28 May 2004

Number Plate Madness - updated

Dubai police auctions number plates, or how to maintain a strange hobby. And more information on Dubai number plates than you really need.

The latest money-spinning discovery for the municipality is the sale of personalised number plates. There are limited options for personalisation, since Dubai plates are just a letter for the year of registration followed by a row of one to five digits. We heard that you can recognise important locals by low numbers (single or double digits) and have seen Sheik Mohammed's car, which sports the number '1'. Some of Dubai's most creative drivers drive cars with low numbers...

But the whole arrangement of car registration is in flux right now with an explosion of new cars being registered. Vehicle registration is expected to rise from 400000 now to one million by 2020. Dubai has been through four different schemes in the last four years, including one of differently coloured backgrounds and numbers, which was abandoned because colours faded too quickly in the hot weather. A scheme that included a picture of the Burj Al Arab was given up because the remaining space left was too small to allow deciphering of the actual numbers. The new scheme should be able to provide plates for registration for the next 30 years.

Two weeks ago new plates starting with the letter 'E' were auctioned. Unbelievably a single number (E33) went for Dh 1.14m (£130k)! The man who bought the plate also bought another 4 plates for an additional Dh 1.07m. Apparently the collection of number plates is his hobby. He told Gulf News that he was looking for a plate for either his BMW X5 or his Porsche. When asked what cars the other plate were to grace, he said that he did not have that many cars: "I will have to buy some more".

A total of 36 plates brought a profit of Dh 10m for Dubai police.


A few days later the police department of Ras al Khaimah (a tiny Emirate on the Indian Ocean coast in the North-East of Dubai) ran a similar auction. The plates on sale, though from RAK, were more desirable, as they included single digits from 1 to 9 as well as double digits 11, 22, 33, etc, to 99. Plate number '1' went for the incredible amount of Dh 8m, the highest price ever paid for a number plate in the world. More interestingly, the second most expensive plate, number '2', was sold to the Chief of RAK Police, Brigadier General Sheikh Talib bin Saqr Al Qasimi. The Director General of the RAK Economic Department later warned that people shouldn't take out loans to purchase plate numbers just as status symbols or as a hobby. Some hobby...

25 May 2004

Final Touches

As a last favour from the impeccable service we received from Crowne Removals they sent a handyman to hang our pictures, clocks - and the hammock!

Stuart was initially not keen on the hammock, but, like everyone who tries a hammock for the first time, is now a total convert. Impossible to to get him out of there.


24 May 2004

Troy at the movies - UAE-style

We had been putting off going to the movies after our first trip due to the unreasonable and brutal censorship of American Beauty, but when Troy came out we thought there probably wasn't much that could be chopped.

As it turned out, Troy was a very average movie (it's probably more enjoyable to just read this 15 minute synopsis instead), but the trip was memorable for something that didn't happen and some things that did, but were a bit unexpected:

We had been warned that due to the total dependence of Dubai inhabitants on their mobile phones they would be using them in the cinema, too. We heard horror stories of insistently ringing phones and conversations carried on at full volume. So we were prepared. But apart from a guy who was still chatting while getting seated before the movie started there was total silence.

The unexpected thing was cigarette advertisement. This has been banned in the UK for so long now that watching it felt slightly illicit, even if it still didn't make us want to go out and pick up the habit. It was just such a blast from the past, we almost felt like we were back sitting in the local flea pit as kids, having snuck in with fake ID to watch Star Wars.

After American Beauty we had learned a bit about local censorship. Swearing is fine, so is any kind of violence, and strangely the male kissing scene at the end of American Beauty was spared, but the slightest whiff of female nudity was mercilessly - and very crudely - removed from the movie. In the case of American Beauty it meant that the dream sequence in the sports hall with the rose petals was excised which made some of the later events totally incomprehensible. Troy only has a few scenes with female nudity (strangely Brad Pitt's naked arse was left intact, thank Goodness), but all of them were hacked in the crudest manner. The big surprise, though, was the audience reaction. The cuts were very obvious, like a fault in the film roll rather than a proper edit, and every time a scene was censored, the audience laughed, as if it was a good piece of unintentional comedy. People were amused by the patronising attitude reflected by the cuts rather than annoyed. It was a strange reaction.

23 May 2004

The gym and pool

As of this week we are seriously working on reducing that extraneous layer of fat collected during our endless trips to restaurants since we got here.

