Dubai, UAE circa 2008: Soldiers of Fortune.
On a desert road in the Middle East.
First impressions have their price.
“...for them to see the advantage in defeating the enemy, they must also have their rewards...” - Sun Tzu - Art of War.
In the shadow of a large facility somewhere in the desert lies a secure area. I won’t go into details here concerning the where - it is not the point of this story. I stand in an outdoor carpark, waiting for my invitation to proceed further.
As I wait, the hot sun slowly roasts me alive in my suit and the desert sand that coats everything here sticks to my shoes, destroying their shine. I surrender, for some battles just can’t be won. Each footfall brings with it a small cloud of this impossibly fine silica dust which is now invading the cuffs of my pants. Hugo would be appalled at this travesty... He puts his name on this creation and I am using it to sunbake. I grin to myself as I picture the ridiculous scene. As my mind melts, I begin to wonder, is conquest the nature of all things here? My suit pants seem to suggest that this is so. After a small eternity, a uniform finally comes up to me and escorts me to the door of the security complex. As I approach, a one way glass door slides open with an electronic whir and I step over the threshold into an air conditioned checkpoint. More uniforms await within:
Guard: “What brings you here” comes the challenge, a statement stamped with stately authority.
Me: “I’m here to meet Mr X. Here’s my card, tell him I have arrived” comes my reply, a statement designed to bust him down to messenger boy status.
He is frowning now. I am indifferent. I cross security checkpoints for a living and this is no different to any other. After a momentary pause, where we both hold our ground like two B grade actors in a C grade flick with all of the attitude and none of the budget, comes his reply:
Guard: “Ok, passport please” - a submission.
So it comes to pass that yet again, I voluntarily surrender my chances of leaving the country to some guy I have just met in a uniform I have never seen without so much as a second thought. In return, I receive an access pass to the inner sanctum of something unknown to me. Fair trade. I walk to the elevator and press the key pad, feeling the eyes of the guard behind me, silently promising myself that one of these days I will arrange dual passports for myself. Just in case.
Upstairs, an American colleague waits in an office for me with two ex-pats who live and work in the field here. All eyes are on me and conversation fades to silence when I enter the room. They have been talking. I don’t waste my energy wondering about the subject of their conversation, for it is apparent. If I am concerned, I don’t let it show. My American colleague’s briefing to me the previous day was correct in one respect - these guys have a no-nonsense manner and I leave the fresh attitude at the checkpoint downstairs. Such first meetings are always an exercise in diplomatic caution. We each shake hands, introduce ourselves formally and share a carefully manicured discussion about current events and personal histories that read more like children’s bed time stories than the truth of what we would each like to know. However, behind these niceties is a sense that each man has for what is, rather than what is presented. You don’t get far out here if you don’t have that. In a very short time, the pre-formalities are complete and I am invited to join them in the main meeting room.
The invitation is obligatory, a call for my bona-fides, in order to determine whether I am what I say I am. In the coming moments, I know I will be placed in a pre-arranged situation that has been crafted to compromise me. There will be other players in the room, including types skilled in negotiation. I am to present myself and my purpose to them and they will press me on each point I raise and even those they detect that I have omitted. If I react well, the meeting will be one of many. If I do not, my journey here comes to an end. This is not so much a sales pitch as it is a test. As I walk to the board room, I note that they are watching my body language. I telegraph nothing but calm.
I have been here before, albeit in a different time and place, and I have learned to always be more than I say.
Intermission: I must add at this point that what happens in the boardroom stays in the boardroom. Confidentiality is an asset that I will not surrender here. Suffice to say, at the end of the meeting, another was scheduled. End of intermission...
After the meeting, we step outside and the two ex-pats have a brief discussion amongst themselves. When they finish, they tell me I am going for a ride. It is an affirmative statement. I agree to go because there doesn't appear to be any choice. To refuse is to lose face. So without further ado, I get into the back of a van and it begins to move. Beside me sits a guy I have not met before. He has that ex-military look. I am interested, but I don't engage in conversation because he doesn't appear to be there for my entertainment. Instead, I look at the panel of the van which sits where a window should be. I am off the grid now - no one knows where I am... including me. If I was to borrow a cliche, this was a need to know basis and apparently, I didn’t need to know. I wait. The van eventually stops. I get out. I am in another car park, this time underground. Momentarily, the ex-pats escort me into an adjacent building.
From an access area inside the building, we proceed to enter a lift that descends into a secured locker room. Electronic eyes record my every move and one way glass lines the walls. Both the entry and the exit doors are now locked and marked with access lights that flash red. The release to this area is not controlled by anything I can see, so I make the assumption that the one way glass conceals an access control room. How very interesting. As I consider my limited options for escape, one of the ex-pats turns to me and says: “Your mobile, your money, any device that records or photographs and anything metallic has to go in the locker behind you”. I pause for a millisecond and then I do as I am told without any further discussion. The grey area disappeared a long time ago.
We move towards the next access door. The ex-pat confirms his identity via a fingerprint scan and there is an audible sound of bolts retracting. After a time, the door slides into the wall, revealing another small room with yet another locked door. We step inside, and the open door slides shut behind us. It is only when one door closes and locks that the bolts in the other door retract and it opens. I feel like a sardine until the process is completed. When the doorway is clear, we step into a well lit, expansive room and as my eyes scramble to adjust to the lighting, the ex-pats begin to explain a most extraordinary sight indeed...
...I see that I am standing inside a large subterranean vault. Behind a warren of bulletproof, see-through glass lies several distinct rooms, each marked with an army of electronic recording and listening devices which monitor every move of a team of workers that operate locked within these glass walls. No exit, no bathrooms, no conveniences at all. The air carries the dirty scent of used wealth and the surroundings resemble the institutionalised sterility of a laboratory. The workers are dressed in identical jump-suits and each continues his work without even looking up to see who has entered their workspace. They act like drones. Some sit at desks, others sit at workstations positioned beside a conveyor belt that moves past them at a constant speed.
In the centre of this room is a large machine that extends the full length of this considerable space - it is serious hardware with electronic screens and its own dedicated army of workers. At one end of the machine, stacks of paper are mounted into the machine and sorted at a rate of many units per second. Several workers are loading this end without pause, because the high rate of throughput demands that it is constantly fed with the object of its existence. At the other end, bundled stacks are ejected that have passed quality control, and the remainder end up in a large bucket for manual sorting. The buckets have irregular bills, some legitimate, most illegitimate. Towards the end of the room is a stock room, where crate sized bundles of paper are lashed and bound for transport, in what must be a mound that is 30 deep, stacked floor to ceiling.
I struggle to take in the scene. The paper is currency from all regions. I have never seen this much money in one place. The explanations being provided by the ex-pat are not required. It is undeniable, this is a factory for sorting money. My hosts have decided to prove themselves in the most dramatic of ways. As notes fly before my eyes in a blur, I wonder... these people sorting this money... with the little they earn, how can they persist in this environment? I dare not look into their eyes.
The question dies before it reaches my lips.
Playing in the company of this many dead presidents does not require conversation. I only utter one statement: “I have seen many things, but this is a first. You have my full attention...” With that, we leave. There is nothing more to say.