I first met Desmond – let’s call him Des – on the first night I ever spent in Abu Dhabi, 12th June 2003. I remember the date because it was the day I emigrated from the UK (even if I didn’t know it at the time), and you remember dates like that. Des was the offspring of an English father and Swedish mother, and thanks to the latter sported a head of perfectly bleach-blonde hair with not a speck of grey, despite being in his late forties. It was because of this hair that his colleagues nicknamed him Billy Idol.
Des, me, and a South African called Phil had come to the Middle East to join a consultancy carrying out risk and safety analysis work on various projects in the UAE and Oman. I had transferred from the consultancy’s UK operations, whereas the other two were outside contractors. As it happened, we all arrived in Abu Dhabi on the same day. My flight got in late and by the time I’d checked into the hotel it was already dark, although still stiflingly hot. It was a heat that I would quickly have to get used to. I met up with another engineeer from the UK who had been to Abu Dhabi before, and we both went to a bar called 49ers where one of the Australian engineers was enjoying his stag do along with the rest of my new colleagues. The 49ers bar in Abu Dhabi is one not to be forgotten. It is situated way up in the upper floors of a skyscraper, I forget which floor, but plenty high enough and out of reach of any ladders. The bar is accessed via a tiny, underpowered lift which can hold a maximum of 6 people. The bar itself is decked out in a wild west theme complete with wood panelling, and features an open flame grill. The place was packed with over 200 people when I arrived, jammed in cheek and jowl and barely able to move. The lift was the only means of egress. There was no fire escape. This visit to 49ers was my first and only.
I met up with the others and enjoyed a round of handshaking quickly followed by a round of beers. It was way too noisy to speak to anybody and, feeling a bit homesick, I was quite glad when after a while somebody decided on behalf of us all that we should go to a nightclub across the roundabout, behind – indeed part of – the Le Meridien hotel. It took all of us about twenty minutes to get out via the tiny lift and congregate on the pavement outside, leaving me to shudder at the thought of a fire in the place. I found myself with the others in a smart club filled with people who were anything but. Dozens of low-class Chinese and Central Asian hookers lined the bars and the dancefloors, perfectly matched by the generally fat, sleazing expatriates and few locals for whom they were the sole reason for being there. I remember being seriously tired and wanting to leave, but having no local money on me and no idea where the hotel was, or even what it was called. It was a miserable experience, but I do remember meeting Des in the Foyer, shaking his hand, and him being very pleased to tell me we’d be going to Oman together on the Saturday (today was a Thursday, hence a weekend in the Muslim lands).
I didn’t know Des then, but by golly I knew his CV. He was recruited on the basis that his CV was probably one of the finest anyone had ever seen in the oil and gas business, and I’d read it when I was still back in the UK. I still have a copy of it, and it is in front of me now. Des was fluent in three languages: English, Swedish, and German. This much was true. Des held 5 higher education qualifications (including 2 bachelors and 1 masters) in no less than 4 disciplines. He was a chartered engineer twice over, a member of an additional 5 professional bodies, and had another 15 professional certificates to his name. He had been the safety manager for all of Shell’s offshore facilities in the Dutch sector and a senior safety specialist for Sakhalin Energy, which caught my attention even back then. He’d held senior positions with Fluor Daniel, Kvaerner, Occidental, Statoil, and Mobil. And his overseas experience covered the UK, Holland, Sweden, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Iran, and Pakistan. On the basis of his CV, you’d be stupid not to hire him. On the basis of his CV, you’d be equally stupid not to do some rudimentary verification of even a fraction of it.
On his first night with his new colleagues, none of whom he knew, Des borrowed the equivalent of $120 from the Australian stag and left the club in the company of a ropey Chinese prostitute. I hitched a lift back to the hotel with the engineer from the UK, thankful he knew where he was going.
Des and I caught a Gulf Air flight from Abu Dhabi to Muscat the following Saturday, arriving mid-morning in heat equally as oppressive as that which we left behind. We found our way to the apartment which would be our home for the next two months, buying some basic groceries on the way, and after a few more hours of getting ourselves kitted out with safety gear and other admin tasks we drove to the Mina Al-Fahal refinery situated on the coast just outside of Muscat. Our job, as I remember it, was to carry out a risk and safety assessment of the refinery, most of which needed to be done at the facility itself. The project schedule allowed two months for this phase of the work, so I was somewhat surprised when Des confidentally told me it would only take a couple of weeks. However, Des was the lead engineer and I was his junior, so I trusted he knew what he was doing.
