Why Paul McCartney's Abu Dhabi F1 concert still matters more than a decade later

Ahead of his Glastonbury show, we look back at the musician's performance on Yas Island in 2011

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Paul McCartney’s performance as part of the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix was 11 years ago — still, the impact continues to resonate within the UAE events industry.

As The Beatles singer, 80, prepares to headline the UK’s Glastonbury Festival on Saturday, becoming the oldest person to do so, The National looks back at his epic concert in November 2011 and why it set the standard for the rest of the high-profile stars to play the UAE.

Paul McCartney played his greatest hits in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Flash Entertainment

McCartney's performance at Etihad Park remains hard to beat when it comes to the amount of back-to-back hits played.

Beginning with The Beatles' Hello Goodbye, he took 30,000 fans on a two-and-a-half hour journey with 37 songs spanning five decades.

In addition to The Beatles favourites such as Hey Jude, A Day in the Life and Let It Be, McCartney also performed hits from Wings (Live and Let Die and Band on the Run) and key solo tracks such as Maybe I'm Amazed.

As chief executive of Flash Entertainment, John Lickrish was tasked with putting together the concert as part of the still fledgling Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix.

“It was the third Formula One race and we were already off to a great start with acts like Beyonce in 2009 and Prince the following year,” he recalls.

“So there was already a growing buzz about Abu Dhabi as a go to destination for big artists.

"But it was really McCartney in 2011 who took us to the next level.”

Getting McCartney to the UAE was a result of steady growth.

The concert industry is relatively tight, Lickrish says, with agents and tour promoters working with a number of artists at any given time.

One of the most powerful figures is the UK’s Barrie Marshall with a career spanning four decades.

As well as being McCartney’s long-term agent and tour promoter, his current stable includes Elton John, Lionel Richie, Celine Dion and Tina Turner.

British singer George Michael performs at Abu Dhabi's Zayed Sports City Stadium in 2008. AP

He also looked after some of the international tours of the late George Michael, one of which included a 2008 stop at Zayed Sports City Stadium.

Marshall flew in to Abu Dhabi to ensure everything went smoothly.

"He is really old school in the way he does things," Lickrish says.

"Also, he is very polite. He would say: 'If I ask you to do something and I don't say please and thank you will have to forgive me'."

Impressed by the Flash Entertainment operation, the successful show laid the seeds to bring McCartney to Abu Dhabi three years later.

Lickrish recalls the preparation for the Abu Dhabi F1 race-day concert, from financial negotiations to the technical requirements, as being smooth.

McCartney and the band were also up for it.

They arrived in Abu Dhabi two days before the show and a week after sending a teaser video to UAE fans from rehearsals in the UK.

Lickrish remembers McCartney as being very welcoming backstage.

“He was very laid-back, friendly and calm,” he says.

“He was also excited about performing in this part of the world for the first time and he was practising Arabic words like ‘marhaba’ (hello) and 'shukran' (thank you).”

Paul McCartney played to 30,000 people in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Flash Entertainment

McCartney’s show remains one of the best concerts performed in the UAE.

In my report for The National, I describe how McCartney turned the arena "into a stadium-sized karaoke club."

In a reflective column, journalist Sarah Ferguson recalled the communal atmosphere, with the show being “a truly memorable night of fabulous music surrounded by great friends".

Standing side of stage and watching McCartney belting out the hits, Lickrish’s recalls his satisfaction being tempered by a growing responsibility.

“We knew that we have raised the bar when it comes to expectations of what we can do here in Abu Dhabi,” he says. “I knew it was a show people would remember for a long time and make other touring artists take notice.”

Paul McCartney performed 37 songs over two-and-a-half hours in Abu Dhabi. Antonie Robertson / The National

Sure enough, Abu Dhabi’s stature as a concert destination was cemented on the back of McCartney’s performance with major acts, from The Rolling Stones, Eminem and Guns N’ Roses to The Weeknd and Pink, all bringing their large scale productions to the city in the ensuing years.

Lickrish has no doubt McCartney will deliver a similarly memorable show at Glastonbury.

“His voice is great and the songs speak for themselves,” he says. "And with the varied demographic of the audience you can feel that it will be a really beautiful experience."

For Abu Dhabi to be part of the remarkable journey of one of the world’s greatest living artists, all we can say is "shukran", Paul.

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Updated: June 25, 2022, 5:55 AM
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