Monday, March 23, 2009


This post relates to India, specifically to the news I heard today that Tata is prepared to begin sales of the world's cheapest car. This could someday be looked back upon as one of those genie out of the bottle or Pandora's box kind of moments.

The news report I heard explained that some analysts see the introduction of this very affordable car as leading the way to an environmental nightmare in India. Just imagine the millions upon millions of cars that could be added to India's roads within a few years' time.

Will road infrastructure possibly be able to keep up with this? Imagine the amount of additional air pollution this would create. The most striking statistic was a comparison of the percentage of cars owned today in India with that in very developed countries. Maybe I misheard the statistic--7 in 1000 people own a car in India today, compared with 600+ in a thousand in, say, the US, for example.

Correct me, someone, if I heard this wrong. If this is true, however, then introduction of this affordable car in India could mean an increase in the number of cars by 10, 20, 30, 40 times or more in the coming years. I can only imagine that this would create a nightmare scenario that would cause any existing problems in the country to fade to insignificance by comparison.

Congestion, parking nightmares, pollution and worst of all increased traffic accidents--the $2000 car in India could really become one of the most unfortunate developments that any industrializing country has ever experienced. If we look at this in today's terms, this is a case where government needs to sternly regulate free enterprise and say NO to Tata--for the greater good of the larger society.

As nice as it is as an individual to be the owner of a car, the value of that possession only exists where there is suitable infrastructure, traffic rules and all the other things required to support it. In a nation with a population of 1 billion plus already, increasing car ownership by 10x seems to be a certain recipe for disaster.

India really needs to forge ahead with a different model of industrialization, one that develops public mass transit systems instead of going the one family, one car route.

The introduction of an extensive train network was perhaps an equally pivotal event for India, but an extremely beneficial one, which is perhaps one reason why car ownership is so low today. India is one of those lucky countries where there is a legacy of public transport, inadequate as it may be by today's standards.

I hope India's government officials, MP's or whoever is responsible for looking after the public well-being will see the folly in Tata's new initiative.

Friday, March 20, 2009


The funny thing is that I can hardly remember the year much less the exact date--of my death. I'm sure many people, like me, have had a close call or two. Had only one thing been different I would not be alive today to tell the tale.

My death day was a pleasant, UAE late summer's day, in September or October of 2002. There was little out of the ordinary. I was riding along on my bicycle, as I had often done on daily commutes and trips around Abu Dhabi to wherever I needed to go.

On this morning I was out on an errand at the military base where I worked. There was little traffic to speak of, especially on this off day. Riding my bicycle, I had decided to cross from one side of the road to the other, while at the same time an SUV was approaching from behind.

I judged the speed of the car and its distance away to be safe enough to cross, but the driver, it would seem, had decided to rev up and zoom past me. Midway across the road I heard the car's engine and before I could turn back to see it, I was in the air and soon thereafter on my back.

There was the sound of the collision and the warmth of hot pavement as I lay on my back in the middle of the road. That, as it were, was my death. It was quick and painless.

Of course, I didn't die--I'm here to tell the story. What saved me quite simply was my bicycle helmet. Although unknown to me at the time, my head had hit the pavement before I landed on my back. This was reported by a witness and evident in the crack on my helmet.

As far as I was concerned I was in the air then on my back. In reality, I had experienced a collision between my head and the concrete road!

The helmet lesson is less mine to learn than for others who read this story. I had always worn a helmet, perhaps 98% of the time that I was on the bicycle. The lesson for me, however, as I ponder this instance is to not take life for granted.

I don't mean this so much in the sense of the cliché to smell the roses. What I mean is that we ought to be more aware of the second and third chances we get in life.

We easily forget what are even quite pivotal events in our lives. That cycle accident was a pivotal moment for me, but I can't even remember now the exact date. The passage of time of course, causes things to fade from memory.

After the accident, I was in hospital for a week with a minor back injury. Then I had to pay the driver 2500 dirham for damaging his car! (I'm reminded now of my distrust of the UAE legal system and resentment toward the driver and his ilk!) In time I returned to work and resumed life as normal.

