Friday, May 27, 2016

The Value of License Plates

In this part of the world people love license plates with low numbers or easy-to-remember numbers, like 300003 or 515151. They will pay a premium for plates with low/cool numbers. This applies to phone numbers as well, and some numbers can run into tens of thousands of riyal. The phone companies know this, they're not stupid, so when they issue numbers you have to pay extra for nice numbers.

As for license plates one way to sell nice plate numbers is to auction them. There was an action recently by the AlBahie Auction House, I only knew about it when I saw a catalogue sitting around a friend's majlis.

All-colour, glossy, with a full page dedicated to each plate number that was available. A bit over the top? Not until you read the prices, for example:

Nice low number (most plate numbers are 6 digits), a bit of a pattern, so how much for this? I'm not sure if you can make out the lower right corner, it says:

Estimated price: 2,700,000 - 2,900,000 QAR
Starting price: 2,600,000 QAR

So the starting price is US$712,000 !! For a license plate.

And while that was definitely one of the more expensive ones it wasn't the most expensive. That was the 411 plate on the cover, inside the catalogue it notes an estimated price over US$1,000,000 ! Many of the other plates available were going for a more modest US$80,000-200,000, depending on the number on the plate.

I'm not sure why people are willing to pay so much for a number plate but it clearly a lucrative business. Many people in Qatar earn good money buying and selling license plate and phone numbers. If you look at the classified of the Arabic papers there are usually a lot of ads selling numbers.

I'm not saying it's wrong, people in the West can pay huge sums of money for things like stamps, coins, signatures or memorabilia, it's just something I'm still not used to.

So if you see a low license plate number in Qatar chances are someone paid a lot of money for it.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Qatar Weddings on Instagram

I always post about weddings that I attend, and there was one last weekend up in Al-Khor. Really nice tent, lots of guests, sword dancing, all in all a good time.

While a men's wedding is relatively casual compared to most Western weddings (no gifts, no pressure to stick around -- you can just show up to give your congratulations and leave) for Qataris showing up is still a serious matter, two of my friends rescheduled a vacation just to make sure they could attend the wedding, even though they'd be there for maybe an hour or so. What's important is that you were there.

Anyway, this time the groom had an e-invitation that he sent around, something that is becoming more and more popular. The invitation has a picture of the groom on a black background with the details of where/when the wedding celebration will take place. From this I learned that there are instagram pages where grooms post wedding invitations and people also post pictures from the wedding.

So if you would like to see a lot of pictures from Qatari Weddings, as well as invitations, check out You'll get a good idea of what a wedding celebration is like.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Spread of English in the Gulf

People who have never been to this region would be surprised to learn just how widespread English is. In Qatar, Kuwait, UAE and Bahrain signs are in both English and Arabic, and most shopkeepers speak it. In Qatar you can even deal with Government offices in English, and IDs and drivers’ licenses are in both languages.

While historically dealing with the British and Americans (and their oil companies that set up in the Gulf) certainly helped I think the main reason for the spread of English was all of the expats that came to the Gulf to work in the service sector or construction jobs. Millions of people in the Gulf are from places like India, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, countries where Arabic is not spoken. English, even if it’s only a few dozen words, will be spoken by most people from these areas, which allowed them to speak with each other. A Sri Lankan is unlikely to know Tagalog but if he can speak some English he shouldn’t have much trouble talking to a Filipino here. Over time locals learned English just so that it was easier to communicate with shopkeepers, waiters, servants and so forth.

As the GCC economies grow, and more and more non-Arabic expats move in, there have been growing concerns about Arabs losing their language, and English becoming their primary language. The concerns have been going on for years in Qatar but recently criticism of “cultural erosion” has been growing stronger, and the Government is now drafting laws to ensure Arabic is used in Government offices.

One of my Arab friends is so concerned about it he’s been making sure his children learn only Arabic (including not putting them in English-language schools), allowing them to learn English once they get older and are fluent in Arabic. Naturally they learn some English as they grow up in Qatar, it’s hard not to, but they don’t have formal schooling in it until they are teenagers.

