Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Killing machine


It is a beast - 97,000 tons carrying 80 combat aircraft worth $35million each and 4,500 crew - a lot of them highly trained kids.

The USS Ronald Reagan is the biggest aircraft carrier in the world and is currently docked at Jebel Ali.

I went down there with a press gang to have a word with my old mate Rear Admiral Michael Miller, a very friendly and positive guy who never misses an opportunity to stress the view that the Navy is all about peace - peace secured by the presence of one party with recourse to overwhelming brute force. The ship's motto is 'Peace through strength'.


I sucked it up in Media City - after all he was a cool guy, although his aides were quite scary - awkwardly square but strong, people who would calmly strangle you if they were so ordered.

But on board you can't ignore the essence of this floating military base - to unleash lethal force.

Even to get near its berth in the massive port you must first negotiate a maze of concrete blocks and checkpoints.

Young marines wander through, many incongruously carrying bags of golf clubs, passing men in fatigues cradling submachine guns on permanent guard.

As you climb on board you get a glimpse of the vast space below the aircraft deck, where a jumble of fighter jets, helicopters and a small boat are housed.

I felt as though I was in the RAF Museum in Hendon - the last time I saw such machines collected together was in such a context.

But once on deck it dawns on you that men really do get inside these heavy, sharp pieces of metal and hurtle through the skies at unfeasible speed with the intention of dominating someone else, perhaps using deadly force.


Just like in Top Gun, the planes all bear the names – and nicknames – of their pilots, as well as their hometowns – James “Doris” Day from California is written below one cockpit. But the pilots do not just come from the US – one jet is marked Dhaka, Bangladesh.

The slogan “Fist of the fleet” is emblazoned across a missile hanging off one of the jets. You can't really ignore the message, no matter how much people in caps use the word peace. The whole thing is about violence. Huge teams of people have spent vast amounts of money designing a massive killing machine which is then staffed by thousands who are either excited by the whole national security rhetoric or wimply want a stable job/cash to study later on.

Jets from the USS Ronald Reagan flew missions over Iraq almost every day during the last month’s voyage, although they rarely dropped bombs, Miller said, and were used more for reconnaissance and the deterrent effect they have on insurgent activity.

Planes take off using one of four steam-powered catapults, which thrust them 300 feet from nought to 165 mph in just two seconds, while incoming planes hook onto steel cables to bring them to a complete stop.

It doesn't always work out - they lost a plane on the way into Dubai for the first time in February when the pilot came in slightly too low and ripped off the undercarriage on the edge of the deck.


The ship itself took five years to build and is on its maiden voyage. It moves fast for its bulk – it has a top speed of 34 mph – and is expected to serve the navy until 2054.

During that time it will probably only refuel twice – its twin nuclear reactors can operate for more than 20 years without a top-up.

Once at sea, the ship towers 20 stories above the waterline and its flight deck covers 4.5 acres. It is nearly as long as the Empire State Building is high.

It has four bronze propellers measuring 21 feet across and weighing 66,220 pounds and two rudders weighing 50 tons.

The ship can accommodate up to 6,000 sailors. Its supply department provides 20,000 meals a day, while distillation plants provide 400,000 gallons of fresh water a day.


But although the USS Ronald Reagan is the most up to date vessel of its kind on the water, bits of it look almost old-fashioned.

Big brass valves appear on pipes everywhere you go, making you think back to WW2 films.

And inside the bridge – known as the “Island” – sailors do not use a hi-tech computer-generated model to mark the location of each aircraft.

Instead they use cut out shapes of fighter planes, stacked with nuts and bolts to indicate how much fuel or armament they are carrying. A bored guy sits behind a desk and pushes them about. They are watching baseball on TV and you can imagine how after a few days of that they must just itch for a bit of action. Even i probably would. Being a cop should be dull - but no one wants a boring job.


Admiral Miller likes to talk about a "a common bond between men of the sea that transcends nationality”. It means they can be friendly and polite to the Iranian navy on a day to day basis and sit by as the Iranians test their amazing missiles, wargames that apparently 'convey a message of peace and amity' through the Gulf.

