Facing a challenging economic climate across The Gulf States is both helped and hindered by increasing live music activity with western artistes in Saudi Arabia – more act coming to the wider region is good, but vital equipment is being sucked over the border to support big productions raises issues in the United Arab Emirates. Christopher Barrett reports
In terms of contemporary live music over the past two decades or so, The Gulf has tended to mean emirates and states led by Dubai and Abu Dhabi in United Arab Emirates, along with Bahrain and Oman.
But with Saudi Arabia opening up to western live music, the market has the potential to expand significantly.
Historically an extremely conservative Islamic kingdom where concerts were banned for decades, Saudi Arabia is looking to redraw its international image as a cultural destination where international performers and tourists are warmly welcomed.
In 2017 Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman launched Vision 2030, an initiative designed to help expand the domestic entertainment industry, bolster tourism and reduce the sunni theocracy’s economic dependence on the oil trade.
The General Authority for Entertainment (GEA) was created, with 10.12 billion riyals ($2.7bn) in funding, to spearhead investment and encourage international partnerships.
In December last year the inaugural Saudia Ad Diriyah E-Prix became the first such public gathering to have an unsegregated audience. The three-day event, with a capacity of 23,000, featured a series of concerts by acts including Enrique Iglesias, David Guetta, One Republic and The Black Eyed Peas.
Notable events since include Jeddah World Fest (JWF), which took place on 16 July in the grounds of the King Abdullah Sports City Stadium (62,000) in Jeddah, and featured artistes such as Janet Jackson, 50 Cent, Chris Brown, Liam Payne and Steve Aoki.
JWF was funded by the City of Jeddah and promoted, produced and booked by ROQU Media International, based in Ireland, which filmed the event for a 60-minute TV package for worldwide broadcast. Ticketing was handled by Saudi government-owned platform Sharek.
ROQU had a team of 600 working on the project and hired London-based The Manual to oversee the production, with Protec delivering audio, lighting and rigging.
It is contracted to deliver JWF annually for the next three years, and CEO Robert Quirke says the aim is to expand it to a two- or three-day event next year.
Thomas Oversen, formerly of a promoter in United Arab Emirates working with companies such as 117 Live and Done Events, returned to promoting in January after a year as chief programmer at Dubai’s new Coca-Cola Arena (cap. 17,000), which hosted shows by Maroon 5, The 1975, Westlife and Russell Peters.
Oversen is now entertainment director at Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA). Launched in July 2017, DGDA is developing the ruins at Diriyah, an 18th century city that once served as the capital of the first Saudi State.
The vast site on the west side of the capital, Riyadh, is being transformed to accommodate museums, restaurants, retail outlets, hotels and a 15,000-capacity arena, which is expected to open within three years.
Oversen is overseeing seven concerts at the 35,000-capacity open-air site, where events start with the Diriyah E-Prix on 22 November. Acts playing the 35,000-capacity open air space include Imagine Dragons and Maluma.
“With the Saudi Vision 2030 being implemented and since women were allowed to drive, there has been a constant move towards new times with a relaxed dress code for visitors and residents, cinemas being opened across the country and live events including concerts and shows with mixed crowds now permitted,” says Oversen.
“Only a few months back the kingdom implemented electronic visas, with almost 50 nations participating, making it as easy to visit Saudi Arabia as any other country.”
Oversen says that, while he believes the UAE entertainment market is saturated, there is huge demand for shows in Saudi Arabia and tickets are selling fast, not least because concerts are new to the 35 million Saudi population but that more than 50 per cent of them are under the age of 30.
In the UAE, Abu Dhabi’s concert venue offering includes the Mubadala-owned Zayed Sports City Stadium (44,200), which has hosted shows by acts including George Michael and Alicia Keys.
“Without a doubt, the best live music experience of the year in the Stadium was when the anthem for the Special Olympics World Games was performed,” says Zayed Sports City general manager Tony Kouris. “Avril Lavigne, Hussein al Jassmi and Luis Fonsi captivated a crowd of about 40,000.”
While Zayed Sports City remains largely focused on sporting events, state-owned promoter and venue owner Flash Entertainment is about to transform Abu Dhabi’s music venue landscape.
Founded in 2008 by the emirate’s Executive Affairs Authority, Flash has since staged more than 300 major concerts there. Its Yas Island-based venues, the du Arena (42,000) and du Forum (4,500) will in April be joined by the new Yas Bay Arena (18,000).
