Friday, November 27, 2009

Attention people in Dubai

... you should read my blog more often.

I warned you that there was a huge property bubble.
I warned you that rents and property prices would crash.
and I warned you that the debt load of the emirate was shocking

Granted, I wasn't expecting Dubai to default/restructure/delay payment so early, and on so much debt. It's been rippling through the financial markets all over the world. You can't just announce to people that you would like to hold off on payments on your $60 billion of loans and not create a big fuss.

Most people are of the opinion that oil-rich neighbour Abu Dhabi will eventually bail them out. Possibly, if the debt problem causes the entire UAE to suffer then they will have to step in, but not without Dubai paying a price. It already looks like Abu Dhabi is stepping up to eclipse Dubai as the finance/tourism hub of the country. Tourism ads for Abu Dhabi are all over the international networks now (like CNNi).

Well I have one more prediction about this mess. Call it a hunch.

The size of the debt has been underestimated.

The $80 billion figure that keeps getting battered around as Dubai's total debt load I believe comes from a Government announcement a number of months ago when people were asking about transparency regarding the total Government liabilities. I'm not sure whether that figure can be believed. Dubai PR machine was busy in the last few months making announcements about how the worst was over and things were picking back up again, so I'm not sure about their track record on announcements. I think the total debt load is bigger than $80 billion, not grossly bigger, maybe another $20 billion, but in the months to come we will probably hear about some more debt and the total debt load will be revalued.

Let's see how I do on this one.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Qatar and Education

This week Qatar is hosting the World Innovation Summit for Education conference. I wish I could have gone but I'm recuperating and it is held on working days so even if I was not recovering I'd have to go to work instead.

Despite the fact that I do not work in an educational field, nor do I have any children, I've always had an interest in educational theory and standards. Maybe because I just love learning and in my school days I certainly learned how an aspiring teacher or a decent programme can make all the difference in someone's education. Unfortunately I have also learnt how a bad teacher can turn people off learning and even discourage people from following a field of study that they liked. And thanks to authors like Jonathan Kozol I've also learnt how poorly funded or overcrowded schools can turn promising young students apathetic and bitter, destroying their potential.

Getting back to the conference is a good thing that Qatar is hosting it -- because they need a lot of innovation right now if they are going make significant improvements to their educational system.

I mentioned in a previous blog post about the OECD's PISA test, which tests 15-year-old students all over the world in reading, mathematics, and science. Despite having one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, I think only second to Luxembourg, Qatar's students scored very poorly on the 2006 PISA test:

Reading -- 55th out of 56 countries
Mathematics -- 56th out of 57 countries
Science -- 56th out of 57 countries

(Krygryzstan was last in all categories)

Well there is also another educational test that numerous countries participate in. It is called the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) test, which tests grade 4 and grade 8 students. And in this test Qatar performed poorly as well, countries such as Ghana and Botswana scored higher. In fact in math Qatar was second-last for Grade 4 and last for Grade 8, in science Qatar was second-last at both ages. How can a country with so much wealth not have an educational system better than many impoverished nations?

I spoke to some Qataris about it. First of all, much like when I mentioned the PISA test a while back, they were not surprised by the results at all. They weren't sure whether things have changed since when they were younger (but they are in their mid-20s so if things are different it wasn't changed that long ago) but when they were in school:

-- A large amount of your grade was attendance, so much of it in fact that if you just showed up you could pretty much pass regardless of your test results.
-- Exams were not comprehensive. If you covered a chapter of a math text you're usually given a small quiz on it and that was that, you did not have to study the material again. This would deftly discourage long-term retention of anything.
-- Apparently schools are run almost as profit centres. Schools are given a certain amount of money from the government without the lot of oversight into how it is spent. So a lot of schools cut corners, resulting in low-paid teachers and overcrowded classrooms. [ I'm not so sure about this one, I'm pretty sure the Ministry of Education would do some oversight on spending. Perhaps because rents are so high a lot of money has to go to rent for the school building and housing for teachers, making it more problematic for schools to spend money on other things]
-- a lot of time spent on religious studies which takes away from science, maths etc. I can't blame a sharia society are putting emphasis on religious study and I doubt that is the main reason why the test scores are so poor (one would think it would improve reading scores). I don't think Qatar would be willing to be number one in these tests if it meant getting rid of religious study. Perhaps the Education Ministry would aim for improvements to keep the country's students at least on par with the industrialised world, balancing it with the religious study.
-- not a lot of homework given out. I remember talking to one person who used to teach in Bahrain and they told me that teachers were generally discouraged from giving out homework since a lot of the kids would just get someone else to do it for them at home, or pay someone. Not too hard to imagine since many South Asian labourers make as little as $120 a month, I'm sure they'd gladly do a kid's homework for $10.
-- And of course it might be the usual culprits that are always bantered about in North America when discussing education -- TV/video games and parental involvement in education.

