Business in Arabia: Risking it all to pursue a dream

Bounce: The jumping revolution comes to the Middle East

Bounce: The jumping revolution comes to the Middle East

Australian businessman Ross Milton gave up a high-flying job to pursue a dream. MyArabia.me recently caught up with the Managing Director of Bounce to find out more about the jumping revolution in Dubai.  

Anyone who has lived in the United Arab Emirates long enough will tell you that Dubai is built on entrepreneurship.

There are two types of entrepreneurs, says Ross Milton, former global chief financial officer of Mars Food Group. The first, he says, are young and usually unrestrained by family commitments. They can tolerate risk better, because if something doesn’t pay off, they have plenty of time before retirement in which to rebound. Milton points out that these young entrepreneurs are usually unable to self-fund their ventures, and need to attract the right investors.

The second type gets to Milton’s age, (41), have saved up a reasonable amount of money and then have a crack at funding something. This is riskier, concedes Milton, who has put his life savings into creating Bounce, one of the most popular indoor sporting venues in Dubai. “I still have two young children who are at school and university is still to come.”

Ross Milton, Managing Director of Bounce Middle East

Ross Milton, Managing Director of Bounce Middle East

We meet at Bounce headquarters in Al Quoz, where we are surrounded by 80 interconnected trampolines and 500 square metres of circus-grade padding and air bags. It’s hard to believe that a year ago this was the home of dozens of offices, marble floors and slabs of concrete.

“It was extraordinary! We had big cranes tearing this place apart, cutting through the concrete, until we dropped out a whole floor,” he recalls.

It was during these times, Milton says, that he would lie awake, questioning his decision to give up a high-flying executive role to pursue a 20-year dream to start his own business.

Before moving to the United Arab Emirates in 2012, Milton was based in Los Angeles, where he was the global chief financial officer for Mars Food Group, and the company recorded $3 billion in sales. It was where he honed his entrepreneurial skills.

“As a CFO, you are the right-hand man of the CEO and you end up doing a bit of everything,” he says of his 14-year-career at Mars. Milton transferred with Mars to Dubai as the Senior Vice President of Human Resources, where he guided, trained and developed 8000 employees across Africa, India, Middle East, Commonwealth of Independent States and Central Asia. Mars, he notes, had recorded $7 billion in sales in this part of the world.

Over 150,000 people have bounced since the sporting venue opened in June 2014.

Over 150,000 people have bounced since the sporting venue opened in June 2014.

He was barely into his new role in Dubai when he decided to take the leap ‒ contrary to his long-held belief that he would start his first business back in Australia, where he has a strong personal network and a familiarity with the laws and regulations.

But in August 2013, on a visit home with his family, Milton had his first encounter with Bounce, the indoor trampoline park. Within two months, he had signed a franchise agreement, acquiring the Middle East rights.

“The United Arab Emirates, like Australia, is an entrepreneurial country. Everyone can have a crack at anything,” says Milton. “I looked at this market [Dubai], and thought, ’Oh my gosh!’ You’ve got obesity issues, kids sitting in their rooms playing games on their computers, and the climate isn’t helpful for getting outside and playing sports. As I thought more and more about it, this was the place.”

Bounce Middle East was no ordinary venture. Milton was still employed at Mars, and he says he wasn’t about to leave his job unless he could find a building and acquire the licenses.

Finding the right location was a challenge. He ruled out Jebel Ali and Dubai Investment Park as too far out for patrons. And, unlike other parts of the world where the commercial real estate market is developed, Milton discovered that none of the 30 agents he contacted had a comprehensive overview of what commercial properties were available.

“I was driving up and down the streets hoping to see a For Sale or For Rent sign,” he says, shaking his head.

The search led him to the streets of Al Quoz, a commercial area located just minutes from Mall of the Emirates. Having found the right area, his next challenge was securing a building large enough to house the space-hungry concept. Once he’d found the building, he had to get the area rezoned and obtain a sports license.

In April 2014, Milton resigned from his post at Mars, and, in June 2014, Bounce Middle East opened its doors. Since then, it has welcomed over 150,000 visitors and inspired numerous copycat businesses across Dubai.

“I learnt a lot of lessons along the way,” he says. “I think next time I would put additional clauses in contracts to give myself a little breathing space. It was a big leap. There were nights when I stared at the ceiling and wondered what I had done.”

Looking around at what he has created, Milton says, “I get to work with, train and develop young people; the average age of my team is 20 years old. I get to help develop their experience and skills.

“There is nothing better than when you have three parties running at the same time, with 60 kids running around screaming, carrying on and having a blast.”

Can you slam dunk while you're bouncing?

Can you slam dunk while you’re bouncing?

Tips

If you’re starting your first business, Milton strongly recommends you start with a franchise. Why start from scratch when there is a good concept? “You have support in branding and marketing, and assistance with execution. You just have to adapt the idea to the market.”

