Picture the scene on the tabloid! desk: word had come in that Jennifer Lopez would be announcing a concert date with the UAE.
Things went into a frenetic, but practised routine: Where would she play? Which month might it be? Will Enrique Iglesias come with her?
All those questions, which have been asked so many times before, for so many artists — because when it comes to major musical acts, the UAE has become a frequent stomping ground.
Yet it wasn’t always like this, with a JLo concert announced in Dubai on the eve of two Madonna tour dates in Abu Dhabi. While today we can barely keep up with the influx of chart-topping international acts, once, we could barely get them.
In 2002, legendary rockers Deep Purple stopped off in Dubai for a concert, along with Gypsy Kings, Roger Waters, Placido Domingo and British singer-songwriter Elton John. Not too shabby for what was still a country on few celebrities’ radar but still rather limited in variety — if you weren’t a classic rock fan, there wasn’t much else on offer.
A decade on, we’ve already had Elton John back (he’s now been four times) and the Gypsy Kings have also performed, as have Duran Duran, The Eagles and Englebert Humperdinck. So the golden oldies are still coming, but what’s changed is that the stars from all genres, at the top of the charts, are now stopping off in the Emirates.
Hip-hop and R&B fans get access to legends like Snoop Dogg — who performed in Abu Dhabi last year — and last weekend enjoyed a show by young up-and-comer Wiz Khalifa. Dance music lovers get top DJs such as David Guetta, Tiesto and Paul Van Dyk, who played the Dubai World Trade Centre on Thursday night; and for pure pop, well, its queen begins two nights of shows at du Arena tomorrow. “We have always been committed to delivering the highest quality, world-class event experiences in Abu Dhabi,” said John Lickrish, CEO of Abu Dhabi-based promoter Flash Entertainment. “[Madonna] is one of the biggest artists we have welcomed here, and her world tour adds an extra dimension to the global impact of the shows in Abu Dhabi. This is a truly global event, and the impact on the reputation of the Capital, the du Arena, Yas Island and everybody involved in the event is immeasurable.”
“The UAE has actually been pretty successful in securing shows with the touring top performers and so has been a regular stop on the touring circuit for quite some years,” said Thomas Ovesen, managing director of Done Events, the concert promoter behind the upcoming Lopez concert and the recent Eagles gig.
The arrival of Flash Entertainment and the Formula One in Abu Dhabi was a game-changer. From 2009, the number of concerts exploded, with Rihanna, Coldplay and The Killers playing at Emirates Palace and Kings Of Leon, Beyonce and Aerosmith at the Grand Prix – an until then unheard-of variety of acts.
Thanks to its location, the UAE has become a good spot for musicians to stop off — it’s on the way to Asia and Australia, where artists from the US and Europe regularly tour, and the region’s music fans can travel here easily, enabling an artist to reach out to fans from Lebanon to Oman to India.
“As [Jennifer Lopez] wanted to perform for as many of her regional fans as possible, the choice of Dubai as destination was an obvious decision to make,” said Ovesen, who has been organising concerts in the UAE since 2000.
Tyler Mervyn, managing director of Live Nation Middle East, agrees location is key.
“Live Nation Entertainment have recently opened offices in Japan, Korea, China and Australia. By working with our network of international promoters we can offer artists regional tours, many times linked in to the tours which our colleagues from Europe are executing.”
Money, of course, plays a big role in securing the world’s top artists.
“In the earlier days, some artists needed to be educated as to the location of Dubai and its proximity to particular Middle Eastern ‘hot spots’ like Iraq, but now most artists are very familiar with our location and so the success rate with which we confirm shows is directly linked with how attractive we can make our financial offers,” said Ovesen.
“I think there has always been interest for an international artiste to perform in the UAE, but in the past it has not made business sense for them to do so,” said Richard Coram, who with his company Talent Brokers, has been organising events in the UAE for 30 years. “The cost of flying the shows production in and out of the UAE is very high compared to a tour of Europe where everything can be put on a truck. Simply put, it’s all about the money.”
For the artists, it’s also about the sense of luxury connected to performing here. “With better hospitality and labour being cheaper than America, we usually are able to put on better quality stages, backstage and catering than they are used to,” said Jackie Wartanian, managing director of Centre Stage Mangement. “The beauty of the country as a fairly recent destination is appealing, UAE being associated with luxury, and fans are very appreciative of them.”
But some promoters say the UAE is lacking one vital element: a dedicated venue.
“A properly constructed indoor venue with numbered seating for 20,000+ people” is needed to keep things growing, said Coram.
For now, concertgoers will have to content themselves with tomorrow night’s 44 cooling machines, 7.5 megawatts of power and the 23 x 54 metre stage that are turning the outdoor du Arena into a setting fit for the Queen of Pop’s debut UAE concerts. May they be the first of many.