I walked out of the apartment building into the early morning humidity of the Gulf and looked for a cab. In a city where buildings were being built (and demolished) at breakneck speed, I was lucky. Over the road was a Toyota car showroom, the only one in the city and a place whose location was probably known to every cab driver. This was important. Even with a simple grid system, many of the city’s streets were often known by more than one name; and residential buildings, all un-numbered, were rarely identified with prominent signs, whether in Arabic or English. When it came to telling cab drivers where it was you wanted to go, the names of hotels, government buildings, shopping malls and car showrooms were just about the only common language currency worth exchanging. So, even at six-forty in the morning, there were plenty of cabs dropping off 20 metres away and looking for the next fare. I was picked up within thirty seconds.
The driver, his licence complete with photograph dangling from the rear-view mirror, was wearing a brown dish-dasha and a white skullcap. I settled into the back seat, directed him to the Hilton Hotel and sat back as he swerved into the flow of traffic. I didn’t actually work at the Hilton Hotel but, after a month in the city, I’d discovered that it was the instruction most likely to land me within a hundred metres or so of my office in a non-descript office block just off the Corniche. Today, the ten minute journey was less terrifying than usual, the driver being one of the few in the city who didn’t appear to be on a personal mission to catch and overtake every vehicle ahead of him on the road.
I walked into the office just before seven. Alex, the programme director, and Fadi, one of the project managers were both sitting at their desks. Alex, a Scot who’d been working in the city for nearly ten years, was deep in conversation on the ‘phone. Fadi, a Jordanian in his late forties, was smoking and staring at his computer screen which, on past form, could take any time upwards of thirty minutes to display anything whatsoever. He smiled and, as usual, rose from his desk reaching out his hand in greeting.
“Coffee?” he enquired.
I shook his hand and nodded. He walked to the door and disappeared down the corridor in search of the tea boy.
I dumped my brief-case on the desk and started to unpack my laptop. Alex waved at me and continued with his conversation. As well as being my boss on the consultancy project I was working on, he was the captain of the company’s third squash team. Tonight was match night. I sat down, plugged in my laptop and switched it on.
“Who’s playing at two?” Alex was asking his mystery caller. Obviously a squash-themed conversation was under way.
“Well, he should win shouldn’t he?”
“So if I play Marwan at four and move Alan to three, what does that look like?”
I heard footsteps in the corridor and guessed that Fadi was returning with the tea boy.
“So if you win at one, three and five where does that put you for next week?”
It suddenly struck me that that there were only two rounds of the league left. I was beginning to become intrigued. Fadi re-appeared with the tea boy, resplendent in his black waistcoat and trousers, white shirt and black bow tie. He beamed in expectation of my order, the same one that he’d taken every day for the last month.
“So they’ll have to pick up, what, at least seven points tonight if they’re going to be in a good position going into next week’s match?”
Further information which added to the intrigue. Just in time, I raised my finger to stop the tea boy asking me for my order.
“He’s Sheikh Mohamed’s what?”
This was a new theme. Alex appeared to be drawing on his notepad muttering noiselessly to himself.
After what seemed like an age, he continued his series of enquiries.
“No he hasn’t rung me yet, but what do I say if he does? And how do I know that he knows that you’ve already rung me? What if he smells a rat?”
I looked at Fadi, nodded towards Alex and mouthed silently.
“What’s that all about?”
Fadi shrugged, then walked over and whispered in my ear.
“Monkey business,” he said conspiratorially and gave a knowing wink.
I tried to look as if I’d grasped the full meaning of what he’d said and nodded, sagely. There was a further pause in the conversation accompanied by further drawing as whoever it was on the other end of the ‘phone responded to Alex’s triple whammy of questions.
“So we’ll only know after tonight whether he’s already rung Razi,” said Alex hesitantly, “and that will give us an indication of whether he’s going to ring me…which I reckon he will anyway…because he won’t want to take the risk that you’re going to have a word with…er…Gary is it?”
I noticed that my mouth had fallen open and closed it.
Suddenly, there seemed to be a consensus between the two parties involved in the conversation.
“Yes, yes, OK, yes,” said Alex. “I’ll talk to a few people and get back to you.”
He put the ‘phone down and examined his notes in silence. Fadi had returned to his desk, lit another cigarette and began to read his copy of The Gulf News. The tea boy was hovering beside my desk waiting for my order.
“Coffee, please, Raj” I said. “Black, no sugar.”
He smiled and scuttled off to do whatever it was that took him fifteen minutes to make a cup of coffee.
“So what was all that about,” I asked Alex after a respectful pause. He peered at me over the top of his computer screen then stood up, walked over to the door and closed it after first looking up and down the corridor. He returned to his desk, sat down and picked up his notepad.
