Al Shindagah Magazine Metropolitan Hotel turns 20

The Metropolitan Hotel is 20 this year. Zac Sharpe takes a look at the history of this popular Dubai landmark.

It has been given the stamp of approval from some of the biggest, and as such, most discerning, names in show business. World leaders, politicians and national rulers have graced its foyer and made its rooms their temporary home.

For twenty years the Metropolitan Hotel has been a landmark and a marque of excellence in a constantly evolving Dubai hotel industry. Significantly, the hotel's birthday celebrations will end as the 20th century draws to a close and the countdown to the new millennium begins.

General manager Rahim Abu Omar has likened the hotel to the city itself, pointing out that in the same way Dubai will never be a 'finished product' nor will the evolution of the hotel ever come to a halt.

Much of last year was dedicated to given the grand old lady of the Metropolitan hotel chain a facelift. The cosmetic changes which have transformed the exterior of the hotel conceal major structural and layout alterations made to the stunning new interior of the hotel.

Revamped restaurants, a majestic foyer, sun-drenched atrium and the latest technologically advanced conference rooms are just some of the changes which have elevated the Metropolitan firmly into the upper echelons of Dubai's five star hotel market.

In its illustrious history, the limousines gliding into the Metropolitan hotel's car park have opened their doors to stars as instantly recognisable as the hotel which stands sentinel on the Sheikh Zayed Road.

Movie stars such as Bruce Willis, Omar Sharif, Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze and Jean Claude Van Damme have been guests of the Metropolitan chain as has supermodel Naomi Campbell. Each has added their own lustre to the original hotel by presenting their autographed pictures which now adorn the lobby.

A sportsman with the star quality of a Hollywood icon, Imran Khan also chose the Metropolitan when he was in Dubai with his beautiful wife Jemima. Among the political heavyweights to stride the hotel's halls are former South African president FW De Klerk, Prince Faisal, the son of the late King Hussein of Jordan and a host of foreign ministers and dignitaries.

But possibly the greatest source of pride to the hotel's staff are the glowing reviews of the hotel from the regular visitor - the businessman away from the comforts of home or the family enjoying the tourist attractions on offer in Dubai. "You have to accept that you are a small part of someone's very special day," said Omar.

"Irrespective of your personal mood, it is imperative that the guest is made to feel as if their needs are of paramount importance. Because after all, this may be a once in a lifetime visit for them and will be something they remember for the rest of their lives," he explained.

Twenty years ago, the Metropolitan Hotel was a lonely building on the outskirts of Dubai. The city was in the midst of a development boom which would eventually engulf the iconic hotel and place it in the midst of a rapidly expanding and modern city. Today, the Metropolitan Hotel is central to the city, the industrial area of Jebel Ali, affluent residential suburb and sea-side playground Jumeirah and the golf courses and race tracks which lure so many of the visitors to the emirates.

The cultures which have made Dubai home and transformed it into one of the most cosmopolitan cities on the globe are represented in the cuisine available at the hotel.

Shahjahan Indian Restaurant caters for those with a taste for the subcontinent, offering a range of tandoori kebabs, vegetarian specialties and Punjabi dishes to satisfy the most discerning expatriate.

Lebanese nightclub and restaurant Layalina combines Middle Eastern food with the Lebanese penchant for an entertaining night out. Belly dancers take centre stage in the newly renovated club while guests enjoy a feast sure to fuel a an evening lasting long into the night.

The best recommendation for the Don Corleone restaurant, as Italian in spirit as it is in name, are the constant full house signs which go up every weekend and many a week night.

The Yanks and Brits are not left out in the area of evening entertainment either. The Red Lion is a traditional English pub which has long been synonymous with the Metropolitan Hotel. Old habits die hard and British expatriates drinking there today are quite likely to have propped up the bar when it opened as one of the only outlets in Dubai twenty years ago. The newly landscaped gardens and outdoor entertainment area between the Red Lion and its neighbouring tavern could just as easily represent the Atlantic Ocean. Across the waters lies the all-American Rattlesnake with its live bands and music from the 60s to the 90s accompanying the good food and good cheer served by the waiting staff.

So, whether travelling from around the world or looking for exotic locations to escape to from Paris in the Atrium to the Chinese Summer Palace, the Metropolitan Hotel has twenty years of experience to draw upon in taking its guests to wherever they want to go.

Metropolitan Hotel: General Manager Rahim Abu Omar
It is not every day someone asks you to provide them with a shower in mineral water. But then, life in the luxury hotel business does not always follow the script. As with any professional arena which involves working closely with the public, life in a hotel can be unpredictable. In "17 short years" with the Metropolitan Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road, general manager Rahim Abu Omar has heard it all. Whether hosting movie stars politicians or business people, rock stars or families on the once in a life-time holiday, there is only one golden rule that applies.

