For the last 33 years it has been a well known landmark in Dubai, but the Metropolitan Hotel closed its doors forever on March 15, 2012.
For a city as young as Dubai and one which is still developing, it was an important landmark and considered old in comparison to other buildings.
It was also the first hotel to be built on Sheikh Zayed Road, which has now become the financial hub of the city and a very modern highway, famous around the world. Back then, it was little more than at a traverse through the desert.
It’s understandable then that it has long held a special space in the heart of both Dubai residents and ex-pats alike, as well as the many guests who have returned to it time and time again.
But while its closure was sad for those who frequented the hotel, the announcement was tempered by the news that the Al Habtoor Group is planning to build a multi-billion Dirham hotel and entertainment complex the like of which has never been seen in the Middle East.
Khalaf Al Habtoor, the Chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, was nostalgic about the Metropolitan’s passing, but equally optimistic about the future of the site. “Though I’m sad to part with the Metropolitan, because it is full of fond memories for me, I’m very excited about our plans for the Habtoor Palace Hotel which I have no doubt will become one of the country’s great landmarks,” he said.
Yusef Shalabi the Director of Projects at the Al Habtoor Group, who was responsible for building the original Metropolitan, commented: “I supervised the hotel being built and now I’m supervising it being demolished. It makes me realise how quickly time has passed.”
He recalled how different the city was 33 years ago, adding that it was a time of hope. “It was exciting because the first major boom was taking place in Dubai.
It didn’t compare in magnitude to the second boom, which took place between 2004 and 2008, but it was the first ever boom in the Gulf region.”
He added that the location of the hotel was considered unusual at the time. “Sheikh Zayed Road was very underdeveloped back then and the Burj Khalifa and Business Bay areas were not yet on anyone’s radar.”
Indeed there were few other hotels in the area. “The Hilton on Sheikh Zayed Road was just being completed. Its architect was John Harris who also designed our hotel, but there were no other hotels in the area,” he says.
The Metropolitan was built adjacent to the Dubai Defence Force Central Military Command camp. “Dubai had its own semi-independent military and air force at the time, hence the name ‘Defence Roundabout’.
The construction was completed in less than two years thanks to what at the time were advance construction techniques, including the use of the first concrete pump in Dubai. “The year before we’d acquired a concrete pump and special tunnel forms from an American contractor in Sharjah,” explains Shalabi. “No one had used a concrete pump in this part of the world before.
“The British interior design firm Thomas Saunders and Associates were engaged for the hotel interior. What’s more, at the time Al Habtoor Engineering Enterprises (HEE) already boasted the biggest marble division in town and we had started a joinery shop, so the company already had the basics of a modern construction company.” He adds that there was much good will associated with the building of the hotel. “There were a lot of start-up companies involved many of which eventually became renowned in their own right.”
When it first opened the hotel had five eating and drinking outlets including The Red Lion Bar which was the first ever British-style pub in Dubai. “It cost Dhs474,000 to buy from the UK but it proved very popular,” says Shalabi. “In the same year we opened it, we had to increase the AC capacity twice. It had been designed for approximately 120 people and it was attracting 300 to 350 people a night.”
Part of the hotel’s appeal he says was its homely atmosphere. “It didn’t overwhelm you when you walked into the lobby like many modern hotels do,” says Shalabi. “And a lot of ordinary people liked it as a result.”
And although he too is sad to see it go, Shalabi realises that change is inevitable. “It’s a very big piece of land, wasted on a small hotel. From a commercial point of view it makes no sense to keep it. Plus, it’s no longer architecturally pleasing. Things have to move on – you can’t live your life on nostalgic terms. But I do admit it is the end of an era.”
The closing of the hotel was marked by a farewell gathering on March 7, 2012, which was hosted by Khalaf Al Habtoor and attended by many of the establishment’s loyal guests.
“We opened our doors in February 1979,” Al Habtoor told the crowd that had gathered at the event. “HH Sheikh Rashid bin Saied Al Maktoum, God rest his soul in peace, inaugurated the place.
“I remember very well when Sheikh Rashid looked around and laughed. He said ‘Khalaf’s hotel is like a donkey that is tied to tree in a salty dry land.’ Of course he was joking. Sheikh Rashid had a great vision for Dubai and knew what Sheikh Zayed Road would become which is why he gave me that land.”
Al Habtoor explained that construction work of the new hotel will start in April 2012, and will be completed by 2016. “Some of the Metropolitan Hotel’s outlets such as the Red Lion and Don Corleone Restaurant will be brought back in the new property so we’re not saying good-bye to our guests,” he said.
“This is just an interruption in a long relationship which we hope to resume in the years to come, and one which we will continue for a long time.
“It is true that we are demolishing one of Dubai’s historic landmarks, but it will be replaced by another bigger landmark for the future. This is not the end; this is the rebirth of a great monument.”