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feature

Bridging the Gulf: Arab Gulf states come of age

Coronavirus aside, the Gulf states are finally shaping up to offer artists and touring productions a viable circuit to link Europe with Africa, Asia and beyond

By Adam Woods on 28 May 2020

Saudi Arabia’s historic Diriyah Gate is emerging as one of the kingdom’s entertainment hubs

Saudi Arabia’s historic Diriyah Gate is emerging as one of the kingdom’s entertainment hubs


And it was all going so well!

Going into Christmas, you might have said the live entertainment business in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf states was on a decisive path to maturity, at least in certain prominent markets. Dubai finally had its permanent Coca-Cola Arena and was hauling in the crowds and the talent, including Maroon 5, Westlife, the 1975 and John Legend.

Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, had nailed down a name for its own 18,000-cap. indoor venue – Etihad Arena, part of the 12 billion AED (€3bn) Yas Bay development project – and an expectation of a 2020 opening.

Even Kuwait, fairly quiet lately on the touring front, was preparing to cut the ribbon on a 5,000-cap mixed-use arena: the Sheikh Jaber Al-Abdullah Al-Jaber Al-Sabah International Tennis Complex in Surrah, managed by Live Nation and opened in February.

And, of course, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the pedigree dark horse of the region, was fast emerging as by far the most promising market of them all, with concerts, festivals, Formula E racing, international tennis, equestrian competitions and boxing.  To varying degrees, these events have met with international controversy due to Saudi’s well-known diplomatic issues.

But they have also been powered by large amounts of cash, rabid local demand and the grand ambitions of ‘MbS’ – controversial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman – and his Vision 2030 plan to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy and develop its public sector.

“Dubai is a country that depends on tourism and entertainment, so they will be very keen to reopen as soon as possible”

Then came Covid-19, which still rages worldwide at press time, and the region was forced to hit pause on its entertainment aspirations. Like almost everywhere else, concert halls closed, shows were postponed, and the industry went into enforced hibernation. When it will rouse itself again is anyone’s guess.

“As with the rest of the world, all events [in Saudi Arabia] are cancelled until further notice,” said Vassiliy Anatoli, managing director of regional ticketing hub Platinumlist, speaking to IQ in late March. “The public is not allowed to go outside the house from 3pm until 8am and the death toll is rising. People are worried.”

The UAE states had imposed similar measures and were already daring to dream of a light at the end of the tunnel. “Large organisers are hopeful to restart their operation in July, but again, that depends on how the situation pans out in the coming [months],” said Anatoli.

“Dubai is a country that depends on tourism and entertainment, so I’m sure they will be very keen to reopen as soon as possible,” he added. “[Dubai’s] Expo 2020 has already been moved to ’21. As for the rest of the organisers, they have moved all events to November and December. Rugby Sevens is confirmed for December, but again, it depends on government regulation.”

Each of the various Gulf markets has its own economic logic: generous state funding combined with remarkably strong ticket sales in Saudi; a similar balance in Abu Dhabi, albeit on a far less turbo-charged scale; and a grittier commercial market in Dubai, closely controlled, but not underwritten, by the state. Clearly, all will suffer damage, even if some can absorb it better than others.

 


Continue reading this feature in the digital edition of IQ 89, or subscribe to the magazine here


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