But if Miller is ordered to he will break that bond with all the devastating force at his disposal. He says that within the military itself there's no appetite for confrontation with Iran. But the military doesn't make the decisions. The Ronald isn't even really part of the international anti-terrorism/piracy fleet based in Bahrain, according to US military press officers. We know the UK/US have done wargamesbased in 2004 on a fictional country with the non-fictional geography of Iran. What are they really doing here?


***

Met an Iraqi reporter yesterday who worked there up until two months ago. He was a chemistry graduate with a flairr for news and photography and worked with James Brandon on something called Iraq Today. He also worked for Xinhua and various newspapers, Arabic and English as well as as a UN press offficer.

He said he left because he was scared - anyone going in and out of the Green Zone is considered a US collaborator. He had to get several taxis to go home to throw anyone following him off the scent. His Green Zone passes were death warrants which he used to hide outside the Greeen Zone, he said. Day after day - an insanely stressful life.

He worked for El Mundo as a fixer for a while - $50 a day getting risky news and pictures for the journalist who was barricaded into the compound and who put her namee on it and got the big money.

He says he almost died three times because he was near explosions and was shot at once by the Americans - he was shooting traffic from a bridge and the US vehicle thought his lens was a weapon. He gave me the line about how the American soldiers were like animals, while the British were a bit better.

Crazy experiences of war, not 'peace through strength'.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Allahu akbar


God is indeed great. I emailed Mohammed A R Galadani, an old geezer who has a front page comment printed in the khaleej Times every day under his name. His personal branding is to begin the second paragraph of every day's piece with the lead in: "Dear readers, ..." - something which has been driving me nuts.

I don't even read the guy's column but my eye is drawn inexorably to the second par every time I clap eyes on the paper.

Eventually I had to email him imploring him to have mercy even for just one day. I said seeing the "Dear readers..." each day was like Chinese water torture and pleaded that if his readers really were dear to him he would vary things a bit.

And lo and behold today it has gone! The second par (lefthand comment) begins: "Estimates are that..." There isn't even a "Dear readers" at the beginning of the penultimate par, which is on a later page! Thanks Mohammed!

The Khaleej has a mainly Indian/Pakistani expat readership and its English is kind of charmingly quaint as a result - it brands itself as 'Your Number 1 Favourite Newspaper' in at least one front page article every day. It offers news coverage which is better than ours but not as good as the real number 1 broadsheet Gulf News.

Overall, the tone of today's comment is a lot more austere than usual. According to one of my colleagues who used to work at the Khallej Times, Mohammed doesn't actually write many of his own comments - he has a team of writers who do it for him.

***

God has also provided one of our cats with some kittens! Mother and babies are doing well underneath an old door in the garden. Lets hope our stressy moneygrabbing landlord doesn't try to rip them off for several thousand dirhams a month to live here as he does the rest of us...

Friday, April 07, 2006

Dubai from the sky



The city from the air by the Guardian's Dan Chung. He was in town to shoot Sir Richard Branson, who was announcing Virgin Galctic's space tourism programme. This picture is from Dan Chung's awesome photoblog

Broke the law last night - I had a can of 8% Baltica beer on the beach. There is one legal off licence in the UAE apparently called Barracuda which is in another Emirate. Alcohol is cheap, you have to drive with it through a small portion of Sharjah Emirate, where even carrying alcohol is illegal, and then you are in Dubai. You can just phone up your Russian/Indian beeer dealer and he will deliver. We wrapped tissues around the cans and drank through straws. Mooted it as a story this morning and one editor, wearied and disgusted by the censorship, said simply: "Forget it."

Thursday, April 06, 2006

"I'm too sexy for my mall..."



I spent the morning asking women if they take offence at the sight of models such as this beauty, provocatively lounging out of a shop window in Mall of the Emirates.

I went at the behest of our new editor, an Emirati woman, who wanted to expand a piece i wrote after a group of Emirati women callled the hotline saying they were "prisoners in their own country" because they are too offended by such pornography to go to malls.

She - a modern woman who does not have a problem with lingerie in the shop window - did not want to write a piece appearing to portray all Emirati women as finding such stuff offensive and basically by implication still living in the stone age.

