Thursday, October 19, 2006

On Middle East, Visas and Duty Free

Always Prepared in the ME.

Working in the Middle East can be lucrative, but it can also be uncertain. One never knows what may happen from one day to the next. I guess uncertainty is universal nowadays, but it is especially so in this part of the world.

I am not talking about political uncertainty alone. It may happen that you may not be rehired for the next year’s contract. It may also happen that someone does not like you for some reason or that you may have some incident at work involving a local that may end up in your early repatriation.

When I was in Kuwait, there was an employee that had a run in with a Kuwaiti which pretty much sealed his fate- he did not have his contract renewed. Prior to that, his wife had had a child and he had bought an apartment full of furniture. Now he was stuck with all the furniture and had to think how to get rid of it before the departure- not an easy task if you ask me.

I had another coworker on a Saudi military base that had bought a car and rented a luxury apartment in Jeddah. Some time later, he had a run in with a Saudi supervisor who afterwards had him kicked off the base. He was then transferred to Dhahran and had to rack his brains over what to do with a lease on his apartment as well as the loan on the vehicle. Eventually, it all worked out but why the headaches?

Then, we had repeatedly received consular warnings from the US diplomatic missions urging us to leave the country. Many people have consequently left. And those who were traveling home light went without much headache.

So, while in the Middle East, I have learnt to always remain as unattached as possible. I would rent cars instead of buying them and tried to live in company -provided housing or those places where no lease was necessary- where you simply paid month to month. And the places were furnished. People would say that it was very wasteful of me to do that but for me that was the price that I paid to keep the peace of mind in the face of uncertainty.

I also did not buy any expensive goods and, instead, acquired all kinds of cheap Chinese products that I would not miss if I had to go. I did not have a personal Internet connection or a landline. My phone was prepaid and I went to cafes to send emails. They had some pretty good monthly deals and I found it to be a refreshing experience to go out to surf- just like one goes out to eat. The fewer attachments, the better. I also ate out at cheaper local restaurants interspersing my diet with once- a week hotel buffets. The rest of the money I stashed away. When we were finally laid off and not rehired for a long time, I left without headaches and with plenty of cash in the bank to tide me over till the next contract.

One should always not be paranoid and live in constant fear. That is another extreme that is simply not advisable. Instead one should, as they say, hope for the best, but be ready for the worst, and that includes being able to get out quickly and effortlessly and not getting too comfortable with all sorts of middle class trappings in a country whose permanent resident you are not. If you look and think hard enough, you will be able to live a very comfortable “portable” life and quickly get out should circumstances change. Then, if you try and get another Middle Eastern job, you will be able to being in a new place while using OPT- other people’s things- that is: rented cars, rented furniture and apartments coupled with cheap Chinese appliances and clothes. I found that to be the most headache-free way to live and enjoy my life in the rather unstable Middle East,

Can They Get You a Working Visa?

In some so-called developing countries, the enthusiastic employers who want to hire you can exhibit gross ignorance in how they are supposed to go about issuing you a working visa or a work permit.

A case in point is Thailand. It is a constant complaint of many expatriates there that they would be hired only to find out that their employer had no earthly idea as to what is involved in the immigration formalities that you need to go through, and that he/she is now beset by as many headaches as you are. Some are not even sure that you are qualified to get such visas and permits. How would they know? They are not foreigners and they have never gone through the process themselves. Some supervisors who knew something about the immigration procedures may have gone on to bigger and better things, and you are now facing a personnel officer who cannot even speak English and who has been hired through personal connections, but is completely incompetent. You then end up at the mercy of his/her incompetence. That means they send you to the Immigration and the Immigration sends you back asking for this and that paper and then you keep going back and forth and the assistant that the boss sent with you adoes not now anything about how to obtain the paper.

How about, in the worst case scenario, you find out that you are not even qualified for a work permit? That is after you have moved to the country and spent several months there. And if you are working in the meantime without the work permit, you run the risk of breaking the law and being fined.

Eventually, in most cases, such immigration nightmares end with you getting all the visas and permits you needed; however, if the bosses are in the dark as far as the procedures are concerned, it is a very unpleasant situation to be in.

So, whenever you get hired to work by a local employer or even a foreigner, please find out if he/she can properly process your papers and if he/she has done so before. If this is a small company and they have never done it, think twice about accepting employment with them. It may not be worth the headache.

The Culture Shock’s Undiscussed Stage.

There are many books dealing with the culture shock, and generally they all agree that you go through these stages- euphoria, followed by disappointment and resentment, followed by adjustment and then, eventual relative peace and enjoyment,

I have discovered that after the resentment and before adjustment you go through the stage of sarcastic derision. The new country ends up looking ridiculous and its people seem so stupid that you start making fun of them and deriding them. It is not exactly resentment because derision can be so funny that you may actually enjoy it.

This is when you start making jokes about the natives that are funny to you but not funny to them. You start laughing at the way they walk and talk and think. You sometimes laugh so hard at the way they misunderstand you or make comments about you and “your people” that you come home with a big smile on your face.

The derision stage can last from several weeks to even several years and then you slide out of it into the adjustment stage. However, do keep in mind that when you deride the locals in their country, or even after you leave it and find the locals in your country, you are inviting trouble. People can get offended and attack you verbally or even physically. I have had it happen to me and since then, I keep my jokes to the circle of expats in bars and clubs and even then I watch the barman and stop talking when he or the waitresses are around. The locals’ ways are not funny to them and your mocking of their country may end up costing you dearly.