It is difficult to overestimate the privilege of having an in-house gym and pool. When we first looked at flats we always asked whether there would be a gym in the building, but soon realised that this is standard for apartment blocks of a certain quality here. A pool seems equally compulsory, even most villas are grouped around a communal pool in the back garden, and gyms are provided by the developer in the form of centrally located clubs.

Our gym and pool are located on the top floor of the building with a spectacular (if slightly truncated, due to a high wall) view of Bur Dubai and Port Rashid and the sea. At night the aircraft warning lights on the neighbouring buildings sparkle, a sight which makes us feel very cosmopolitan. The pool is just long enough to swim lengths (if you are a moderate swimmer), but it has a large jacuzzi for hours of lounging. Despite Fiver's moaning that it is an indoor pool and there is no opportunity to catch some rays it is the most opulent, shiny and exquisite luxury to have. The best thing is that you can go up in the lift in your swim suit and dressing gown and come straight back to the flat after the swim, provided you don't leave too many puddles on the floor.


The gym, for some reason, is always empty. Which is good, this way no-one can see us sweat ;-) It has tread mills, a rower, cycles, weight machines and any number of very heavy weights for the testosterone-fuelled.

22 May 2004

The Furniture Walk

Sharjah (the emirate next door to Dubai, see A Visit to Al Sharjah) yields up another of its secret treasures.

Geoff, who has recently arrived in Dubai and is looking to furnish his newly-rented villa, took us along on one of his furniture-hunting trips to Sharjah. We first went to Lucky's, a warehouse full of Indian furniture hidden in an industrial estate, a veritable treasure trove of carved and painted items. Wardrobes, tables and bookcases are stacked three high, leaving only a narrow alleyway between each precariously piled row. Everything was either covered in beaten brass work, exquisitely carved figures or painted with naive decoration such as fish, camels or elephants. We ordered a coffee table with inlaid blue tiles and a small cupboard with painted doors. In between the furniture we discovered a lovely camel to add to Fiver's growing collection:


The camel is the one on the right ;-)

Next up was the famed Furniture Walk, a long stretch of road through Sharjah lined with one furniture showroom after another. Most of these seemed to be aimed at the Russian visitor, judging by the advertising in the windows, but we didn't let that deter us. Geoff was hunting for a cream-coloured sofa for his new home, and we tagged along. The showrooms turned out to be a set designer's dream. If you need a bedroom for the Marriage of Figaro done the traditional way, or the interior of a Tsarist throne room, or the shiniest, glossiest Miami Vice-style drinks cabinet and bar, you would be in the right place. There were polished wood wardrobes you could see your face in, decoratively framed mirrors with elaborate detailing and antiqued MDF as far as the eye can see. But the most stunningly tacky item we discovered was this dolphin coffee table, which came in a range, so it would be possible to have a matching set of these beauties scattered around an undoubtedly large and over-furnished lounge:


At 650 Dirham (£95) it's a steal!

18 May 2004

Seeing Friends

Moving on to the UK, where Stuart had yet more meetings, we also made the rounds of friends and family.

So this is a note to say thank you to everyone we saw for having us over, it was great to see you again so soon after we left. We hope we weren't too boring with our 'Dubai is Great!' ravings. Fiver has been specially inspired by all the interest people showed in the mores and manners of Dubai. She will try to answer all questions in forthcoming editions of the blog.

Thank you Alex, Angela, Caroline, Caroline, Dave, Emma, Gary, Harry, Howard, Ian, Jane, Jane, Jason, Kayzi, Martin, Matt, Phil and Stephen for your hospitality! See you in Dubai soon to return the favour.

10 May 2004

An Interlude

Fiver finished work, and Stuart was off to France again for work, so we went together. This entry is not about Dubai, so feel free to skip it if you are only interested in the exotic news.

Paris was lovely, the sun came out and the air was balmy. Unfortunately Stuart had to work all day, so he only had time for a Seine cruise one evening. Fiver spent most of her time vaguely strolling towards museums, but only really made it to the Louvre for a few hours, where she strolled past the Mona Lisa and the Nike of Samothrace.


03 May 2004

Three Surprising Occurrences

Fiver gets wolf-whistled for the first time, meets her first beggar and discovers a mysterious dead goat...

What makes the wolf-whistle so surprising is that it is the first time it has happened even though we have been in Dubai for three months now. People here are rather respectful (unless they are driving and you are in their way), and personal space is very important to everyone here, to the point where some people are reluctant to shake hands. It is quite a paradox for us Westerners, that some women would be very private, staying at home or in cars with tinted windows or covered by black cloaks and headscarves, and at the same time there is such a respect for women that it makes an insult noteworthy.

