Dubai can feel its limbs again


By Hugh Naylor

In the first of a weekly series, The National reporter Hugh Naylor looks in detail at everyday life in the Emirates.

Dubai commuters now enjoy far greater freedom of movement thanks to new Metro stops. Jeff Topping / The National
Dubai commuters now enjoy far greater freedom of movement thanks to new Metro stops. Jeff Topping / The National

DUBAI // Zubair Ali’s curious antics are a good example of how a 52km railway that cuts through the heart of Dubai is helping to reintroduce the city to itself.

While other passengers read or gawk at the skyscrapers passing overhead, he usually stands on his tiptoes, face pressed against the windows, hands shading his eyes, as he examines what lies below.

For Mr Ali, a salesman at an interior design company, the Dubai Metro is more than an inexpensive alternative to taxis. Its elevated track is a perch that allows him to scout out previously unseen opportunities.

“It’s excellent for identifying buildings you can’t see from a bus,” said Mr Ali, 25, who moved to Dubai from Hyderabad, India, 10 months ago.

From road level, newly built apartment buildings are shielded by the towering billboards that mask Dubai’s pervasive construction rubble. From above, he sees over them and can rapidly pounce on buildings with offers to outfit their empty interiors with shelves, cupboards and cubicles.

The strategy has yielded success – three new clients in Business Bay and the DIFC area – that would probably have been missed if transportation options were still limited to taxis and buses from his office in Karama.

“That’s like Dh50 a day, man,” he said of the taxi option.

The intended effect of melding together Dh29 billion (US$7.9bn) of concrete, steel and manpower is to ease travel within the city.

Perhaps the unintended one is the cosmopolitan reshuffling of a place that has long been disconnected from itself by inconvenient transportation and silos of shopping centres and property developments.

Sheikh Zayed Road virtually severed Jumeirah from Al Quoz. The Creek divided Deira from Bur Dubai. Taxi rides costing Dh70 (one way) dissuaded people from trips from Garhoud to The Walk.

Then, last week, the opening of three more stops brought into service 21 of the Red Line’s 29 stations. Now, after the delays since the official opening in September, it is as if the city’s central nervous system is starting to shoot signals to previously detached limbs.

Quick afternoon trips to Burjuman’s Khalid bin Waleed Station are being taken by western expats who own luxury sedans and live in Marina, while middle-income South Asian residents from Karama are enjoying afternoons gawking at Dubai Mall’s mega-aquarium.

For Reshma Meno, 19, an Indian from the state of Kerala, the Metro allowed her to take an internship at a western advertising agency in Jumeirah Lake Towers.

“I travel every day, two times,” said Ms Meno, who starts her journey from a one-bedroom apartment (shared with her parents and an older sister) in International City. If she had to take a taxi, she would have had to find work closer to home.

“It’s pretty convenient, and I love travelling,” she said, as if her hour-long Metro ride started in one country and ended in another.

As the Metro makes the city more accessible, it is also leading to more of the sort of encounters that are sent into confusion by language barriers and such cultural differences as how to give directions.

Mohammed Ahmed emerged from the escalators at Union station recently with a European couple, who asked him in English for directions.

“Sida, sida,” said the friendly 50-year-old Yemeni, in his khandoura and ghutra, as he gesticulated for them to walk straight down the road.

They turned left.

Asked if he knew where they wanted to go, Mr Ahmed, with an innocent smile, responded in Arabic: “I don’t speak English.”

Some are sceptical that the Metro will transform Dubai into a place where rigid class divisions are broken down.

“Sure, you’ll meet all kinds of different groups sitting and standing next to each other on the Metro, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be going to the same stops together,” said Aqil Kazim, a professor at UAE University who teachers urban sociology.

“Dubai is a city of cities, and those different cities attract a certain demographic of people. You usually don’t see people who are not interested in media going to Dubai Media City on a daily basis.

“There are certain spaces within the city itself where, if they’re open to public transportation, it doesn’t mean they will suddenly attract lower-income people.”

But Mohammed Haideri hopes otherwise. The 22-year-old Iranian, who works as a salesman at an optical shop in Deira City Centre, is emphatic that the Metro has changed his life.

“It is very good for us,” he said as he made his way to work on a recent morning from Union station.

“It is near my house, three, four minutes only. No traffic, no anything.”