x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

The blue thread that knits Dubai

For most residents Dubai is a series of compartments, a disjointed collection of districts and destinations. But seen from the Metro the city becomes a whole.

People travel on the first day of the Dubai Metro's public operation. The trains were carrying a full load of passengers by lunchtime.
People travel on the first day of the Dubai Metro's public operation. The trains were carrying a full load of passengers by lunchtime.

DUBAI // Yesterday morning, shortly after dawn, I took a magic carpet ride above the streets, cars and rooftops of a city I have known for almost two years but have never really seen before. Trains change the way we look at the world around us. Yesterday, liberated from the tunnel vision of the car driver, I and a few dozen other early birds became the first fare-paying customers to ride the Metro and we stared about us in a kind of childish wonder.

At 6.05am at Nakheel Harbour and Tower station, we were all tourists in our own city. For most people who live there, Dubai is a series of compartments, a disjointed collection of districts and destinations. But seen from the windows of the Metro, gliding smoothly above the traffic on Sheikh Zayed Road, the city suddenly makes sense and becomes a whole, its patchwork parts sewn together by the blue thread of the train.

The Metro will become a part of life, but yesterday morning it was a funfair ride. Few of us sat, not even in the leather seats of Gold Class where, for today at least, the impeccably polite attendants were relaxing the rules and all were welcome. There was just too much to see. We all know the Emirates Golf Club is there, just off Sheikh Zayed Road, but as the red sun rose with a fine sense of dramatic timing most of us saw it for the first time and not even the most enthusiastic golfer had seen it from up here before.

As another train appeared, snaking towards us out of the Mall of the Emirates station, passengers ran like children to the front window to film and photograph the happy meeting; in the passing carriage, the compliment was returned. And then a funny thing happened. People started to talk to each other, to engage with the other strangers on a train. An Egyptian student, clutching his books and on his way to university in Sharjah; two Indian aluminium workers, up early and joyriding to the end of the line at Al Rashidiya and back before starting their day's work at Jebel Ali; a group of Emirati teenagers, laughing and taking photographs of each other and everyone else. All were taking pride in the moment and in the city their city.

Some see the Metro as a Dh28 billion (US$7.6bn) experiment that will reweave the social fabric of the city, mixing people and cultures whose paths otherwise might never cross. Yesterday, there were signs that they might be right. One of the most surprising revelations to be had from riding on the Metro is that from up there on the rails you realise just how much of Dubai is low-rise. Freed from the horizon-limiting vastness of roadside hoardings, overpasses and skyscrapers, one can see clear across the city to the giant flag on the seashore at the end of Al Diyafah Street. In between are acres of rooftops and quiet streets of two-storey buildings an intimate city, on a human scale.

And, in the home of the world's tallest building, for kilometres in every direction the highest man-made objects aside from cellphone masts are dozens of mosques we have never seen before, their graceful domes and minarets catching the early morning sun. The train reminds of where we have come from, as well as where we are going. Dr Mansoor al Awar, chancellor of the Hamdan Bin Mohammed e-University, summed it up best during the live TV coverage of the opening of the Metro on Wednesday evening. This, he said, was "a moment of pride for Emiratis, residents and the whole Arabian peninsula", a symbolic achievement for a country that in 50 years has gone from relying on caravans of camels to operating the world's most advanced automated railway.

Dubai has become the first place in the Arab world to join the 140 cities in 53 countries that have a mass-transit system and the youngest member of a club founded by London in 1863. No matter that the trains have come from Japan, the station escalators from China and the super-polite uniformed attendants such as Mercy Mburu, 26, recruited by Serco in May from Kenya and beyond. The ambition, the will that has made all this happen in four short years, is pure Emirati.

Yesterday wasn't all plain sailing. The first scheduled train left Nakheel Harbour and Tower a few minutes late; the gleaming new ticket machines quickly gave up the ghost; by midday the Red Line was experiencing delays of a length calculated to induce homesickness among veterans of London Underground's Circle Line. But so what? Snags can be fixed and, on a project on this scale, surely forgiven. I was in London when the Docklands Light Railway the driverless Metro's immediate ancestor opened 22 years ago. It broke down on its inaugural run, briefly trapping Her Majesty the Queen on board. Now that's what you call a snag.

Besides, let's not look a gift iron-horse in the mouth. One Christmas, when I was seven, I rode a wood-and-canvas "train" to Santa's grotto in the Jones & Higgins department store in Peckham, south-east London. In reality, of course, the "train" went nowhere, but as the small carriage rocked from side to side and a tape played appropriate noises, we children gazed in wonder at the same six metres of painted moonlit snowscape rolling repeatedly past the window. Pure man-made magic.

Yesterday, it was Dubai rolling past the window. As the train glided low over Terminal 3 of the airport revealing the serpentine beauty of that building in full for the first time I sat opposite an engineer from Mitsubishi, the Metro's main contractor, and his wife and two young children. He had spent the past three years working on the project. This was his moment of quiet pride and he beamed as his sons chorused: "Choo-choo!"

They, and we, now have our own shiny new train set to play with and it isn't even Christmas, or Eid. jgornall@thenational.ae