Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Car registration - the Finale

[This post contains outdated information, I recommend going to my post of May 21, 2011 for the most recent information about car inspections]

The registration of my car is done and finished! Repairers were finished no problem and at no charge (yay warranty!). A friend of mine told me that the line-up at the testing centre is really short on a weekday morning so I gambled by not making an appointment and just showing up at eight in the morning. I was always under the assumption that you had 30 days after the expiry of your registration to get it renewed but at lunch the other day someone told me it was 20 days, any later than that and you get a QR1000 fine (US $270). Since he told me that on day 18 I figured I'd better turn up at the testing station the next day.

Sure enough there was only three cars ahead of me, and the friendly Algerian clerk was at his desk looking a lot better since he did not have 20 people crowding around him waving papers. I got my paperwork and the car tested in under 15 minutes. The car passed inspection (yay!). So then it was off to the Ministry of Interior desk, conveniently located at the mall across the street from work, where they renew registration cards. Gave him my old registration card, inspection papers, proof of insurance, and QR 100, and was rewarded for all of my time and effort with my brand new vehicle registration card.

And I have to do this rigamarole every year now! I can see why some people just choose to sell their old car and get a new one once their old one is three years old. Would definitely save a lot of hassle.

Anyway the car is okay for another year.

Happy Canada Day!

Happy Canada Day! I think I will celebrate by going to work. (*sigh*)

H1N1 update

H1N1 cases in Qatar are now up to 17, which in the grand scale of things is still pretty minor in that it represents around 0.9 cases per 100,000 people. (I think in Canada it is around 2.9 per 100,000). Given Qatar's small population though it won't take many more cases before its per capita average is on par with many European countries. All the cases have been mild and I do not think at this time there is any concern that more serious cases will appear.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Do the crime . . .

Just a quick H1N1 update - I believe the number of cases in Qatar is now at 15, which doesn't seem like much but on a per capita basis it means there are more cases here than in Japan. Everyone seems pretty "meh" about it though.

In other news, literally, I was looking through the paper today and there were three interesting articles about recent cases at the court:

A bus driver who was stealing fares (over time he took about $10,000). He got five years in jail.

A Filipino maid and her Indian lover who were on trial for the death of their newborn. She apparantly abandoned the baby in a dumpster after it was born, and had been hiding the fact that she had been pregnant from her employer. The coroner could not determine with certainty whether she had deliberately killed the baby so she was found not guilty in the death, but she and her lover were sentenced to three years for "illicit relations" since they were not married. Illicit relations is a charge that you see in the courts every now and then in this part of the world, authorities take things like that seriously and jail time for illicit relations is not uncommon.

Finally, a Lebanese man on charges of blasphemy. For some reason the online version of the paper doesn't have it but here's another example. I don't know what he said (and the article isn't saying) but it must have been pretty nasty -- he got seven years! Wow!

So the lesson to be learned here is that anyone reading this who is moving to the Middle East try to bear in mind that some of the laws are different in this region, and what might not be considered too serious in the West could get you in real trouble here. Blasphemy, illicit relations, even standing on a Qur'an can get you in real trouble. Remember, countries in the Middle East are Islamic nations and for civil crimes the legal system is based on Shari'a principles. None of that church/state separation as in the West.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Qatar education

The other day I was talking to some Qataris and the conversation went on to education. They commented that in Qatar the public education system wasn't very good and many Qataris nowadays are opting for private school for their children. I recalled similar problems in Bermuda with the quality of public education and wondered if there was a strange quirk about very wealthy countries that for some reason they struggle with their educational system.

Coincidentally I was later on the OECD website looking up some materials when my search found the PISA assessment for 2006. PISA is an assessment undertaken by the OECD every three years (the first one was in 2000) where thousands of 15 year-olds in OECD countries take a 3+ hour standardised test measuring their abilities in reading, mathematics, and science. It is one of the most comprehensive worldwide surveys, possibly the only decent worldwide survey, measuring the ability of students in some fundamental concepts of education. Though there have only been three studies so far most countries treat the results seriously. Media tend to take a keen interest in the results and then discuss with education ministers as to what the deficiencies are and where improvements are needed. And with every PISA survey more and more countries sign on to take part, even those that are not in the OECD. In 2006, fifty-seven countries took part, the 2009 one had something like sixty-seven. To my surprise Qatar had taken part in the 2006 survey, the only country in the Gulf to do so. I was impressed that Qatar would take part, I think it shows that the Education Ministry is taking these things seriously and wants to measure how its students are doing compared to international counterparts. Over 7000 children in Qatar wrote the test, which given at the time the population of the country was probably one million people it is likely that almost every 15 year-old in the public education system wrote it.