Now at the time I was delighted to be on this project with Des. Here was me at 26 years of age, finally abroad and visiting a proper facility in a hands-on role with a chap whose experience was so impressive that I could not fail to learn from him. And even though I was a bit homesick in those first few days and weeks, I did enjoy the experience. It was roasting hot outside, and anyone sensible or not unlucky enough to be incarnated this time around as an Indian labourer stayed well indoors. But Des and I had a job to do, so we walked down every pipe and vessel and piece of equipment in that refinery, crawling over hot pipes in an already oven-like temperature, me writing down every hazard that Des pointed out. As a method of getting an up-close look at a refinery it was a good one, and it was even better at making you appreciate the Middle Eastern climate and the wonders of air conditioning. As a means of doing the job we were contracted to do, it was almost worthless. But this I didn’t know at the time, and we went on our merry way for the rest of the week.
Now Des liked to talk, and he especially liked to talk about himself, and most of all he liked to talk about how damned good he was. At first, I quite liked his tales of the various jobs he’d been on and countries he’d visited. I’m a gullible fool even now and generally believe what I’m told until proven otherwise, and I reckon it’s made me more friends than it’s got me into trouble so I’ll stick with it for now. Des had been there and done it, and here was I on a job with him. Yeah, this is all right, I thought. We even talked about the next project coming up, the big one in Kuwait which would go on for a year, and we’d go together. But as the week wore on, Des talked less about where he’d worked (tales which were suspiciously devoid of details, I saw in hindsight) and more about how great he was in other walks of life, especially his prowess with women. Des was on his (if I recall correctly) fourth wife, the second of which had run away with his best friend and business partner, the two of them clearing him out completely and disappearing into the night. The third wife was an Iranian whom he married for a joke, or convenience, or something. He had a son by either the first or second wife. And his fourth wife, who was a coloured South African, was living in his house in Holland with her two children (neither of whom were his own). Describing his various marriages took up an entire evening, and his conquests with several dozen other women two or three more. Then came the stories of when he was in the army and he was the best at shooting, driving, camouflage, escape and evasion, and every other aspect of soldiering which I can think of. Next it was how he was almost shot to death in Pakistan, and how he saw a man executed in front of his eyes for some misdemeanour, and by that point I think even I’d stopped listening. I used to scurry into my room, which unfortunately I shared with Des (who used to smoke in bed!), leaving a colleague assigned to another project but living with us, a chap called Chris, to make his own escape if and when he could whilst I lied and said I had to make a phone call to the UK.
By the end of the week, this had all got pretty tiresome, and so I was glad when Des told me we’d be going back to Abu Dhabi for the weekend for R&R. I have no idea how we got the tickets, but when we got back the regional boss, whose villa we were now for some reason all living in, was somewhat surprised to see us. He thought we were supposed to be down in Oman on the refinery tomorrow. I looked bewildered and said I was following Des, who was supposed to be in charge. It was all very confusing so Des, me, and another Brit called Steve who was also living in the villa set off to a bar somewhere in Abu Dhabi. Within a remarkably short time we all found ourselves in the infamous Al-Ain Palace, or the Ally Pally, a low-down dive of a place known only for its abundance of cheap, third-rate Chinese hookers. To cut a short story even shorter, the three of us ended up going back to the villa in a taxi with a huge Chinese prostitute with a smashed front tooth whom Des had picked up. Steve and I weren’t interested in doing likewise, which seemed to annoy Des, which he showed by pretending the girl was actually with one of us even when she stopped at a McDonalds and came out with an armful of burgers which she presented to him as some sort of weird tribute. I remember the four of us sitting in the villa around the nice, pine breakfast bar table (which, incidentally, I later took ownership of and it saw action in two of my apartments in Sakhalin, before I gave it away to a friend a week before my demobilisation in return for – ironically – a Chinese meal) with Steve, Des, and a huge Chinese girl with a smashed tooth who wouldn’t shut up or stop eating burgers. Des had the bright idea of them going for a swim (in what was a family compound where hookers, much less nightswimming ones, were frowned upon). She leaped from the stool, whipped up her dress to show a pair of large, sweaty, polyester granny pants and told us that she didn’t have a swimming costume. However, she told us loudly in a comical Chinese accent, she could “go down for five minutes, no need come up for air”. I have never laughed so hard.
Until, that is, Des thought the better of watching her perform strokes in the communal pool and took her to his bedroom, albeit for much the same purpose. Within a few minutes Steve and I were stood outside the door listening to a Chinese girl screaming blue murder, an English-Swedish halfbreed grunting like a boar, and bedroom furniture testing the very limits for which it was manufactured. This went on for about twenty minutes with all the subtely and finesse of a rock through a window, before the villa fell silent, Steve and I stopped laughing, and we went to bed. The next morning, the Chinese girl safely paid off and sent packing before sunrise, Des denied having sex at all and insisted they were “just talking”. Believing anything Des said after that was nigh-on impossible.
