Friday, October 28, 2016

Fun with Bitmoji

A while ago I loaded an app called Bitmoji that I've been using on some of my social media. You create an avatar and then the app will incorporate the avatar into their pre-set images, which you can then send. How's my avatar look?

There's hundreds of images you can send, some get unusual.

Of course with Halloween approaching they offer costumes . . .

Well, that's the things I get up to on a lazy Friday morning.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Kayaking in Qatar

When I was in Abu Dhabi a couple of weekends ago one of the activities that I did was kayaking. Our hotel was near a mangrove forest and you could rent kayaks to explore the waterways and canals in the forest. We had fun and my friends thought it was a great activity so when we returned to Qatar they went out and bought some kayaks.

Qatar also has some areas with mangroves, one of the largest ones being just north of Al Khor on the shore of a town called Dhakhira (its name translates as “ammunition”, not sure why it’s called that). So after breakfast on a Friday we loaded up a truck with the kayaks and headed to Dhakhira.

We spent a couple of hours touring around. Mostly saw herons and some fish, sometimes small crabs near the shore.

After a while we found a small beach on the other side of the bay where a tour company sets up tents and/or BBQs for their clients. They rent kayaks for people to use to explore the mangroves.

If you happen to know any Qataris with the last name Al Mohannadi ask them about the area, back in the day the land around Al Khor and Dhakhira was controlled by the Al Mohannadis and so chances are any Qatari with that last name has plenty of relatives still living there.

If you're interested in kayaking amongst the mangroves do an internet search for tour companies that offer kayaking. Definitely remember to bring sunscreen, and make sure you take it with you on the kayaks, you’ll be in the sun for many hours.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Saudi Transit Visa

Wow, it's been quite a while since I've posted on the blog. Not due to a particular crisis or dilemma, I've just been pretty busy in the evenings so haven't had time to sit down and write anything.

One of the things I was busy with was acquiring a transit visa for Saudi Arabia. A group of Qatari friends were driving to the UAE for an exhibition and wanted me to come with them. One problem with that though – Qatar and the UAE do not share a border, you have to go through Saudi Arabia to get to the UAE, and Saudi doesn’t just let Westerners into the country with a visa on arrival, you need to apply for one in advance.

Why there is a narrow part of Saudi Arabia between Qatar and the UAE is a bit of a story (I blogged about it here) and there’s no likelihood of that changing anytime soon.

Getting the visa is not as straightforward as you might think, though this may change in the near future. On October 1, 2016 the Saudi Government changed their fee structure for visas (the transit visa now costs QAR 300) and took down their website and e-visa processing system to upgrade it. At the time you couldn’t use their system for a transit visa to/from the UAE as it was not listed, you need to use an authorized agency that could process the application, but perhaps with the upgrade to their system maybe it will allow for people to apply to the transit visa without using an agency. We’ll see.

In the meantime you'll need to use an agency. When I did an Internet search for agencies the most recent information I found was from 2011 and it wasn’t very good, some of the agencies on the list no longer processed the Saudi transit visa. I am not going to post the list because at the end of the day I tried three agencies and I did not manage to get the visa (I will tell you why in a minute) so I can't even tell you whether a particular agency is good or not.

Assuming the requirements are still the same one of the agencies helpfully put up the list of things you need to apply for the visa. (one thing is missing from the list so continue to read this post after the list).

And the fee of course. The photos that they refer to are passport-sized photos. I believe that the last item refers to proof that you have a visa to enter the UAE, or are using a passport that allows you to acquire a visa at the border. The UAE allows most Western passport holders a visa on arrival. The agencies never asked me for proof of eligibility to enter the UAE.

What is this letter? Well it's a letter from your employer, that must be in Arabic, giving you permission to apply for the visa. Weird, huh? But in this part of the world Exit Permits and permission from employers to leave the country is a big thing. Most of my friends have to apply to their workplace for an exit visa every time they wish to leave the country. The agencies can hand you a copy (in Arabic) of what the letter should say, and your HR department will need to type out the letter on their letterhead and give it to you.

