Saturday, June 13, 2009

Qatar Day 5 - Business, Museums, Souk

Limousine downtown to the business meeting, where we met Charlie Watt, an old acquaintance of mine and some friendly Qataris. We arrived early so took a walk to the Corniche that swept round the bay, in the absolutely blistering sun, where a family of Qataris were sitting quietly underneath a palm tree watching a western woman jog in the 45 degree heat. I’m not sure which they were more shocked by, her skimpy black leotard sportswear or the fact that she was running in this heat.

The two meetings went well so we decided, on Charlie’s advice, to take a taxi to the Museum of Islamic Art. This was well worth it. Designed by Pei, it a pile of cubic structures, on several levels, like a pile of well ordered blocks,, punctured by motifs from Islamic architecture, including a feature reflecting the eyes of a veiled woman. It sits on an island with a long ramp, with fountains, leading to the front door. Inspired by a mosque he saw in Cairo, it has an open square hall with a marble, geometric floor in cream, black and orange and a huge hanging lamp, as one sees in the large mosques. The roof is suspended on two sets metal points, at different heights to give the sense of a front and a back, with a stalactite dome and oculus. Two of the floors have a superb collection of calligraphy, poetry, tiles, glass, metalwork, doors, mosque lamps and so on. These are all quality pieces. On either side there are areas with fountains and pools of still water, reflecting the Islamic love of gardens and water. The temperature on the Limousine dash board read 47 degrees! Back to the hotel where we ate some lunch, had a sleep, then were picked up by Charlie at 7 pm. He took us to the Souk Waif where we walked, talked and had an excellent Indian meal. The Souk was a fine place, with the usual alleyways, ceramics, honey, dates and so on.

Charlie explained the political situation and attempts by Qatar to diversify by creating a knowledge economy (very different from Kuwait where the focus is on banking and communications). What both (indeed all GCC states) have in common is a bloated public sector and a malaise among a population who have grown used to living on the fat of oil production. Again , the roads were full of crazy drivers in powerful vehicles and Charlie had already (in seven months) known of one person he worked with die at the hands of boy racers. There’s almost no crime but plenty of corruption, as kin is the primary social unit. Layering commercial structures and public institutions on top of family groups causes problems, but that’s the way it is. I have to say that Doha seemed much more planned and cleaner than Kuwait City. The architecture also seemed better. Qatar Airways back to Heathrow from a trip that was successful on the business front and fascinating culturally.

Qatar Day 4 - swim, sauna and saunter

Down to business with offers and counter-offers, again over countless cups of coffee and tea. We came to an agreement then had lots of photographs, presentations and chat. Our drivers took us to the airport at around 4.30 for Qatar Airways flights to Doha. The Business Lounge was superb with full meals available. Arrived in Qatar late evening and took a taxi to the Millenium Hotel. Where we had a swim (pool on 7th floor), sauna (odd as it was steaming hot outside) and Jacuzzi. Took a walk in not so fresh air, at 36 degrees to the Chopsticks restaurant in the Grand regency, where we supped fizzy date juice and demolished a huge Chinese banquet. Nice to walk in the comfortably hot evening air (36 degrees!).

Kuwait Day 3 - down to business then chat

Cars whisked us off to the second round of meetings. This time the next level of detail. We went back to the hotel for a sleep before being taken out for a grand meal in the evening. This was interesting, as all of our Kuwaiti counterparts were women. So there were four men and one woman on our side, and 10 women on theirs. This gave both sides an opportunity to chill out and chat. All but one of our hosts covered their heads but they were as liberal and chatty as any group of women I’ve met. We discussed gay men in Kuwait, family, shopping, travel, mobiles, Facebook, cultural differences, women in politics......Their English was excellent and it is clear that English has become the second language in this part of the world.

Kuwait Day 2 - Business, Souk, Towers

Up and off for our first meeting in a cool 36 degrees and met by a team of women, some dressed in designer western clothes, others with hibabs, others in black from head to toe. The guys from the British Council were superb, giving us a cultural briefing – how to greet people, the business environment and Kuwaiti culture. First day was a series of presentations from both sides with endless cups of coffee, tea, water....hospitality at its best.

