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06/07/2012

Land of Many Contrasts

UAE is certainly a land of contrasts, between the traditional and the modern, the humble and the grandiose.  Although Dubai would have been a prime choice to elaborate that, particularly the grandiose gestures, we only spent two days there and therefore did not have much time to explore and experience these astounding contrasts.  Therefore, I will limit my observations to Abu Dhabi where our longer stay allowed these impressions to sink in.  Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE was once a small traditional Arabian village, it is now a metropolis that somehow harmoniously blends the modern with the traditional.

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Right at the entrance of Abu Dhabi city, stands the majestic Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.  And grand indeed it is, with its marble-clad walls, ornate rugs, enormous crystal chandeliers, under the gold-topped domes that shimmer under Abu Dhabi’s cloudless sunny skies.  What an impressive beacon of hospitality at the entrance of the city! Driving down its wide, green, tree-lined boulevards, or walking in one of its many lush gardens you cannot escape the contrast between the striking glassy skyline of its skyscrapers, luxury hotels, and shopping malls and the surrounding desert and many roundabouts featuring  wind-towers, giant coffee cups or other concrete replicas of traditional Arabic artifacts.

Some exciting new developments in Abu Dhabi include the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Museum currently being built on Saadiyat Island. The Louvre is a very modern looking white building with a design of a floating dome that has sun filters intended to mimic the effect of sun passing through palm trees. The Guggenheim is another modern structure, inspired by the traditional wind towers of Abu Dhabi and designed by architect Gehry. Both intend to blend the old with the contemporary, and represent East meets West art and architecture.

Reflections

I was asked by a prospective student about whether I would recommend choosing a study tour course in the spring semester. I would definitely recommend it!! From a learning perspective, I felt it was an excellent way of linking abstract concepts taken in class to professional practice in an international setting. In particular for some water treatment processes discussed earlier in the semester, it wasn’t until I saw the concepts in action at the treatment plants in Turkey that I developed a full understanding of them. Company visits in both countries were equally informative and gave us the opportunity to find out more about water scarcity issues in the region and how private and public companies are addressing them. Coming from a non-related industry background, it was certainly easier to grasp concepts and very interesting to hear from professionals and industry experts who use this knowledge for a practical purpose. I see this as the stand-out advantage of joining a study tour.

In addition, the trip was culturally and socially enriching. As a student from the region, I was familiar with a lot of cultural norms in the countries we visited. I can only imagine how interesting it is to be immersed in a foreign culture and develop an understanding of it within a few days. Even for me, a lecture at Sabanci University about Turkish culture, highlighted the many similarities and differences between my expectations of culture and values in the country. I loved the tourism aspect of the trip and the guided tours we were given of each city we visited were extremely informative. My favorite excursion was the dune-bashing adventure in the deserts of Abu Dhabi, followed by camel rides and a traditional Bedouin camp. We also had the opportunity to explore the city on our own to see various attractions and discover the unique cuisines of each country. I am a huge fan of Turkish food! The whole experience left me with many amazing memories of our days in Turkey and the UAE. Overall I would recommend participating in a study tour to anyone who is looking for an academically and socially enriching experience, has an interest in professional practice in an international context and wants to expand their professional and personal network.

06/06/2012

Hagia Sophia : A Symbol for Secularism?

After four days of company visits and tours of water and wastewater treatment plants in Istanbul and Ankara, we had a full day dedicated to sightseeing in Istanbul. Our guided tour included visits to some of the most important sights of the city such as the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and the Hagia Sophia.    

Presiding over an impressive history, Hagia Sophia is a testimony in its architecture to its rich past and diverse culture that dates back to Constantinople.  It captures the continuous transformation and rich history of diversity in Turkey and particularly Istanbul (the former Constantinople) which restorers are trying to maintain a balance that is taxing to uphold. Hagia Sophia was once a symbol of Christianity under the Byzantine Empire as an Orthodox basilica, demonstrating dominance over pagan religions. Upon conquest of the Ottoman Empire in 1453, it was transformed into a mosque, representing Islamic occupation.  Through the secular agenda of Ataturk’s regime in 1934, Hagia Sophia became a museum of both Islam and Christianity, stripping the country’s crowning religious symbol of its religious purpose. Despite its re-identification, the monument remains a symbol of religious and political controversy.