Milton adds, whether you’re a general manager or a business owner you’ll never be an expert in all fields. There are several key areas to understand:

  • Architecture and construction: Whether you’re starting a coffee shop or a sporting venue, you will need to think about design and layout.
  • Law: You will be dealing with contracts and tenders for construction companies.
  • Finance: Identify where the money is coming from and what the tax regulations are.
  • Personnel: If you’re planning to hire staff, what are their job descriptions? Where do you recruit them from? What benefits will they receive? And is it all in accordance with the country’s labour laws?
  • Training and development: What courses (such as first aid) will your employees need?
  • Public relations and marketing: Do you have the right digital strategy? What do you know about digital? How will you engage with, and sell into, the community? How will you stage a launch, making sure that everyone in Dubai knows about you?

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Coffee With…. Two Tone

Put simply, Dubai-based rapper Two Tone is the quintessential example of a person who never gave up on his teenage dream, despite getting side-tracked by building a multi-million-dollar souvenir empire.

As part of a new section on my blog, Coffee With.…., My Arabia caught up with the Moroccan-Dutch entertainer ahead of his debut Dubai performance at RedFest DXB.

You're never too old to follow your dream

You’re never too old to follow your dream

Gone are the long locks he sported during his ‘Hatin’ on You’ collaboration with Krayzie Bone, of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony; today, Two Tone has made over his image with guidance from his stylist wife, Haydee. His hair is considerably shorter, and his earlier urban style has been replaced by an eclectic combination of stylish jackets, pants and his symbolic sunglasses. After all, he is representing Dubai, a city known for its glitz and glamour, on the international music scene.

But it’s not just his image that has evolved. To secure more radio airtime, Two Tone has reworked his sound, fusing Latin and Middle Eastern beats to create hits such as ‘Senorita’ and ‘Keep on Going’, which both hit number one on iTunes.

While the United Arab Emirates has just started hearing Two Tone’s music on radio, the 38-year-old artist, whose work has often been compared with Flo Rida’s and Pitbull’s, has been building a fan base across parts of Europe and Morocco for many years.

‘Before “Senorita” was released, I had made many songs, but because they were hip-hop the radio stations couldn’t play them here, because they’re very filtered,’ he said. ‘I met with Erick Machado, a Cuban artist living in Dubai. I wanted to see the combination between Latin music and hip-hop and basically a little bit of Arabic influences.’

Born Rachid Ben Messaoud, Two Tone first discovered his love for hip-hop as a 14-year-old growing up in the Netherlands. Influenced by American West Coast hip-hop artists such as N.W.A, Snoop Dog, Ice Cube and Tupac, the youngster began memorizing their lyrics and performing at school, eventually joining a Dutch underground rap group, 252 Maindrive. Despite the group signing with a Dutch label and travelling to the United States to release their first album, Two Tone says it never eventuated, due to a dispute between the Dutch and American record companies. He left the group to pursue a solo career. Family commitments saw the rapper put his music on hold for many years, until he moved to Dubai in 2008.

However, he says, it wasn’t music that brought him to the Middle East.

‘A friend of mine had an idea to do key chains, so we bought the rights to a [Robin Ruth] franchise for the Middle East,’ he says. ‘We started from a small kiosk, selling key chains, then adding hats, bags and slippers. We now have shops in most of the malls and do customised products for Atlantis Hotel, Burj Khalifa and the Jumeriah Group.’

Success of his souvenir empire in Dubai has allowed Two Tone to focus on his music

Success of his souvenir empire in Dubai has allowed Two Tone to focus on his music

In 2011, the success of his souvenir empire allowed him to refocus on his passion.

‘My partners encouraged me to focus on my music,’ he said. ‘By that stage I felt like I was getting a little old, so I thought I’d move to the background and start producing and inspiring other people.’

Fast forward to 2015 and it looks like Two Tone’s success is building, with many projects in the pipeline.

In a Snapshot

As a young man with an Arabic background, how did your parents feel about your interest in hip-hop and rap?

They’re very supportive. They weren’t familiar with the music when I first started, but now they are very proud. I’m not embarrassing them, so that’s a good thing.

Do you prefer to write your music or freestyle?

Over the last few years I haven’t written as much. I like to freestyle and improvise because it gives you so much freedom. Now when I record a song, I don’t write it down. I go in to the booth, I put the music on and rap about the subject. And when I like something, I record it and keep going until there is a full song.

Your ultimate collaboration?

Chris Brown.

How hard is it for a rap artist to come up with a name that sticks?

A name should come naturally. When I was rapping, I noticed that when I had a slow beat I used a low tone and then, when I had to speed up my flow, I would use a higher pitch. When I was playing, many people would comment about my different sound. That’s where the name originated ‒ my ability to rap in two tones.

You just released a new song with Virgin Radio’s Kris Fade. What is ‘In it for love’ about?

There are a lot of women in Dubai who are not in it for love; they’re in it for other reasons. It’s a funny song. We were having fun in the studio and it came out good, so I said, let’s release it.

Finally, what is the next step for Two Tone?

There is another huge event coming up. It’s still confidential, but I’ll be opening for a big group in Dubai. Then I’ll be touring in Spain with one of the world’s biggest Latin artists, Romeo Santos, who had the biggest-selling album in the United States last year. I’m also in negotiations with Marc Anthony to do a few days on tour with him in Spain ‒ plus, my next single is coming out soon.