Once again Des and I took the Gulf Air flight down to Muscat to continue our work in the refinery. The stories continued in the same manner as before, with each one of his exploits being better and more impressive than the last. It was getting embarassing. Before he’d even start recounting how he and a whole group of people had to do some very difficult test, Chris or I used to pipe up “Let me guess: you were the only one that passed?” in the vain hope of saving half an hour by cutting directly to the inevitable conclusion. By this time his previous wives, girlfriends, and lovers seemed to have caught up with him because the apartment phone started going and he’d sit at all hours of the night talking and smoking. Then, to my complete surprise, my UK mobile rang with some woman asking for Des. Assuming it was important, I passed him the phone and he giggled like a schoolboy and launched into a twenty minute chit-chat with some ex-lover of his. My UK phone was on roaming at a cost of over a pound a minute, and I was seriously unimpressed. The cheeky sod had given her my number because he was too damned tight fisted to buy his own SIM card, and was now busy running up my UK bill whilst he relived one of his affairs. Eventually I got the phone back from him, but he couldn’t see the problem. He’d pay me back, he promised.
And that was another problem with Des. He was a tight-fisted old sod, refusing to pay for anything and expecting the company – or failing that, his colleagues – to pick up the bill for everything. He didn’t see why he should have to pay for his food even when on a per diem; when everyone in the villa went to the supermarket and chipped in, he’d be nowhere to be seen until he was spotted guzzling the beers we’d all just bought; and he certainly wasn’t going to pay a few dollars for a SIM card so his tarts could call him in Oman, not whilst he had my number to dish out! And he was pulling the classic contractor’s trick of claiming destitution on arrival and needing an advance on his salary, which the boss gave him out of his own pocket. Despite all this, Des would boast that back in Holland he owned a huge house, a yacht, and a Merecedes SUV. Once I got the phone back from him, it stayed in my pocket and I’d told him the credit had run out.
Then halfway through the week he probably wished he’d not picked up a phone. He had called his wife back in Holland on her mobile and from the music in the background it had sounded as if she was in a bar or nightclub, but she had told him she was at home. I think there was a man’s voice in the background as well, I can’t remember, but Des got very agitated. He called her at home (all of this using the extortionately expensive apartment phone) but there was no answer. He called her again on her mobile, but she didn’t pick up, and nor did she answer her phone for the rest of the night. Des was beside himself, confessing to me almost in tears that he thought his wife was having an affair. By that point I’d lost all respect for the man, and just sloped off to bed leaving him to brood by himself (until he went to bed and smoked his way through five or six cigarettes on the other side of the room).
It wasn’t just the personal stuff that was going wrong with Des, the work itself was fast falling to pieces as well. After a week on the site, and consulting the programme of work, it became clear that Des had not the faintest idea what he was doing. He barely consulted the scope of work or project execution plan, and breezily dismissed my concerns that we should be doing certain tasks in a certain way with a wave of a cigarette-filled hand. As it happened, the regional boss didn’t have much of a clue either (and if you want to extrapolate that across the entire company feel free, I’ll not stop you), so things just carried on the way they were for another week, with me doing what I was told and getting more confused and disillusioned by the day, until we were summoned back to Abu Dhabi.
Upon arrival, for no reason which I can remember, a decision was made that the work on site had been completed, I was to go to Dubai to prepare for the Kuwait project, and Des was to stay in Abu Dhabi to do the desk work associated with the refinery job. Within minutes of Des having sat down in the office, a huge problem arose like a mushroom cloud. Des’ bags had gone missing on the flight from Muscat to Abu Dhabi. One or two of the old hands in the office swung into action, made a few calls, and told him not to sweat. Happens all the time, they said, they’ll show up in a day or so. But Des was beside himself. He demanded to be driven to the airport and a search for his bags begun immediately. The boss told him not to worry, he could buy some clothes in the M&S over the road, toiletries he had spare in the villa, and it would only be a couple of days. Des refused to calm down, and would not do any work until something was done. Smelling something a little fishy, the boss asked what exactly was in his missing bags. Des flew into a rage during which we learned that in the bags he had checked into the hold of a Middle Eastern airline were the keys to his house, the keys to his car, the keys to his boat, the ownership documents for his house, boat, and car, his birth certificate, his bank documents, and seemingly every essential document a man will possess.
“Why the hell are you carrying all that about with you, Des?”, asked the boss, reasonably.
