Sunday, November 26, 2006


Finally submitted the budget couple of days after the deadline. I thought we would be the last one to submit it since the deadline had passed. Fortunately, there were some groups who submitted afterwards. Best part of being in the current group is that everyone realizes that we have four divisions each with a different business model and hence such delays are over looked. From what I have been hearing, we have a better grasp of business this year than previously.

Anyway, life should have been easier after submitting the budget. But it seems that one thing leads to another. Now we have to prepare a presentation to justify the budget. Had the budget been showing increasing income, the task would have been easier. But our budgeted profits are going down next year. Though I wont be presenting the budget yet I am assigned to come up with explanations and justifications for the same. As with all other cases, the deadline seems to be extremely short.

Was talking to my father yesterday. He asked me whether everything is under control. I replied in affirmative as I believed it to be the same. Had I been assigned the task yesterday or earlier, I would have still replied in affirmative yet at least would not have believed it.

Lets hope that I am able to come up with some justifications in the short time that has been allowed to me. Deadlines always seem so short and near.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Son of the soil

Last week, I called up an old friend who is studying at London School of Economics(LSE). I was talking to him after a gap of four months. We talked on a wide range of topics including but not limited to academic standards in UK, their comparison with Pakistani universities, all the remaining friends enjoying marital bliss or newfound parenthood while we are still bachelors, spending ramadan in a foreign country, political turmoil, baluchistan, waziristan, taliban, in the line of fire etc. After a while, we ran out of topics to be discussed over long distance call. I asked him "So what are you doing nowadays?" He replied, "I have bought a ticket for going to Pakistan on Eid and am counting the days". I laughed at the fact that he is feeling homesick. He struck back, "You weren't much different when you were at London Business School. You had a ticket in your hand. More than graduation, you were looking forward to going home and flew back the very next day after graduation". He was right.

I have spent more than half of my life abroad mainly in Middle East and Europe. And I have met a lot of people who share the same feeling i.e., once you buy the airplane ticket for the flight home, time slows down. You start counting the days when you can fly out of the place. It does not matter how settled you are in a foreign country or even if you have a nationality. Your neighbour and colleagues are at a loss to comprehend why you are in high spirits all the time. But an imminent trip back home can have such an effect on you. I am afraid to generalize as it invites a lot of criticism but I am sure Pakistanis in North America would also feel the same way.

When abroad I can't help comparing the facilities and comforts available over there to the lack of them back in Pakistan. When parents, siblings or friends try to convince us to move back home, we usually argue against it by focusing on absence of democracy, lack of civic culture, non availibility of amenities, high levels of noise and air pollution, dreadful traffic jams, pathetic public transport, loadshedding and blackouts in summers, and floodlike situation during monsoon rains etc. But as soon as the ticket is in hand all is forgotten; I look forward to spending time with family and friends rather I can't wait to be among them.

Afterwards I called Manu, younger brother of a friend, who is in London for his professional exams. His last exam is on 20th October and will end around 12 noon. I asked him what are his plans after that. He said that he is flying out to Lahore from Manchester the same day. I inquired why from Manchester. He said because the flight from London is next day and he does not want to wait another day. Right after the exam he will take a train journey to Manchester and take the PIA flight out to Lahore. I had to convince him to wait one day as he will be running on a tight schedule and a slight delay in exam or train timings would mean a missed flight. Its not that he is not happy in London. According to him, living in London is the best thing that has happened to him. However, once the departure date has been decided and ticket is in hand, its hard to wait any longer.

It really has been a very long time since I travelled on PIA as I mainly travel on European or Gulf airlines. But when I was a kid, my father always preferred PIA for flights to and from Pakistan. Not because the ticket was cheap or service was excellent but because he felt it was his patriotic duty to do his part for increasing Pakistan's GDP. And whenever I boarded a PIA plane, on entering the cabin there was always a faint scent (would an adult describe it as a smell or an odour, I am not sure) which was nostalgic and made me feel like that I was already in Pakistan. For me it really was to quote a PIA slogan "Watan say pehlay, watan ki khushboo". I dont know how to translate it into English but I know how I felt: PIA was a piece of Pakistan, standing in it made you feel standing on Pakistani soil.