The second chance the helmet had given me quickly receded from memory. Since then there have even been more pivotal moments but these too have quickly faded from view.

Perhaps we should pay tribute to these pivotal moments--enshrine the date in a plaque and hang it on the wall--to be reminded that we got that second, third, fourth... chance to experience more of life.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Dubai 2

Why Dubai?
I can earn more money here than at home. I get some nice perks like free housing. I can save money because schooling for kids and other allowances are provided. What more is there to say--earn more, save more.
No, these are not my reasons. It isn't so much about money. It isn't even just about money for those coming from, say, a less developed country where the wages for work might be far lower than here in the UAE.

For those who do come for the money there are often other factors at play. For example, if the salary on offer in Saudi Arabia were higher, one would more likely choose Dubai for its liberalism. Many also choose Dubai because they have immediate family, relatives or friends here who precede them. Some also come for the vocational and professional experience that is perhaps more available in Dubai with its more dynamic, diversified economy.

I am not here for the money--I want to make that loud and clear! There are a host of reasons why someone might choose Dubai, which relate to personal factors as much as to economic ones. For me there is on some level a buzz or excitement about Dubai--and I don't mean for getting rich or making more money!

New York of the East

I arrived in Dubai from Sri Lanka in 2000, coming to look for a job--yes, money was a factor. I had not been to Dubai before so had few preconceived notions of what it was like. It was a coolish March when I arrived--just as it is now, the weather was great! What really caught my fancy was how international and vibrant the city was.

In those days--in Dubai years, 2000 was a long time ago--the life and activity of the city were centered around the Creek. All of the color and activity on the streets and on the Creek itself were sort of magical. I spent two weeks in Dubai on that first occasion and loved it. Fortunately I got the job I was looking for, unfortunately it was not in Dubai but in Abu Dhabi.

But it was those two things that hooked me--the buzz and the international flavor. It was also the particularly exotic flavor of the international element that intrigued me. It wasn't just a mini version of New York City, which probably vies with Dubai for having the greatest variety of nationalities represented in a single city. There was definitely something different and special about Dubai.

Luke Skywalker Meets Chewbacca

For those who have seen any of the Star Wars movies, my first visit to Dubai was like when the space travelers enter the crowded bar on this or that odd planet. As a Westerner, even one who had already lived in different parts of Asia, I had never seen so many people on the streets in all variety of dress, wearing tunics, robes and all types of head pieces, in addition to the men having beards, mustaches and all variety of facial features.

Then, there were also all the different languages being spoken, varieties of shops and restaurants, and so on. Two weeks in Dubai and I was sold on a city that was unique and exotic.

During the same trip I visited Al Ain. I had heard this and that about the garden city. I also visited the capital Abu Dhabi, with all of its wide, tree-lined boulevards. But these places did nothing for me. It was Dubai that had caught my fancy.

Now, year 2000 is ages ago. I don't think one can say the Creek is the center of Dubai anymore. I rarely even visit that part of the city now. Still, the buzz and international flavor are here. The once very exotic mix has become more Western, but it is still a mix of everything with even more nationalities than were here in 2000.

If not the exotic clothing anymore, what excites me about Dubai today is how it has transformed itself from an old Singapore-style trading city to an ultra-modern urban experiment on the cusp of 21st century development. Again, there is a kind of Star Wars symbolism here, but of a very different kind. When one sees the cityscapes in the newer Star Wars films, one can sense a bit of Dubai 2008 or 2009.

So Many Places

I have lived in other notable cities, one of these Honolulu, Hawaii. Without a doubt, that city and the Hawaiian islands have to be among the most pristine and beautiful places to live on earth, and Honolulu is also a very international city--mostly Asian and Pacific.

I also lived in Kyoto, Japan--for 10 years. It is a city where all of Japanese history and culture are in a sense preserved and still alive. Even though now overlaid with concrete dwellings and roads, the city is still a treasure trove of the most beautiful gardens and temples and is surrounded by mountains which change their colors with the seasons--from deep summer green, to autumn yellow and red, to winter white and then to bright green with the new growth of spring.

