Emirati business icon, Khalaf Al Habtoor, tells the story of a much-loved Dubai institution — the Metropolitan Hotel
In the late half of the 1970s, I was still dreaming about owning my own hotel and hoping that I could find a suitable plot of land on which to build it, when Sheikh Rashid called my home. The call came at around 5.30 in the morning when I was still fast asleep. I soon opened my eyes when my wife yelled “Khalaf! Come quickly! Sheikh Rashid is on the phone.”
It took me some minutes to pick up the receiver because I first needed to clear my throat and my mind of sleep. As soon as I told him “Good morning,” he said “Ah! So you were sleeping,” accusingly, as though I had committed a mortal sin. Why do you wake up so late?”
Before I could answer, he said “Get dressed quickly. I want to see you right away. Come to Zabeel [his town palace]. I want to show you something”. I don’t think I’ve ever showered so quickly in my life. When I arrived at the palace, there was just time to gulp down a cup of coffee before he said “Yallah! Let’s go.”
With Sheikh Rashid sitting in the front seat of his Mercedes 230 long wheelbase next to the driver, I got in the back next to someone else whose name I can’t recall. We drove in the direction of Abu Dhabi along what was then a one-lane road with traffic in both directions called the Abu Dhabi Road (now Sheikh Zayed Road). He wouldn’t tell me where we were going until the vehicle turned off the road into the desert some way up and said “Come on. Let’s get out here.” At that point, I had no idea what was in his mind.
I was staring at some white desert rats and wondering what on earth we were doing in the middle of nowhere, when he suddenly said “This is yours,” pointing at a vast expanse of desert all around us, as far as the eye could see. For a second or two, I was speechless. All I could do was stand and stare as he tried to explain to me where the land in question began and ended. My mind was racing.
“I want you to build a hotel here for a reason. I’ll tell you, but I don’t want you to talk about this with anyone. There are plans in the pipeline to move Dubai Airport from the middle of town to Jebel Ali where there is plenty of land for expansion.”
I understood his thinking perfectly. Jebel Ali is 35 kilometres from the city of Dubai, so any hotel constructed on this particular piece of land would be closer to the new airport than any other. Gulf nationals, even those from fairly remote areas, began to fly frequently when Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Abu Dhabi bought Gulf Aviation and rebranded it as their joint flag carrier, Gulf Air, in 1973. The airline was based in Bahrain and had a reputation for luxury due to its double-decker ‘Five-star Tri-Stars’ with restaurant-style seating and a boutique selling designer items in First Class.
I was overjoyed. I couldn’t thank him enough. At last, I would have what I always wanted, a hotel. (What I didn’t know at the time was that Dubai Airport would remain where it always was and that it would take more than 30 years for an airport — Al Maktoum International — to begin operations at Jebel Ali.)
I was excited to tell my family the good news. But wait... I didn’t have any money. Reality hit me. Where would I find the enormous sum of money required to build, furnish and staff a good-sized hotel with the kind of facilities demanded by international business travellers? “I can’t thank you enough, Your Highness,” I said “but where will I get the money for a hotel?”
Sheikh Rashid made it known that he wouldn’t entertain lending me any money for the project as all the capital he had was reserved for new infrastructure and for Dubai’s running expenses. He was unstinting with his help when it came to providing local business people with land or opportunities to work on governmental projects, but as far as I know, he never handed anyone large amounts of cash.
Article continued on next page