Qatar has made some changes, I know it developed an Academic Bridge programme through Qatar Foundation to give recent graduates extra assistance in getting them prepared for University but that may be too little too late. Changes are definitely needed in the elementary and middle school programmes if Qatar is going to make significant improvements in education.

The results of the 2009 PISA test are due out around March or April next year. I'm hopeful there will be a slight improvement but nothing significant, comprehensive educational reform will take many years. Any changes that were implemented by the Ministry since the 2006 test will take time to show up in the scoring.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Al Ahli Hospital versus Doha Clinic

Okay I'm back from the hospital for the wisdom teeth extraction at Al Ahli Hospital. So far so good, face is not too swollen and the pain has been more like a dull ache that non-prescription painkillers keeps in check, I don't need the heavy-duty painkillers thankfully. The procedure was a little more complicated than a standard wisdom tooth extraction so I needed to be under a general anaesthetic and spent 24 hours in the hospital.

So in the course of one month I have undergone general anaesthesia and a hospital stay in both Doha Clinic and Al Ahli Hospital (AAH). AAH is the newest private hospital in Doha, spacious with wonderful-looking facilities, and most companies purchasing private medical plans for their employees want AAH on the list. Doha Clinic is older, not as spacious, and tends to be more crowded. But are looks everything? Here's my comparison:

Approval for the procedure: Tie. both places sent the request for the procedure to the insurance company and as soon as approval was given my procedure was scheduled within a week.

Initial blood work and admissions procedures: Doha Clinic. I just had to go to the laboratory for the blood tests and there was no waiting or delays processing paperwork. AAH was busier and it took around a half an hour before I could get my blood taken, and I also had to separately go to an admissions office to sort out the room booking, which I did not have the do at Doha Clinic. Good thing AAH had sent a nurse along with me otherwise I probably would have had to ask someone where to go. I know, I know, a half-hour wait for blood work is not exactly an ordeal, but it was still quicker and easier at Doha Clinic so it wins.

Preapproval consultation: Tie. this is a bit trickier because there are two consultations involved, with the surgeon and with the anaesthesiologist. The consultation with the surgeon was definitely longer and more detailed at AAH, but the consultation with the anaesthesiologist was better at Doha Clinic. At AAH the anaesthesiologist consultation was a couple of minutes in my hospital room before the procedure, at Doha Clinic the consultation took place days before at the anaesthesiologist's office and we had a good 15-minute discussion. I will say that much of the information asked by the anaesthesiologist at Doha Clinic was instead done by a nurse at AAH but I feel more at ease talking to the specialist directly. Also, no one at AAH mentioned fasting before the procedure. I fasted anyway because I knew from my operation at Doha Clinic that you should fast before going under a general anaesthetic. It was not until I got to AAH for the procedure that I was asked when I last ate, not sure what would have happened if I'd had breakfast just before going to the hospital?

Hospital room: AAH (by a hair). I was in a private room at both hospitals and the facilities were pretty much the same: rooms were around the same size, extra chairs and couches for guests, a small refrigerator, closet/wardrobe to keep stuff in, TV, etc. So it is down to the small stuff, AAH wins out because: the room is newer, AAH provides a room safe for your valuables, hospital gown was softer, and the small refrigerator is stocked with water and juice for your guests.

Nursing staff: Tie, both excellent. Professional, friendly, and never any problems or delays when I called for them.