Yasalam, an entertainment extravaganza timed around Abu Dhabi’s hosting of the Formula One each year, includeing concerts at the du Arena this year by The Killers, Marshmello, Travis Scott and Lana Del Rey.
Other shows at the venue this year have featured Bruno Mars and Eminem.
Flash Entertainment CEO John Lickrish says there has been a 20 per cent downturn in the number of concerts in the local live music market this year, but he is optimistic about the impact the Yas Bay Arena will have on the market.
“This year will be the highest revenue year for Flash since its inception, we have diversified our portfolio, to offset some of the pressures on live music events, and have become focused on only promoting must-attend concerts,” he says.
Lickrish says the market has become more ticket price sensitive and Flash keeps that in mind while having to cover significant infrastructure costs and artiste fees.
Its average concert tickets prices tend to be between 295 dirham ($80) and 395 dirham ($108), with golden circle tickets are usually priced at 995 dirham ($270).
“Having the Yas Bay Arena online will be a game-changer,” states Lickrish. “We have made sure that it is highly efficient and cost-effective arena suitable for any kind of event, whether it is a TED Talk or concert. It is a highly flexible venue that will allow us to react to the demand for each artiste.”
With Yas Island being only a 45-minute drive from Dubai, the Yas Bay Arena will be in direct competition with the Coca-Cola Arena (20,000), which opened in June.
The arrival of the first multi-purpose indoor arena in the Emirates is already paying dividends. Iron Maiden will return to Dubai for the first time in 11 years to play the Coca-Cola Arena on 27 May, while acts to have already played include, Maroon 5, Westlife, The 1975, Alicia Keys, Lara Fabian and Maluma.
The ASM Global-operated venue is owned by Dubai developer Meraas, which signed the 10-year naming rights deal with the Coca-Cola Company.
Arena CEO Guy Ngata says ASM Global, formed this year from the merger of global venue management companies AEG Facilities and SMG, has seen a positive reaction to the opening of the venue from both the international live music community and local music fans.
“It is the first venue in Dubai that is purpose-built to accommodate the biggest shows and productions, providing a streamlined process from bump-in to out,” he says. “Up until now, Dubai has utilised temporary outdoor venues for large-scale concerts.”
Features include automated retractable seating that enables the venue to be swiftly transformed to accommodate shows of different sizes and to reflect ticket sales.
Ngata says the venue’s customer database is growing significantly and is already being used to help promoters publicise shows, along with digital channels and more traditional local media including the Arabian Radio Network’s stations.
“With the network’s vast array of radio stations covering genres from western music to Bollywood and Arabic we have a platform that really helps support shows coming to the arena,” he says.
James Craven, president, Live Nation Entertainment Middle East (LNME) says the opening of the Coca-Cola Arena was a landmark moment for the music business in The Gulf.
As well as promoting events such as the Wasla Festival in Burj Park (10,000) and George Ezra at the 10,000-capacity Dubai World Trade Centre this year, LNME has staged concerts by acts including Westlife and Russel Peters at Coca-Cola Arena.
Craven says the arena has helped lower the promoter’s show costs as previously it relied heavily on green field sites and that could only be either side of the intensely hot summer months.
“The UAE market is fairly price sensitive at the moment,” he says. “We have made strong efforts to lower the average ticket price in the market in an attempt to drive more people to live events.
“The Saudi Arabian market is opening up very quickly and demand is strong,” he says. “Moving forward the opportunity to book tours across the whole Middle Eastern region has become very real and we hope this will see more acts coming through and at more realistic fee levels.
Media group benefits
Dubai-based promoter Done Events is one of the longest-established in the region. Part of the Arab Media Group (AMG), the company took over the Dubai Jazz Festival (DJF) last year from Chillout Productions.
Next year’s DJF will run from 26 to 28 February at the 15,000-capacity Dubai Media City Amphitheatre (DMCA), with a line-up that features Lionel Richie, Lauryn Hill and One Republic.
Among other Done-owned and operated annual events is the two-day RedFestDXB, which takes place at the DMCA and this year saw DJ Snake, Camila Cabello and Macklemore among performers at the 14-15 February event.
Done has also had shows by AR Rahman and Maroon 5 at the Coca-Cola Arena and is promoting concerts by Louis Tomlinson and Iron Maiden there.
