Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor autobiography: Part two

Emirati business icon, Khalaf Al Habtoor, tells the story of a much-loved Dubai institution — the Metropolitan Hotel
Khalaf Al Habtoor and HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum at the official opening of the Metropolitan Hotel Dubai.
By Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor
Sun 11 Nov 2012 11:15 AM

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.

“Talk to me about anything... anything at all. But don’t talk to me about money,” he said.

My lifelong ambition to own a hotel was so close and yet so far. As usual, a shortage of money was the main obstacle. I was worried that if building didn’t start within a reasonable period of time, there was a faint possibility that Sheikh Rashid might consider giving it to someone who did have the available funds. Even though I knew deep in my heart that he would never do that and he had given me no indication at all that he would, I didn’t want to take any chances.

There was no other option other than to apply for a whopping bank loan that was granted by the Bank of Oman (now Mashreq Bank) once the way was smoothed by a very influential person and notable businessman, Abdullah Al Ghurair. As soon as funds were made available in 1978, Al Habtoor Engineering began construction under the supervision of the main consultant, John R. Harris, who also designed the hotel.

Our engineering team had been joined some years earlier by a very qualified, hardworking, capable and extremely outspoken engineer called Yusef Shalabi. Riad and Yusef went back a long time, ever since their student days at the American University of Beirut. Before joining us, Yusef had been working in the area since 1967, initially for Mothercat in Sharjah and thereafter as chief engineer for the Lebanese catering company, Albert Abela. Riad had introduced his friend to me socially during the Sahara restaurant days — when Yusef says I was “thin, eager, hungry and ambitious” — and as I had heard lots of good reports about his work capabilities, I was happy to take him on.

The actual construction was speedily carried out. It was made more efficient by our newly-acquired concrete pump — purchased from a bankrupt American company — and our decision to use ‘tunnel form construction’, whereby concrete walls and slabs are cast simultaneously and poured into a steel framework to make floors and walls. It was a modern, safe, time-saving cellular type of construction that was rare in the UAE then.

While the foundations were still being laid, I contacted various international hotel chains and management companies to ask whether they might be interested in managing mine. Once I had reached a preliminary agreement with Grand Metropolitan that successfully operated hotels and entertainment centres, I flew with my wife and children to London where we stayed at the Britannia Hotel for a month, at the invitation of the company.

As I was fine-tuning the contractual details with Grand Metropolitan executives, such as their requirement for the hotel to have an Italian restaurant and a sophisticated ‘Polo Bar’ in keeping with the Metropolitan brand, my wife and children were having a jolly time seeing the sights and shopping for clothes and items we couldn’t get in Dubai.

The Metropolitan Hotel was finally inaugurated in 1979 by Sheikh Rashid. When I asked him whether he was pleased with the finished result, he said “It’s lovely, but I can’t help thinking it looks like a donkey tied up in a swamp.” That wasn’t very flattering; a ‘princess tied up in a swamp’ would have had a nicer ring to it as both the hotel’s exterior and interior were very attractive. Still, it was surrounded by rolling sand on all four sides as far as the eye could see, so I understood what he meant.

In the beginning, we really struggled to find guests as naturally, most visitors wanted to stay closer to the centre of town. Our only popular outlets were The Red Lion pub and another popular rendezvous called Lucifer’s Disco that was packed with British expats and the odd American, especially at weekends. Americans mostly met up at Pancho Villa’s where a tiny man dressed in a Mexican sombrero almost as wide as he was tall would welcome the offshore oil crowd in for burritos and margaritas.

The Red Lion and Lucifer’s Disco were quickly elevated to some of Dubai’s evening landmarks. The hotel wasn’t doing nearly as well. To tell you the truth, I was uncertain about its long-term survival as I was under so much financial pressure. Then, just when I thought that things couldn’t get any worse, they did.

During one of my business trips to London, I received frantic calls from two Grand Metropolitan managers, Graham Colby and Majeed Khalil, who told me that there had been an order from the federal UAE government banning all sales of alcohol. Once the implications of the ban had sunk in, I cancelled all my London appointments, drove to the airport and managed to get a seat on the next British Airways flight to Dubai, a late evening flight which touched down in the early hours of the morning.

Without going home to see the family or change my clothes, I drove straight to Sheikh Rashid’s morning majlis and found him talking to the director of Dubai Municipality, Kamal Hamza, and Saif Al Ghurair, the owner and founder of the Al Ghurair Group, who was considered a pillar of Dubai society.

“Bismillah Al Rahman Al Rahim!” Sheikh Rashid said, registering his surprise at seeing me in a jacket and trousers rather than traditional dress. “Why are you dressed like that?”

I explained that I had just flown in from the UK. And then with a certain amount of dramatic emphasis I told him, “I’ve come straight from the airport to hand you the key to my hotel.” Sheikh Rashid looked at me with a trace of confusion in his eyes.

“It’s no use to me any longer,” I went on. Everyone stared at me for a few moments, obviously thinking I’d forgotten my mind on the airplane luggage rack. “What’s this all about?” asked Sheikh Rashid.

