Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Algeria: A Former Hell

A Dangerous History
Sometimes it is easy to forget that Algeria used to be the most dangerous place on earth before there was even Iraq or Afghanistan. According to sources, the post WW2 history of Algeria was a bloody one.

According to Wikipedia, the 133 years of French colonialism was brought to an end by one of the bloodiest revolutions in post WW2 era. Although independence was achieved in 1962, conflict continued between the military and the various Islamic rebel groups for control over the country. During the conflict, both sides committed atrocities towards the Algerian people. Entire towns and villages were massacred by the rebel militants and possibly also the military in disguise as rebels. The perpertuators would infiltrate the towns and villages by night and visit house by house executing everyone inside including the young, old and women. While slitting of throats was the method of choice, survivors had reported witnessing the beheading of babies and the burning of womenfolk and aged. Approximately 100,000 lost their lives during the civil war.

Throughout the years, the military was able to gain ground. The Islamic militant groups slowly weakened due to assasinations carried out on the leaders and internal dissent. In 2003, The GSPC (The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) with about 300 fighters was the remnant of the rebel faction still willing to carry on the fight.

Restored Peace and Economic Development
General peace and stability was ushered in following the election of Mr. Bouteflika as president. He enacted a policy of clemency to encourage the militants to surrender. Economic development was probably seen as a way to eradicate poverty and unemployment (causes of anti- government sentiments)

Rich with oil and natural gas, Algeria hit the jackpot when the price of oil soared. The national debt was reduced and there was sufficient money to be injected into the economy. A USD60 billion budget was allocated to support an economic development plan for five years. Among it many aims were the plans to build 1 million low cost homes, to construct a nation highway linking the east to west (USD14 Billion) for promotion of commerce between the cities, and to introduce incentives to promote local enterprises.

Foreign direct investments were courted as partnerships were concluded with nations like China, the US, Korea. A Singapore delegation led by SM Goh visited on April '06 to secure economic alliance particularly in port operations, housing and resources management.

...But We're Not Out Of The War Yet
The prevailing climate of peace and economic optimism often makes it easy to neglect the fact that Algeria is still in the midst of a civil war. Politically the civil war never officially ended because hundreds of GSPC fighters are still at large to continue their terrorist tactics.

In 2003 February, the GSPC was responsible for the kidnap of 32 European tourists visiting the Sahara, all but one were later released unharmed in Tunisia? Just last month in April '06, 13 customs officers, including 2 regional directors, were gunned down while enroute to a conference in the south. The military retaliated by hunting down and killing the perpetuators. Two weeks ago, a brother of one of our dealers was picked up and held for ransom while driving a few kilometres from Algers. Last week, a group of colleagues visited our showroom in the south. Even though a police escort was arranged for them, the Landcruisers they were in were travelling at breakneck high speed. When asked, the drivers replied that they were driving so fast to prevent car-jacking by the "terrorists".

Although Algers is now generally immuned to terrorism, it was interesting to learn that preventive measures taken during the period of turmoil are still existing today:

1) All tree trunks had their lower halves painted white to prevent snipers or ambushers hiding behind trees.

2) There are no traffic lights. Cars do not stop because stopping make them vulnerable to terrorist activities.

3) People do not go out at night. Actually, there were no reasons to because there are virtually no forms of popular social entertainment like malls and theaters. Fast food franchises like McDonalds and Burger Kings are virtually unheard of. While restaurants are aplenty, they are costly and out of bounds to the general population.

Despite the occasional acts of terrorism and crime, Algeria is now very safe and peaceful. However, the dearth of popular entertainment venues probably makes Algeria one of the most boring place on earth!

Pelton, Robert; The World's Most Dangerous Places

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Help Needed For Better Flight Schedule Booking

This is a much belated blog entry because I had been on business trips and I didn't find the time to blog.

I had to admit that although I am a frequent flier for years now, I am still very bad at planning my flight schedules.

On 17 April I travelled to Bangkok via Dubai. My flight from Beirut to Dubai has only just landed did I realised that my next flight out of Dubai was at 2245. My flight had landed on 1510. Not once did I realise this when the ticket was issued to me about 2 weeks from departure. So it came to be that due to my "excellent" flight scheduling, I have more than 7 hours to kill in the Dubai International Airport.

Fortunately, the airport is a spacious and well equiped place to kill time. An entire floor was devoted to duty-free shopping and there were plenty of comfortable seating in the transit lounge. It occured to me that I actually enjoyed the sight of Asian faces around me. In addition to the ubiquitous Asian travellers, most of the employees working in the terminal were from the Philippines.

The first thing I did was to visit the bookstore hoping to get a book to read and kill time. The bookstore in the Dubai airport has a good selection of books including many titles on the Middle East. But some inconsiderate idiot has stuck a piece of chewing gum to an Edward Said book that I was browsing and some of the gum stuck to my fingers, making me swore all the way to the washroom.

Actually, the 7 hours transit time was well spent in retrospect. It was very nice to do things leisurely once a while. The bulk of my waiting time was spend reading a paperback I bought at the bookstand over a huge cup of mocha. In fact, I was so engrossed in my reading that I only checked in with barely enough time to catch my dinner before boarding the flight to Bangkok

My poor flight scheduling was evident during my return flight to Beirut on the 24th. My transit time in Dubai was less than an hour. A total farcry from the 7 hours I had on the previous trip. To make thing worse, I had a cold and my head hurts during the entire flight from Bangkok to Dubai. Unfortunately, I couldn't sleep it off because my neighbouring passenger, a tourist from Saudi Arabia kept chatting with me. Actually, he was a very sociable guy and I would have enjoyed chatting with him if not for my cold. I hope that I didn't strike him as being abrupt and curt.

The consequence of giving myself less than an hour's allowance of transit time was that although I made the flight, my luggage didn't. When I arrived they told me that my luggage will be coming on the next day's flight. Fortunately, things work out well the following day. I did receive my luggage on time as well as a small compensation fee from Emirates.