“Well, just between you and me,” he began, seemingly ignoring the presence of Fadi, “I was having a chat with the captain of NIC’s third team. We’re playing them tonight at their place. He just rang up to see if everything was OK.”
I knew that NIC was the Emirate’s National Investment Company. As Alex worked for the National Oil Company he was, in local squash parlance, the NOC third team captain.
“They’re second in the league three points behind NGC with two matches left. We’re third, five points behind NIC, and have got NGC at home next week in the last match. NIC have got NWC in their last match but they’re way off the pace.”
I congratulated myself that I knew ‘G’ stood for gas and ‘W’ for water in Alex’s acronym-laden summary of the current state of affairs.
“So it could all come down to the last week,” I said. “That should be interesting.”
Alex gave me a weary look.
“Yes, well that’s what Ahmed doesn’t want.”
“NIC’s third team captain.”
I prepared to make a comment which I suddenly sensed might be deemed inappropriate given the complex nature of life in the Emirates. This was a land of unelected rulers, family-dominated politics, opaque commercial practices and disenfranchised guest workers. To do business here, foreign companies needed local sponsorship and a flexible attitude when it came to meeting local expectations regarding almost any kind of social or financial transaction. Including, I was beginning to realise, the functioning of the city’s squash leagues.
I bit my tongue.
“He’s one of Sheikh Abdul’s cousins’ sons,” continued Alex, “Whereas NGC’s vice-captain is one of Sheikh Mohamed’s sisters’ boys. Bit of a tricky situation, you see.”
I went for a neutral question.
“So what happened last year?”
Alex’s face lit up.
“We won the league,” he beamed. “First time I’ve ever won anything to be honest. The boss was very pleased.”
I knew that Alex’s boss, Hosni, was a prominent member of NOC’s so-called ‘Egyptian mafia’ and a favourite of the Senior Administration Superintendent.
“Yes, well we had a well-balanced squad last year,” continued Alex. “I was playing at five, Ghazi was at one and Karim was at two. We were pretty lucky with injuries too. Nothing major.”
I smiled and nodded as he re-lived his success in captaining the team to sporting glory. For a brief moment I imagined him developing effective strategies for neutralising opposing teams, getting the best out of his players, moulding them into a title-winning unit, that kind of thing. A bit like Napoleon.
He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.
“Of course we did have one advantage,” he said.
I responded to his subtle prompt.
“Oh yes, what was that?”
“We had Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin playing at three. Nice lad. He really came on during the season. Won every match, in fact.”
Sheikh Abdullah was the President’s younger brother. Something was starting to make sense.
“Yes,” continued Alex, “although I suppose he was being coached by Sami Awad.”
I seem to remember my eyebrows raising at this point, although I can’t be sure.
“You mean the Egyptian number one?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
“And former World Open champion,” added Alex.
“But how did…”
“Well Hosni used to go to school with him in Cairo. Big chums they were. Kept in touch over the years and, well, Hosni asked him to pop over and bring Saleh up to speed. And the rest of the squad while he was here, of course.”
Saleh, I assumed, was Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin.
“But how did he get onto your team? I thought only NOC employees were eligible.”
Something immediately told me that wouldn’t be a problem.
“He was working here two days a week for his dad.”
“Who’s his dad?”
“Sultan Al Najaf.”
The name rang a bell. The Senior Administration Superintendent! I formulated my next question carefully.
“Sheikh Abdullah’s cousin,” said Alex, nodding.
“So last season, you, your boss, his boss, the President’s younger brother and the former World Open champion were all involved in…”
“You could put it like that.”
“And this season…”
“Well, we have to help one of the other teams win the league, don’t we? Nobody wants the same team winning every year. It’s not the way they do things around here.”
“But who’s involved with the other teams?” I asked.
“It’s far too complicated to explain, to be honest. I tried to draw a diagram showing who’s in who’s team, who works for who, who’s related to who, who used to go to school with who, blah blah blah. Pointless.”
He paused for breath.
“Anyway, last year was our turn and this year it’s someone else’s. All I’ve got to do is make sure that whoever needs to be happy after next week’s matches is happy…and that everybody else is happy that they’re happy. Simple really.”
He smiled, picked up his notepad and walked to the door.
“Not sure I’ll be back before lunch,” he said to no-one in particular. “I’ve got a lot of people to see, tea to drink, hands to shake. You know how it is.”
He opened the door and disappeared down the corridor just as Raj was arriving with my coffee.
Fadi put down his Gulf News, glanced at his still-dormant computer screen and prepared to order further refreshment before he tackled the crossword.
“So did you find out what he was talking about?” he asked.
I thought for a moment, struggling to formulate an explanation. Then, the nature of my conversation with Alex suddenly made sense. I smiled.
“Monkey business,” I said.
This story is based on my own personal experience of living, working and playing squash in The Middle East. The names of the characters have been changed to protect whomsoever you might think is innocent or guilty…or not.