"As much as it may seem a cliche, the customer IS always right." "You see a lot of people from different nationalities, different backgrounds and in different moods. Our job is to make each guest as comfortable as possible and accommodate their wishes - even if it means providing a shower in mineral water," laughed Omar.

While the type of guest staying at the hotel may vary widely, the personality of the staff cannot, he says. "You can never tell what is going on in the mind of a guest and for that reason we must employ staff who have an empathy for people. You can't afford to be aggressive or impatient in this line of work."

"From the general manager to the most junior member of staff, one has to remain humble and have a keen eye for detail," he stressed. "There are times when you may disagree with a customer or even resent their attitude but you never know what is going on that person's life. They may be at our hotel because they are getting married or enjoying a honeymoon. But then, they could also be going through a difficult time - perhaps they are in Dubai to attend a funeral."

"Because you never know, you can never justify being impolite or inattentive to the wishes." In fact, working in a hotel - by virtue of its round-the-clock hours and highly personal nature - is more of a way of life than it is an occupation. Most of the staff live 'on campus', in comfortable staff quarters behind the hotel. As part of a 400-plus team, the hotel becomes something of a surrogate family to employees. And the general manager stands as a father figure at the pinnacle of the family tree.

"It certainly isn't like a normal nine to five job. If someone comes to my office to discuss their celebration arrangements ten minutes before I am about to go home, then I cannot say, 'Yes, come back tomorrow' This could be the biggest day of their life that they are talking about".

Complacency looms as the probably the biggest threat to staff faced this fairly typical scenario, says Omar. "You have to remind yourself that just because you've done it a thousand times before, this is their special day and they might be nervous or pedantic about getting everything right. Once you realise that this job is a way of life and not just a job, that attitude takes care of a lot of things."

Palestinian -born and the holder of a Jordanian passport, Omar has spent the past two decades as a resident of a rapidly changing Dubai. Travel and personal contact have always been a mainstay of his career. Before joining the Metropolitan hotel group in 1982 when it was under the umbrella of British hospitality industry giants Grand Metropolitan, Omar had worked as a travel agent in the city.

"I saw an advertisement in the local Arabic press for a position at a local hotel but I didn't even know which one it was," he said. Soon after, he found himself working as a sales executive with the Grand Metropolitan and has never looked back.

He has since seen the hotel evolve from a single main building with a couple of restaurants on the outskirts of Dubai, into a sprawling complex which houses taverns, a cinema complex, office blocks and a plethora of fine dining outlets.

During his ascent within the organisation, Omar periodically left the grand-daddy of the Metropolitan chain to oversee the new kids on the block - namely the Metropolitan Beach Club and more recently the Metropolitan Palace Hotel. But it is at the helm of the original flagship premise where he has wielded the most influence - through the good times and the tougher ones.

Dubai's burgeoning hotel market is only the latest in a brace of challenging times for the Metropolitan in particular and the industry as a whole. "At first we were a little way out of town but Dubai has grown quickly. Originally an airport was planned for this area but that never eventuated. But now we are in between the city centre and Jebel Ali, the popular beaches, golf courses and many of the tourist attractions in Dubai so our location is an advantage," he said.

"In the beginning competition was tough and occupancy was low but since about 1985 things really took off. The challenge now stems from the number of hotel rooms available in Dubai. More and more hotels are competing for the tourists and business clients."

Perceptions of the UAE being at the hub of the conflicts which have infrequently flared up in the north of the Gulf have also been the cause of some testing times. The Gulf War of 1991 and the Iran - Iraq War before that did little to disrupt everyday life in the UAE but overseas travellers largely avoided trips to the Middle East either as a precaution or because they perceived the entire region being engulfed in turmoil.

But according to Omar, the latest incursion between Iraq and the US and UK has had no impact on business. "Thanks to the clear vision of the UAE's rulers the country has a stable economy and is largely immune from the latest troubles. At the moment the hotel industry is not as affluent as it was in perhaps the late 80s but we are still making money and Dubai is going to continue to thrive," he said optimistically.

Since his arrival in 1982, the hotel has acquired a cinema, a tower hoist, Chinese and other restaurants, landscaped gardens, a new facade and a ballroom. The latest addition to the Metropolitan Hotel is the apartment complex which was completed last year. But any suggestion that the hotel was now complete are scoffed at.

"A hotel can never be finished. I can hardly recognise today's hotel from the one I started at back in '82. If you have 100 per cent occupancy you do not just sit back and relax. you try to make a bigger hotel. There is always something new to strive for."

And would he reveal the name of the guest who was insistent on having a mineral water shower? Or would confidentiality would prohibit such a disclosure? Well, you'll just have to leave the speculation to the gossips from the distant planet Hollywood and the writers of pulp fiction literature.