The secret of how Robbie Williams revolutionised Dubai gigs

Looking back on the game-changing concerts to be staged in Dubai

With Ed Sheeran, Michael Bublé and Bob Geldof recently departed, and One Direction about to land, Peter Conmy looks back on the concerts that put Dubai’s music scene on the party map.

It was Robbie Williams who really shifted the sands. Until then the city’s entertainment promoters had been working hard to attract the very highest-calibre artists. So when Williams, the biggest solo artist of the time, announced he’d added a night in Dubai to his Close Encounters Tour, viewing the city as the perfect stopover between shows in South Africa and Europe, the game changed.

Could Dubai sustain a large enough paying audience to cover the cost of a production on this scale? That had always been the question, and Williams answered it with interest. Demand from fans was huge. And they weren’t disappointed. More than 16,000 turned up to Nad Al Sheba racecourse on Friday April 21, 2006, to watch him bang out a stunning two-hour show and climax with the mass sing-along that
is ‘Angels’. In a single night, Dubai had proven its world-class credentials.

In truth, the city already had form. Stars like Simply Red, Rod Stewart, Bryan Adams, James Brown and Sting had visited throughout the ’90s, playing one-off shows to an ever-growing expat audience. Elton John, bucking the trend of cover bands in bars, staged a sell-out at Dubai Creek Golf Club in October 2002. The Emirates Airline Dubai International Jazz Festival launched in February 2003 and saw audiences balloon. Like Time
Out Dubai
, it has changed formats as well as locations but has thrived.

But it’s not just live music that has evolved. Dance music was introduced by the likes of Fluid Productions’ Peppermint Experience at the Fairmont Dubai, near the site of today’s Cavalli Club, and the launch of Vibes’ Deep Nights in July 2005, which would take up residence at Trilogy nightclub at Souk Madinat, a space now occupied by Pacha Dubai. Competition was fierce. And the years that followed saw the likes of Paul van Dyk, Paul Oakenfold, Erick Morillo, David Guetta and Armin van Buuren continue to put Dubai’s nightlife scene on the party map. But if there was one event that best summed up Dubai’s ability to host a dance event to rival the world, it must have been in September 2005, when the then-world number one DJ, Tiesto, played alongside Sander Kleinenberg at the Madinat Jumeirah, shutting down traffic as many more than the 11,000
capacity descended.

Meanwhile, from its Kylie Minogue-headlined launch in September 2008 (the Aussie pop star is set to return to the city for this month’s Dubai World Cup closing concert) Atlantis The Palm has etched itself onto the brains of music lovers across the GCC. Not least on October 15, 2010 – the day that Sandance was first staged.

The city had seen music festivals launch and, generally, fail. Almost to the day, seven years earlier, Dubai had staged the hugely ambitious for the time Gig on the Green at Dubai Creek Golf Club. Featuring smaller but more original bands like Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Fun Lovin’ Criminals and Suede, it remains one of this writer’s early attempts to break the Dubai mould. (It also summed-up all that was not yet right, finishing several hours late to a hardcore group who stayed to watch Suede perform one of their last sets.)

It’s debatable whether the 3,700 who arrived to see Zero 7 take the stage at 4.30pm that first Friday at Sandance knew what was about to happen, but by the time Armand van Helden closed the show the whole crowd knew Dubai’s music scene had been taken to a
new level.

For four consecutive years it was the sell-out event to go to. Yes, there was that time when the organisers, misjudging crowd levels for Snow Patrol and Calvin Harris, had to issue a statement to reassure everyone that changes would be made. Yes, getting on and off the Palm was torture. And, yes, there was New Year’s Eve 2013, when the promise of Ellie Goulding et al, coupled with a world record-breaking firework display on the Palm, saw the wheels come off. Or, rather, stay still – the gridlock preventing many from even making it.

But the pros write themselves: Chicane, The Killers, Florence and The Machine, Chic and Nile Rogers (who brutally upstaged the next act that evening, Jamiroquai), Rudimental, Pet Shop Boys, Of Monsters and Men, The Script, Basement Jaxx, Kaiser Chiefs and Fat Boy Slim are just a few of the acts that over the years offered partygoers a complete evening of varied, world class acts in a variety of genres. On a massive stage. With fantastic sound. And – get this – on time. How things change.

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