Yesterday Fiver left a shopping centre when she was called over to a car. A man, accompanied by a woman and a few small children told her that he had come from Abu Dhabi, but had run out of petrol for the return journey and had no money to feed his family. While there are poorer areas in Dubai, sometimes right next to large villas, and labourers are often housed in very cramped conditions (there is an article in today's Gulf News describing complaints that factory workers are housed in containers with no air conditioning - an unimaginable environment in temperatures of 40C and over) there are no true slums and no beggars roaming the streets. This is mostly due to the fact that there is little unemployment. Most inhabitants are ex-pat workers who by definition can only be resident here as long as they have work. The locals are well supported by the government with free health cover, cheap housing and generous subsidies on marriage and child birth.

The dead goat was lying on the central reservation of a dual carriageway, obviously run over. But where had it appeared from, a goat in the middle of town? Today's newspaper explained. It was a stray, run over by a car, who, in swerving, forced another 4-four wheel drive off the road and caused it to flip over. There was a very impressive picture of the goat that had caused the mayhem in front of the upside-down car. Nobody but the goat seemed to have been seriously hurt.

02 May 2004

Getting round the desert without getting stuck

As the UAE is almost completely desert, and a large percentage of that sand desert, we thought it a good idea to learn how to drive in sand.

As the UAE is almost completely desert, and a large percentage of that sand desert, we thought it a good idea to learn how to drive in sand. We certainly have the right vehicle for it. The Range Rover, even though the vast majority of them never leave the tarmac, is a superb off-road vehicle and we wanted to put it through its paces.

We signed up with one of the several companies that offered such courses (the aptly named ‘Turner Travel’) and met up with the teacher at a shopping centre car park not far from our flat. Luckily, we were the only people on the course – normally they take up to 8 vehicles. We were given a walkie-talkie for communication and followed his Land Cruiser out of town to a spot in the desert. There, we reduced the tyre pressures to about 15psi (to give a greater surface area on the sand) and then had a briefing using toy cars to illustrate the techniques needed to avoid getting stuck or turning the car over.


This is us not getting the car stuck for once.

There were not many teaching points. Driving in a sand desert means constantly crossing over wind blown sand dunes, which means driving up the face of one, over the top and down the often steep slope on the other side. The secret is to keep moving up the slopes and to have enough momentum to carry you over the top, while not going too fast so you get airborne! The main safety point is to make sure you go over the dunes at a right angle, as you can roll the vehicle if you try to cross obliquely.

Before driving off, we raised the suspension to its ‘off-road’ level as ground clearance is highly useful. The vehicle manual also recommends removing the plastic spoiler at the front but the car looked high enough so we left it on.

We started with gentle dunes but they soon gave way to more scary ones. When going down steep dunes you initially think that the car will bury its nose in the sand when you hit the bottom. It does not, but you occasionally take a lot of sand with you. After our first stop to change drivers, we noticed that half the plastic spoiler had been ripped off somewhere so we removed the rest!

It took us both a little while to get the feel for sand driving, mainly keeping the right acceleration to get up the dune without going too fast. If you do not make it, then you reverse down and up the other side as far as possible and run at it again. We both got stuck a couple of times but this technique worked well each time. Our only serious bogging incident came after we came over a dune but had to turn sharp right at the bottom in soft sand. We got well and truly stuck and called for assistance. It was a simple job for Jochen, the tour leader, to winch us out (must get one of those!) and we continued on.

We were both delighted with the course and the car. Fiver had never driven off road before and Stuart had not driven on sand since living in Australia 20 years ago. We now have no fear of driving in the desert – just a healthy respect!

01 May 2004

Russian plane, all washed up

We found this by the side of the road on the way to Ras Khaimah.

This is a Russian Ilyushin (IL-76T) plane, probably landed here and couldn't take off again. We found that it had last been registered in the Central African Republic and before that in Swaziland, Liberia and Russia.


The birds have made their nests in it and were very put out when we came wandering around.


We were searching for an airfield for Stuart to fly from and for Fiver to carry on her flying lessons, but all we found was this and a heavily fortified runway. So we will have to consider Dubai International after all, although we don't relish the idea of sharing airspace with the big Lufthansa Airbuses.


No, really, it even has little minarets, although they are on the cramped side if the Iman wants to climb up in them for call to prayer.