You can catch Two Tone perform his latest hits at Red Fest DXB later this month.

 

 

Syrian refugees face a new kind of hell

Syrian mothers trying to keep their children warm in a refugee camp

Syrian mothers trying to keep their children warm in a refugee camp

“Words simply cannot describe the sorrow and despair facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon today,” stated Lynn Tabbara, a co-founder of Intaliqi, a Lebanese-based NGO set up in 2013 to empower socially disadvantaged women in refugee camps across the country.

According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, there are over 3 million Syrian refugees scattered across the Levant, making it the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”.

Lebanon is hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world, with over 1.3 million living in makeshift tents in northern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley. Many, according to Ms Tabbara, are not registered, making it difficult for them to access aid. And being registered, she said, “Unfortunately it doesn’t guarantee them access to aid, given the scarcity of resources”.

“The situation is also deteriorating quite quickly,” she added. “We visited some of these camps around two years ago and conditions today are significantly worse. Refugees in the camps live in extreme poverty and every day struggle through life. Their displacement has stripped them of their humanity; children have lost their childhoods while adults seem to have given up on life. Their basic needs of shelter, belonging and protection are rarely met. Access to education and healthcare are luxuries few can afford.”

The winter months cause these refugees the most distress. Earlier this month, Lebanon and parts of the Levant experienced one of the worst snowstorms in history. According to Lebanon’s state-run news agency, in North Lebanon’s Akkar region “snow fell at just 200 metres above sea level, completely cutting off villages and towns above 1,000 metres. Certain villages were buried under more than 150 centimetres of snow.”

But despite snowstorm Zina tapering, there appears to be no end in sight for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The destruction left behind has been catastrophic, making life unbearable for those families living in makeshift tents.

“We have tragically witnessed babies and elderly frozen to death,” said Ms Tabbara. “Refugees have to face the snow with practically no shoes on and very few layers. Their frail bodies are often unable to protect them from the freezing cold and sub-zero temperatures. Blankets are often used to protect the tents from water leakage, instead of providing warmth to their bodies. They have practically no heating and unreliable electricity.”

Intaliqi team loading trucks filled with much-needed aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Intaliqi team loading trucks filled with much-needed aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Since its establishment, Intaliqi has set up programmes to assist Syrian refugee women, among other programmes aimed at vulnerable and displaced women. However, the harsh winter conditions Lebanon has witnessed this month required Intaliqi’s prompt intervention on a much wider scale.

“We felt compelled to act decisively and lend our support to as many affected by this crisis as possible. Our hearts ached for every man, woman and child who was literally freezing to death,” she added.

“In partnership with other NGOs, private donors and businesses, and with the strong support of the local and international communities, we are trying to reduce the impact of the crisis by assisting some of the refugees and providing them with basic survival needs.”

Children have lost their childhood as a result of the Syrian war

Children have lost their childhood as a result of the Syrian war

Ms Tabbara started a personal social media initiative to raise donations from close family and friends; what she didn’t expect was the rapid international response to the initiative.

“We have been overwhelmed by the response so far! We have now set up collection points in Lebanon, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the UK. People from all over the world are sending us donations to help those in need. We are forever grateful to the priceless support we have had from businesses and individuals who truly believed in us and made this initiative a success,” she said.

Among the supporters of the campaign is Lebanese-Australian beauty Jessica Kahawaty. With over 160,000 followers, the former Miss World Australia urged her followers on Instagram and Facebook to get behind the campaign. “These are LIVE images of four Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon that I’m personally helping,” the Yahoo Maktoob presenter posted on her social media pages. “If you aren’t aware already, many children are dying from starvation.”

Speaking from her home in Sydney, where she’s currently completing a law degree, Ms Kahawaty told me that her message was that we should live in harmony with one another and provide an education to those who are most vulnerable in society.

Jessica Kahawaty

Jessica Kahawaty

“The most important thing right now is providing basic life necessities such as food, water, warm shelter and medication to the displaced minors and their families,” she said. “The issue is obviously a very complex one that will take many years to resolve and the scars are engraved so deep they will show for generations to come, but eventually, it would be imperative to place these children in schools and make sure they receive at least universal primary education in order for them to have some opportunity in life.”

It’s just as terrifying in the Za’atari camp – Jordan’s largest refugee camp – where the UNHCR says that dozens of families remained camped in emergency shelters last week after their tents collapsed under the weight of snow.

“This storm has had a big impact on refugees here, and it’s making their daily lives even harder,” said UNHCR’s Nasreddine Touaibia. “Being in a camp is already not a comfortable situation, so if you add to it this extreme weather – strong winds, rain and snow – the situation now is pretty bad.”

In the UAE, more than USD 45 million was raised earlier this month as part of the UAE Compassion Campaign to help the displaced refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and Palestine.

Shoes are delivered for children in refugee camps

Shoes are packed and delivered to children in refugee camps

But more needs to be done says Ms Tabbara. “They still need blankets, boots, jackets, kids’ clothing, gloves, scarves, socks, canned food, bread, fuel coupons and medication to help them get through the coming winter months.”

