Things not to do when in Jordan

Last year I took a two day short sight seeing trip to Jordan. The idea was to rent a car from the airport and look at everything that was possible in two days. We went to the Dead Sea (the novelty dies down in 15 minutes once you realize that only thing to do is float on your back. period), Petra, Jerash, Aqaba, Wadi-e-Ram, mount Nebo (where you can receive welcoming texts from Israeli cellphone services on your cellphone) etc.

My colleague was harassed at the immigration on why did he come to Jordan (both of us had a green passport and advance clearance had already been taken by Jordanian Embassy from their Interior Ministry before granting us a tourist visa) however we were let off after half an hour of meaningless questioning.

While driving along the Dead Sea we came to many check posts commanded by Jordanian Army with a tank, a jeep mounted machine gun and a few soldiers. Dead Sea is as wide as Indus River and Israel is on the other side of it. At every checkpost they would address us with Arabic salutations i.e., Alhamdolillah Ala Salama (thank God for your safety) or Yateek Al Afiya ([God] gives you wellness). Though not used to speaking in Arabic  we would reply in English. As non-western and non-arabic tourists, the officers would be surprised to find us in that area. They would ask us for our passports and inquire where are we taking that road. On finding a suitable reply they would let us proceed never checking the car nor the trunk (not that it contained anything).

After six checkposts, we got used to the routine. When we approached the seventh checkpost, before the car came to stop by the officer, my colleague who was sitting on the passenger seat slightly bent down to open the dashboard and take out our passports. From the corner of my eye I could see that the officer on the machine gun mounted jeep suddenly became alert and took the aim of my colleague. I whispered under my breath in a very strict tone “Bhench##$. Leave whatever you are doing and sit back slowly”. Luckily he did as he was told. The officer on the road came to my side of the window once the car stopped completely and followed the same routine of questioning and passport. The guy on the jeep remained alert all the time with the gun loaded and aimed towards us. Finally, when the officer was satisfied, he let us go and the officer on the jeep relaxed. This was a close call. I told my colleague to never do anything so stupid unless specifically asked for by the officer.

From now on we moved inwards into the country to go towards Aqaba (newly developed sea port on red sea) and again the same routine of checkposts every few miles. Finally, at one of the checkpost we decided to use Arabic. Whats the use of knowing a foreign language if you can’t use it. We thought, what the hell, we might get some smiles out of the people. So at the next checkpost, when the military officer said Alhamdolliah ala salamah, we replied Allah sallimak which also means the same thing. Then he asked where are we going and we said Aqabah. Then he asked for our documents and we brought out our passports. He asked us to step out of the car and stepped back to the check post never turning his back to us and though not shouting yet announcing that yehki bil arabi..yehki bil arabi (they are talking in arabic)…everyone loaded their guns…we froze…their superior officer came and asked us where were we going. Ordered us to open the trunk and went through our backpacks as well as dashboard and even had someone look under the seats. After some more meaningless questions he let us go.

From then onwards, our communication in Jordan even where the guy didn’t know an iota of English was in English or sign language.

The trip otherwise was wonderful

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Whats next after DP World scare? National Bank of Kuwait

I have done my share of Dubai bashing last year. When financial companies were crashing world over, Dubai was trying to hold its own by false proclamations from none other than ruler of Dubai and false reports by investment banks which were keen to remain in good books of Dubai authorities. Some people are just delusional assuming that if they close their eyes, the danger would just fade away. However, with the scare of Nakheel debt default in early December, it seemed that reality had finally reached this part of the world and last man standing of Middle East had finally fallen.

Actually NO. There is one other financial behemoth and it has been deluding auditors, credit rating agencies as well as financial press. The amazing thing is that despite signs visible every where, nobody has raised an eyebrow. This is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. I am talking about National Bank of Kuwait more commonly known as NBK which has been awarded one of the safest banks in the world.

When financial institutions world over including middle east were taking provisions on their investment and real estate portfolio, coming out of closet and declaring losses on their derivative transactions, NBK was conspicuous with record profits and minimum losses. When all investment sectors were declining in value, how could NBK remain immune to the losses unless it was shorting securities which NBK being a commercial bank is not allowed to do.

So what gives? I would not need to tell anyone if people who are paid to do this job i.e., regulators, research analysts and credit rating agencies asked a simple question: when the whole region was growing based on real estate didn’t NBK finance this growth being one of the largest institutions? It seems the people were not doing their job diligently because the answer to this question is a resounding YES!!!

NBK has provided Al Kharafi Group (construction arm that is a contractor as well as major supplier of cranes in Dubai) financing by a conservative estimate to the tune of KD600 million (other estimates put the value at KD 1Billion). This puts NBK exposure to Al Kharafi from USD 2 Billion to USD 3.5 Billion which is not a small amount if no provision had been taken so far which my sources claim that none has been taken.

Recently there was a lot of activity in the local stock markets wherein Kharafi was trying to offload its strategic stake in Zain but the deal could not go through. The sole reason that Kharafi wanted to sell its stake was it wanted to settle its liabilities with NBK. I am not aware what accounting logic NBK is using to avoid taking a provision against such a huge exposure to a single counter party.

And there is more. People in Kuwait tell me that two tallest towers in Kuwait (one under construction Al Hamra Tower and the other recently completed Al Raya II) were financed by NBK. However, the developers are unable to payoff the loan and as such NBK has shifted / will shift its staff from rented premises to these towers which they will occupy rent free (non-payment of rental to be considered repayment by developer through some twisted accounting logic). NBK is currently occupying around 20 floors in Al Raya II and will be occupying equal number of floors in Al Hamra Tower once its completed.

