As 2008 ended with more global financial doldrums, the UAE began the new year consumed by a blanket of fog. The Arab world watched with horror as Israel mounted a massive air assault in Gaza, killing hundreds of Palestinians. John Henzell reviews the week
The darkness before the dawn
In some of the bloodiest days of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, bombing by the Israeli military in Gaza killed more than 420 Palestinians and injured 2,000 others. The Israelis said they were acting in retaliation to rockets fired into Israel from Gaza by Hamas militants, but each side cited earlier escalations during the Egyptian-brokered six-month truce that ended on Dec 19. The rocket attacks increased in the days after the truce ended, during which there was another brief ceasefire brokered by Egypt, then on Dec 27, the Israeli military began Operation Cast Lead with strikes on 50 Hamas security installations. Most of the deaths were Hamas members, but a quarter were civilians, including children.
A coincidence of dates put the Islamic and Gregorian New Years in the same week.
The first dawned on Dec 28 when Muslims could wish everyone a happy and prosperous 1430. The Islamic New Year is based on a lunar calendar and moves forward 11 to 12 days each year compared to the solar calendar. It is not commemorated with the revelry traditionally associated with Dec 31. There is a third New Year on Jan 26, when you can wish your Chinese friends a happy and prosperous 4707.
The Federal National Council announced its intention to transform itself from a chamber that suggests regulations and discusses laws drafted by government departments, to a more parliamentary model with direct legislative powers. Originally all the members of the FNC were appointed by leaders of the seven emirates but now half are elected by a pool of 6,600 Emiratis appointed by the FNC. Members of the Supreme Council, made up of the rulers of the seven emirates, said they aimed to move to a fully elected FNC, but wanted progress to happen gradually.
A corollary to the rampant Christmas consumerism in the West is a flurry of unwanted presents. One Australian estimate calculated that virtually every one of the nation's 21.5 million citizens received an unwanted gift. And more than a million of those would try to sell that gift via an online auction site such as eBay. With an average of AU$50 (Dh126) spent on each gift, that's a lot of money. What was not quantified in the survey - conducted by eBay - was how many of those shopping online would recognise the present they gave to an ungrateful recipient.
The 50,000 people who use the fledgling Abu Dhabi bus service had been expecting to start being charged from Jan 1 but an 11th hour - well, Dec 29 - reprieve has extended their free ride until the end of February. That's good news for everyone, with 50,000 fewer people competing for taxis and making a small but significant improvement in Abu Dhabi's increasingly congested traffic situation.
A soap opera and then bureaucracy topped the new interests of UAE residents, based on searches on Google in 2008. The top five searches were all in Arabic and involved variations on the drama Nour, the video-sharing website youtube.com and Jumeirah. But in the past three months, a new topic has rocketed up the search list, with "Emirates ID" now searched for 21 times as often as it had been before September, coinciding with announcements about sanctions for expatriate professionals who fail to get their identity card before the end of the year. The deadline has now been pushed back to the end of next month. Overall, the most popular searches were remarkably wholesome: Dubai, UAE, games, forums, photos, songs and, oddly enough, the eighth most popular search on Google for 2008 is the term "Google".
The top Italian football team AC Milan arrived in Dubai this week to train in kinder weather conditions than offered by their homeland. But media attention focused on only one player - David Beckham, the über-famous English footballer on loan to the Italian side from the LA Galaxy. Beckham can be grateful he landed in one of Arabia's most tolerant nations because he was sporting a new tattoo in Hebrew, a biblical proverb stating: "My son, do not forget my teaching but keep my commands in your heart."
Sixty years after the English explorer Wilfred Thesiger and his Bedouin friends crossed the Rub al Khali, the Empty Quarter of sand dunes at the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, two expatriates will attempt to recreate the feat.
Mark Evans, a former English teacher living in Muscat, and a New Zealand photographer, John Smith, are using two Land Rovers instead of the traditional camels but are posting daily blogs on www.omandesertexpeditions.com about their experience. The venture is backed by the Omani government and money raised will go towards establishing an Omani branch of Outward Bound.
The Kuwaiti government pulled the plug on a $17.4 billion (Dh63.9bn) joint plastics venture with Dow Chemical, the United States's biggest chemical company. The government cited the downturn in the global economy for the decision, but there was also strong opposition from Kuwaiti parliamentarians that the deal was overpriced and ill-timed. Dow Chemicals was seen by analysts as relying on money from the deal to buy Rohm and Haas, a US specialty materials firm, leading to a lowering of both firms' share prices. There was also speculation by analysts that the cancelled deal might cause other Dow Chemical deals to fall over, including a $22bn joint venture with Saudi Arabian Oil Co to build a petrochemical plant on the Gulf.
Herman Rosenblat, an American writer, admitted embellishing parts of his memoir of life in Nazi death camps after being challenged by Holocaust experts. Mr Rosenblat had twice appeared on Oprah Winfrey's television show to publicise his book, Angel at the Fence, in which he claimed that he met his future wife at the Buchenwald concentration camp when she threw apples to him over a fence. He admitted inventing the pivotal scene and in reality, he did not meet his wife until 12 years after the war. A film deal based on the book will continue, but will be classified as fiction rather than autobiography.
Thousands of people gathered for the final day of the camel beauty contest at Madinat Zayed on Thursday as the final prizes were handed out. Judges had a tough task as the finalists paraded in elaborate harnesses after being groomed to look their best by owners. One of the chief judges said the festival had attracted the most beautiful camels he had ever seen, calling the creatures on show "the best in the world". Prizes for the winning owners included Range Rovers. One of the top beasts, a Majahim camel, was sold to Sheikh Mohammed bin Sultan Al Nahyan for Dh5 million (US$1.36m).
Flights from Abu Dhabi and Dubai international airports were cancelled and delayed as heavy fog descended across the nation on New Year's Day, reducing visibility to 150 metres in some areas. Some 200 frustrated passengers were stranded in chaotic scenes at Sharjah International Airport. It was cool too, with the lowest minimum temperature of 14°C in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah. Though clear blue skies greeted people yesterday morning, there appears no let-up with forecasters predicting more unsettled weather today with a dust storm in Dubai, choppy seas and a chance of rain in northern areas.