Juice that pains the heart

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No, this isn’t a 1980s love ballad or a line from a new age diet fad. This sign, and the line above, can be found at our favourite juice shop in Bahrain. The Arabic literally reads as juice that will pain the heart. It’s very tasty and doesn’t give me indigestion, but then I do have a cast-iron tummy.

PS there’s more prose at this place. Apparently, they also do cordon-bleu grilled meat sandwiches.

I don't think these guys read the marketing manual (unless they skipped to the shock marketing chapter)

I don’t think these guys read the marketing manual (unless they skipped to the shock marketing chapter)

Rediscovering customer excellence – my trip to see Gary Rhodes

Well, the title may be misleading but these experiences are something I have meant to blog about since Boxing Day last year. To me customer service is paramount. Your product may not be the best value, but if you make me feel appreciated as a customer I’ll keep on coming back. Unfortunately in the Gulf region customer service usually means blaming the customer; the phrase ‘no Sir’ will constantly ring in your ears. There are times when even the cynic in me is proved wrong and I end up being taken aback by an organisation’s/employee’s devotion to the customer.

As usual, my food cravings are my weakness. I’ve often felt that I have the desires of a pregnant women when it comes to indulging my taste buds and Christmas was no exception. Wanting a three course British menu to fulfill my nostalgia for those Christmases long-past when I’d whoof down a couple of kilos of turkey, stuffing and Brussels sprouts I searched out for a suitable restaurant for me and my wife.

After doing all of the research (not including tasting) we plumped for a visit to The Embassy in Dubai’s Grosvenor House hotel. All the reviews had stressed that this was a top notch place with the best English grub around. Who could say no to cherry tomato tart with goat’s cheese and onion marmalade or a roast lamb with a mint crust and potatoes? And the Eton mess? Heaven!

We headed down on Christmas Day in the evening (yes, I was working that day unfortunately) and ready to be amazed. We arrived and were wowed by the views (the restaurant has a remarkable view from the 45th floor of the hotel). And then I opened the menu. And it wasn’t my menu. The Embassy’s head chef had changed and the restaurant’s new head chef had changed the menu. My craving wasn’t satisfied, even after the chef did a special off-the-menu order of Eton mess for us. We didn’t complain, we enjoyed our food but we did tell the maitre d’ that we’d expected something else. I left with a full tummy, but my desires hadn’t been fulfilled.

Flash forward two days and my wife received a call from the hotel (her number had been stored on their customer management system). They told her the head chef at Gary Rhodes Mezzanine would do us a special no-alcohol Christmas menu replete with roast turkey, turnip puree, baby potatoes and all the other trimmings. My explanation doesn’t even do the menu or the cooking justice (truffle crumpets is just magical and no, I don’t Instagram food). After two and a half hours of food heaven, including five different courses and more English tradition than the Queen giving her Christmas address followed by Only Fools and Horses I went home more than satisfied.

What did it for me was the attention to detail, and how the staff had remembered our comments the first time we visited the hotel, how they had reached out us and how they had done all they could do to make us happy. The food and beverage manager Lorenzo had gone out of his way to arrange a special night and a one-off menu. He’d come to visit us at the restaurant and he’d personally seen to it that we were happy throughout. For me, customer service was redeemed in the Gulf. And all it took was a man called Lorenzo at the Grosvenor House.

Is there anything better than Bread and Butter pudding? Well, maybe Gary Rhodes’ version. There’s nothing like customer excellence to keep you coming back for more!

What is innovation? And what does it mean for Saudi Arabia?

I was reading over the news this week and came across an announcement by General Electric. The American engineering giant recently announced a one billion dollar investment in the Kingdom, including the establishment of an innovation center in Dhahran’s Techno-Valley in the country’s oil-producing Eastern Region (you can read about the announcement here).

The company showcased the facility last week to a select number of media, and gave a glimpse into how the center would be the focal point of the company’s engagement with local customers, Saudi-based researchers and universities and industry groups. More cryptic (to me) was the statement that the GE innovation center will act as a hub where “entrepreneurs and companies can incubate business ideas and pursue innovation in energy efficiency, aviation, healthcare, and elsewhere.”

I’m always thrilled to see investment into Saudi Arabia, particularly when it’s focused on knowledge transfer and supporting Saudi nationals in developing their skills and abilities. But one question has stuck in my head. What is innovation in this context? Will we see new technologies and products being developed by GE and its partners in Saudi? And why Saudi Arabia for an innovation center?

To be fair, the region is not known for developing world firsts, unlike the United States. In the 2011 there were two million patents filed worldwide. Of that number Saudi Arabia filed for 990. The Kingdom is primarily known for its consumption of goods rather than value creation through local entrepreneurship and knowledge creation.

Efforts have been made to introduce systems and concepts to foster more local innovation – the Kingdom’s Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority has set up various centers to support entrepreneurs establish new companies and increase the competitiveness of small to medium sized businesses. There are 120,000 plus Saudi nationals studying at universities abroad under the King Abdullah Scholarship Programme, whose knowledge will also make a major impact on the nation’s economy.

There is one area where Saudi Arabia innovates and that is in the oil and gas sector. Situated in the Eastern Region, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) is renowned for its academic research into the oil and gas industry. KFUPM has successfully partnered with the private sector to further its academic research and find practical applications for its academic output.

