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Bridging the Gulf: Arab Gulf states come of age

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.


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Selling tickets in the UAE: A primer


Is this a good year for ticket sales?
The UAE has one of the most vibrant event scenes in the world. Customers are spoilt for choice, whether it’s family events, sports or EDM.

Many local promoters may say there has been a recession in ticket buying. But in my view there has just been too much on offer.

What kind of events are selling particularly well?
Many event organisers seem to be excessively targeting high-income customers with an average ticket price of US$100 or above, but there is a relatively limited amount of people who are able to afford that – and they’re spoilt for choice anyway.

From what we see, Indian, Arabic and sporting events are a particularly promising segment at the moment. Offering entertainment to low-income expats and local customers, which are a majority here, is something that has a lot of potential.

What are the challenges of the Emirati market?
I would say there is a lack of communication and planning between event organisers. Some of the new promoters in town jump into the game without doing in-depth research and consultation. We often see major events overlapping, where both organisers end up wasting huge investments despite our recommendations.

And, as I mentioned previously, mid- and low-income customer sectors are often ignored, which is a missed opportunity.

Which ticketing companies have the biggest marketshare in Dubai?
According to the official Dubai Tourism figures, Platinumlist has approximately 80% marketshare in entertainment events, with the rest serviced by Virgin Tickets and Ticketmaster.

Flash Entertainment, which is subsidised by the government, is the dominant event organiser in Abu Dhabi. Flash brings a lot of Live Nation’s big artists and works exclusively via Ticketmaster at the moment, for obvious reasons.

The UAE is relatively small and has different technical requirements to the rest of the world – you can’t simply copy and paste ticketing technology used in the UK or Australia

What are the strengths of Platinumlist?
The UAE is a unique ticketing market, especially with the introduction of the Dubai e-Ticketing system in 2013. This market is relatively small and has different technical requirements to the rest of the world – you cannot simply copy and paste ticketing technology used in the UK or Australia.

Our business model is different from other conventional ticketing companies. Over the years we have established ourselves as a comprehensive event guide that has reasonable traffic and returning customer base. Ticketing nowadays is not rocket science, in my opinion, and we provide it almost at cost price with an average percentage of 5% inclusive of card-processing charges.

We focus a lot on inbound marketing, which I believe is key; we have 12 years’ experience and a team that knows its digital and conventional marketing channels locally. We know every advertising and service supplier in town and make sure that our clients get the right prices without any backhanders. Such positive consulting, which we provide free to all our clients big or small, has won us a 99% client retention and a solid reputation.

What is Dubai e-Ticketing?
Since 2013 all ticketing companies in Dubai must draw their ticketing stock via API from the Dubai e-Ticketing system.
It is mandatory for every organiser planing an event in Dubai to set up ticket inventory on the e-Ticketing server and then appoint a licensed local ticketing company to sell tickets online.

Secondary ticketing is a hot topic elsewhere in the world – do you see any future for it in the UAE?
Resale of tickets for above face value is against Dubai law.

Being a primary ticket seller I see little gain from resellers for the music industry in general. Promoters invest huge sums in marketing and artist fees; obviously it is discouraging for them to see resellers harvesting demand by simply buying Google AdWords, hitting event organisers where it hurts most. The result is inflated prices, dissatisfied customers and no increment in sales – at least this is the case in the Emirati market.

However, promoters and primary ticketing companies have only themselves to blame: There is a clear gap for ticket marketing portals worldwide and it is being filled now.


Vassiliy Anatoli is managing director of Platinumlist.net, a Dubai-based events guide and ticketing platform.