Cleanliness: Tie. at both places staff came by to clean the rooms and the garbage frequently

Operation: I was unconscious so what can I say? AAH was more serious about patient identity, every step of the way from admissions, the nursing staff, to just outside the operations room, I was always asked to confirm: my name, what procedure I was here for, and then I would be shown the signed consultation form which detailed the procedure and risks and asked to confirm that was my signature. Looks like AAH was really worried about doing the wrong procedure on a patient. Was it overkill? Can't say. Guess one cannot be too careful with these things.

Food: unfair to make a comparison. I was at AAH for wisdom teeth extraction so my meals were limited to liquids and ice cream while at Doha Clinic I could avail myself of their full menu. Doha Clinic provided me 4 meals a day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack) and the food was pretty good, for example one meal was roast chicken on biriani rice, green salad, soup, cooked vegetables, another salad similar to a Greek salad, and dessert. Sometimes I couldn't even finish the meal there was so much food. AAH did ask me if I was having guests pop by and when so that if I wanted they could prepare meals for them (!!), something Doha Clinic didn't ask me about.

Postoperation consultations: unfair to make a comparison. on the face of it AAH was better as the dental surgeon came by when he said he would, checked the wounds, provided an update as to what he thought and asked if I had any questions, at Doha Clinic sometimes the surgeon came by as scheduled, sometimes not. BUT at AAH I was dealing with a dental surgeon while at Doha Clinic I was dealing with a general surgeon who was on call for emergency surgeries. I do not think it's fair to criticise a surgeon who does emergency surgeries for not stopping by my room at a pre-arranged time - he may have had to save a life instead. And given the number of car accidents in Doha I'm willing to bet there are a lot of emergencies to deal with.

Both places also had a Guest Relations person come by to see if everything was okay and if I had any questions or concerns to either let them know or call the nurses.

So there you have it, both places were pretty good. Some people in Doha may be drawn to AAH instead of Doha Clinic because the clinic side of DC is crowded (the hospital part isn't though) and the building is not as new or fancy as AAH, but it certainly did an adequate job and had standards comparable to AAH. I was treated well at both places.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Where are all the Qataris?

Something I have found unusual about Qataris is that the society tends to keep to itself and its own activities. the Government spends a lot of money to bring activities to the country but for the most part the local citizens do not attend them. The tennis tournaments, the Tribeca film festival, speedboat races, heck I'm not sure if any of the Qataris I know have been to the Museum of Islamic Art yet! The Qatar Natural History Group meetings tend not to have any locals in attendance either.

That's not to say Qataris avoid all events, a prominent football (soccer) match will have the locals out in droves and festivities such as National Day has thousands of Qataris on the Corniche celebrating. They just tend to skip events that a lot of Westerners find interesting. It just makes me wonder why the Government places an emphasis on bringing events here that citizens are ambivalent about (not that I'm complaining mind you, it is great that I can go see all of these things.) I was even talking to a Qatari colleague who is going on a trip to a major European city and he plans to do some shopping but not go to any of the museums or other highlights. To each their own I suppose. My friend Abdulla had no problem with wandering around Japan experiencing all of its unusual things but told me the travel will likely end once he gets married because most Qatari women do not like to travel. Maybe Qataris as a society are just not as adventurous as other cultures and prefer to stay at home? I'll have to ask about that.

Anyway, for the benefit of any newcomers reading the blog, where can you usually find a lot of Qataris?

Coffee Shops
Restaurants and cafes of five-star hotels
Souq Waqif
Beaches where jet skiing is popular
Parks (they love going to the parks with their children)
The sand dunes near the Inland Sea
Local football matches; and
Mosques (naturally)

I'm sure there are other places but until such time as my Arabic improves enough to read the local Arabic newspapers I will not know what the local citizenry are up to

Monday, November 02, 2009

Tribeca -- the final day

Last film:

A Serious Man -- the Coen Brothers

Attendance: 100%

The latest film by the Coen Brothers is about a Jewish professor in the late 1960s to whom a sequence of bad events happens to. Like all of the Coens' films the strength is in the off-beat characters and dialogue. It was entertaining, funny and also unconventional, something I like in movies. The rabbis the main character talks to were a riot.