Do your bit to help the Syrian refugee crisis: contact Intaliqi by email at info@intaliqi.com or by phone +961 70706167.

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Reckless Parenting in Arabia

Young children are often left alone at home

Young children are often left alone at home


“Parenting classes should be mandatory, whether you are adopting or not, and would include an evaluation of your current physical, mental and financial state as well as how ready you are to take on the rigors of parenthood. Our children are our most precious natural resource, and there is absolutely no other way to parent but to put them first.” – Dale Archer

Parents living in the United Arab Emirates will nod their heads in agreement after reading this piece. Some might be surprised while others simply won’t care. If you’re out of the country or the region you might be shaking your head by the end.

If you think seeing children hanging out of moving vehicles, jumping around in the back seat with no seatbelt on and sitting on the driver’s lap in a fast car is reckless, that’s nothing compared to what I’m about to tell you.

Working in the events industry in the Middle East, I have come across parents from all walks of life. There are those tearing their hair out desperately look for a lost child, and once she’s found, embrace her with love and care. And then there are those who drop off five and six year olds alone at an arena with not a care in the world. Others won’t realize their child is missing until we announce that he has been in our care for 20 minutes and we need his parents to come and claim him.

In one situation, I was confronted with a disturbing parental decision. I had invited my daughter’s eight-year-old school friend and her mother to attend a family event. On this particular day, the arena was filled to capacity, 3500 people. While doing my regular rounds to see whether my guests had any problems, I came across my daughter’s friend.

It's not uncommon to see children in movie theaters without adult supervision

It’s not uncommon to see children in movie theaters without adult supervision

“Where’s your mum?” I asked. “She’s left,” the quietly spoken girl responded. Beside her was another little girl, her friend. I looked out into the distance and saw her mother and another woman leaving the arena, heading down the stairs and out the door. A million and one thoughts and profanities went through my head. What on earth was she thinking?

I dashed past several people. “Excuse me! Excuse me!’ I said, as I ran towards the woman. Still trying to catch my breath, I put my hand on her shoulder. “Hi, how are you?” I asked casually. “I’m glad you could make it.” She introduced me to her friend, another Lebanese mother.

“Where’s your daughter?” I asked.

“She’s sitting down with her friend,” she responded. And then the tales began.

“Aren’t you staying?” I asked.

“No, we’re going to have a cup of coffee,” she said casually, as though it were normal to leave two eight-year-old girls alone at a large event.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “Unfortunately the rules don’t allow you to leave your children unattended at these events.”

“But we do it all the time when we go to the movies,” she continued. “They’re old enough and mature enough to be on their own.” Wow, I thought. Was she serious?

Sadly, many poor parenting decisions end in tragedy. And we’ve seen many here in the UAE and worldwide.

The UAE is still coming to terms with the news of a five-year-old girl who fell to her death from a high-rise building after she was left alone sleeping as her mother partied with her boyfriend on New Year’s Eve.

I’ve lost count of the stories over the years of children falling from windows of apartment buildings after they were left unattended.

Just last week I dashed across a busy carpark and scooped up a two-year-old boy who had wandered out of a nearby park. One car had swerved and missed the child, and it looked like he was on a collision course with another 4WD.

Fortunately the child was wearing an identification bracelet. I called the father, who then contacted his wife inside the park. It took the mother 25 minutes to come to the main gate to collect her son. Not even a hug for the little boy or a thank you!

As parents, we can’t take any risks with our children’s lives. They’re irreplaceable!

Majestic Lebanon

Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East

Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East

‘Would you like to come with me to Lebanon?’ my father would often ask me when I was a teenager, as he planned his annual trip to his home country.

“No!” I’d reply arrogantly, shutting down any idea of travelling to that place so far away.

I’d heard the stories of girls returning home to be married off to a cousin who was only ever interested in getting an Australian visa – his ticket to freedom. As the years passed, my father stopped asking and I never broached the subject.

Shamefully, my youth was spent distancing myself from my Lebanese heritage. Lebanon was a tiny nation far away from Australia, where I was born and raised. It reminded me of my father’s strict Middle Eastern culture, one which shaped my lonely teenage years ‒ not to mention the poor reputation the Lebanese community had in Australia. Why on earth would I want to be connected to the country?

My father is from a small village in Syr el dannieh, in North Lebanon, 22 km from the country’s second largest city, Tripoli, and several hours from cosmopolitan Beirut. Throughout my childhood I’d heard tales of gun battles and family feuds – my uncle was once shot in the crossfire between two quarrelling neighbours.

With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley

With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley

The image of Lebanon in my mind was a far cry from the real beauty of this small country, bordered by Syria to the north and Israel to the south, and situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland. Its rich history and cultural and religious diversity is a result of all these influences.

Like the millions of Lebanese expats scattered around the world, my father and mother left Lebanon at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Before that, my mother says, Lebanon was compared with Switzerland, and Beirut was the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. They, like many other Lebanese, had planned to return, but 40 years on they are still in Sydney, Australia. Fifteen years of civil war created great divisions among religious and political groups that still stand today, making life difficult and even dangerous.

