and communities of Yesha”, a Hebrew acronym for the West Bank. According to the ICG report, Christian Zionist groups also raise significant sums for the settlements. One website, Christian Friends of Israeli Communities, lists dozens of youth and community projects in the settlements it funds.An investigation last month by the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz revealed that a group called American Friends of Ateret Cohanim had received tax-exempt status by claiming to fund educational institutes in Israel. In reality, however, it had transferred $1.6m to Ateret Cohanim, an extremist settler group, which buys Palestinian land and homes in East Jerusalem, especially in the Muslim quarter of the Old City. Gush Shalom also hopes to increase pressure on the funding of organisations by encouraging civil litigation in the United States from Palestinian victims of settler violence in a bid to characterise the attacks as “terror activity”. Court rulings would then be sought to shut down the settlers’ US fund-raising arms on the grounds that they support terrorism, in an echo of legal action by right-wing Jewish groups in the US against Muslim charities.Two additional campaigns are mentioned in the memo. In the coming months the group plans to highlight the links between the settlements and such large international Zionist organisations as the Jewish National Fund and the World Zionist Organisation. It also suggests exposing the Israeli government’s support for US lobby groups, such as Stand With Us and the Israel Project, that are engaged in what it calls “propaganda” on behalf of the settlements.

jcook@thenational.ae
I am saddened by the drive on in the UAE to arrest people found eating, drinking or smoking in public during the fast.

There is no compulsion in Islam - of any kind. If Islam does not permit Muslims to force a prisoner of war to convert at the point of a sword, how can you arrest someone for smoking or eating in public?

This is what we would call a "teachable moment". As many have said, Ramadan is a time for introspection & self-improvement (the real Jihad), and fasting is for Allah only. What do you achieve by having your colleagues, co-workers, neighbours & friends arrested because of lack of knowledge or awareness.

I say - engage & educate - don't arrest and harrass.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Tutu to Haaretz: Arabs paying the price of the Holocaust

By Akiva Eldar, Haaretz Correspondent
Tags: Palestinians, Desmond Tutu

"The lesson that Israel must learn from the Holocaust is that it can never get security through fences, walls and guns," Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of South Africa told Haaretz Thursday. Commenting on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's statement in Germany Thursday that the lesson of the Holocaust is that Israel should always defend itself, Tutu noted that "in South Africa, they tried to get security from the barrel of a gun. They never got it. They got security when the human rights of all were recognized and respected."

The Nobel Prize laureate spoke to Haaretz in Jerusalem as the organization The Elders concluded its tour of Israel and the West Bank. He said the West was consumed with guilt and regret toward Israel because of the Holocaust, "as it should be."

"But who pays the penance? The penance is being paid by the Arabs, by the Palestinians. I once met a German ambassador who said Germany is guilty of two wrongs. One was what they did to the Jews. And now the suffering of the Palestinians."

He also slammed Jewish organizations in the United States, saying they intimidate anyone who criticizes the occupation and rush to accuse these critics of anti-Semitism. Tutu recalled how such organizations pressured U.S. universities to cancel his appearances on their campuses. "That is unfortunate, because my own positions are actually derived from the Torah. You know God created you in God's image. And we have a God who is always biased in favor of the oppressed."

Tutu also commented on the call by Ben-Gurion University professor Neve Gordon to apply selective sanctions on Israel. "I always say to people that sanctions were important in the South African case for several reasons. We had a sports boycott, and since we are a sports-mad country, it hit ordinary people. It was one of the most psychologically powerful instruments. "Secondly, it actually did hit the pocket of the South African government. I mean, when we had the arms embargo and the economic boycott." He said that when F.W. de Klerk became president he telephoned congratulations. "The very first thing he said to me was 'well now will you call off sanctions?' Although they kept saying, oh well, these things don't affect us at all. That was not true. "And another important reason was that it gave hope to our people that the world cared. You know. That this was a form of identification."

Earlier in the day, Tutu and the rest of the delegation visited the village of Bil'in, where protests against the separation fence, built in part on the village's land, take place every week. "We used to take our children in Swaziland and had to go through border checkpoints in South Africa and face almost the same conduct, where you're at the mercy of a police officer. They can decide when they're going to process you and they can turn you back for something inconsequential. But on the other hand, we didn't have collective punishment. We didn't have the demolition of homes because of the suspicion that one of the members of the household might or might not be a terrorist." He said the activists in Bil'in reminded him of Ghandi, who managed to overthrow British rule in India by nonviolent means, and Martin Luther King, Jr., who took up the struggle of a black woman who was too tired to go to the back of a segregated bus.

He stressed his belief that no situation was hopeless, praising the success of the Northern Irish peace process. The process was mediated by Senator George Mitchell, who now serves as the special U.S. envoy to the Middle East. Asked about the controversy in Petah Tikva, where several elementary schools have refused to receive Ethiopian school children, Tutu said that "I hope that your society will evolve."