Though NBK is a well capitalized bank and losses to the tune of USD 4 to 5 billion might not affect its footing significantly, however, I am flabbergasted that the bank would hide such huge amount of losses for so long.

Woodstuck Pakistan

In Karachi Fashion Week proud designers brought out skimpily clad models as a show of defiance against the Taliban and terrorist activities in the country and created a hype in world media not least because the organizers and journalists used every available forum to tout it as showing a bold front to Talibans. The event was a success and thank heavens no untoward incident happened. The designers and media organizers had shown the proverbial finger to the Taliban.

Score : Media 1 – Taliban 0

GEO TV and musicians did not want to be left behind. Earlier, Bob Geldof through his Live 8 and Live Aid concerts, had brought awareness of certain issues to the forefront across all continents which were soon forgotten as soon as singing was over. GEO wanted to replicate a similar feat though on a much smaller scale by having AAG live concert with 12 hours of live transmission across three continents.

The concert was touted as Peace Concert aka Pakistan’s Woodstock and the purpose would have been to show that people in Pakistan are fed up with Taliban and want peace (this they would show by dancing to music).

Whereas Karachi Fashion Week showed the birdie to Talibans by having the event far from troubled areas of Punjab and NWFP in a five star hotel under extremely tight security in Karachi, Woodstock Pakistan attendees would not have to worry about their lives and they can dance the night away for the sake of peace in Pakistan in the security of Wonderland, Dubai.

Well it seems that Taliban had nature on their side on this one. Due to the bad weather, the concert was canceled. Whereas every medium available was used to announced the organization of event, its cancellation was sheepishly mentioned just by a small ticker on GEO TV.

Score : Media 1 – Taliban 1

Looking forward to the next event to see how the scores pan out.

UPDATE:

It seems that Taliban had nature on their side. Cafe Pyala has an excellent post on their website explaining a fiasco that Live AAG concert has been.

Final Score: Media 1 – Taliban 2

Gold : A bubble about to burst?

Everybody asks me why is the gold price rising and is it a good time to invest in gold. I myself want to invest in the commodity but based on my past experience and gut-feel I think it is a wrong time to do so. I have two reasons for it.

Reason 1:

I have seen that when everybody i.e., friends, colleagues, neighbours, house maid and even the driver starts talking about investing in something, its a signal that smart money is about to get out of investment and they are looking for simple fools like my acquaintances to leave holding the parcel when the music stops.

Well, this time even the kasai who came to slaughter our goats on eid was talking about buying and storing gold.

Reason 2:

I have a track record of investing at the peak or near the peak. At this moment, I have a great urge to invest in gold listening to people around me and I am fighting it just on the basis of my past track record.

The investments that I have made earlier at the peak have been property in dubai, stocks in Pakistan in 2005 just before the crash and little investment in NASDAQ stock before the 2001 IT bubble burst.

One of these days I will buy a gold coin or at max a gold biscuit. However, people tell me that to really make a buck out of it,  or fight against inflation, I should buy a brick.

Rest assured that whenever I do buy a coin or biscuit, it will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, bursting the gold bubble.

Academically I understand that gold has zero utility value as it has minimum  industrial use. Its value is derived from ornamental use. In Karachi, it does not even have ornamental value as you become a walking target for thieves and robbers. Most of the people wear imitation jewelry and keep the gold jewelry in lockers. One rarely wears original jewelery unless one is the bride on her wedding.

People talking about US deficits, unemployment rates, and dollar soon losing its value suggest that gold is best store of value at the moment. Even the financial press is full of news about research in gold, funds that are being launch to invest  in gold, gold indexes etc.

If one is in Pakistan, my gut is that one should start investing in farmland or staple foods such as rice, wheat and water if possible and build stockpiles at home since the rumors have it that we will have bigger food crises in the coming years.

Disclaimer: I have no license to dispense investment advice. Neither this post nor this blog should ever be considered as dispensing recommendations or advice.

ٹوپی بازی

PPP and Sind parties celebrated December 7 as Sindhi Topi Day according to two news items in The News: Festivities mark Sindhi Topi Day and Has Topi Day isolated Sindh from rest of the country?

I could not come up with a single reason why there was a sudden need to celebrate this. If sindi culture was dying (which it is not) I would have understood it though the timing and the manner of celebration leaves a lot to be desired.

However, the mast channels (thats how Sindi channels are known to us urbanites because of their constant dancing, singing and abhorrent entertainment programs) rarely show anyone wearing a sindi topi unless it is a visit to some rural place of which there hardly any is.

If it was a political statement in support of Zardari, then we can really look forward to Punjabi Dhoti Day for supporting Sharif brothers, Mohajir Pajama Day for Altaf Bhai, Peshawari Chappal Day for Asfandyar Wali etc…

Altaf Bhai, never to miss a photo opportunity to gain political mileage, makes the most of it by dressing up in sindi topi and ajrak and calling a press conference

I also liked the following comment by some MQM supporter on the occassion of Sindi Topi Day

اٹھانوے فیصد عوام کی جان

الطاف حسین بھائی جان جان

سندھی ٹوپی اور اجرک سندھ کی شان

کرتا پاجامہ مہاجروں کی آن

پاکستان کی پہچان اردو زبان