Monday 26 September 2011

Riding the Wormhole

Riding the Wormhole…

“Blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” is often used to denote a speedy event unfolding. Spare a thought for the scientists sitting miles underground somewhere between Switzerland and Italy (no..they’re not smuggling gold-bullion) attempting to keep their eyelids open to catch pesky-tiny-atoms, known as neutrinos, literally turning time and Einstein’s coffin upside down in one faster-than-the-speed-of-light (to be precise: 60 billionths of a second faster – that’s a quick blink) swoop of mind-boggling (maybe) discovery.

Two things are clear from the last seven days:
1. There will be a war in the Levant. Israel will either strike Iran directly, or indirectly via Hamas and Hezbollah. Netanyahu was quite clear on this. The region will conflagrate in a short and painful confrontation. Result? A regional superpower in Turkey and a return to another untenable 15yr “solution” carved out between the Israelis and its Palestinian neighbours. State or not, these two peoples sharing a long history of animosity, will unfortunately discover living side by side is not a route to peace itself. We will surely be re-visiting this situation in the weeks to come.
2. Europe will witness a crack in the Euro with two or three periphery nations having to pull-out, Greece’s impending default this week the starting-gun and consequently two or three mid-tier nations following suit. Benvenuto Lira, Hola Peseta?

The above are our own neutrino-fast (at least until the CERN findings are either confirmed or opposed) amalgamation of a week’s worth of multiple sources of commentary, analysis, discussion - often descending into heated shouting matches - and fortune-telling. Let’s be honest, much of today’s media discussion is one-well-presented-step away from predicting the future, coupled with those involved in finance foreseeing the eventual winners (read: enriched benefactors) from global socio-economic situations.

The world may have infinite more conduits to distribute and analyse information but the oft-obscure-corridors of power where global-shaping-decisions are made maintain a grip on domestic and international policy. Democracy does its best to illuminate the process. It also does its best to confuse in the absence of a strong-willed and certain path. WikiLeaks aside (even Julian Assange had to swallow some of his own medicine with his unauthorised biography making its way to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list), quasi-official-think-tanks, coupled with supercomputers modelling global permutations, make the decisions – we shout and argue at the results, only to re-elect the same or similar groups. Someone please stand-up and show us the way.

Truth is, there is really very little more we can do here now but sit back and watch the events unfold. The politicians and our esteemed elected (mostly) leadership, must face up to the glaring truth and make the necessary changes they are loath to admit – living standards in this new economic order are not sustainable without further risk to the system, re-balance can only be achieved through some painful alterations (read: de-leveraging) to our spoiled way of life. The biggest problem? Politicians are elected by people. People elect politicians to not have to deal with such issues themselves and live life in blissful oblivion. Nice in theory. Reality? The people and the politicians alike, must grow-up and face this generation-shaping challenge like adults. Adults should have acknowledged by now that pain is intermittently an unavoidable element of life. Some pain must be endured for the relief to present itself along the road. There is no other way.

Spring in the desert?
An opportunity arose over the last weekend to focus on a long-standing favourite friend to controversy. A land attached to the Middle Eastern region and yet often felt to be a world-away from its problems and attitudes. In fact, despite a geography placing it slap-bang in the middle of some feisty neighbourhoods, more often than not it is unfeasibly difficult to locate a shred of the region’s culture, let alone spot a Middle Easterner herself. Yep, you guessed it…we are talking about our favourite construction site, a land of playground-like wonder attached to a gleaming airport-hub and holding onto two-man-made islands that keep attempting suicide by drowning themselves – Dubai.

I like you…ya3ni
Are you sitting down? Let’s begin with an admission. I now like Dubai. Yep, you read correctly…L-I-K-E….Not a great deal mind, but certainly enough to admit it.

Those that have spent time reading through articles (some, like those in the UK press, have been too full of vitriol, bordering on the racist), endlessly dissecting Dubai’s “grotesquely unauthentic” image, often with a barrage of insults towards its pricing structure in particular - with soft-shell crabs and vodka shots costing WAY too much, uhhhm… - will wonder how this admission of “liking” the city has arisen.