Among Muslim women I found Syrian and Palestinian teenagers and one middle-aged Iranian who liked the display. Four more Palestinians - young and old - didn't approve. Of the three young Emiratis I spoke to, one didn't think it was a big problme but thought it could be toned down and two others disapproved.

Their gist was that women know a lingerie shop sells lingerie and thus the displays are unnecessary.

The French, British, Filipina, Indian, Pakistani and Polish women I spoke to didn't have a problem, although the Pakistani and the Brit said they could understand some might be offended. The Brit said the model was "tarty".

Only the Iranian, Filipina, Indian and Pole would agree to be photographed (the English woman predictably backed off waving her hands and saying "No no, don't want my pic in the paper" - she barely even gave her name. I remember this from local paper days - what is this kneejerk aversion the English have to being 'in the paper'?)

None of the Arab women would do it (the Palestinian teeenager wanted to but was not allowed by her mother). My colleague says it has something to do with a woman's face being precious and not something you simply give away to people willy-nilly...

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Al Qaida warned UAE in 2002



This is fascinating stuff - allegedly an original Al Qaida document from 2002 that warns the UAE government not to keep arresting its militants and generally cooperating with the US. It says it will attack the tourism indusstry here if the governemtn does not comply. It also says it has infiltrated the UAE government. The document was declassified and published on a US military website.

AP filed the story. We didn't run it (the letter would have made a great graphic) and I didn't see any other papers here do it either. The letter has also been claimed as a 'smoking gun' justifying the US in barring Dubai Ports from running US ports (the document was published in the wake of the DP ports fiasco. Relevant?)

***

Today was ridiculously hot - looks like the real brutality has begun...

***

Found out today we do not have equal pay on the newsdesk. It's normal that pay should vary depending on what you can negotiate etc etc. What I don't understand then is why I should have been explicitly told in my interview that everyone on the newsdesk would be on a flat rate of Dh10,000/month regardless of race (or indeed anything) because wage discrimination, which is widespread here, is deplorable. In fact the lowest paid is on 8,000 and the highest on 11,000. Seems to be a source of resentment, unsurprisingly.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"Nature's way of worshipping Allah"


There is no finer story than a miracle fish, particlarly one with the word Allah marked on it. The Emirates Evening Post informs us that hundreds flocked to Deira fish market after a sharp-eyed trader spotted the divine fish at 4am this morning and almost fainted.

"Rab Navas, a Pakistani fish merchant, sat inside the office with awe and joy writ large across his face. Understandable. He was the one who found the fish."

Dubai Municipality has decided to preserve the Safi fish in a museum. Taxi driver Shanawaz said: "This is nature's way of worshipping Allah."

I texted the office when I saw it but will we actually have it? Who knows...

***

My hopes for a translator in Sonapur have suffered another blow - the grocery weigher just phoned up. He told me he was fearful for his future in Dubai, said he would call me in a number of days that increased as the converstaion progressed, ending at 8, and asked me not to come to his shop again - "It is not a command, it is a request".

I thought he was a tad paranoid until he mentioned that he knew about the (brilliant) New York Times article...

Looks like I will have just to rely on the potbellied Keralite legend that is Mr VM...

Sonapur's wraiths

Sonapur - home to Dubai's battery humans


Getting an interview out of the labour camps is becoming a personal jihad. There are hundreds of thousands of poorly paid and discontented migrants jammed six to a room there and yet I cannot find anyone to speak to who fits my bill of being a construction worker paid under Dh500 a month who was fleeced to get here and would now go home if he could just get out of debt.

There must be thousands of these guys - but they don't speak any English and I don't speak any Malayalam. Almost everyone I speak to lauds Kerala as an educated state (Balu the snapper described it as: "A small state - only 60 million people") but I don't think many of the guys who turn up in Sonapur, the biggest of the camps, have spent much time at school.

Drive out of the bright lights and frivolous buildings of Dubai and turn right before you get to the marching residential blocks of law-abiding Sharjah and you enter a kind of industrial half-world called Qusais, all wide roads with grand names like Baghdad St just laid out into the emptiness.