If you are one day laughing sarcastically, or not so sarcastically in the taxi at everything around you in the new land, rejoice, for you are now out of the resentment period. However, do not tell anyone among the natives why you are laughing. Hold your laughter until you get back home and chat on the Net with the people back in your country, or call your mom and tell her just how ludicrous these people can be. If you can, do it in some language that your hosts cannot understand.

The derision stage is real and you will go through it. Hold on to your seat and enjoy it. It is part of the culture shock and you will soon be over it.

Duty Free, etc.

You know, duty free may be a good deal in Western Europe, Japan or the US, but for the life of me, I have no idea why anyone would want to buy anything except only a few items in the duty free areas in most of the world countries.

Take souvenirs, for example. Why would you want to buy them in the duty free section if you can get those three or four or five times cheaper outside the airport, in town? The same goes for bags. Gee, why would you want to buy a bargain $200 bag at the Duty Free if so many stores in town will sell it to you for $30 or less. Admittedly, it may not be exactly the same bag, but it will be pretty darn close and you can then use it for the same purpose as you would have used the more expensive ones.

Electronics for some reason do not look so cheap, either. You can scout the Internet and get them much cheaper. The only good thing the Duty Frees are good for is items that are simply not available anywhere near where you are heading to. For example, caviar may not be available in many places in the Middle East or SE Asia. Plus it ‘will’ be cheaper if you buy it there. Some famous alcoholic items will be cheaper, for example Black Label- it is, in fact, cheaper. Chewing tobacco or snuff can be unavailable in many countries except in some big duty frees. However, outside of those items, I do not see much benefit in the Duty Free sections.

By the way, neither Australia not New Zealand seem to have chewing tobacco or snuff as they simply do not form part of the culture there and will not have a market. Dubai and Bahrain Duty Frees, on the other hand, are excellent for such items as well as for caviar.

Caviar needs to be declared when you come out as it falls under “food” but chewing tobacco is not considered ‘plant product’ by many customs. I have, on numerous occasions asked customs officers about that, but it’s still worth asking when you go through the customs. You never know what they have in mind.

Anyway, outside the occasions when I wanted to buy those items, I do not spend much time in Duty Free sections. And, by and large, I would not buy anything since often I would see huge lines in the Goods to Declare lines formed by those who had bought something in those.

By the way, on several occasions Custom Declaration forms seemed to be confusing. When I was in Australia this year, I checked “yes” on the form where it asked me if I acquired certain items abroad over a certain sum of money. I can’t recall how much it was, but I was worried about my gold jewelry which was in access of US$ 1000. Would I have to pay duty on it? It turned out that since I was going there as a tourist and was not going to keep it in Oz, I did not have to declare it in the first place. Then, also, when I was going through the New Zealand customs the form asked me something to the effect whether I had been near animals or in rural areas recently. Well, I had been, as a matter of fact. I was in a national park in Oz and then I was in contact with kangaroos and koalas- yes, I petted them. When I put ‘yes’ on the form and talked to the NZ customs officer, he began to smirk, asked me to show him the soles of my shoes and let me through, changing the ‘yes’ on the form to ‘no’. Go figure what they have in mind. Weren’t those rural areas and animals respectively?

Oil Rich Countries

Aah! What prosperity and abundance awaits so many of us who end up in the countries where wealth comes from the ground! One does not realize that instead of an economy based on credit or taxes or hard work and discipline as in most of the West, the wealth seems to be jetting forth constantly from the ground, like from the horn of plenty. One soon notices that everything is cheap but salaries are the same or bigger with no taxes. Soon one’s savings account starts growing without one sacrificing his/her lifestyle. Then, services are also dirt cheap. Soon, one stops budgeting, since one still spends as one would at home, but one still can put away decent chunks of money into one’s bank account.

There are drawbacks, though. While services are, in fact, cheap, they are not of such high quality as back home. Many employees are not as motivated and will not get fired if they do not give you excellent treatment. Many are completely incompetent. Travel agents make mistakes that would cost them their careers in the West; repair shops do not repair items on time, people promise to have an item or a service ready for you on a certain day only to fail to deliver, costing you hours of lost time. The employees are either sullen and unfriendly, or smiley and friendly, but still not able to serve you properly. Many things are simply not available and if you ask them when they arrive, they will give you a date, but even on that date, the goods are still not there. The companies will not go out of business because oil money will keep them as well as the entire economy afloat. Everybody will have some kind of income whether the customer gets served well or not, so why try too hard?

Quality control on imports is very poor. I once bought a pair of sneakers in the Middle East that looked great and felt very comfortable on my feet, however, when I took them to Sydney, the soles fell off after a few hours of walking. I had to limp around until I located a store selling glue and later, had to sit on the street gluing the soles to the shoes in plain view of everybody. It was very embarrassing, and it was even more enlightening when I realized that the glue that I bought to glue those soles back on cost more than the shoes themselves. Eventually, I had to throw them out.

Many of the natives are so rich and so protected by local employment laws that they can live the lives of complete security no matter how badly they fare at work. They can show up late, leave early, screw up all they want and still be better off than you. None of the principles of personal responsibility that are so highly valued in the West apply to them. The world, in fact, owes and provides them with an excellent living that spurts from the ground in jets of black gold. The economic system for nationals of such countries can rightfully be termed Petro-Socialism and it is probably the only types of socialism that works, primarily because money generated by the oil comes from all the Western capitalists that have helped to develop the system to begin with.

It can sometimes drive you nuts, though. Hey, take a chill pill. That is the price you have to pay for living in such naturally prosperous countries and being able to put so much cash away. It still irritates me occasionally, but I have learned to take those things in stride as part of my overall petrodollar experience.


xpat said...

Working in the Middle East can be lucrative, but it can also be uncertain. .... sure it is highly uncertain, specially in the Gulf

Nice Post

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