Last on my list of notables is Colombo, Sri Lanka. Now Colombo was--and is--a pot-holed, dusty and smelly-in-places, traffic-clogged third-world city, yet it has its charms. The people are ever so warm and friendly toward Westerners, the green cover, where it exists within the city and definitely on the outskirts, is of a glorious tropical variety, and one can quite simply experience life's simpler pleasures there. One of my favorite of simple pleasures was the shade of a tree--any tree or grove would do, which for Sri Lankans was sufficient to keep body and drink cool. Who needs air-conditioning or refrigeration?

A Personal Choice

Those fascinating and charming experiences aside, Dubai is still my city of choice. It is a city that dares to be first and dares to welcome all of every stripe (well almost every--sometimes in a don't ask, don't tell sort of way). It is in a way no one's real home (the local Emirati population sometimes feel alienated) yet domicile for anyone who wishes to make it so. I am still very much looking forward to the trails Dubai will blaze in the year 2009 and beyond--global economic woes notwithstanding.

Those are my reasons. What are yours?

P.S.  Just noticed I had already written a piece entitled Dubai in 2007.

Monday, March 02, 2009


So what is the public bus system in Dubai really like? Well, for one, a sweeping generalization is probably not really possible. It seems there are lots of complaints by regular users, yet on some level the bus system is pretty impressive. If nothing else, I don't think anyone can deny that it is ever improving.

On the upside the new buses are quite amazing and there would appear to be a great number of them. Most it would seem are either those long double-buses--buses with long appendages--or genuine double-decker buses of an ultra-modern variety. Who can complain when one of these pulls up and it's your bus!

But therein lie two of the problems. Does the bus actually pull up? Buses often seem to zoom past without any intention of stopping. Presumably they're full, but one wonders, and one can get extremely frustrated when bus number two, three and four zooms past without stopping. The second problem is is it your bus. Another great frustration is seeing that second, third and fourth bus pull up but it isn't your number.

Now again on the upside there are an increasing number of air-conditioned bus shelters. It would seem there are dozens, probably over a hundred around the city. I haven't heard many expressions of appreciation for these, but it is only now, since the shelters were first erected, that the weather is starting to get really hot. I think bus riders will soon start to count their blessings.

So, you've got some incredibly modern and impressive buses on the roads and air-conditioned bus shelters. Why then all the long faces?

An Unsystematic System

There is a bit more to the downside than the anecdotal reports of long waits and buses that zoom by. There is very little information to assist riders at either the bus stops or on the running buses. What routes exactly do the buses take--how about a decent map? What are the upcoming stops, for passengers sitting on the buses?

If not a frequent rider then it's all guess work. Worst of all is the fact that the posted timings at the bus stops appear to be in large measure fiction. Somewhere there appears to be a serious system breakdown, where drivers couldn't care less about schedules, supervisors don't monitor or control anything or the posted schedules are, in fact, just fiction. This, it seems, is where the greatest frustration lies among riders. This is what makes the bus system still in many ways impracticable.

Now, interestingly there is one issue that I seldom hear bus riders talk about--prices. It costs a flat 2 dirham to take any bus to anywhere. It's simple and reasonably cheap. That's 54 US cents. There is also an unlimited use bus pass which costs US$27 per month. So cost is not an issue.

The Big Picture

Those who do complain are often regular users, so they would seem to have valid issues. That said, one should look at the bigger picture. From a bird's-eye view what you have is a very scattered city, sort of Los Angeles-like but probably worse. There are two older sections of the city which straddle the Creek--a wide, water inlet that bisects the older part of the city. This consists of a traditional city layout which a normal bus system might easily serve. Beyond these two districts, however, is where the problems begin.

One source of problems is the great Sheikh Zayed Road, which starts at the edge of the traditional city and stretches on for 40+ kilometers before finally reaching the city iimits. Not only is this 40 kilometer stretch an issue, but the two sides of the highway are, practically speaking, as cut-off from one another as if the highway were a grande river. SZR is basically a super-expressway, but unlike the traditional superhighway, it is lined on either side with tower blocks of residences and offices, shopping centers, showrooms, etc. which means that one is always going to have something to do on one side or the other and more commonly both. Yet there is no way to traverse the two sides by bus--and certainly not on foot. If without one's own car then one can look at spending $5-10 just to get to the other side in a taxi.

