In 2016 Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF) celebrated its 20th birthday – an anniversary that provided this agency, which has a key place in the cultural fabric of the emirate, with a fine opportunity to see just how far it had come.
Indeed, while 20 years ago the arts were seen as a more marginal part of Abu Dhabi’s environment, nowadays they are centre stage in the emirate’s development plans. Over two decades a tapestry of world-renowned annual events and permanent institutions has been woven, encompassing museums, heritage sites, galleries and performance spaces.
Arts & Culture
This collection includes the ADMAF’s headline event, the Abu Dhabi Festival, which was first held in 2004. The 2017 edition includes everything from the jazz artist Wynton Marsalis to Portuguese Fado music and the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo Yo Ma.
The event will also see the world première of a new piece by Emirati composer Mohammed Fairouz and music from the London-based Lebanese composer Bushra El Turk, along with a performance by the Syrian Expatriate Orchestra. The festival brings local, regional and international artists to Abu Dhabi, while at the same time bringing the emirate’s arts and cultures industry to the wider world.
Indeed, recent times have seen the emirate taking a much more important place on global festival and performance maps, whether that be for the festival’s high culture, or for more popular varieties. On the latter score, Abu Dhabi now has a vibrant programme of live entertainment throughout the year, with Cold-play and Rihanna just two of the globally famous acts taking to the stage in the emirate in 2016.
“Any city in the world that has a strong creative and cultural industry has a great appeal,” an ADMAF spokesperson told OBG. “This is then great for the economy overall, with arts and culture now a viable part of the whole diversification strategy.”
Central to the live entertainment business in the emirate is Flash Entertainment, set up in 2009. Now, it is headquartered at twofour54, a tax-free media zone named after Abu Dhabi’s geographical coordinates. The zone is a clear manifestation of the seriousness with which the emirate takes its arts and culture sector, providing media companies of all kinds with not only tax-free benefits, but also one-stop-shop facilities for licensing and business set up, 100% foreign ownership rights and the ability to fully expatriate profits.
“Entertainment plays a key role,” Flash Entertainment CEO John Lickrish told OBG. “There’s a strong economic impact that goes along with this – events such as F1, tennis and golf championships, musical events – these attract attention and showcase the facilities, activities and attributes of the emirate.”
An example of this is the impact entertainment events had on hotel occupancy rates at the end of 2016 and start of 2017. A five-day Winter Wonderland carnival, plus a New Year’s Eve return performance by Coldplay, combined with concerts from Emirati singer Hussain Al Jasmi, Egyptian singer Mohamed Hamaki and Palestinian star Mohammad Assaf, helped to increase hotel occupancy rates. TCA Abu Dhabi announced that the Beach Rotana, Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri, Sofitel Abu Dhabi Corniche, and Intercontinental Abu Dhabi had all been full, thanks largely to these events.
When Flash began, however, there was no private events promoter in the emirate, with the public sector providing the firm with its home. With the Abu Dhabi government behind the firm though, Flash was able to aim for big events, sponsored by large, multinational outfits. Yet this posed challenges too, such as the relative lack of large venues, along with an absence of organisational experience and regulation.
Now though, this has all changed. A significant moment was the first Coldplay concert in March 2009. “The crowd was incredible,” Lickrish recalls, “with Chris Martin [the Coldplay singer] saying it was the best show of their whole tour. With that, we decided we had to go for it.”
Since then, Abu Dhabi has taken off as a venue for international talent, building from just three events in 2008 to 156 in 2016. Major acts have the emirate on their lists for repeat visits, while the experience gained by organisers and local authorities has left the emirate in position to bid for more, global-level events. Health and safety codes, traffic management systems, ticketing networks and site security have all taken a giant leap forwards, with international best practices the guide. In addition, the number of venues has increased, along with their dedicated nature. For example, two new sites are the du Arena and du Forum on Yas Island, the artificial landmass situated near the heart of Abu Dhabi city.
The du Arena is the region’s largest outdoor venue, capable of accommodating a crowd of 35,000, according to the developer, Miral. As summer temperatures in the emirate regularly exceed 40°C, even after dark, the du Arena has a special cooling system, involving a battery of misting and cooling fans and a 24-sq-metre mist and cooling tunnel. For Madonna’s 2012 concert at the venue, for example, some 3000 gallons of water were dispersed over the crowd using these devices. That concert required some 7.5 MW of power – enough to light up 3000 homes – with over 35 km of power cable laid and around 500 crew, technicians and scaffolders working to set up some 350 tonnes of equipment.
The du Forum, meanwhile, is an indoor venue, which caters for concerts, corporate functions, weddings, balls, gala dinners and charity events. It has a powerful air conditioning system, along with the capacity to host 4500 people. The site covers a 2600-sq-metre area, and has a major role in the city’s meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions sector (see analysis). The du Arena can act as a venue for exhibitions and trade fairs, too.
In addition, the emirate holds a variety of other sites suitable for entertainment. The Emirates Palace continues to be a key pillar of the arts and cultures sector, hosting the Abu Dhabi Classics Season. This TCA Abu Dhabi event brings to the emirate leading artists in the field of Western and Arabic classical music. The 2016-17 Season includes performances by the Vienna State Opera and the Toulouse Symphony Orchestra at the Palace, while the Abu Dhabi-based Bait Al Oud – an institution teaching and promoting oud, a traditional stringed instrument – is also holding sessions around the city.
Furthermore, Abu Dhabi Classics Season includes a string of ayalah (traditional Emirati folk dance, performed with sticks and drums) performances on the Corniche, which has long been a venue for a large number of smaller acts. Another local tradition is umsiyat, a mix of music and poetry, with the Abu Dhabi Classics Season witnessing a series of these performances at the open air Umm Al Emarat Park.
Abu Dhabi’s cultural policy also aims to develop local talent, with the fundamental belief that the arts inspire creativity and understanding. The ADMAF has a strong educational pillar, bringing theatre and music into schools and colleges. The foundation has been behind a range of programmes, from bringing the Birmingham Stage Company over to tour the emirate, performing Twelfth Night, to building leadership and communications skills through reading and writing courses with the Abu Dhabi Young Media Leaders initiative.
Meanwhile, events industry insiders see an opportunity for lower-level promotions in the emirate. Away from the giant stadium and the international acts, encouraging local bands, artists and performers to develop an indigenous culture is just as important for developing the industry. Arabic-language acts are key to future development, with local, Emirati audiences likely to be the long-term mainstay of the sector. Educational programmes are key to this, as more young Emiratis are introduced to the possibilities of the creative arts.
At the same time, Abu Dhabi exists in a fiercely competitive geography, when it comes to the creative and cultural industry. Neighbour Dubai has been a major promoter for some time, while Qatar has a vibrant, state-backed sector.
The Emirate has already established itself as a venue for international acts, however, with its status as the UAE’s capital also helping to boost its reputation. At present, too, rivalry is largely between promoters, rather than places, with a strong degree of cooperation between the emirates’ different authorities evident. Abu Dhabi will have the edge when it comes to museums and galleries, when the Saadiyat Island Cultural District becomes fully operational. This will most likely help boost the rest of the sector in the emirate, as Abu Dhabi’s arts and culture profile grows ever larger, across the world’s stage.
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