Well, gone are the “I-can’t-believe-how-hot-it-is” property bandits from certain parts of the UK - hopefully comfortably re-ensconced in picturesque settings like..ermmm..Sheffield. In, are those seeking an excellent infrastructure, safe and secure living environment and a growing sense of community and opportunity in an otherwise all-too-often gloomy and uninspiring global environment. In, are corporates and entrepreneurs attracted to the smart and canny combination of global-access through an efficient and well-run airline and comfortable residential options with a growing level of service (still some way to go here but definitely getting better). In, are restaurateurs providing innovative and refreshing dining environments (like La Petite Maison – shameful plug maybe, yes…but I look forward to my future free meals - worth eliciting shame for) with a rapidly improving benchmark of quality and ambience.

Overall, in a slow-blink-through-the-sandy-sunshine, Dubai has become a more than reasonable and worthy living environment. least for eight-ish bearably-warm months of the year. Better not to mention the other four-ish. Oh come weren’t expecting a sudden total admission of love for the city were you?

The big question that still remains is what is going to happen to the Dubai with the on-going regional issues (read: Iran), neighbourly demonstrations of influence/recognition envy (read: Qatar) and even-closer-to-home-efforts of Abu Dhabi’s own aspirations? I would direct you to a simple comparison. Go and sit in any random cafĂ© and/or public place in the GCC (if you are a woman reader, you may have to choose both your location and attire carefully in some of those countries) and simply watch the world transpire around you. Pay careful attention to the sense of freedom, the vibe of expectation, lightness of emotional concern and sentiment, then admit where you would rather position yourself if you had to.

When the crisis really hit in 2009, some ugly skeletons jumped out of some deeply dark Dubai closets. As with any moment of fright, the initial reaction was shock and seeming indecisiveness. It was noted back then that time would tell. In the absence of time-travel (for now – come on CERN!), an optimistic peak into Dubai’s future holds nothing but rising success, as its mix of almost-efficient efficacy and lofty-aspiration resonates pleasingly against its successful hospitality offerings. Cash generation and project execution are its strengths. Imagine a future Dubai laden not only with an enticing and stimulating vision, but with access to Abu Dhabi’s wealth. Wow.

As we know, a lot can happen in a week. We may have another global financial meltdown by the time this weekend arrives. Clashes may erupt into more serious conflicts. NetFlix may become just another app in the unstoppable rise of Facebook – we really need to talk about that whole Facebook thing by the time. Who knows..maybe even Saudi women might be allowed to vote before we reach Wednesday?..oh wait..that’s already happened! Who’s going to drive them to the polling stations though?

At this moment, with all awaiting us this coming week, that deep underground-tunnel, humming beneath the majestic Alps leading to God-knows-where-through-Quantum-worm-holes, sure is looking like a fun ride out of this dimension.

Comments and discussion most welcome.

Hani Kobrossi

Wednesday 21 September 2011

And the deal making begins...

Monday 19 September 2011

I write, therefore I am

I write, therefore I am

Should one laugh with exasperation, or cry out of despair, on being faced with a return to the world situation from a writing perspective and finding all too clearly that “plus ca change…” Laughter would be the recommended choice. Tears should not be wasted on such a pathetic bunch of current global “leaders”.

So where are we right now? Well, Europe is still a total mess - am I reaaallly still writing about the diabolical Greek default almost two years after first muttering jokes of tragedies and over-cooked kebabs? -Obama has been all but declared a failure, not least by the Republican tactic of unfortunately treating him as an “invisible President” – with full racial undertones prevailing, China is rolling economically and socially forwards with unrelenting confidence (GDP growth +8.9% this yr, 7.8% 2012!) , overcoming hiccups here and there either through sheer determination or violent oblivion depending on your viewpoint, the Middle East is grappling with variously consistent rumblings of discontent as well as the sobering reality of re-creating entire political frameworks pursuant to revolution-euphoria-high-comedowns, unsuspecting traders are still destroying once stable and revered banking reputations in what will cost UBS $2.3bn for lack of adequate control (expensive mistake) and last but not least, Berlusconi is still partying whilst watching his nation’s debt reach near-junk-status. Too much pink-champagne for his friends, but real-pain for the sham-economy. Old Silvio albeit upstaged by the new lothario-champion, “not-guilty-your-honour-DSK” admitting overnight that he may have made “a-mistake” – hmmm, what a shame he won’t be the next French President. Pathetic bunch.