The other problems are due to the numerous far-flung sections of the city, those along SZR being only one set among several. This is perhaps very much like Los Angeles. One's errands are likely to be scattered about 30 kilometers in one direction, then 40 in another and then another 50 to get back to where you started. When it comes to the daily commute between home and office, 50-70 kilometer runs each way is the norm for the many workers who can't afford to live in Dubai and have to travel cross-emirate. (My own daily commute is 150 kilometers each way.)

Under these circumstance the bus-network is severely challenged. Thankfully, the opening of the first metro line is but a few months away.

Saturday, February 28, 2009


This is an Arabic word that has pretty much crossed over to the lexicon of English speakers in the UAE. Meaning tower, it first came into popular use with the opening in 2000 of the Burj Al Arab--the famous, or notorious, 7-star hotel. More recently the Burj Dubai, the soon to be completed 162-floor super tower, has both added further popularity and a good amount of confusion to the term. It is funny that it is usually the local Arabic speakers who translate the word into English for English speakers when referring to either of the towers.

Although I know quite well that one is the Burj Al Arab and the other is the Burj Dubai, my tongue quite regularly mixes the two up. The situation could easily get worse as other tower builders are often inclined to add Burj to the name of their towers.

Beyond the symantics, the Burj, as in the 162-floor tower, is quite an amazing addition to Dubai's already amazing skyline. It isn't just a super-tall structure, but rather quite a beautiful edifice, especially when seen gleaming in the shining sun. Interestingly as well, it has been constructed as not a single, lonely monument but as part of a larger development which includes numerous other towers, an artificial lake and the so-called Old Town, which provides an artful contrast of old and new architecture. It is very much a job well done by its developer, Emaar.

It has been noted that when previous tallest buildings in the world have been built, their completion has ushered in a serious economic crises of one sort or other, as though there is a jinx associated with such feats. Perhaps we could call it the curse of the Tower of Babel. I came across this observation a couple of years ago, before any signs of the current global meltdown. At the time I thought, interesting coincidence, but surely the Burj Dubai will be the exception.

The economy of Dubai after all had been booming for years and the only hint of a slowdown was the forecast eventuality of over-supply in the local property market. No one would dare suggest that this was not going to happen at some point with the massive scale of construction going on. But the conventional wisdom was that, with rampant project delays and overly ambitious predictions of project completions, the day of reckoning was still a couple of years off and slipping.

Alas, come September 2009 the Burj Dubai too would seem to be headed toward the same fate or curse as the super-towers which preceded it. In 2004 the Tapei 101 tower was completed--no recession or dramatic economic events then. But the Petronas Towers in Malaysia, completed in 1998, seemed to usher in the Asian flu, the Chicago Sears Tower and New York World Trade Center towers in 1974 and 1973 respectively saw the emergence of the first world oil shock, and perhaps most notorious of all, the Empire State building witnessed the start of the Great Depression at its completion in 1931.

Certainly, it is not coincidence but rather symptomatic of great booms that they spawn builders to reach for the stars, while as a matter of course, they eventually engender their own bust. In the years that it takes to go from vision, to plan, to realization of a world's tallest tower, the boom will have crested and then begun its hasty retreat. So it is again for the Burj Dubai.

In this instance, there is perhaps a silver lining. The severity of the bust is as spectacular as the great feat represented in the construction of the tower. The Burj Dubai is the first super tower since the Empire State building to rise to such elevation as to leave any challenger far in its stead. It is probably now destined to hold onto the title of world's tallest tower for decades to come.

Friday, February 27, 2009


Very much related to the credit crunch and global economic downturn is the problem of consumerism. On the one hand, a return to rampant consumption might be just the thing to turn economies around today. On the other hand, the day of reckoning has finally come after too many years of rampant and every-growing consumption.