So is that a bit overboard? Is it really such as issue? Well, I just recently got back from a business trip in the UAE and there I met some Emiratis who were at the seminar that I was attending. So I tried speaking to them in Arabic (classical Arabic of course, not the local dialect) when one turned to the other and, laughingly, said,

“Hey, his Arabic is better then yours.”

That confused me. I am by no means fluent, in fact I struggle to have even basic conversations, and if anyone speaks in regional dialects I have no clue what they are saying. But over the course of our conversation I was told by him that, indeed, he was not fluent in Arabic. Now it turns out that his mother was not an Arab so it’s unlikely she would speak to him in Arabic. He mentioned how he went to English-language schools, and in Dubai almost no one uses Arabic for everyday conversation, so he never became fluent in it. I’m sure his friend was joking that my Arabic was better than his, just needling him a bit about his lack of fluency.

Was this a one-in-a-million occurrence? When I mentioned it to my friends they were a bit surprised so I am assuming it is rare for a Gulf Arab to not be fluent in Arabic, but none-the-less it did serve as an example for why citizens of the Gulf are becoming increasingly concerned about losing Arabic. Over the years I’ve heard rumours and tales of other Arabs, raised by foreign nannies and going to English-speaking schools, who essentially had English as their first language. I’m not sure how true it is or how widespread the issue is becoming though.

I would recommend to anyone planning on staying in the Gulf for a while to try to learn some rudimentary Arabic. Arabic speakers really do appreciate it when foreigners have a basic knowledge of the language, not because they expect you’ll be fluent but they like that you at least made an effort to learn some of the language. It’s not an easy language but give it a try, maybe with lessons at Fanar to start.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

10 Years in Qatar

Wow, I've been in Qatar for 10 years! It's a milestone, and for many Western expats 10 years is pretty rare. I recall once I started hitting around 8 years many expats would be like, "What, you've been here x years! OMG!". I'm not sure why people who moved here in the last few years would have that reaction, while the weather can be a bit annoying Qatar has a lot going on. Huge developments, parks, malls, museums, nice dining options, I'm not sure why people now find it so surprising someone would stick around. 10 years ago Qatar was very different and when I think of the things that weren't available when I first arrived it's pretty surprising: Souq Waqif, Villagio, the Pearl, most of the hotels, the museums, Aspire Park, three-quarters of the buildings in West Bay, and so forth. So much was built in the last 10 years.

To celebrate the anniversary here's some photos of Qatar that I took back in the day, try to figure out where some of these were taken:

And how things have changed in my life as well. 10 years ago it was hanging out with Westerners at bars and buffets. Now almost all of my friends are Muslim so it's now majlises and cafes. Ramadan went from being a bit of a drag to a new experience. Travelling in the region went from being exotic to being more what I'm used to.

My current view is that I'll stick around as long as Qatar wants me to.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Italian Suit Scam comes to Doha

See if this is familiar to you . . .

Today I was out for a walk in the neighbourhood when a car pulls up to ask me for directions. The two guys said they were Italian, from Milan, and were in Doha for a fashion show (really? Doha doesn't have a lot of those.) and needed directions to their hotel. I gave them directions and they were so grateful he gave me a business card and wanted to give me a "gift". They had a lot of extra high-end designer suits in the trunk, and could sell some to me at a huge discount. They said they were flying out tonight and didn't want to take the suits back with them as it would be subject to customs tax.

I said no thanks and got out of there fast.

Why, because it's the Italian Suit Scam! The following links tell how it works (you're paying a lot of money for cheap knock-offs)

Looks like they were in the UAE a while ago.

I guess the scammers get around, the name on the business card was practically the same as the second link (last name on the card was Mario). The business card had a Hotmail address -- another red flag that this person does not work for a well-known fashion company.

So spread the word that Italian Suit Scammers are wandering around Doha now.