To Exist or Not To Exist
The most pressing matter for many Middle-Eastern political observers this week will be the Palestinian statehood saga. The Palestinians are due to table a motion for full UN membership for their, desired, independent state. Surprisingly the US (hold your breath) has said she will veto the move (why must the power of the veto always be declared long-before the draw? – ruins the dramatic impact).

Predictability aside, this move poses a serious conundrum for several of the UN Security Council. Polls and research are pointing to a majority support for the Palestinian motion. The US’s veto, no doubt influenced by powerful groups (AIPAC anyone?) chiding Congress back home, will expose fundamental flaws in hot-air-talk of peace plans and road-maps-to-nowhere reconciliation. Israel herself is being backed into an increasingly awkward corner. Faced with the prospect of refusing the Palestinians exactly what she herself existentially seeks, Israel inevitably moves further into the international black-spotlight. Zero aspiration for flexible negotiation, coupled with a history of less-than-accepting perceptions of frailty, make for another increasingly likely scenario in which Israel fights her way out of that corner…and boy can she punch hard.

Much has already been written about the potential consequences and arguments made for and against the matter (the FT had an excellent article over the weekend in the commentary section), but I see it as more black-and-white than most maybe.

Descartes famously uttered...”I think, therefore I am” . Deep-stuff no doubt my philosophical maestro, but merely thinking right now about an issue is not a solution. The Israelis seem to adopt a “we survive by doing what we must, therefore we are” approach to negotiation, the Palestinians “we-do-what-we-can in a futile situation, therefore we should be” and the rest of the region muddle through half-hearted attempts at forging a new existence through louder voices and more boisterous involvement in their own fates – about time.

The position we find the Levant in at present is thus a question of existence. Does Israel “exist”? Do Palestinians have any chance of creating a firm “existence”? Do Syrians, starving in their home-towns and demanding leadership change, “exist” in the eyes of their desperately clinging-on President? Will Iran’s influence across the Middle-East crescent “exist” if its theological followers are no longer aggressing towards a common target? Add into this mix of pondering, a flexing, growing and maybe overly-confident, then again maybe not given its economic strength and de-facto agreement of regional dominance/stability by the US, Turkey and you get history’s favourite recipe…a volatile time-bomb. What’s the solution? Well, all-out war is one. With all its unpredictability, destruction and suffering. The other, as pointed out by some smarter and cannier individuals/commentators than we could ever hope to be here, is…all-out and total agreement.

Hold on! ..I hear you all scream. Either war or total agreement?? How can that be? Well…when so many parties have so much at stake, there is usually an opportunity for smart and effective negotiation whereby disaster can be replaced by pacification and placation. In other words, money and promises of power. Iran, Israel, Turkey: all three have their own agendas dictating their approach to regional politics. Each agenda can be bought. Simple. Give a little to each and allow them to preside over their own sphere of influence, comfortable in the knowledge their people will feel stronger, richer and hence more powerful and able to “think and exist”. The US will surely be selling this…question is..will the punters be buying?

The Economist has an ”R-Word Tracker” – whereby a record is made of the number of times the world “Recession” is mentioned in a certain number of intellectually influential publications (sadly no, mine is not included) and used to generate a chart of impending doom. So what’s in store this week? Bernanke will most likely unveil QE3 (great, another trilogy) at the Fed’s expanded 2-day meeting, Greece will likely default ahead of an upcoming EUR750m coupon payment, catalysing EU Ministers to actually make decisions and take decisive action, the Middle East will continue to boil in its own ineptitude and no doubt emerging economies will continue to expand and focus on bettering themselves. Get ready for a whole lot of chart-topping R-words.

With all the economic tension and seemingly irreconcilable animosity swirling around us, you would think that the world was once more frightened into sitting at home and twiddling it’s thumbs around a budget DVD night-in, right – WRONG! We are not witnessing the tortoise-like relapse into income-saving shells as seen in late 2008 (oh yeah, happy belated 3rd birthday Lehman!). Rather, anyone lucky enough to have travelled around Europe in either July or August, would surely have witnessed a huge increase in the number of super-yachts moored off hot-spot beaches and restaurants. And where were the lucky sailors mostly from? Mainly Chinese.

Confucius vs. Descartes. Let the thinking begin.

Comments and discussion welcome. Hani Kobrossi