A large part of today's mass consumption has been funded by debt. Consumer debt is at least one element of the current credit crunch. I heard on the radio today that the amount of consumer debt in the United States is equal to 100% of the country's entire GDP.

To put this into perspective, that number was at about 50% as of year 2000--a more or less manageable ratio--but then rocketed up over the next 8 years. Only twice, since such things have been measured, has the ratio of consumer debt been so high. The other instance was in 1929, the year of the great stock market crash, which led ultimately to the Great Depression.

Consumerism, then, might be considered the big, bad gorilla. It seems to become a problem in societies where a large percentage of the population has increasing levels of disposable income. It is quite logical, of course, that if one has more to spend then one will spend more. Then again, one could save more, instead.

Why don't people save more when they earn more? The issue, in fact, is not only one of rising incomes, but there is the pressure on the consumer that marketing brings to bear. Marketing is so rampant in modern societies that people are in a sense pressurized into buying more and more.

At some point, the marketing pressures reach such hyperbolic levels that disposable income once exhausted is quickly supplemented by credit or consumer debt.

The Nature of Consumerism

Consumerism follows an aggressive trend. If I think way back to my youth in the 1960's, the United States was, of course, already a very much consumption-driven society.

My reckoning of history tells me that it pretty much started post WWII, when the United States emerged not only from years of economic depression but became the world's leading industrial economy, practically unscathed by the devastating war and, in fact, positively energized through the experience.

Back as far as I can remember, however, people wanted things--mostly connected with home and car: a new refrigerator, a black & white or better yet color TV...

By the mid-70's the more common preference became the second TV or the second car. By the 1980's and beyond it was not only these rather nice and convenient household and transportation goods, but people began to fill their homes ever more with every manner of thing big and small.

By the 90's, when one would think there were few new avenues open for consumerism, services of every sort became the big thing. People began spending much more on eating out, grooming, those increasingly expensive cups or coffee, hotels, flights, etc.

Remembering the Time

It is that ever so aggressive trend that consumerism follows. When I think back to my early teen years in the 1970's life seemed pretty good. What more could a family need than what my family already had--a car, a color TV, the usual household appliances. But today, one of anything seems not enough.

If traveling in America over 500 miles then one feels he needs to fly. In former times most would have been content to drive, or take a bus. Clothing for children was something that was still often made at home, or if bought, handed down to siblings. Coffee was coffee was coffee--a 25 or 50 cent refillable cup!

The problem that underlies too much consumerism is, I would argue, not so much rising disposable incomes as over aggressive marketing and the relative space which people have in which to store the things they accumulate.

I lived in Japan for over a decade, during its booming years--the mid 80's to the mid 90's. The Japanese were no less bombarded with pressures to buy and spend money on goods and services than in similarly affluent America. But at the end of the day, they saved a big portion of their disposable income and bought less.

The secret of Japanese frugality was, in part, memory of the hardship that they had emerged from much more recently than had the Americans. But equally important was the fact that the Japanese lived in small houses. There was quite simply no space for a second sofa, an easy-chair or a second 29-inch TV. Closets were where beds were kept, leaving no space for overflowing consumer goods. In fact, many Japanese homes had little space for any furniture at all.

Cross borders and decades to the UAE of 2008-09. This has been a society of increasing wealth, with ever increasing pressures on the population to spend, spend and spend. The pattern of consumerism that took over 40 years to emerge in the United States has taken place rapidly here, in less than even a single decade.

Similar to Japan, however, the forces of consumerism have been held in check to some extent. More than half of the population has very little living space--from merely the space of a single bed to that of a single room. And many, in recent years, have been forced to spend 20-80 percent of their income on accommodation, as bare as it often is.

A Role for the Powers That Be

Whatever the society--Eastern or Western, developed or developing--consumerism is something that evolves and often follows a rather aggressive trend line. Left unchecked, people will easily cross the threshold of spending disposable income to funding their purchases by ever-increasing debt. I have personally witnessed this phenomenon in the USA, Japan and the UAE.