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Our tour guide informed us of the efforts to maintain a balance between both Islamic and Christian cultures in the restoration process. One of the challenges faced by restorers is that in order to uncover parts of its original Christian mosaics, Islamic art and heritage would have to be destroyed. With an aim to represent a complete picture of Turkey’s past, should 500 years of Ottoman history be removed in favor of restoring the building’s Christian past? Another issue is how the museum can effectively balance the representation of the two faiths. Controversy surrounds the extent to which the main structure’s Christian mosaics or Islamic calligraphy currently appear to be more over-bearing as a token of superiority.  Is the Hagia Sophia more strikingly a symbol of Christianity, Islam, neither or both? This is open to interpretation. Personally, I found the harmony of beautiful Islamic calligraphy bordering the exquisite mosaics depicting the Virgin Mary and Jesus and historic emperors and saints, to be quite visually appealing – an emblem of the country’s rich diversity, its religious past and secular present.

Profitability of Water

Modern debates on water appear to be polarized along two opposing notions. One view is that access to water is a human right whereas the other holds that water is an economic good that should be priced through a market mechanism such as charging usage fees. The two perspectives basically contrast the positions of equity versus efficiency.  In some cases water can be both a free and an economic good. In a market-based world, public and private water companies operate alongside, providing a range of water services from operation to supply of water. One of my main interests in this course is the privatization of water services. For the study tour we plan to visit a number of private and public water companies in Turkey and the UAE, further exploring the private-public relationship of the business of water in these countries.   

In the second lecture of this course, guest speaker, John Briscoe, highlighted an interesting correlation between risk and return in the business of water – water companies are highly risky and they yield relatively low returns even in the long-run. Stemming from this rationale it appears counter intuitive that private companies would be interested in operating in such an unattractive industry due to the risk factor and lack of profitability.

One of the deliverables of the course is to form and test a hypothesis on the study tour through research and asking questions in company presentations. In preparing my own I decided to explore privatization and profitability in the specific context of water desalination, as opposed to the water business in general terms. Due to the low availability of renewable water sources in the Middle East, desalination is one of the most feasible means of meeting water requirements in the region.  The desalination market has experienced growth in recent years and is expected to expand as populations grow, drought conditions get worse, and living standards are upgraded in the UAE. In one of our lectures we learned that over two-thirds of the world’s desalination capacity comes from the Middle East. The hypothesis I will be testing is:

As population growth continues to expand and water availability continues to decline, the price of water will begin to rise, creating the potential for desalination to become cost-competitive. Concurrently, with the increase in efficiency of technology and through research & development, the cost of desalinating per cubic meter of water will decrease in time. The increase in water prices coupled with the decreasing costs translates into more profitable and less risky water investments. This trend will be evident in the growing number of private companies undertaking desalination operations in the UAE and Turkey.

05/21/2012

The food in two countries very close but, at the same time, very different

Being a foodie, one of the factors that shaped my experience the most was precisly food. When we arrived to Istambul we were welcomed by a beautiful, colorful and delicious meal. Since the first moment it is evident that food is a matter of pride for the Tukish and this is reflected in the presentation of the food and on the simplicity of turning very basic ingredients into tasty, simple dishes. Like in my home country, Sicily, eggplants and tomatoes are the king and queen of the show. Different kinds of meal are a delicious trasnformation of these vegetables. Goats are also very important to the diet of the Turkish because their milk is used to prepare many delicoius, yet delicate desserts(see picture below). We received many mini dish to snack on, like Spanish tapas, and we are all please to discover new, interesting flavors.

Since this restarant set the bar really high with this type of welcome I expected that culinary speaking everything else would be a disappointing. Wrong! Everywhere we go, including food we buy on the street, food is very hgh quality and the kebab is consistently good and mouthwatering. I also found a famous Italian ice-cream shop, a store that is also in Rome, in Istambul and I almost bought one ice-cream when I discovered Turkish delight. Since then I lived for the following days eating 1 pound of turkish delight per day. Another important element of the food is bread: flat and served often warm in the form of pita. We had tons of delicious spreads and meat with it. Doubtlessly one of the best breads I have ever tasted... after Italian bread of course :)

At the end of the day, even if we are scared of drinking water that is not open in front of us, we eat whatever is put in front of us and love every bite of it. This is a clear example of good use of raw materials and of course of water, if you knew me better you'd know how much of an art I consider eating.

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Also the food on Turkish airlines is delicious and the group looks forward to the next plane ride to taste what the chef has prepared (the chef greets you as soon as you step on the plane, even if you are flying coach). The drinking choises are interesting: other than the classic juices, we are offered a goat-milk based yogurt drink that is very tasty but also very heavy... Two sips and I need to stop drinking.

Getting to the UAE the expectations are very high. I am conscious that everything that the Arabs sell has been exported from somewhere else but I expected, since Abu Dhabi and Dubai are multicultural places, to eat delicious food everywhere and try exotic drinks. Well, our first meal is at a local diner that was recommended to us "Golden fork" the food is less than mediocre and from there, except for a few exceptions, almost all the food is below avarage. Water has slightly a different taste but, luckily, we are given a lot of it to resist to the heat. One of my favorite nights, food wise, was when we went to a beduin village and had food sitting on rugs and beneath a starry night. The UAE doesn't have any typical dish but, after all, I cannot complain because Turkey made up for it. 