The wealth of an oil economy has its advantages, such as a high standard of living, no taxes and households with cooks, nannies and servants, but it also brings its problems. Of the 3.1 million in Kuwait only one third are Kuwaitis so there’s not a great incentive to work and diversify the economy. There’s a quota system so that private companies have to hire a certain proportion of Kuwaitis, but many have a poor attitude towards work or simply don’t turn up. Many young people are cosseted and lack initiative. Malls have become the social hub for young people and conspicuous consumption the norm.

Strange to see people openly talk with each other while you’re presenting, and the endless checking of mobiles. Kuwaitis love mobile phones and a few questions showed that social networking was huge.

Politically, the country has a parliament (50) and four women were elected in May, for the first time, causing a huge rumpus, when two turned up without covering their heads. Several religious hardliners walked out and it’s still a contentious issue. Then there’s the clash between the desires of the ruling family, who dominate the cabinet, and the elected parliament who are pushing for reform. This shows itself in the inevitable accusation of corruption.

A walk around the old market gave us that eastern feel, with the smells of perfume, spices, fish and freshly slaughtered meat. Pablo bought a couple of dishdashas (long white robes) for a fiver each, along with some hats. Unlike souks in Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt there was absolutely no hassle. Only polite exchanges and smiles. But boy it was hot, hitting 45 during the day and high 30s in the evening. The outdoor restaurants are bathed in a mist of cool water sprayed out by huge fans and the alleys were canyons of colour. Our drivers showed us around but we had the measure of the numbers and could read the Arabic prices.

Trip to the twin towers, Kuwait City’s main landmark. We took the lift to the viewing platform and saw the city at night on one side and the darkness of the gulf at night on the other. There were pictures of the damage wreaked on the towers during the 1990 Iraqi invasion. Even the hotel had a display of damage done to the hotel. Reparations are still being paid and leading to tensions between the two countries. The Iraqis were here for 100 days, on the grounds of slanted drilling into their oil fields and disagreements over money and borders. It was clear that the famous ‘incubator’ stories were propaganda, but the burning of 700 oil wells was not. That’s what the war reparations are about. Watch Jarhead for a sense of what it was like, a living hell of oil falling like rain, choking smoke and fierce fires.

Drivers here have huge powerful cars and SUVs but little in the way of etiquette or sense. Our drivers waited patiently then took us back to the hotel. The accident and casualty rate is frightening, with young men using the roads as race tracks and dozens of drivers on their mobiles. Back to the hotel for a huge Lebanese meal of mezzes and seafood. Stuffed as a camel bag. Drivers took us back to the hotel for our final night of luxury in Kuwait. A fine time was had by all – and business closed!

Kuwait Day 1 - Visas, Limousines and Hotels

Kuwait Airlines Business Class was pretty cool but arrival was chaotic with a ‘Swine Flu’ SWAT team waiting as we entered the terminal, masked up and ready to nab anyone with a cough or signs of sweat. As our visas were not there for collection, we had to make a few calls to get things sorted. Middle East Airports are full of transient workers from the sub-continent and far east, with a smattering of Arabs looking dashing in their dishdashas. Visas collected, we were met and delivered to the hotel in a couple of smart government cars. In an act of great generosity (the norm in this part of the world) the cars and their drivers were available for the entire trip. Suites at the Crowne Plaza were huge and you’ve got to love gold bathroom fittings!

These hotels are huge and rather strange western oases. The Crowne Plaza has seven restaurants, including a Texas Rib-Eye place with Phillipino girls dressed as cowboys. The one major difference is that the entire country is dry. The view from my window was one of a fawn coloured desert and roads filled with huge white cars – petrol is 12 pence a litre! The hotel had lots of Kuwaiti businessmen and a steady stream of Americans, who clearly work in oil or the military – all biceps, and cropped haircuts.