It turned out that Des did not trust his wife and had to carry all his worldly documents around with him to stop her from selling up and absconding in the same manner as his second wife.
“Why the hell did you put all that into checked baggage, Des?”, asked the boss, again reasonably.
Des didn’t know. Nor did we. But we did wonder if Des was half as well travelled as he, and his CV, said he was.
Des’ bags turned up a couple of days later. But the problems didn’t stop there. I was the youngest person in the regional office by about 20 years and most of the expat employees were middle aged with a wife and family somewhere, so the degree of compassion offered at that time was probably greater than you’d find in most companies, and certainly greater than that displayed a few months later (but that’s another post). In short, Des wanted to see his wife and step-children, presumably to make sure the former was still around and not still in a nightclub somewhere with her phone switched off. It is not easy to get a visa to the UAE for South African nationals (which is what his family was), it is more time consuming and requires more documentation than for, say Brits, who just turn up and walk in. Rather than being grateful for the efforts the company was going to, Des was raging against the company for taking so long and not having enough power or connections to just get them all in. Eventually, enough paperwork was collected to submit an application, but the immigration authorities returned a rather surprising decision: Des’ wife and younger step-daughter were allowed a visa, but the older step-daughter, who was 12, was not. The reason: the elder girl did not appear to be anything to do with Des, hence she could not be admitted as his family. The boss asked a few basic questions, which Des, poor chap, did his best to answer. It transpired that Des and his wife had sensibly decided some years ago for Des to formally adopt her children as his own. The adoption of the younger girl went well enough, but at the 11th hour the elder girl – who had a mental age of 7 and a whole heap of behavioural problems and learning difficulties – decided she wanted to be with her biological father, who was some sort of bum or criminal or loser down in South Africa, who was long separated from the mother. The adoption couldn’t proceed without her consent, and so she was never formally adopted by Des, even though she reversed her decision mere days later and came to live with the rest of them in Holland. The result was that the company couldn’t get a visa for his elder daughter. Des went bananas, bellowing that the company was useless and had no power or influence. The boss’ exasperated reply is immortal:
“Des! It’s not the company’s fault that you didn’t adopt your daughter!”
It was agreed that his wife and younger daughter would come over anyway, and so Des awaited their arrival. In the meantime, he continued to demonstrate incompetence of impressive proportions as he burned through the remaining manhours allocated to the project. Nothing that was supposed to have been done was being done, and sitting at my desk in the Dubai office I received several phone calls from the boss asking what the hell had happened down in Oman. What I told you was happening, I replied. The guy doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. Chris, a good mate of the boss, backed me up and I was in the clear.
Things also got a little complicated for Des when he was asked to provide his degree certificate in order to get his work visa. Des replied that he didn’t have it, even though on his CV it says, as I have pointed out, he has five such qualifications which would suffice. The story Des told was that the University of Gothenburg had moved and the records never moved with it. Later the story changed to the records having all been lost in a fire. Either way, he could not possibly get his hands on a degree certificate. None of us was convinced, except possibly Des himself who was turning out to be a pathological liar. Meanwhile, they decided to get Des working on something else until they could figure out what to do, and asked him to help write the method statements for some proposals they were putting together. Des refused point blank, said it wasn’t his job, and put his feet up on the desk until his wife and daughter arrived.
Which in due course they did, and the company – in a rare display of generosity – put them up in a nice hotel with a beach in Abu Dhabi. Des seemed to perk up when his family were around him, and although I wasn’t there I heard that they all went out for some nice meals in the evening and enjoyed themselves. That is, until the Dutch embassy called the office with the news that Des’ neighbours had alerted the authorities because a 12 year old girl had been left home alone whilst her mother had cleared off to Abu Dhabi with her other daughter. The daughter was now in the care of the authorities, and the mother really should get herself home pronto. At this point, Des’ colleagues just shook their heads and wondered whether to laugh or cry.
The boss wasn’t sure what to do with Des. He was lined up for the project manager’s role for the big job in Kuwait, but he had proven himself useless, unreliable, and uncooperative both in work and in every other way we could think of. But we were short of people, and mobilising expats on short notice is not easy, and the boss was considering keeping him on. Fortunately, Des made the decision for us. His colleagues in the villa woke one morning with Des saying he was sick and would stay in bed. By the time they came home after work, he had disappeared along with all his bags. He never paid the Australian the $120 from his first night, I never saw the money from my phone bill, he owed the boss a few hundred dollars and the company even more. He just upped and left.
We heard from Des a few months later. The boss received an email from him saying he was working in Iran, the job was terrible, and could he have his old job back. The email went unanswered, but it gave us a laugh.