As a food lover, this trip has given me a new prospective and has opened my curiosity to an ensemble of spices and flavors that, to that date, I hadn't experienced yet.

 

 

04/27/2012

Back from a lovely night at our own Catherine's house, I want to collect the final thoughts about this wonderful experience.

Turkey: a very lively country, where people, institutions and policy makers are working hard to definitely become a member of the European Union, providing an important access to the Middle East region. Of course this process involves an incredible amount of different aspects and requirements, but during our journey we had several opportunities to experience how the country is growing. Particular thanks go to Selcuk Kiper and Caglan Kuyumcu from the MIT Enterprise Forum Turkey, with whom we also spent a wondergul evening in Ankara.

UAE:a country that is undergoing a fast paced process of modernization, creating futuristic infrastructures next to remains of ancient bedouin culture that characterized the arab regions hundreds, thousands of years ago. In this country, whose economy is currently almost 100% dependant from oil trade, government, investors, engineers and scientists are creating the next technologies for clean and sustainable energy.

Water: water is a very complicated topic and no public or private entity will be able to regulate and serve this sector without relying on an integrated strategy that involves many other stakeholders. Whether a country is creating a new dam to provide energy to its population, or a desalination plant to supply fresh water to its citizens or any other water related infrastructure, continuously developing techonologies to complete the project are out there. However, only a generation of leaders able to come together and define the best plans to tackle these issues will be able to create innovative and sustainable solutions.

The last words are for my partners in this amazing experience. Water-Turkey-UAE, a memorable paint to which each one of the 24 friends in the trip added personal, unique and brilliant colors. Thank you!

Abu Dhabi, the crossroads where the past meet the future - Part 2

Wednesday 28: Safari day.

Safari

After a bit of relax in the morning, we left to reach a camp in the middle of the desert at 1 hour drive from Abu Dhabi. A few miles from Abu Dhabi you start being surrounded by desertified landscape and you start realizing the importance of water in this region. Even if the Abu Dhabi area can rely on both spring water and desalination supplies, the climate conditions and the topological configuration of the arab territory make the research for water sources a very hard challenge. Moreover, staring at all that sand and the dry lands around, you can deeply appreciate the efforts and investments required to build big communities like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, where more than the 60% of the UAE population currently lives.

After approximately 1 hour, the SUV that picked us up from the hotel was leaving the main highway and putting his wheels on soft, fine and quiet sand: adrenalin was growing. Soon the car stopped to release some pressure from the tires that now had to fight against that almost inconsistent enemy. My friends in the rear seats started holding to every handle they could find: the first Safari Rally for most of us was on! Riding those sand hills was great experience and a lot of fun and made me thinking about nomad populations traveling in those areas, relying only on stars and sun to guide their migration, because no other references were available to us too.

After a while, we approached a bedouin desert camp where we had dinner all together after a small camel ride (lesson learned: bend backward when the camel goes up or sits down). After a brief refreshment thanks to a couple of restrooms with fresh water in the middle of nowhere, we sat on beautiful arab carpets and had some tasteful arab cuisine.

Unfortunately, the time was running against us and all of a sudden the magic oriental night was over. We drove back to the hotel with beautiful images flowing through our eyes, with the noise of the silent desert in our ears, with a handful of sand in our shoes and with our minds thinking at our upcoming trip to Dubai the following day.

04/26/2012

Delayed Recap :)

I finished this entry almost two weeks ago, but for some reason forgot to post it.  In any case here it is!

 

The water study tour was an amazing experience in many different senses.  First of all, I had the chance to visit and learn about countries that I had not seen before.  Turkey and the UAE are fascinating countries with a tremendous wealth of history and culture that have given me a wider perspective of the world.  Secondly, the different visits that enabled me to learn very interesting intricacies about issues surrounding fresh water, one of the most important resources for human life and development.  Although I had different expectations of what we would see and learn, the tour gave me a realistic view on where the water issues in these two nations are developing into. 

 

One of the main conclusions that I have been able to draw from this experience is that the water constraints and needs faced by different nations are unlikely to be the same.  Such different situations in terms of needs, natural and economic resources, geography, culture, etc. will cause diverse approaches and therefore there is no silver bullet that will address all issues.  In this particular case, Turkey is a nation that has significantly more water resources than the UAE, and as a result, Turkey is at this point more concerned with efficiently tapping into these resources and securing their sustainability.  In contrast, the UAE being a country that has very scarce water resources, but that in comparison has accumulated an abundant economic wealth, is heavily concerned with finding and securing sustainable sources of fresh water.  Importantly, the UAE is investing in research and development that is enabling it to understand the limitations and consequences of the technologies that it adopts and the policies that it pursues.  In the end, both countries have created a wealth of knowledge related to water that will be of benefit not only to their inhabitants but to other nations.  Although there is no single approach for dealing effectively with water issues and ensuring the resources for serving future water needs, after the trip it is clear that achieving these purposes requires a deep awareness about both the sources for fresh water and the management of this resource.  As other nations begin to face their own constraints for serving future water needs, they will have to choose the approach that suits their situation best.  Such nations will need to find the right balance between securing new sources of fresh water, sustaining their existing resources, and managing consumption and water reuse.