But there’s one more piece of information that you need
. As you will be in a vehicle the agency will want a copy of the registration of the vehicle that you will be traveling in. I guess the visa is so specific it names the vehicle that you will be in. When I told the agency that I would not be driving and that I would be in a friend's car, they wanted a copy of my friend’s ID and his vehicle registration! Ummmmmm, okay. My friend had no problem providing me with copies. Here’s the kicker, the agency warned me that if I was not in that specific car with that specific person I'll probably be turned back at the border. That’s pretty strict.

In the end I didn't get a visa though. Why? Because I tried to apply the day that the Saudi Government took down the system for upgrades. Even the agency couldn't access the system so could not lodge the application. After 2 1/2 days the system was still down. A friend of mine suspected it was just that this one agency had problems, which is why we then traveled around and spoke with other agencies. All of them had the same problem. So now it was Tuesday, my friends were leaving Thursday, the visa takes 2-3 days to process, and we still weren't sure when we could even submit the application. So we scrapped the idea, I just bought a plane ticket to the UAE and met my friends there. Shame because I wanted to see Saudi, if only a little bit of it. I've lived in Qatar over 10 years and have yet to go to Saudi Arabia.

Not that I'm planning to visit the country anytime soon. The oil price crisis seems to really be hitting the Saudi finances, and they want money, so now visas to visit the country have got to be some of the most expensive in the world. The transit visa was QAR 300 but if you want a single-use visit visa you have to pay QAR 2000 (US$540!!), and QAR 3000 for a six-month multi-use visa. I can’t see that encouraging a lot of tourism so I’m guessing visitors will be largely pilgrims going to Mecca.

My friends said they will probably drive again to the UAE next year. They said next time they'll give me a lot more advance notice so that I can get the visa in time.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Eid Vacation in Turkey

So during Eid I went to Turkey to meet up with some friends. Like last year we went to a resort in Bodrum, this time the Voyage between Bodrum and Gumbet. I think my friends wanted a quieter vacation this time so picked a no-children resort.

It was a nice place, and all inclusive so we rarely left the resort. In the five days I was there I went to Bodrum twice and my friends only once.

We did go out to a couple of evening concerts, the first one by popular lounge/pop singer Serdar Ortac, and the next night by Turkish popstar Fatih Urek (who apparently also has belly dancer training). Both concerts started (yes, started) at 1:30 in the morning! Turks apparently love to stay up all night during vacations. There were even children in attendance at the concert. So some of my vacation was spent sleeping in late, eating lunch, then sitting a lounger snoozing some more.

[The Fatih Urek link is to a video of his that also shows Bodrum.]

All in all a relaxing vacation. I do like Turkey, and the recent issues there haven't caused any problems in the "sun cities" in the south. Unfortunately the coup attempt and an airport bombing have scared many tourists away so some places are suffering economically. Hopefully next year things will improve for the industry.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Vehicle Fatalities in Qatar

Back in 2014 I did a blog post analyzing the road fatality rate in Qatar. It seemed to indicate that despite the population growing, and the number of cars on the road growing, the fatality rate was decreasing. I speculated that it might be due to the increased traffic congestion, which means that on average drivers cannot go as fast as they did in the past. Statistics seemed to indicate that the number of small accidents was steadily increasing, which would make sense if the number of cars on the road would increase.

That was two years ago, so how have things been since?

Improved actually, at least in terms of fatalities. Qatar still collects monthly statistics on the population and the number of traffic accidents as well as related fatalities (you can find the monthly statistics here). I compiled the monthly statistics on the spreadsheet to get a snapshot of the number of fatalities, major accidents, and minor accidents that occurred in Qatar over the year. ( I assume that "minor accidents" are vehicle accidents where there was some form of injury, if it was just a minor fender-bender the statistics would be too low, there would be tens of thousands of these every month).