My hope is that GE’s new innovation center, which is located alongside KFUPM, will build on the wealth of oil and gas/energy knowledge that has been created in the Kingdom’s Eastern Region to create new applications that we will see being put into use in other parts of the Middle East.

For me, innovation is taking that (in many cases) latent ability and talent and nurturing it through mentoring, support and guidance. If GE can pull this off, and gradually benefit the many industries that GE has a hand in on a local level I’ll be delighted as will many others who understand how much Saudi and its people are capable off. Let’s hope others follow in GE’s footsteps and consider their own innovation investments in the Kingdom.

GE has committed to support Saudi innovation alongside KFUPM. When will other multinational companies follow?

Get your V for Vendetta masks, now in Bahrain!

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While walking to pick up the tamees and nakhi I spotted this bizarre advert in a certain part of Bahrain. Needless to say, we’re way past Bonfire Night, so I wonder what people would want to buy a V for Vendetta mask for? And are there any freebies which come along with the purchase?

Anybody in Bahrain fancy a V for Vendetta mask?

Anybody in Bahrain fancy a V for Vendetta mask?

Are Saudis the most open nation in the Gulf?

Saudi Arabia’s society is changing at a much faster rate than many of its neighbours

Hands up all those people who’ve heard of or been to the cosmopolitan Dubai. I’m sure that you’ll know about Qatar, the country that has made a name for itself by investing all over Europe and for winning the 2022 World Cup. And there’s Kuwait, probably best known for its role in the first and second Gulf wars. One of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, one could say that Oman unfortunately isn’t as well known abroad as it should be.

And then there’s Saudi Arabia, a mysterious land which up until recently was spoken of in Chinese whispers. The Magic Kingdom was a country that was known for oil, religious and cultural conservatism. Despite the spread of the internet and the ensuing countless videos and other types of multimedia information hosted online Saudi Arabia is still an unknown to most people.

The country’s reputation, image and visa regime doesn’t help to educate foreigners, but I’ve been struck recently on a number of occasions how open today’s Saudis are. This is especially true of the younger generation. Many of the Saudis I know who are under the age of 40 will talk about anything and everything, especially in a closed environment. They’re knowledgeable, they’ll know much more about the workings of the country and national government than is written about or published in the news. And they’re not afraid to be blunt about what is right and what is wrong when it comes to public policy.

Having lived in Saudi for a fair few years I’ve always been fascinated by how Saudis are becoming ever more open to sharing their views with people they know and trust, especially in the setting of the Majlis where the men traditionally gather in the evening to discuss both personal and business issues.

The difference in openness between Saudis and other GCC nationals is becoming ever more noticeable. While traditionally the most open society in the Gulf, Bahrain has been transformed due to the events of the past two years. Both Qataris and Emiratis are very welcoming, but they’re less inclined than Saudis to talk at length with foreigners on the issues that are shaping their respective countries.

And then there’s the Kuwaitis, who are probably definitely the most outspoken people in the Gulf. But for me, today’s Saudis are more open because many will acknowledge both the positives and negatives of their country.

I’m not suggesting that the country is a bastion of diverse views which are aired in public by all and sundry. There are still many subjects that are taboo, but many barriers have been broken over the past two years partly thanks to the widespread adoption of social media by many young Saudis. Just think of any controversial topic in the Gulf, and you’re going to find it being discussed in Saudi by bloggers, on Twitter and Facebook.

Looking forward, I can only hope that this openness will be a blessing to the Kingdom as it looks to tackle issues such as unemployment, the changing role of women in the society, graft and governance. These subjects will be better dealt with if there’s an open dialogue between the country’s nationals. As always, I’m optimistic about where Saudi Arabia is headed and would like to hear if you agree with me or not about my thoughts.

Where does self-censorship begin in the Gulf?

Has much changed in the Gulf? Looking back over the last 12 months, the headlines have rightly been dominated by news of events in Egypt and Syria. On the sidelines, Iran, Israel and Palestine have filled the column inches. In comparison, the Gulf seems to have changed little.

Most of us know to think before we speak. We understand that certain issues may be difficult to discuss during certain occasions. And then there’s self-censorship, the concept of altering the spoken and written word, picture, or other published material out of concern about the consequences.

Having talked to people I admire from the art world, publishing and the online communities there is a concern and fear that the boundaries of expression are shifting. The region’s powers that be are not just watching and listening, but they are also taking action. The number of persons questioned and detained for stating their views or thoughts publicly seems to have increased, and the media coverage surrounding these events has certainly gone up several notches.

So where does that leave those writers, publishers, artists and the like who live in the Gulf? We’ve always had soft censorship in the region’s media, the concept of avoiding sensitive topics to not upset advertisers, the authorities/media owners.

However, today’s conservative wave (it may be even called a tsunami if the levels of monitoring and action pick up pace) following the Arab Spring has come up against an awakening of expression brought about by social media tools. Who will win out?

The question in my mind today is where are the red lines? What should be spoken about and when should one stay silent? And can one censor the web today without unplugging oneself from the internet?

Has there been an increase in self-censorship across the Gulf?