Rating -- 5. My favourite film that I saw in the festival so why not give it top marks.

So that's it for the film festival. I suppose my biggest disappointment was that there were not a lot of locals attending the festival. The Qatari Government and other foundations spend a lot of money to bring events such as this and the tennis to Doha but few citizens bother to go. Shame. Maybe in time more locals will appreciate these great events.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Tribeca -- day two

Okay, I saw two films:

Buried Secrets -- Raja Amari

Attendance: maybe 30%! Apparently the note board said the film was sold out! Wish I knew what was going on here.

This is a Tunisian film, in Arabic and French with English subtitles. Apparently its original title is not "Buried Secrets" but it is called that for the English version because the translation of its title is the same as an already existing English-language film. A lady and her two daughters (one in her late 20s, the other maybe 15) live in the servants quarters in a basement of an abandoned mansion in the countryside. Problems occur when the owners of the mansion return and the ladies keep their existence a secret because they figure they will be thrown out. To complicate things the youngest daughter isn't quite all-there mentally and having grown up in a traditional family is fascinated by their modern clothes and ways. She starts sneaking through the house and messing with the owner's girlfriend's stuff, watching them when they are in bed etc.

From there it descends into a dark tale. Things get more twisted as the film goes on. It definitely didn't turn out the way I expected.

There was also a brief nude scene, which was nice to see as it showed that Qatar was not censoring any of the films at the festival. Had the film been shown in the cinema in Qatar normally that scene would have been cut. The film was rated "PG-18" though, perhaps to warn locals. I think some Muslim ladies did leave part way through the film. In North America the nudity probably would have earned the film PG-13, I'm not sure it would have been a big enough deal to even get "R". Some European television shows more.

The Director turned up to answer questions but we weren't told this until the credits had finished, by which point almost everyone had left. It was only because I had been chatting with a friend about the film that I was even around. So the Director had a Q&A with maybe a dozen people, I kind of felt bad for her. I hope she didn't know how low the turnout was for the screening.

Rating: 3.5 (though that didn't exist on the rating card so I rounded up to a 4). I was entertained, the film got unexpectedly dark and weird, sort of like how Fargo started out as a conventional crime movie but sure didn't end up that way. There were some pretty big plot holes though, which detracted from it being a great film. I won't go into the details, if dark movies are your thing then this movie is probably worth a look.

Harry Brown -- Daniel Barber

Attendance: around 90%. That's better!

Michael Caine plays Harry Brown, a pensioner living in some decrepit Council Housing project in London. The local gang of drug-dealing teenagers terrorises the place. One day they go too far and Harry takes matters into his own hands. Essentially it's a vigilante action-movie. Nuff said.

Caine does a good job and the movie should be decent box-office as it delivers what one would expect from a vigilante movie. A couple of scenes in the movie were a bit over the top and unrealistic, which was unfortunate. One example, Harry wants a gun so he shows up at the doorway of a guy who illegally sells guns. The guy has no idea who Harry is but has no problem letting an old, well-dressed man who knocks on the door into his building, past his huge marijuana grow-op, and into a room where people are injecting heroin and doing lines of cocaine, in order to pull out a bag of guns to see what Harry would like to buy. I immediately thought, "For a local drug-heavy he seems to be a complete idiot." The film just seemed to need to establish that this man was B-A-D, it's not enough that he sells guns, he also needs to be into every kind of drug (oh yeah, and also point out that he likes to have sex with drugged-up underage girls too). This guy's badness was pretty much all laid out in two minutes of filmtime, to a complete stranger. Uh-huh. Whatever. Happens all the time I'm sure.

Rating: 3.5 (again rounded up to 4) but now that I think about it I wish I had given it a 3 instead. Both it and Buried Secrets have some plot holes or moments of unbelievability but Buried Secrets was more unconventional so I think I'd place it slightly ahead of Harry Brown. I like movies that try to be different. People who like vigilante movies will not be disappointed with Harry Brown though.

One more movie to go, showing tonight.