So how did Qatar do? Well, here's the base rankings on the three categories including some other OECD countries, (top 5 plus selected others):

Reading (56 countries)

1. Korea
2. Finland
3. Hong Kong
4. Canada
5. New Zealand
. . .
15. Japan
17. UK
18. Germany
23. France
33. Italy
39. Russia
. . .
54. Azerbaijan
55. Qatar
56. Kyrgyzstan

(for some reason there are only 56 countries on the reading list because the United States is not listed, why I don't know)

Math (57 countries)

1. Taiwan
2. Finland
3. Hong Kong
4. Korea
5. Netherlands
. . .
7. Canada
10. Japan
20. Germany
23. France
24. UK
34. Russia
35. USA
38. Italy
. . .
55. Tunisia
56. Qatar
57. Kyrgyzstan

Science (57 countries)

1. Finland
2. Hong Kong
3. Canada
4. Taiwan
5. Estonia
6. Japan
. . .
11. Korea
13. Germany
14. UK
25. France
29. USA
35. Russia
36. Italy
. . .
55. Azerbaijan
56. Qatar
57. Kyrgyzstan

So I guess the Qataris I spoke to were right as these are very surprising results for a country with such wealth. In fact I showed these results to a couple of them and they were not alarmed at all. They could not clarify specifically why results were poor however. Poor-quality teaching? Lack of parental involvement? Lack of discipline by students for studying? Class sizes too large? Curriculum lacks focus? I guess that is something for the Education Ministry to investigate - I hope that whatever it is they are undertaking reforms. Then again it would depend on the reasons why, I know that Qatari public schools do a lot of religious instruction in Islam and the Qur'an which would mean less class time on math and science (I don't know if that would impact reading scores since reading skills would be important for understanding the Qur'an). Anyway it would appear that Qatar has some changes to make.

Qatar's Education Ministry posted articles about the PISA study when it was published and had signed on to do the 2009 study, which was conducted in March, with even more students participating than in 2006. I see that as a positive sign that Qatar is taking the issue seriously and wants to see if whatever changes they have made have improved things. Dubai signed on as well for 2009 but no other GCC country has, including other UAE emirates.

As for Canada I am glad that it is doing very well in terms of the results, but I sure couldn't tell you why that is. I guess since I have only been through one educational system (Canada's) I can't really compare and contrast with what is done in other countries. The US education system appears to score poorly which is perhaps not too surprising as there has been a lot more criticism and discussion of the issue in the United States over the last 8 to 10 years, and major attempts by the government to rectify problems, such as the No Child Left Behind Act. I have not looked at the previous two studies to see if the US has shown improvement over the last six years.

Finland had the highest overall scores of any country in the world, again I'm not sure why. They solidly outscored other Scandinavian countries so they must be doing something differently. Neighbouring Estonia also has decent results, much better than the other Baltic states and Russia so I suspect they have then taking a page from the Finnish model.

If you're interested in the PISA study I highly recommend looking at the full reports at www.pisa.oecd.org. The reports are very long and detailed, have additional tables with further information, and also provide methodologies and examples of the questions. From looking around I even know that countries could get detailed reports by region -- Canada has published their results by province, probably on a Canadian Gov't website somewhere.

Look out for when the results of the 2009 study are published -- probably in early 2010.

(And if anyone from India is reading this your country does not take part in the PISA survey. Given the emphasis Indians put on education I'm surprised they haven't signed on. Pressure your government to get on board, I suspect India will have good results and PISA is a valuable way to identify possible weaknesses)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Car inspection - part 2

[This post contains outdated information, I recommend going to my post of May 21, 2011 for the most recent information about car inspections]

So after my recently tuned-up car failed inspection I went back to the garage to ask them (1) why one of my brakes didn't pass muster and (2) fix it.

"Oh, we don't do break inspections at this garage.", thanks for letting me know ahead of time!

"You need to go to the main shop. It is in the Industrial Area."
Where? The Industrial Area !?


