From his kandoura to popularising YouTube in Saudi Arabia: the legacy of Snoop Dogg’s 2011 Abu Dhabi concert

The US rapper made his regional debut exactly nine years ago

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You needed to see it to believe it.

Nine years ago today, Snoop Dogg, clad in a beige kandoura and sporting a red-chequered ghutra, swaggered on to the Du Arena stage to the horn-soaked sounds of G Funk (Intro).

The response was awe and disbelief. After a few seconds of collective shock, the 15,000-strong crowd immediately whipped out their phones to record this heavily pixelated (we were in the age of the prehistoric iPhone 4 at the time) piece of UAE music history.

The Doggfather’s show, held on what was a sweltering evening, was a cultural and entertainment landmark for both the UAE and the region.

He was not the first hip-hop star to hold a major stand-alone concert in the UAE (the previous year Kanye West had performed as part of the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix), but he was the first popular western act to play a near-full concert wearing the traditional Emirati dress.

While these touchstones may seem trivial now, at the time, they were nothing short of pioneering.

Snoop Dogg’s successful Abu Dhabi show, alongside Kanye West’s concert, paved the way for a host of top rappers such as Jay-Z, Eminem, 50 Cent and J Cole to view the UAE and the region as a viable touring destination.

And when it comes to his sartorial choice, Snoop Dogg’s decision to perform in a kandoura influenced opinions both home and abroad. Here, it created a newfound consensus that celebrities can wear the traditional dress, if it’s to pay tribute to the country. Abroad, the images of Snoop Dogg in flowing robes was more impactful than any regional tourism campaign. It is no coincidence that after Snoop Dogg, a whole host of celebrities started rocking the kandoura, such as Tyreese (the singer even wore it on his flight back to Los Angeles) and, most recently, talk show host Steve Harvey.

To mark the anniversary of the concert, The National spoke to some of the players involved in the event.

The promoter: John Lickrish, chief executive of Flash Entertainment

The Canadian entertainment boss recalls that after the success of the first two Abu Dhabi F1 concerts, the Snoop Dogg show was part of Flash Entertainment’s strategy to kick-start a new phase of Yas Island offerings.

“We wanted to bring more people there and show that there is more to this great location than the F1,” he says.

“So the Snoop Dogg show was part of a number of events we did such as Creamfields, the Shakira and Amr Diab concert, outdoor movie screenings and a kids' funfair.”

Regarding the decision to bring Snoop Dogg to the capital, Lickrish said the move was a way to tap into a youth market hungry for live music.

“It was about creating a bucket-list moment,” he says. “Not many people imagined that Snoop Dogg would ever play in the UAE and we wanted to make that happen. So we called up his team and they said they were interested.”

With nearly two decades in the industry at that time, Lickrish recalls the professionalism of the artist and his entourage. Snoop Dogg stayed in the UAE for less than 24 hours. After arriving from the US, the rapper rested, sound-checked and then held informal meet and greets with fans who gifted him all sorts of items, ranging from a hockey jersey with the name The Doggfather emblazoned on the back of a kandoura.

Lickrish only knew about Snoop’s decision to wear the latter on stage a few hours before the show.

While admitting to be slightly worried at the reaction from the crowd, Lickrish realised that all would be OK due to the authentic affection Snoop Dogg had for the attire.

“You could just tell that he was genuine about it,” he says. “This was his first time performing in the Gulf and he wanted to pay tribute. Now, there were some who were not happy with that and we got letters from people angry at him wearing the traditional dress because of what his music represents. But that’s the thing with Snoop Dogg, you either love him or hate him.”

The supporting act: Swerte from The Recipe

Warming up the stage for the main act were the UAE’s very own music OGs, The Recipe.

In what was a rarity for the time, the hip-hop crew were one of several supporting acts that night, which included the Emirati duo Desert Heat and fierce Lebanese rapper Malikah.

According to The Recipe’s Swerte, the supporting line-up was not entirely surprising. They were, in fact, the usual suspects.

“A lot of that was because a lot of artists were not doing the right things to position themselves to be considered for the opportunity to perform and open for big acts like Snoop Dogg. The talent was there but what they needed to do was to be noticeable,” he says.

“We had been working hard as a band and building an artist CV, so to speak, to show promoters that we could do it. It was the same with Malikah and Desert Heat. We were really the only three hip-hop acts that were ready at the time. I knew this because we would always see each other at the same events and parties.”

The Snoop Dogg experience was a career milestone for The Recipe, and marked the first of two performances at the Du Arena – their follow-up gig was a 2014 slot supporting Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

The drive to reach that level, Swerte explains, came when the band watched Kanye West perform at Du Arena in 2010.

“I remember us looking at each other and saying ‘I wonder what it would be like looking at the crowd from that stage?',” he recalls.

And when the time finally came a year later, how was that experience?

“I felt like I was going to pass out from all the emotion and sink,” he says. “But once we stepped out on to the stage and heard the crowd, it all just went away.”

The legacy: Snoop Dogg made YouTube popular in Saudi Arabia

While Hass "Big Hass" Dennaoui was not able to attend the performance, the Saudi Arabian music personality said the concert reverberated around the Gulf's hip-hop scene.

For one thing, it was the first time that young Saudis really interacted with YouTube.

"You have to understand that YouTube was launched in 2005, but even in 2011, not many of us were using it," Dennaoui explains. "But I remember the first real YouTube videos really being shared around were Snoop Dogg performing in a kandoura. When I saw it, I couldn't believe it. I thought he was a local act performing. Only once I heard him rapping I realised that this was actually him."

American hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg performs at Yas Arena in Abu Dhabi on Friday May 6, 2011. ( Andrew Henderson / The National )

Regarding the concert’s impact on the Gulf hip-hop scene, Dennaoui’s response is unequivocal.

“It was monumental in every single way," he says. “It was also important for the hip-hop scene here. At that time, there was a lot of stereotypes regarding hip-hop and with Snoop coming here, and people from all around the Gulf flying to see him and having a great time put some of those misconceptions away.”