As I grew older and became more fascinated with Middle East politics, the need to travel to my parents’ birthplace grew stronger. My first visit in 2011 with my husband and three daughters was brief – four days to be precise ‒ hardly any time in which to explore this majestic country. Two days were spent dashing through a rainstorm; a quick photo on the Corniche (Raouche’) was the only proof that I had visited Beirut that year. Finally, I had made it to Syr, where I met my aunt and cousins for the first time. Their faces and voices were familiar; the years we’d spent talking on the phone made the introduction easier. I’m not sure I would have made the journey so far north had my father not been staying in his hometown that year. The pride on his face made the visit worth it; he was clearly happy to see me explore his part of the world.
Although it was difficult to do or see anything with my three small children, we still managed one important trip to my father’s property in the mountains. As snow fell, dad and my cousin Fadi guided us further north, stopping along the way to take photos of the mountainous terrain, and for my daughters to stretch their legs and play in the snow. But as the sun set over the snow-covered mountains, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. In that moment, I promised myself that I would return to explore Lebanon fully.

Pigeon's Rock from the Beirut Corniche

Pigeon’s Rock from the Beirut Corniche

Living in Dubai made it easier to travel to Lebanon. From Sydney, Australia, it takes up to 19 hours, which is an effective discouragement. Several months after my first visit, the Syrian uprising began, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling into the country had a profound impact on Lebanon. The United Nations estimates that today there are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. My mother’s extended family, including my aunty and her family, escaped Homs in Syria and now live in Tripoli.

Lebanon is deeply divided over the Syrian war, creating further problems for the country. In August 2013, a car bomb ripped through a busy shopping street in Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds. It was the deadliest attack in the Lebanese capital since the 2005 assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. December 27, 2014 marked the first anniversary of the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese finance minister Mohamed Chatah.

With so much unrest in Lebanon, I had put off my return until now. If the Lebanese people could bravely live through this tumultuous unrest, there was no reason why I shouldn’t return and explore Lebanon.

Exploring Lebanon
Giving in to fear would mean giving in to the militants and political factions happily spreading hate and tearing a nation apart for personal gain.

A family wedding in Beirut was the perfect excuse for us to visit Lebanon in December 2014. We put our fate in God’s hands and booked five return tickets. We were tourists, desperate to explore every corner of this splendid country.

As we arrived in the capital, I was taken aback by the strong presence of Lebanese soldiers posted on almost every street corner. Amid the Christmas decorations, colourful lights and Coco-Cola-influenced Christmas tree, it wasn’t uncommon to see tanks and armed soldiers posted in densely populated areas such as Beirut Souks, a major commercial district in the Beirut Central District, with over 200 shops and department stores. Visiting the Beirut Souks is a must if you travel to Lebanon. It is home to the finest designer labels, from Hermes to Carolina Herrera and high-street labels such as Zara. If you’re looking for a place to dine, the Met (Metropolitan Café) is perfect for a light meal or traditional Lebanese coffee.

The civil war left visible scars on the tattered, bullet-pocked apartment blocks. Narrow streets make it difficult for cars to pass, so locals usually get around on scooters, and it’s not uncommon to see three people on one at any time. Bed sheets replace windows in poorer areas where Palestinian and Syrian refugees are housed. Beggars line the streets. Hussein, our tour guide, says Palestinians and Syrians are too proud to beg and the women carrying babies as a way of seeking sympathy are Gypsies who make a living scamming tourists. Anyone who has ever been stuck on the border between Tijuana, Mexico and the United States will understand how it feels to have small children and women approach the car, bang against the window and demand money. I was confronted with this again when a mother with a small child pleaded for money as we drove through the popular streets of Hamra in West Beirut.

Where else in the world you see a mosque and church side by side?  Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut

Where else in the world would you see a mosque and church side by side?
Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut

Once we’d left the heart of Beirut, our first trip was north to The Cedars (Arz Libnan). Our private tour of Lebanon took us on a scenic drive through Becharre – the poet Khalil Gibran’s birthplace – to the Qadisha Valley. Despite the cool temperatures, we insisted on stopping to admire this deep gorge carved by the Qadisha River. Located at the foot of Mount al-Makmal in northern Lebanon, the Qadisha Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements were situated here. I couldn’t believe this hidden treasure was in Lebanon and that I had shunned such beauty throughout my youth.
With a few more stops along the way, we managed to climb the windy, slippery road leading to The Cedars. During the heavy snowfall period, The Cedars, perhaps one of the most beautiful spots in the country, is populated with locals and tourists who enjoy skiing. At the entrance to The Grove stands a cedar tree believed to be hundreds of years old.

The Cedars of Lebanon

The Cedars of Lebanon

Baalbek, a town in the Beqqa Valley, contains some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon. Despite my pleas, we were strongly advised by our family in Beirut and in Sydney not to visit another UNESCO Heritage Site. According to our relatives, I was at great risk. Militants have been known to target westerners travelling through the Beqqa Valley. ‘Your wife looks American,’ one relative told my husband. ‘She’s an easy target for kidnappers,’ another added. When you travel to a country where there are strong political and religious divisions, your best source of guidance is the locals and tour guides.
The next part of our journey took us to the city of Tripoli, where my mother grew up and where my aunts and uncle live. We stopped briefly at one of the most famous restaurants, Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons, for lunch. For years, I’d heard about their knefa and baklava, and had to try some of these traditional Lebanese desserts.