 

04/16/2012

Arabian Nights (dt Apr 1, 2012)

Leaving Turkey was a bit difficult for me. Although I had been in the country for only a week, I had become quite fond of the place – in many ways, the hustle and bustle of Istanbul reminded me of my hometown in India and my days growing up there.

Arriving in UAE was a bit familiar to me. A country that I had never visited, yet one that I could somehow visualize even before setting foot on. Neatly planted trees, well maintained roads and buildings, many south Indians around – sounds like another country that I know of? Yep, the Singapore of the Middle East.

The first thing that catches the visitor’s eye is the audacious and grandiose architecture all around. The need to be the tallest, biggest, most awe-inspiring – well, that is palpable all over the Emirates. It is that same spirit that I noticed at Masdar Institute. A futuristic vision for a low-carbon city, Masdar is where dreams are being brought to life. In almost any other place in today’s world, most things being researched and developed at Masdar - such as the Personal Rapid Transit that costs roughly $1M for a vehicle that houses six passengers (a bit exaggerated because amortizing the underlying infrastructure over more vehicles than the currently operated 10 should show a more flattering figure) – would be deemed “unviable” on the basis of returns on investment. Yet, at Masdar, grandiose visions for tomorrow are promoted and pursued. The finance guy inside me frowns upon this skeptically, but the dreamer inside me marvels at this spirit. I prefer to be more a dreamer than a finance guy.

Our visit to Masdar was followed by a stop at Booz & Company, one of the more well established top-tier management consulting firms in the region. At Booz, we heard the firm’s views on the water sector in UAE and the GCC. Their perspectives were well-informed and backed by logical analysis. As we would hear throughout our stay in UAE, more efficient and cheaper desalination technologies can benefit the country greatly. From Booz, we also learnt that agriculture accounts for the majority of the water use in UAE, and an important step to reduce the water demand would be for the nation to focus on the crops where it has a comparative advantage and import the rest. That, however, is wrought with food security concerns and job loss issues. For a country where more than 80% of the population is foreign, how does the job debate go?

At any rate, the final company pit stop was Metito, a leading provider of a suite of water technology and management solutions in emerging markets. I found their presentation to be the most impressive and clearly articulated. I could not resist asking a lot of questions about the sector, and what I learnt was quite eye-opening – in short, the water business is not an easy one, margins are thin and projects face significant off-take and counterparty credit risks, and deregulation of the midstream and downstream sectors is important for private sector participants to thrive. I also confirmed something I had always suspected – that entrepreneurship in water is extremely challenging given that the end product is perhaps the most fundamental resource and therefore needs to be priced really low for the end user. The silver lining I could see is that deregulation could offer companies the opportunity to segment the consumer base and offer differentiated pricing.

Well, so much for the official components of the trip. On the lighter side, I absolutely enjoyed UAE. In particular, I cherished the visit to one of the sultan’s palaces – the construction and rooms there reminded me a lot of my grandfather’s home in my native village back home. I was also happy to see many folks from Kerala (my home state) and enjoyed the opportunity to converse in Malayalam (the language spoken in Kerala) with them. The last evening in Abu Dhabi, we all went on a desert safari and I was introduced to the mandatory driving requirements to obtain a driver’s license in UAE – dune bashing! ;-) The camel market was an interesting sight as well. Finally, Dubai – well, it is said that Dubai is paradise on earth, and I could not disagree with that statement. The highlight was probably getting to the 124th floor of the Burj Khalifa, witnessing the musical fountain at ground level from up there, and creating the famed MIT sign. We had to shell out a $100 to get up there – the reward is our undisputed claim to creating the MIT sign on the highest man-made point on this planet.

At least until the good people of UAE build something even taller…

 

04/13/2012

An amazing experience

We are back in the US after a trip that has given us a lot of insights and material for reflection.

It was priceless to have the opportunity to get a fresh and insider perspective on the very different approaches to water treatement and sourcing together with the challeges that each country faces. 

It was priceless to have access to the facilities as well as to talk to the highly regarded professionals in the field, this took the experience to the next level.

As we move forward, one thing is very clear to me: we will never be able to look at water in the same way.