“I’ve just found out about the liquor ban,” I said. “If that continues, I might as well close the hotel doors right now. The only outlet earning any revenue at all is The Red Lion, which will lose all its customers. Besides, this prohibition is bound to harm business and investment. Any foreigner looking to start up a new company will think twice.”

“Well, maybe this new rule is good for the country,” interjected Saif Al Ghurair.

Faced with the possibility of all that I had worked so hard to create crashing down around me, I was in no mood for his interference. “I would respectfully request you to keep your opinion to yourself and allow His Highness to make his own decisions,” I said as politely as I could muster.

The next thing I knew, Kamal Hamza, who was doing his best to give the impression he was a deeply religious man when I knew very well that he wasn’t, piped up. “Khalaf, you shouldn’t be against this decision,” he said. “You should be patriotic, you should support it.”

With that, I lost my temper. I had done my utmost to hold it in check, but it burst out like a volcano. “Don’t involve yourself in something you don’t understand and doesn’t affect your pocket,” I told him.

“This is my country. I love it. And there is nobody more patriotic than I am,” I steamed ahead. “If that ban stays, the Americans and the Europeans, especially the British, will be gone. Alright, forget me; forget my hotel. The question we must ask ourselves is do we want an open country with a vibrant economy where foreign entrepreneurs and executives feel at home, or don’t we? If any of the other emirates want to impose the ban, then that’s up to them, but I was under the impression that it is up to each ruler to make his own decision on those kinds of matters,” I said.

I told them that I had no objection at all to Muslims being barred from drinking, but asked why we should impose our own religious prohibitions on other people who are not bound by them. Having a glass of wine with a meal or a beer after a day’s work is part of those people’s culture, I told them. If we heap too many restrictions upon their lifestyle, the best qualified will seek new pastures and the others will expect to be paid double and triple before agreeing to remain. And don’t think for one minute that we’ll ever be able to get a tourism industry going; not now and not ever.

The ruler saw that I was agitated and wisely pulled me aside. He told me that he was trying to clarify the matter and in the meantime, I should stay quiet and carry on as normal. “Let this stay between me and you,” he said. “Don’t talk about it with anyone else.”

As soon as I left the majlis, I headed straight for the hotel where I found Graham and Majeed looking as though they were waiting for Armageddon. “Don’t worry! Open the Polo Bar and The Red Lion. I’ve received a green light to ignore the ban for now.” They were delighted but nervous at the same time because we had nothing official, nothing in writing. When they appeared hesitant to follow my instructions, I told them “Either you open those outlets this minute or you’re fired.”

I couldn’t reveal to them that I had received the go-ahead from Sheikh Rashid, which was worth a lot more than any official pieces of paper in triplicate covered with ministry stamps. As soon as the other hotels heard that The Red Lion was open for business, they wasted no time in following suit. A few weeks later, all hotels were officially informed that the ban had been lifted. But that wasn’t to say that my problems in that regard were over.

The Red Lion became a magnet for policemen, poised to pounce like panthers in their squad cars waiting for patrons to leave the pub when they would be breathalysed or accused of having consumed alcohol in a public place, before being driven to a police station. As you might imagine, our regular customers were scared away.

This time, I called the then Minister of Defence, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, who was also the overall responsible for Dubai’s police force, to complain. He asked me to see him in his office.

“My hotel has only recently opened for business,” I told him. “I’ve invested a lot of money. I’m up to my eyes in debt to the bank. Now it seems the police are on a mission to hassle my guests. It’s beginning to feel very personal. I can only think that someone in the force is harbouring a vendetta against me.” I had a good idea that the chief of police, colonel Abdullah Abolhoul, was the man behind my problems as some years previously in 1975, we had clashed over matters related to Al Ittihad School, which I had opened together with him and some friends. It turned out that I was right. Sheikh Mohammed is a fair and straightforward person. He told colonel Abolhoul to ensure that I wasn’t bothered again. I deeply respect him for that.

The old gal was given quite a few facelifts and extensions since the late 1970s in keeping with the exacting demands of today’s travelling public. She aged beautifully, but unlike her glass and chrome high-rise competitors, her walls were steeped in happy memories, fun times and never-to-be-revealed secrets from a soon-to-be-forgotten and wonderfully exciting pioneering age.

It saddens me to write in the past tense, but in 2012 I reluctantly came to the realisation that as a businessman I couldn’t allow sentimentality to trump change for the better. In the modern, futuristic city Dubai has become, old isn’t necessarily gold. My ‘princess in the desert’ had to go to make way for a new $1.3bn complex we’ve named Habtoor Palace, to include three hotels, a theatre to stage Las Vegas and Macau-style shows, themed restaurants as well as a sports and tennis academy.

It was heartbreaking when the last guests checked out and to discover just how many of the Metropolitan Hotel’s faithful patrons and long-serving staff members were saddened by its demise. For a time, the local newspapers were filled with nostalgic anecdotes. The day the demolition squad arrived was a particularly hard one for me, but the sands of time are ever-shifting and we must either move with them or be left behind.

Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor: The Autobiography is out on 13 November.

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