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Dubai's technologically and aesthetically dazzling metro has already upset this rich Emirate’s rigid social hierarchy.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — When his kingdom’s roads became so swollen with assorted Mercedes and Hummers that even short trips across town turned into slow motion marathons, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, the ruler (and unofficial CEO) of Dubai, decreed that a metro be built.
Three-and-a-half years and $7.6 billion later, Sheikh Mohammed, resplendent in royal blue robes and accompanied by the usual pomp and glitz, became the first passenger on the Arabian Peninsula’s first rapid rail transit system.
Built by a Japanese consortium and operated by a British contractor, the fully automated system is technologically and aesthetically dazzling. Its driverless, air-conditioned trains glide silently and serenely along elevated tracks through most of the city before dipping underground in the crowded center.
Only 10 of the inaugural line’s 29 gold-skinned stations were ready for the Sept. 9 grand opening — the rest are supposed to open next year — so it is too early to tell if Dubai’s shiny new train set can persuade the locals to leave their cars in the garage.
But one thing is clear: The metro has already upset the applecart of this rich Emirate’s rigid social hierarchy.
Dubai is a city that caters to the ostentatiously wealthy. Like any arriviste, it has a constant need to puff up its ego with outlandish superlatives — the world’s tallest building, the world’s most luxurious hotel, the world’s fanciest shopping mall. A man-made archipelago, shaped like a palm tree and loaded with luxury villas, is the signature symbol of Dubai’s devotion to showy opulence.
The metro is different. No velvet rope or electrified security gate to keep out the masses. And in the few weeks since it began running, the new ride has turned into something of social leveler: privileged Emiratis suddenly find themselves in the unfamiliar position of competing for rush-hour seats with their Filipina housemaids.
Dubai likes to think of itself as a cosmopolitan place. And it is true, many nationalities do coexist here, but they rarely mingle. More often, the different social strata view each other with scarcely veiled disdain.
At the top of the totem pole are the Emiratis. A minority in their own gilded city-state, they represent only 17 percent of the total population of 1.4 million. Cosseted from cradle to grave by a generous welfare state, they tend to exude a certain to-the-manor-born aloofness.
Next are the expats, mainly Brits, but with a smattering of other Europeans, Australians and North Americans. They, too, manage an air of entitlement.