Hot spots, pot shots and gold pots for the brazen and the bold
Compile a fake CV, head for a war zone, and a fortune in taxpayers’ dollars can be yours, writes Eric Ellis.
RESOLVED to make big quick money in 2007 at the frontier of commerce?
Sure, YouTube marketing and the would-be carbon trading exchange are out there at the exciting end of the market but Terminal Two at Dubai Airport is the real “new frontier” of international business.
On any given morning – and we mean 6am – suits mingle with khakis for flights to places like Kabul, Mogadishu and Baghdad where billions in aid – your taxes mostly – slosh around waiting to be plundered by fearless bleary-eyed road warriors who dare to venture to such hotspots to open markets, open because no regulator will fear to tread.
Regular users of Terminal Two Dubai joke they are flying “Axis of Evil Airlines” to get to their quarry, the challenges of their markets best evidenced by the corkscrew landings of the one or two flights in, lest the plane be taken out by a rogue SAM.
But “business hotspots” is a relative term. There’s China and India, or the EU’s Baltic and Balkan newbies, their roaring economies unshackled after years of socialism.
But for really big fast money, you’ll always come back to places just a short flight from Dubai, where you can make more money than Croesus in a dollar-drenched “post-conflict situation”, and risk decapitation while you’re doing it. But survive, and you’ll be mortgage-free with some good stories to tell.
Some have called it the biggest fixed interest investment in the world’s biggest tax haven. What that means is the West has committed to pour about $4 billion a year until 2010, and probably years beyond.
The country’s tax regime is more than relaxed: the biggest mobile phone company picks up more revenue than the Afghan taxman. A lot of people are making fast money and if you work for a multilateral agency like the UN or World Bank, or the hundreds of NGOs, you can count your cash with your conscience comfortable that you’re saving the world too, while sending riveting emails back home, not mentioning the sumptuous Friday brunch at Kabul’s five-star Serena Hotel, with its guerilla chic clientele.
Set up a business, any business except perhaps narcotics (that already booming market has been cornered by some people who are actually in the government), and the international taxpayer’s largesse flows to you – anything to keep Afghans away from the Taliban.
It’s the same for a great many unqualified foreigners fresh from college who simply knit an earnest brow, set up a post-conflict-land-rights-for-gay-whales NGO and sit back as the six figures flow. Easy.
True, Kabul life can sometimes be tricky, what with suicide bombs and all that, but Dubai is just 90 minutes away. The Ikea there has never had it so good.
Wanna be a millionaire? Get yourself buffed in the gym, take a quick scan through Soldier of Fortune and sketch up a phony CV describing your time at Hereford or Swanbourne, the hometown insiderspeak for the British and Australian SAS. Then make your way to Baghdad’s Green Zone, the US’s 51st state, and watch the job offers come.
Faster than you can say “improvised explosive device”, chances are you’ll be signed up for a stretch in a PMC, a private military company.
Your colleagues might be former Russian or Ukrainian mafia hitmen, apartheid-era white South African hardmen who actually liked killing their black compatriots, or the occasional Gurkha or Filipino. The sports bar-like mess room makes for lively gossip as you load your clip over burgers and Bud.
Your boss will be a nicely squared away hyphenated Pom of military bearing or a slightly deranged Timothy McVeigh lookalike good ole boy from the Texas Panhandle, all expenses paid. Iraqi PMCs have squillions of US dollars worth of contracts protecting diplomats and assorted VIPs with militia crosshairs trained on them – and you.
If you survive two years of this at near seven-figure money you’ll be able to buy that Thai bar/wife you’ve always wanted, and have change for a private arsenal.
Dubai, Qatar, anywhere in the Gulf, even Iran
Every newspaper and magazine has it on a savestring: “China, the world’s fastest-growing economy.” Looks great, except it’s wrong. China’s 9 per cent GDP growth last year looks positively recessionary alongside the Middle-East’s oil and gas-soaked dishdasha belt.
Try Oman – its economy was 24 per cent bigger in 2005. Or the UAE – 14 per cent GDP growth last year. In Qatar, everyone is a multi-millionaire after dividing its 900,000 population with their gas reserves, as oil prices soar.
Services, construction, design, leisure, if you’ve got a skill, or even if you just say you have, a wealthy man in a keffiyeh will want to hire you. And costs are low in the Gulf: oil junkies don’t do much actual work, they import cheap sub-continentals to do it. And you can too.
Even neighbouring Iran is roaring. Its president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, is no dill. He knows that every time he gets off his conference call with Chavez of Venezuela and Castro of Cuba to send George Bush’s blood pressure soaring, he sends oil prices the same way, handy given that Iran controls 10 per cent of the world’s black gold.
Pragmatic plunderers find that all that cash compensates for some of the world’s most oppressive climates, not to mention political regimes and tasteless architecture (I’m thinking Dubai’s ski resort here, and the bad-trip interiors).
ASIC getting you and your monopoly down? One too many tax audits? Too many bureaucrats, too little business? Move to Mogadishu, where the chances of encountering a regulator are remote in the extreme.
That because Somalia hasn’t had a formal government since 1991, the closest nabob being a country away in Kenya and Addis Ababa where much of the bureaucracy-in-exile were encamped in UN-funded splendour, too scared to return, too comfortable to want to. Somalia’s got less official corruption than Norway, because there’s no government official to actually bribe.
Sure, we all struggle with authority at some point but isn’t there something slightly reassuring about taxes, or air traffic control? Combine this anarchy with the Somalis’ Africa-wide reputation for business savvy and you’ve got one wacky market that could teach the WTO a few things about free trade. The economy grew 25 per cent last year but who, precisely, is counting?
Eric Ellis is the South-East Asia Correspondent for Fortune