The Industrial Area is a vast area of streets on the western side of the city, and home to many of the labourers. I have heard that its population at any given point in time is around 75,000. It is notorious for being clogged with traffic and having horrible roads with tons of potholes, all of the heavy trucks and industrial equipment that roam the area really wear down the roads. A lot of people avoid going to the Industrial Area if they can help it, and to drive around there after it has rained (so you can't tell how deep the holes are because they are filled with water) is to risk damaging your car. Seriously, I have seen potholes there at least 18 inches deep! I haven't been in the Industrial Area in nearly 2 years.

So here it is six o'clock in the evening on a weekday and I need to go to the Industrial Area. I'm told the garage in the Industrial Area is open until 10 at night but not to bother going there this evening because "they will be booked solid".

So I thanked the guys, got into the car -- and immediately drove out to the Industrial Area. You see, my insurance was going to run out in three days and I had always been told that I can't renew the insurance unless I renew the registration, but I can't renew the registration until I have passed inspection, and I can't pass inspection until I get the problem fixed, so I did not really have a lot of time. I also wanted to get there before it got dark so I can see the potholes in the street.

Sure enough traffic in the industrial area was heavy and there were a few jams in a couple of places, but eventually I got to the garage. And of course the other garage was completely wrong, they were not booked solid, and they could look at my car tonight. Great!

But it will take at least two hours. Crap.

So I waited in their waiting room for two hours, reading their newspapers and watching TV, but to their word after about two hours they were done.

Bad news: I needed a part replaced to get the car up to specs.
Good news: it is covered under the warranty (which expires in four days)
Bad news: they do not have the part and it will take five days to get it here.
Good news: I can still drive the car though

So that means my insurance will have expired by then. Aaaaargh.

Well it has now been nine days and they have not called me to say the part is in. Not to worry, I will call them tomorrow. You see, whenever someone in Qatar says they'll call you when something is ready they rarely ever do. You need to call them. I'm not as concerned as I once was because I also went to the insurance company and got my insurance renewed. Rumour that I could not get my insurance renewed was wrong, I went to the insurance company and a renewed it -- no problem.

That's the other thing about Qatar, don't believe everything you're told about how things work here. Find out for yourself as you might be surprised. That's why I went to the insurance company even though everyone was sure I would not get a renewal/extension.

Now I just need to get the part fixed, get the car reinspected, then go to the Ministry to renew my registration. If there are further complications I will let you know.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

H1N1 update

Well it took a lot longer than I expected but Qatar now has its first confirmed cases of H1N1. So far it is limited to three people all of whom recently travelled into Qatar. All are quarantined and are being monitored. Their symptoms are mild so there appears to be no risk that it will be something serious. Qatar has also tested about 70 other people and the remaining tests have been negative. Qatar was the last country in the Gulf region to have confirmed cases, all the other ones had confirmed cases about a week or so before so it was only a matter of time.

Because H1N1 has so far not been as serious a disease as once feared (with the vast majority of people experiencing only mild symptoms) everyone here in Qatar appears to be calm. Some companies are making employees work from home for a week if they have just flown in from areas with a high incidence of H1N1, but that is a sensible precaution. Why risk unnecessarily exposing your employees?

And I'm fine. I am scheduled to fly to Europe in six weeks so hopefully everything remains calm.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Car inspection

[This post contains outdated information, I recommend going to my post of May 21, 2011 for the most recent information about car inspections]

Okay, here's the car inspection story I mentioned briefly in my last post.

In Qatar after your car is three years old you have to get it inspected on an annual basis to get the registration renewed. It involves checking out the car and testing things like emissions and so forth, I wasn't exactly sure what was being tested. Some friends of mine had been through it before and apparently it was a nightmare and they had to go back multiple times. So with that in mind their advice was:

1) take your car in for a tuneup before you get it inspected to make sure it passes; and
2) have a woman take the car to the inspection, because she will be put ahead of the men in the queue.

Since I'm not married (2) was not an option since I assume they would check things like ID or registration, otherwise by now I'm sure some women would be charging money to take people's car for inspection.

So I went to the dealership garage and told them that I will be taking the car in for inspection, so to take a look at it. They told me that since I was close to my 15,000km service they would do that. One hour and $125 later that was done. Now I had to get it to the inspection area, which I've been told always had a really long queue.

Luckily my friend Serdar and his wife were also going to get their car inspected so we went together on a Saturday. The inspection area was a parking lot adjacent to a shopping centre, where an inspection garage had been set up next to a mobile trailer, which was the office. There were two lineups, one with about a dozen cars and another with about 40 cars. Turns out the short lineup was for people who had made reservations while the longer one was from people who just showed up. Since I didn't have a reservation I was in the long lineup. A security guard handed me a piece of paper with a number and another guy in line got out of his car to tell me that I need to go into the office to get my official paperwork. So I left Serdar with my car and went in.