At nightfall the call to prayer echoed out from Al-Salam Mosque, where just 18 months previously a car laden with 100 kg of explosives had ripped through the mosque, leaving a huge crater and the floors covered with blood. It was the second bomb to explode that afternoon; minutes earlier, the Taqwa mosque had been targeted. Dozens were killed in the blast and hundreds more injured. Now, however, the mosque was packed with worshippers who had arrived for prayers.

Soldiers guard Lebanese Streets

Soldiers guard Lebanese streets

Today, no one takes any chances. Armed Lebanese soldiers and tanks heavily guard Tripoli’s streets. Cars left unattended with the engines still running are always a great concern. Unlike Beirut, which has been partially rebuilt since the war to attract tourists, Tripoli is rundown and dirty. Old buildings destroyed during the civil war remain standing, a stark reminder of the city’s harsh history.
Knowing I was just metres away from where one of the deadliest car bombings had taken place since the war, it was hard not to feel anxious. Even in Beirut’s city streets, you need to be alert. The country is still stricken with problems, and car bombs can go off unexpectedly at any time.

We’d situated ourselves in a suburb east of Beirut, Sin el-Fil, literally translated as the ‘tooth of an elephant’, staying at the Hilton Grand Habtoor. After living in a Muslim country for seven years and listening to the call to prayer five times a day, it was odd waking up to church bells ringing on Sunday. There are 18 recognised religious sects in Lebanon, and Christians and Muslims form the majority. The most recent study conducted by Statistics Lebanon found that approximately 54 per cent of the population is Muslim, divided equally between Sunni and Shiite. Christians make up 34 per cent of the population, which explains why many parts of Lebanon are richly decorated with Christmas trimmings.

Jeita Grotto cave

Jeita Grotto cave

Between family gatherings, we managed to sneak in another impressive tour. On this day our journey began in the valley, Nahr El-Kalb, 18 km north of Beirut, and continued to Jeita Grotto, followed by Harissa, a small mountain village 650 metres above sea level, and ancient Byblos.

On the way to the grotto, we took a small diversion to a war memorial commemorating the Australian diggers who fought in World War Ⅱ. I knew little of the involvement of Australians in Lebanon during the war. Australian troops, part of the 7th Division, fought as part of an Allied force in Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French. According to the Australian Lebanese Historical Society, the first Australian casualty was Nicolas Koorey, a 26-year-old Australian of Lebanese descent. Four hundred and sixteen Australian troops were killed in the battle and over a thousand were wounded. It’s certainly a history lesson which needs to be more widely taught back home in Australia. It would help to heal the widening gap between white Anglo-Saxon Australians and Australian-born Lebanese youths.

Australian Memorial in Lebanon

Australian Memorial in Lebanon

As we left the memorial, I felt moved and excited at the same time. Our next stop: Jeita Grotto.

Breathtaking. Captivating. Mesmerising.

There are not enough adjectives to describe this natural wonder located in the valley of Nahr El-Kalb. Millions of years are frozen in drops of water. A very frequent drop-by-drop water flow forms stalactites on the ceilings and stalagmites on the floor of the galleries and halls.
Recipient of the 2013 World Tourism Organisation’s award for best tourist site in the Arab world, the Jieta Grotto houses one of the world’s longest stalactites. It measures 8.2 metres and is located in the upper grotto. This is a must if you’re travelling with children! My daughters, aged nine, eight and six, would not stop talking about their ‘cave’ experience, where they took turns to steer a small vessel in the lower grotto. The girls have travelled to many parts of the globe, including France and Italy, but nothing captured their imagination the same way their trip to Lebanon did.

Once we’d completed our 90-minute tour of the grotto – pictures were not allowed inside – we moved on to Harissa, the home of Our Lady of Lebanon. The village is located 20 km north of Beirut and is accessible from the coastal city of Jounieh by road, or by a nine-minute cable car ride. The best view of this picturesque country is from the cable car to Harissa, from where the city and the Mediterranean Sea look breathtaking. Because of its religious significance, Harissa is often visited by Roman Catholic popes.
On my first trip to Lebanon, I was told that I had to visit Jbeil (Byblos) during the Christmas holiday period. One of the oldest cities in the world to have been inhabited without interruption, Jbeil is situated 40 km north of Beirut. The history lesson continued as our tour guide, Bernadette, recounted the influence of the Phoenicians, Crusaders and Romans on the 8000-year-old city. After their tour of the Byblos Castle, the highlight for my children was putting on a performance in the Roman Amphitheatre. Jbeil is now a tourist hub for its ancient port, fish restaurants and shopping at the traditional Lebanese souk.

Jbeil (Byblos) Port

Jbeil (Byblos) Port

There is no doubt that this was one of the most emotional journeys I’ve taken. I rediscovered myself and reconnected with my Lebanese heritage. When this tiny nation attracts so many negative mentions in the media, few could believe how deeply enriched Lebanon is by history and beauty.

I wish I’d known it earlier.