Beyond Qusais is Sonapur. You know you're getting there because you start to see men wandering up and down the sides of the road. Past a bridge over a motorway the buildings change. They look like prison blocks, with gantries, clothes hanging everywhere and men in uniform overalls standing around. Those are the new labour blocks. The older ones lie behind, long single storey buildings divided up into rooms.

Sonapur is a mega-city without a single woman or street light. Company buses pile in and out down the dusty feeder street carrying workers back from punishing stints. Hundreds of men walk slowly up and down the sides of the roads like wraiths in the darkness and dust, silhouetted in the headlights of more buses and lorries. The barracks just go on and on in all directions and orange tankers crawl about sucking up the human waste from the big tanks it is collected in over the day.

My guide was a 45-year old Pakistani called Mohammed Ibrahim - one of the few Muslims among the migrant workers and one of the few English speakers. He has a relatively well-paid job as a forklift truck driver and earns Dh2,500 a month - but he is not a happy man.

"Too much problems here. Foremen always shouting, people aren't nice. I don't like it."

Mohammed's day starts at 4am when his alarm goes off. For the next two hours he and the others in his camp fight over the toilets and breakfast. At 6 the buses leave and the shift starts at 7. At 5.30 work stops after a 10 hour shift, the buses leve over the next hour and he is back in Sonapur by about 7.30. Then dinner in a cheapy restaurant, where I met him, evening prayers and bed at 10pm.

"This is not a good life."

Mohammed did his best to find me a proper interpreter. He struck gold in a grocery shop, where the bloke weighing the vegetables turned out to have the most wonderful English public school accent. The words were like smooth stones as his voice flowed over and around their contours like the water of a sparkling stream. Unfortunately he was explaining that he couldn't get away even for half an hour as his boss might show up at any moment. He has promised to give me a ring and says he is keen to talk, but I think I'll have more luck with my enigmatic colleague VM tomorrow.

So instead I went to have a look at Mohammed's quarters. They were nice and notably clean with racks for shoes outside. Inside were five bunk beds with another Pakistani nursing an injured hand on one of them. The room had a fan and a fridge - it was civilised.

Mohammed has spent the last 25 years working off and on in the Gulf. Oman has a much nicer and more relaxed atmosphere, he says. His family used to live in Muzafferabad but their home was destroyed in the earthquake and now he supports them in Islamabad by sending back about half his monthly salary. He has been in Dubai for three months and will return to Pakistan in another two.

He is relatively old for the camps. Some of them are barely out of their mid-teens, with bushy hair and eager eyes, some are the same kids now middle-aged. Some arrived yesterday, others have been there for several years. It's a massive organised workhouse slum with a set routine, not one single female and probably very little illegal alcohol. I wasn't surprised to be able to walk around and not feel threatened in the slightest. VM says no one is happy there but there's no violence in the air.

Sonapur is depressing because beyond work, sleep and food there is nothing. It's designed purely to exploit these people's life energy. They are no more than batteries. There is no illusion of society or diversion of any kind, nothing that hints at the possibility of personality or creativity, no hint of any sex of any kind.

***

Human Rights Watch has slated the UAE for the way migrant workers are treated. They are routinely not paid, are not allowed to organise themselves or even change jobs.

but the Emirates Economist argues that these Indians are keen to get these jobs and want to live in a high level of squalor to wring as much cash out of the situation as possible, although he cites a report that agents in India are finding it harder to get people to pay to come. His view is that the only thing that will drive better conditions here is a rise in the average wage in India.

***

The world's frenzy about UAE working conditions was sparked by a strike that became a violent riot near the Burj Dubai site, which will be the world's tallest tower. Workers went beserk, beat foremen and smashed computers and cars. They were annoyed among other things at being forced to get up extra early to be transported to the site at 5am only to hang around for an extra two hours unpaid before work started.

There have since been a load of articles beginning: 'Kumar bought into a dream when he paid an unscrupulous agent XXXX rupees to come and work in Dubai. Now he just wants to go home - but he has no prosepct of being able to afford to for another XXX years...' I am simply trying to get in on the action...