I would misquote someone here, "You can take us out of Pakistan but you can't take Pakistan out of us".

Saturday, September 23, 2006


I had no idea that there would be so much corruption in Kuwait. Being a born and bred Pakistani, I have come across my share of corruption in Pakistan.

Everybody knows that Pakistan is a third world country with limited resources and not enough money in the national coffer to pay the government employees i.e., policemen, judges, government servants etc. Having a low income does not justify taking bribes or corruption but at least one can understand why it so rampant throughout our society. WASTA is a kuwaiti term with the same meaning as in Urdu _ to use some person as "source", "jugarh", "paava" to get things done. And people have come to accept it as part of the Kuwaiti culture.

All the expatriates that arrive over here don't get the residency formalities or driving license formalities completed themselves or rather they can't do that. The employer arranges for all these formalities as he has a 'mandoob' on payroll whose sole job is to build connections in all government departments. He is the Wasta in government department.

So far I don't know whether they take bribes or not but they don't work without a Wasta. But Kuwait is the richest country of the world in terms of income per capita. I think Wasta is just to feed the egos of local Kuwaitis as they definitely don't need bribe money.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Rocket Science

In my earlier life as a Corporate Banker, I have done a large number of Financial Statement Analysis. But I never thought that so much goes behind generating those three statements Balance Sheet, Income Statement, Cashflow Statement and the notes associated with them.

From a lenders point of view, some numbers are very important and thats what we focused on when analysing the statements or forecasting the numbers or doing a variance analysis. However, when its your own organization not some but all numbers are important and significant importance is given to all variances.

I told my chartered accountant colleague that I never considered that so much goes behind generating these statements. Its like a different world altogether. He comforted me that 'you can easily master it; its no rocket science'. I replied that I excelled in such subjects in academia as Derivatives, Options and Futures, Fixed Income Securities and Financial Engineering, Ito's Lemma, Black Scholes, Greeks etc. otherwise known as rocket science.

However, this cost allocation, internal pricing, warranty amortization, labor cost, bonuses, etc. and to top it all of budgeting, strategy planning, balance scorecards, feasibilities and forecasting is driving me nuts. The other day I was at the office on a weekend finalizing the budget numbers. An ex-colleague of mine in Pakistan found out. He was flabbergasted, "Working on a weekend in Middle East? Qiyamat ki nishaani hai (sign of the end of the world)!!!"

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Financial Database

How many system can an organization have? Having worked for a Bank, I always thought that a single system usually does the job. For different functions or departments it might have different modules but in the end they must all work together like the cogs of a machine. For smaller tasks, spreadsheets such as MS Excel could be used but it would be just a simple analytical tool and not a system. How wrong was I?

The company uses one finance system at the Operations Site. However, to analyze the data it is uploaded into another project management software in my division. However, the vouchers are also sent directly to Central Accounts division who upload the data onto an Oracle database. Whereas the first system was for financial and material consumption aspects, for services rendered by the Operations another database is used. To top is all off, report generating solution is used to generate information from the data generated by all these systems. The authenticity of data is not assumed correct unless the numbers tally with the Oracle output. I am sure you are finding it confusing. Believe me I have been at the company for around a month and I still find it confusing to obtain all kinds of reports from different systems. For a further analysis, all of this is downloaded in Microsoft Excel where a day is usually spent in organizing the data using VLOOKUP etc. followed by the analysis.

To top it all off, everyone knows that system generate inaccurate information. They always ask for information outputthat is 80% accurate (for an actual revenue and associated numbers – not some false forecasts). This is the situation when we are using 5 systems. How did they work before computers arrived?

Earlier I have worked in Banking sector of Pakistan in operations at Branch level. My first experience was at a small IT oriented bank and we were used to closing our books daily online. It also gave us a clear idea how an efficient system should work. By nature, banking solutions need to be accurate. My second stint was at one of the Big Four banks of Pakistan where they were still using paper registers and ledgers in tandem with computers to keep track of assets and liabilities. Though the system may be inefficient in terms of time and effort required for daily balancing of books yet it was accurate.