Head to my instagram account @arabianmum to see all the images from my trip to Lebanon
Twitter: @my_arabia
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Education is a right and not a privilege

Finding the right school is not always easy

Finding the right school is not always easy

Serene crawled into my bed and placed her head on my shoulder. I could feel the dampness on her cheek. She was crying.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, as she placed her arms tighter around my neck. “I don’t want to go to school,” she sobbed. “I don’t want to do the Arabic exam.” I reached over to get my phone to check the time. It was 6am. My daughter had woken up stressed and anxious.
It had been an extremely stressful week in our house; Serene and Janah, my eldest, had spent most of their afternoon studying intensely for their end-of-term exams.
From the beginning of the 2014–2015 school year, there was a sudden shift in the way they were being taught. Within the first two weeks of returning to school, the students, from K-12 sat standardisation tests for their core subjects. Parents were not notified. Everyday my three girls came home recounting how they’d missed another lesson due to the testing.
Parents were puzzled. What had brought on this sudden change and why weren’t parents informed?
Did it have something to do with the school’s poor ranking from the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), Dubai’s governing body for private education? The school scored ‘Acceptable’.
But was increasing homework and class quizzes the answer? As a parent I became very concerned. My children were forced to give up afterschool extracurricular activities just to keep up with the demand.
Before you think I’m another whinging mother, I’m not! My daughters are not 16 and 17 years old, studying for their final year of school. They’re 6, 7 and 9 years old.

These are their foundation years, a critical period in which they either begin to love school and learning or hate it.

I am trying desperately to avoid the latter.

Without support teachers can't do their job.

Without support teachers can’t do their job.

When I first moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in 2008, my husband and I had a goal for our children. We wanted our daughters to learn Arabic and the best way to do it was to send them to a school where they could mix with native Arabic-speaking children. We were living in Arabia and we had a unique opportunity to teach them about Middle Eastern culture and learn the language. While my husband is fluent in Arabic, I speak the language but can’t read and write. We didn’t want a generation in our family growing up not knowing the language of their ancestors. While the girls have progressed with the support of the school and an Arabic tutor, we’re beginning to see that our children are missing out in other parts of their schooling.
Did we make the right decision in enrolling our children in a school where teachers taught the way my mother and father were taught as children in the Middle East? Students are spoon-fed information, expected to memorise it and then examined on the content. They have not been on a school outing in many years. Teachers are overworked and underpaid; class sizes are too large while the classrooms are too small. My daughter’s Year 3 class room is so small that she can barely wheel her school bag out from the back of the room.
I consulted many parents at the school hoping to find some comfort. They too had similar concerns about their child’s education. Many revealed they were home schooling as their child was not receiving the necessary attention in class.
As I child I recall having one teacher and then specialist teachers for music, arts, and sport. I know this is still the case in many international schools throughout the UAE; many even have a teacher’s aide. At the school my daughters attend, they see eight different teachers for 45 minutes per subject. With this in mind I took the next step to speak with the teachers who I felt would be honest about the school’s attitude to education.
The majority of teachers at the school are from Lebanon and Syria with a few Western and European teachers thrown into the mix. They’ve expressed their desire to see the teaching system changed, but their cries have fallen on deaf ears.
A Year 2 maths teacher told me that she would never send her child to a school where there were 30 students in each class. “I teach 150 students a day,” she said. “By the end of the day I am exhausted.”
The Arabic teacher echoed the maths teacher’s concern,

“You can’t blame the teachers when the school doesn’t know what direction it wants to go in,” she said.

Serene’s tears confirmed our decision to move the girls in the new school year. The pressure they were under at such a young age is unfair and unnecessary.

I enlisted the help of James Mullan, co-founder of WhichSchoolAdvisory.com, an independent education website ranking schools across the UAE. Since its establishment in 2013, the website has had over two million hits.
His advice is simple, “different parents will have different requirements of the school. Talk to parents to find out what is actually happening. What are the children getting from that education?”
What should I be looking for when researching a new school?
Mullan says parents should follow these simple criteria.
1. Fees: Is it affordable?
2. Reputation: Does it have a good reputation?
3. Academic results: Ask the school to provide you with their academic results. Be demanding.
4. Added value: Some schools will say, for instance, it’s not about academic results but the value they add. Not every child is academic but may show strengths in other areas such as music, sports and the arts.
More importantly, after narrowing down the school list, Mullan adds, “go and visit the school, but not on an Open Day. Visit it on a working day with the child and allow your child to decide. As long as the school has ticked all the boxes, let your child meet the teachers, see the children, sports and wait to see his or her reaction.”

James Mullan

James Mullan

The UAE has evolved rapidly over the last decade with the development of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, Palm Jumeriah and gated communities. Mullan says while you can magic infrastructure, you can’t magic education.

“Education needs nurturing, it takes care and time and that’s one of the things that everyone needs to be aware of including the people building schools, investing in schools, teachers, and parents. We are still living in an evolving experiment each day and you’re signing up for that in every sphere of your life.”