As of end-June 2016:
Population: 2,477,113
Fatalities over the last 12 months: 165
Major accidents in the last 12 months: 564
Minor accidents in the last 12 months: 5217

As of end-December 2015:
Population: 2,421,055
Fatalities over the last 12 months: 204
Major accidents in the last 12 months: 567
Minor accidents in the last 12 months: 5317

As of end-June 2015:
Population: 2,344,557
Fatalities over the last 12 months: 212
Major accidents in the last 12 months: 595
Minor accidents in the last 12 months: 5032

As of end-December 2014:
Population: 2,235,431
Fatalities over the last 12 months: 182
Major accidents in the last 12 months: 532
Minor accidents in the last 12 months: 4559

Seems to fluctuate a bit but bear in mind at the end of 2010, when the population was only 1,699,435 (source here), the number of road fatalities for the year was 226! (source here). The population has increased by nearly 50% yet the number of road fatalities has decreased. Accidents appear to be generally increasing, and unfortunately the monthly data only starts in 2014 so I can't go back farther to see if there is a real trend.

A recent news article stated that the government credits a road safety campaign for the decrease but I'm not so sure given I think the trend in the number of fatalities per 100,000 population has been decreasing steadily for the last 5 to 6 years, and I'm not so sure that the number of accidents has decreased. I still think that the, highly annoying, traffic congestion might be a major factor in reducing the fatalities.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Summer Weather in Qatar

Summer is more than halfway over, with luck the heat will break by October. Not surprisingly summers here are H-O-T, temps in the mid-40s are the norm. It makes mid-day pretty challenging to go outside for any length of time but if it is dry then the days are manageable. By evening it drops down to the mid-30s, not great, but okay. Unless it's humid.

As the old saying goes it's not the heat, it's the humidity. The humidity can vary widely in the summer, I think based on the wind direction (if from the sea then it's humid, if from the south where the desert is then it's dry. The humidity can make it unbearable, even in the evening. Just the other day I left a mall and walked maybe 200m to my car, and when I reached it I looked like I had jogged a mile. My clothes were drenched in a combination of condensation and sweat, and my forehead was dripping. Ugh. On humid days you can't even go outside in the evening for more than a couple of minutes, after which you look like someone poured water on you. Air conditioning is the greatest invention ever!

Of course there's also the risk of sandstorms. Usually they are larger storms from Saudi or Kuwait that you receive advance warning about but other times they can be quite sudden. Last week a thunderstorm in northern Qatar kicked up a lot of dust and sent it south into the city.

That wasn't the worst I'd seen but it was pretty bad. Thankfully because it was small it lasted maybe an hour or so; larger, slower storms can create a dusty haze that can last for days.

One plus about summer is that the weather drives the ex-pats away as tens of thousands head home to wait out the hot weather, returning when schools are back in session. This makes the traffic in Doha better and I'm not looking forward to after Eid when the traffic is again in full misery. My commute time to work will nearly double. It is for this reason that I actually prefer to stay in Doha for the summer. With the Eid holidays now in the summer I of course take vacations but if not for that I'd probably stay here over the summer without a vacation. I can handle the heat, but the traffic can be maddening when everyone returns.

Sunday, August 21, 2016


Usually at least once a week I'm hanging out with friends at a majlis. The guys like to play various games to pass the time, either electronic, board, or card games. Gulf Arabs like games and don't get all fussed about them. Brazillia (Buraco) remains very popular, as is Monopoly, FIFA on the PS4 is also a go-to (I can't play it worth a damn though) but we also like to play a classic strategy game, Risk.

With Risk now available on the iPad it makes it a lot easier to play a game and makes it portable. We played a few times on the airplane to the Seychelles, and another time at a restaurant that had a TV in our booth as we were able to connect the iPad display to the TV (one of the pictures is from the restaurant). Something to while away some time.

I'm familiar with a lot of boardgames so I introduced the group to a game called Lords of Vegas. It was a hit and we usually play it at least once during an evening. A game called Power Grid is also played occasionally but not as often as Lords of Vegas.

This is not a serious gaming bunch, games need to be reasonably quick to learn and play and have lots of inter-player interaction. Someone brought Axis & Allies once but that didn't work out well -- way too complex, too much setup and turns took a long time.

In time I might introduce a couple of other games (Settlers of Catan?) but everyone seems to be doing fine for now with what we have.