The office consisted of a TV, a water cooler, about 10 chairs up against the walls, and a single desk at the far end with about 10 people crowded around it yelling and waving papers at the lone beleagured clerk sitting at the desk. I'm now used to this sort of thing so I started wading into the crowd as well but I guess the clerk was already at his wits end and just started shouting to everyone "Sit down! Sit down!" in both English and Arabic. So we sat down and he started calling numbers, the first one being about five before mine. So while I sat there waiting for my number to be called more people came in to crowd around the desk, which caused some of the people who were sitting to get up and go to the desk as well and before long we had another crowd of people waving papers at the clerk. Poor guy.

Eventually, after about 20 minutes or so, it was my turn. It turns out the clerk was a very nice Algerian man and we had a chat while he processed my paperwork. When he saw that I was Canadian from my registration he even spoke to me in French (Algeria was once a French colony so it is still widely spoken there) but switched to English once he realised I was not from Quebec. He also gave me a couple of phone numbers and told me to call one of them to book an appointment, otherwise I would be in line for at least four hours! Since the thought of being in an open parking lot in 45 degree heat for 4 hours was not appealing in the least I decided to heed his advice, but then the guy behind me told me that he had an appointment and he had been waiting for over an hour already. Ugh, this was not looking good.

Anyway I went out to find that after 25 minutes my car had moved all of about five places in line. Luckily Serdar had made an appointment for his car so his wife was in the short lineup with it and would probably be another 15 minutes. So we went to the mall next door and got coffees while we waited for her to finish. Meanwhile I called the numbers and managed to book an appointment for Monday afternoon.

Fast forward to Monday afternoon. I leave work to drive across town to the inspection centre, to find that the lineups were much shorter (protip for anyone in Qatar reading this -- go on a weekday). The security guard told me that I had to go in to get my paperwork changed since it had the wrong date on it but since there were not as many people lined up for inspection it was easier to get to the Algerian clerk and get my paperwork reprinted. So within about 20 minutes I had my car inspected.

... and it failed! One of the rear brakes did not meet the required standards.

So I was told that I had to go get it fixed and come back to get it reinspected all over again. Aaaaaargh!

Tune in next blog post for part two of this saga -- Glen goes to get his car fixed.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Financial updates

Sorry about the lack of updates, I've been really busy the past couple of weeks. I had a two hour presentation to prepare for work and on top of that I had to get my car inspected in order to get it to be registered. That in itself is a long story that I'll probably get to next post.

So how's the financial crisis doing in the Middle East? Well in Qatar the Government announced another support package to the local banks, buying out their real estate portfolios. This package is to the tune of 15 billion riyal (US$4 billion). And this for a country of around 1.5 million people! Needless to say this should keep the local banks out of trouble. Maybe the government was being generous because oil has climbed above $65 a barrel. I think the country created its budget for 2009 based on an oil price of around $40 a barrel so they must now be looking at a decent surplus this year.

In Dubai it is still more doom and gloom. It is hard to say what is the truth with all of the media reports coming out, one article has an "expert" saying everything has bottomed out and the real estate market will now climb, meanwhile UBS just announced it expects another 40% drop in real estate prices there before everything levels out -- and there have even been estimates that by the end of 2010 one in three properties in Dubai could be empty. I have seen a number of estimates that the population there will decrease 5-10%, with the biggest estimate being 17%. Imagine what your town would be like if 17% moved out over the next year! Anyway, all of these predictions seem to be just stabs in the dark, we will have a better idea in September when all of the expats return from summer holidays and put their kids in school. Once the school year starts it will become apparent just how many expats returned. Rumours of a " mass exodus" from Dubai in the summer still circulate but I think it has reached a stage where it is overhyped and will probably not be as bad as rumour makes it out to be (don't get me wrong it will still be bad but not as bad as the rumours think it will be). Qatar is not going through a downturn anywhere near as bad as what is happening in Dubai, and one report estimates Qatar will have the highest GDP growth in the world this year.

I guess I am kind of fascinated with what is happening in Dubai because it is like watching a train wreck in slow motion that you knew was going to happen. Property speculation can be nasty if you're not careful, basing a large part of an economy on property speculation is downright dangerous.