What about choosing the right curriculum?
According the Mullan, there are 17 curriculums on offer in the UAE, with the British curriculum favoured by one-third of private school.
“You’ve got to think about where you’ll be with your children in the coming years,” he says. “It’s not so much an issue in the early years in primary schools, but it is when you get to secondary schools. You’ve got to be thinking seriously about what you want to do. It’s a case-by-case situation.”

The cost of education in the UAE is astronomical and remains one of the most talked about issues in the country.

Unlike a decade ago when expats were presented with lavish salaries, which included additional education funding, today it’s part of the overall package. Expats on low incomes have no choice but to send their children to private schools; public schooling in the UAE is only available to UAE nationals.
Tuition for the 2014–2015 school year at Gems World Academy (GWA) for a six-year-old is AED71,092 (USD19,477) and over AED98,000 (USD26,800) for a Year 12 student, says the school’s website.
If a parent were to send their child to GWA, starting from KG2 through to Year 12,

tuition would cost a whopping AED1,060,160 (USD290,454) over the course of their schooling.

Gems World Academy Dubai

Gems World Academy Dubai

According to WhichSchoolAdvisory.com, in 2013–2014 school year, Gems World Academy, established in 2008, attained a ‘Good’ rating from the KHDA, the Dubai Government regulator entrusted with overseeing the growth and development of private education in the emirate.
Compare this to one of the best-known independent schools in New South Wales, Australia. Established in 1831, The King’s School Parramatta, has seen Crown Princes, leaders of political parties, authors, actors, leaders in law, medicine and in a wide range of other professionals educated at the boys’ school.
The tuition cost to educate a six-year-old boy at The Kings School is AED 48,482 (USD13,282). From K-12, it would cost his parents AED 88,624 (USD241,540).
GWA is situated on 42,715 sq. metres of land and boasts state-of-the-art facilities, Planetarium, 400m athletic track, 6-lane 50m pool, tennis courts, gymnasium, fitness centre, climbing wall, 620-seater auditorium, symphony centre, and peace garden.
This brings me to my next question: are parents paying for education or facilities at a UAE school?
“You should be paying for both education and facilities,” says Mullan. “Certain schools have fantastic facilities, but you often wonder how often they’re used.”
He adds: “One of the challenges that the UAE is going to face is that there is going to be a massive crunch on teaching talent over the next ten years. There is a huge development in the number of international schools around the world, so what that means is that top teachers will be able to choose where they want to go. In other words, schools here have to make it attractive for them to come here in terms of salary, conditions, but also in terms of Continued Professional Development (CPD), which is an area, when you speak to teachers here, that is missing. What you tend to get in schools here is what we call the backpacker teachers, young teachers who are out of college, stay for two years and then move on. Then you get mums who have been teachers, on their husband’s visa, who are then employed on a local contract. They receive a chunk of money and no additional benefits, and that saves the school a considerable amount of money, but going forward, is that going to be good enough?”
What about waiting lists?
Before we wrap up, Mullan has some promising news for parents. More than 20,000 places became available in September this year, as new schools opened across Dubai. Believe it or not, we could even see a drop in school fees.
So where does this leave me and my children?
I’ve taken James Mullan’s advice and spoken to parents from many different schools. I’ve lodged some applications and now it’s time to sit and wait. I’m just hoping we make the right decision.

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Do you have a similar experience? Leave your comments below.

Back after a long break

With Mickey Mouse at the launch of Disney On Ice in Dubai.

With Mickey Mouse at the launch of Disney On Ice in Dubai.


It has been many months since my last blog post, but here I am ready to get back to sharing with you my Arabian journey.

As you’re aware life and work can take you in many different directions. My current job involves working as a PR and Marketing Director at an events company, and our most recent project was Disney On Ice. Between travelling and trying to raise three little girls, there has been little time for me to contribute to my blog.

My girls returning to school after a long summer vacation

My girls returning to school after a long summer vacation

Here are some images of what I’ve been up to over the last few months:

Working on such a well known family entertainment brand has its demands. In June I hosted the launch of Disney On Ice at the Dubai Mall Ice Rink

Working on such a well known family entertainment brand has its demands. In June I hosted the launch of Disney On Ice at the Dubai Mall Ice Rink

The official Disney On Ice selfie

The official Disney On Ice selfie

A selfie with Merida from Brave

A selfie with Merida from Brave

Over the summer I went home to see my family in Sydney, Australia.

Over the summer I went home to see my family in Sydney, Australia.

One of the most inspiring young people I have met in a long time. Emily suffers from Leukaemia, and I was so happy to help grant her wish to see Disney On Ice in Doha.

One of the most inspiring young people I have met in a long time. Emily suffers from Leukaemia, and I was so happy to help grant her wish to see Disney On Ice in Doha.

For those football fans, Raul is a name many have heard over the years.

For those football fans, Raul is a name many have heard over the years.

I had the pleasure of reading to these young children at Al Safa Library, Dubai.

I had the pleasure of reading to these young children at Al Safa Library, Dubai.

As you can see, Mickey Mouse and I are quite the pals. Here we are in Doha.

As you can see, Mickey Mouse and I are quite the pals. Here we are in Doha.

I look forward to sharing with you my Arabian journey. I will pickup where I left off very soon.