Using a computer based solution is much easier once you get the hang of it as everything flows smoothly through the system. The paper and pencil system requires a special skill and temperament which is developed after years of working through the system. I was involved in the migration from paper and pen based system to fully computer based solution. Overnight the skills honed after years of burning oil in branches become useless. The computer does everything automatically. Consequently, a lot of people lose their jobs and even if they don’t lose their jobs, the importance of their jobs gets reduced very much.

At the present company, they are bringing some new consultants next week who are going to make a presentation on a Enterprise wide solution. I am looking forward to the meeting. Its not that I expect the system to be implemented and all the old stuff to be thrown out. On the contrary, I expect it to be one of the numerous meetings I would attend during my time in this company without any change. The advice that I have seen many people recommend as the best advice for Middle East is “Don’t try to change the system.”

Whether I will heed it, the answer is No.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Women: Lebanon Factor

No. This post is not about Middle East crisis.

The other day, me and a Lebanese colleague of mine, M, had gone to the mall to watch Pirates of Caribbean. Looking at the varoius Kuwaiti women thronging the mall, he commmented that, "Kuwaiti women walk differently, talk differently, dress differently and wear makeup differently".

In Kuwait, the local women/girls dress accross the spectrum from the all enveloping Burqa to tank tops and short pants. Its unlike Saudi Arabia where publicly everyone is in Burqa or Dubai where locals are usually in Burqa or modest dresses and foreigners in various levels of dress-less-ness.

This post is not to discuss their dress sense. It is to discuss their styling/make-up. Kuwaiti women are naturally fair, yet they still put on a heavy foundation to appear fairer. As you can't get whiter than white, the heavy makeup is there just for makup's sake. Otherwise, it does not make them any fairer.

In Pakistan, among well-off classes, the colour of the skin does not matter. I have seen women perfectly comfortable with their wheatish or dark complexion because they know that at the end of the day, what counts is their brain or... money and not their colour. I am not saying that they don't put on makeup, just that they don't try to hide or cover up their complexion. Whether this has something to do with stardom of wheatish models such as Iraj, Vaneeza, Sumita, Tooba ... I can't say.

M said to me that its because of Lebanese women. Kuwaiti women suffer from an inferiority complex i.e., they believe that Lebanese women are very attractive and try to become like them by colouring their face, dyeing their hair, and using very heavy makeup followed by very heavy eye liners. He told me that fashion and makeup form a significant part of Lebanese economy and the only reason for that is women from other Gulf countries want to be like Lebanese women.

He told me that all the ladies hair stylists in Kuwait are Lebanese and charge very highly for their services. Women pay an average of USD500 for wedding makeup. I told him that wedding makeup is expensive even in Pakistan. He countered that it must be for the bride. This is just for the wedding attendees. (I dont know maybe the prices are similar in Pakistan because its been a long time since I drove anyone to a beauty parlour).

I don't mind them paying high prices for makeup. But after paying this much, one should look attractive and stylish not like women you see in Muree hailing for poor villages of Punjab who had whitened thier faces by what appears like limestone or chalk. Had Kuwaitis been poor (read illiterate), it would have been understandable. However, they are amongst richest people and are already fair.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Whats in a name?

There are so many people here and quite a few departments. I am being introduced to new people everyday usually on first name basis. There is a large Indian community in the company as well as in Kuwait.

Though I can remember English names being exposed to Engligh movies, dramas, novels etc., and having studied in UK (A friend of mine once said that some people flaunt their London connection their whole lives after spending just 10 months in UK. So what?).

Anyway, I find it very hard to remember Indian names unless it is Amitabh, Abhishek, Bachan, Anil, Kapoor, Mithun, Chakraborty, Sachin, Tendulkar or Rahul (courtesy Shahrukh Khan). However, at the present company I find names which I am not used to hearing such as Arvind, Amit, Yogish, and Hemant etc. and sometimes more than one person has the same first name. In that case I also have to remember the last name further adding to the complexity.