The biggest problem with consumerism, as I see it, is not capitalism per se or people's desire to obtain goods and services. The main problem is the aggressive marketing campaigns. People are bombarded with messages from every source to buy and spend.

I would argue that while governments should allow their citizens and resident population to buy and spend at will, it (the government) should play a strong role in curbing and restricting marketing.

This already happens with regard to issues of health, as in bans on cigarette and alcohol advertising. But there should also be some effort to control the extent to which advertising is allowed to proliferate overall.

The extent of advertising in publications could be restricted in any number of ways, e.g. no front or back cover adverts and adverts limited to a quarter-page size. The extent of billboards and streaming ads along the highways could be restricted, and so on.

Quite simply, if it isn't staring you in the face along every highway or every other inch of page in magazines and newspapers, the consumer will be a little less driven to part with hard-earned cash and credit facilities.

Economies develop and grow on the basis of increasing production, sales and delivery of goods and services, and marketing and advertising feed and nurture this essential economic activity--so the counter argument would go. Restrict the scope of marketing activity and you inhibit growth.

Then, let it be so! The sins and inherent danger in of over-consumption were already apparent even before the global economic meltdown. I suppose, however, that there was the somewhat credible belief that the cyclical economic corrections were sufficient to keep things in balance, negating the need to ever have a dramating day of reckoning.

The reality today, however, is that modern society will have to innovate other ways to develop and prosper, sans mass consumption.

In the end, too much consumerism is harmful to individuals, to societies-at-large and, as we can see now, to the entire global community. It is government's role at the end of the day to establish rules and frameworks that protect people and nations from destructive, and as the case may be, self-destructive activities.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


I don't really know what is the single best term to identify this economic crunch that the whole world is talking about. Does it in fact have a single, recognized term or phrase? Perhaps that is something history will have to decide.

Dubai, of course, is not unaffected, and in fact some will say that it has been greatly damaged. I sort of dispute that. While some aspects of the economy have been badly hit, namely real estate, tourism and to some extent the retail sector, the economy is in large measure still intact and life and all the associated activity goes on.

The fact is that Dubai has been on a continuous diversification drive for the past two or three decades. Instead of relying one thing, say trade or oil, Dubai has for years taken pains to expand its scope of activities. One can start with the 1970's, when the ruler of the day, Sheikh Rashid I believe, had the vision to build a big new shipping port. Until that time the bustling port along the waterway that cuts through the center of old Dubai, the Creek, was perhaps enough for Dubai of the time to rest on its laurels. But the new port created a whole new dimension in trade and economic activity.

That it seems was just a beginning. The massive Jebel Ali freeport (tax free--or low tax, less bureaucracy--trade zone) was soon to follow, along with a number of other freezones each catering to a different sort of economic activity. In the late 90s Emirates Airlines began to emerge as a super carrier and at the same time Dubai began to fashion itself as a retail or shopping hub, both of which led naturally to the next big thing, tourism.

Right on the heels of Dubai's emergence as a major tourism destination came a nascent property market which within a matter of 3, 4 or 5 years came to eclipse even the great enterprises that had preceded it. Dubai's economy, even with the so-called credit crunch, economic meltdown or whatever it might be called, is still highly diversified and highly active. The fact that Dubai appears to be in trouble is perhaps more a testament to its successes than its failures.

The very fact that it somehow emerged as a banking and financial hub and a center for stock and commodities exchange, in addition to having its trade, retail, property and construction industries all affected simultaneously by what has happened in the world is evidence of the massive breadth of the economic activity that has taken place here in recent years. Even in the midst of this turmoil, I would dare to say that Dubai is once again, quietly while nonetheless steadily, making progress at developing one of the most modern urban infrastructure networks in the world.

While people continue to harp about the crises, Dubai's ultra-modern 76-kilometer metro system is fast coming online. Expansive highways with countless bridges, flyovers and tunnels continue to get built. The city is also making steady progress on its waterways expansion, such that within a few years time the city should have in place an extremely multi-faceted and efficient transport network. When the world finally begins to emerge from its economic slumber, it will find a Dubai already poised to race ahead again with yet new economic forays, made possible this time by an amazing civil transport systems.