Events manager Peter Green says that the Dubai market is going through a tough period and being part of AMG has wide-ranging advantages, such as through its Arabian Radio Network.
“The well-established event organisers in the UAE are still putting on shows but we would be lying if we said selling a ticket was easier now than it was a few years ago,” says Green. “Being part of the Arab Media Group and having access to a vast amount of channels to promote our shows significantly helps.”
With the UAE market conditions fairly tough at the moment, Green welcomes the Leisure Event Sponsorship Scheme recently launched by Dubai Tourism.
“For selected shows it enables the 10 per cent ticket tax show cost to be removed,” he says. “That is a great support to those looking to organise events here.”
Another local promoter using the DMCA is Think Events, which staged the annual Party In The Park there on 1 November. The 7,000-capacity event featured Richard Ashcroft. Fatboy Slim and Lighthouse Family.
Think Events and DGT Events director Greg Dufton agree that the live music market has become challenging.
Since oil prices plummeted five years ago, property prices across the UAE have declined in value by more than 25 per cent and its annual economic growth rate is now below two per cent.
“The general economic climate in Dubai it is not great at the moment, there is not a huge recession like 2008, but most events are not hitting the targets they used to,” he says.
The introduction of a five per cent sales tax (VAT) rate a year ago, on top of the existing 10 per cent, has not helped matters.
“It has made it very difficult because we have been unable to increase ticket prices for the past five years, as we do not feel the market can sustain a rise, so we have had to absorb the five per cent,” he says.
Dufton says that unlike Europe, where artistes will pay multiple shows in a week, when acts come to the UAE it is usually for a single show and artistes typically charge around 60 per cent more than for a show than they would in the US or Western Europe.
The situation is not helped by the surge in live entertainment activity in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which is seeing production suppliers sending large amounts of equipment there.
“I recently needed a front-of-house sound desk, but couldn’t get one in Dubai for love nor money,” says Dufton.
“It has become to put events on, you have to be very selective. In Saudi Arabia it is all government funded, for them it is not about making money it is about showcasing the city.”
Equipped for success
Stephen Lakin launched equipment rental company Protech in the Middle East in 1999, and the company now has facilities in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Riyadh.
Reflecting the demand for equipment in Saudi Arabia, the past year has seen the company open a large warehouse there and it supplied lighting and audio equipment to the Diriyah E-Prix events.
“Dubai has lost its impetus and Saudi is taking over,” says Lakin. “Dubai never had the population [size], Saudi is a much friendlier place and has a population of 35 million. The amount or rock ‘n’ roll work we are doing in Saudi is growing fast.”
Like any emerging territory making a bid to become established on the touring map, Saudi Arabia is, says Lakin, experiencing growing pains.
“It is like Dubai was years ago when we first arrived, standards are not very high and people have been overcharged for crap equipment, but we are seeing interest from government bodies who realise we can offer quality equipment at reasonable prices,” he says.
Lakin hopes that the country’s emergence as a realistic concert destination could be mirrored elsewhere in the region, in order to make it feasible for multi-shows visits.
“When a wise promoter in The Gulf gets their acts together and realises there are multiple locations such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and Dubai to stage shows they will be able to book major acts for a regional tour,” he says. “Over a period of several shows the cost per show of booking artistes will then drop significantly and that will make a huge difference to the market.”
Live in the Sultanate
Alive Entertainment promoter and MD Gordon Mackenzie has lived in Oman for more than two decades, with shows including Ed Sheeran and Stereophonics at Shangri-La’s Barr Al (4,000) in Muscat. Other acts he’s worked with include Status Quo, James Blunt and Deacon Blue.
Forthcoming events include the Bootleg Beatles at Muscat’s Dolphin Village (500) and Newton Faulkner at the Al Bustan Palace Auditorium (600).
“The business is tough here, no promoter is finding it easy in the Middle East, not lest because a lot of expats have left,” says Mackenzie.
However, he has seen the opening in October of the Oman National Convention Centre (3,200) benefit the market, and has staged a show by with Sean Paul there, but with it being a “dry” venue Mackenzie tends to find shows work better in hotels where alcohol is allowed.
Like all promoters in the region, Mackenzie who would like to see more artistes play multiple shows.
He says, “The big guns just want to do a big show in one of the main cities and don’t want to come to smaller countries, so I focus on talented musicians whose demands are not off the scale.”