Its not that I am complaining or have some vendetta against Indians. Whether in UK (here is my London connection again) or here, I usually hangout with Indian because they are humble and easy to get along with. However, this does not change the fact that they have unusual and very difficult names even for a London return Pakistani (sorry. I just cant help avoiding the London connection).

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Wives: A support system

Kuwait is not a city for singles. It’s a laid back city. After coming here, people usually try to settle down. Most of the Indian Chartered Accountants that I have met are married and settled with their wives. In some cases, their wives are also working.

Life and job can sometimes be frustrating over here. As such, people need a support system to constantly motivate them and keep their spirits high. Wives are considered as such a support system.

Yesterday, I went to watch a movie with a colleague of mine. Another colleague of ours Y was also at the theatre along with his wife. He offered to drop us home after the movie.

While in the car, we were discussing the movie. I don’t know but somehow it digressed to qualities of different people in our employer company. Though Y was an active participant in that discussion which was going on for my benefit, his wife was even more actively participating. She told me how such and such person was a total asshole, idiot, smart, etc.

When they dropped us off, I asked my colleague whether Y’s wife works in the company as she seems to know a lot about it. He replied that the wife is Y's support system. When Y needs to vent out his frustrations about politics, job dissatisfaction etc he talks to his wife.

He said same is the case with other desi employees. Some wives know more about the company than either you and me.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Keeping Fit

I came to this place for two days in April 2006. I was fed like crazy. When we were through eating meat and bread and thought we could not take anymore food, we were presented with sweets. Declining food can offend your hosts. As such, when I went back I had put up 4 kilos.
Now that I am here for a longer term, I don’t want to have my weight measured in units of tons when I get back. As such, I decided to join the gym of the furnished apartments that I have been put up in.

Lo! All the machines were broken. I could have played table tennis. Regardless of the fact that I cannot play it alone (I need a partner) I would have needed a table with four legs and not one standing on three legs.

Not to be unnerved, I decided to take a swim. Though the swimming pool was clean and in usable condition, it was an open air pool. Rather than offering warm or cool water, it was filled with hot water. Definitely a no no.

Only one thing was left: take a brisk walk outside. Being a sea-side city, I expected a cool breeze to be blowing. Never in my life have I ever been hit by hot air with temperature nearing triple digits at 7 pm in the evening. I could really lose some weight this way but it would have been due to falling skin from heat blisters.

Small things

A laptop and net access is a priority over here. A lot of communication takes place over the email. The same holds true back home. However, here they utilize the full functionalities of MS Outlook. I always thought that the calendar features were redundant i.e., they are useful but nobody uses them. However, everyone is well versed in all the functionalities of MS Outlook in this inefficient enterprise.

I was provided with the laptop on the 2nd day I was here. I would have gotten it the first day but I joined a bit later. Moreover, I have been provided with a corporate mobile telephone subscription. I know that there are systems in place in MNCs in Pakistan where these things happen automatically. But here I am talking about a family owned inefficient local organization and they were swift in arranging these things. Back home this would have made me feel like the President of a bank because he is the only one who gets this fast service. I am speaking this from experience.

The Beginning: A Faux Pas

I have been posted as a Finance Manager in a large family owned enterprise. I would mainly be involved in analysis which will be based on information generated from accounting data. Not only I have to streamline the system but also provide ways of generating new information that is useful (with useful being the key word).

The accounting department prepares a number of statements weekly, monthly etc. Having worked earlier in retail banking, I am used to preparing similar statements. However, in banking such statements were considered distractions from normal everyday work i.e., to be completed as soon as possible in extra time (late evening) so that we can continue with the normal work during working hours.

There are two sorts of monthly statements i.e, one for internal reporting and one for external reporting. The accountant explained to me that from the 1st till 7th of the month, he is busy in internal statements. Onwards till 15th he is busy in external statements.

Then I asked “What statements do you prepare from 15th till 30th ?”. He was taken aback. From my side it was an innocent query. However, his expressions conveyed that he did not consider them innocent questions. It was a perfect example of starting relations on the wrong foot in a country where relationships guarantee the effectiveness and completion.

Hope I did not ruin my relations with accountant on the first day.