It is easy to forget there was a time in the UAE before big concerts such as Coldplay’s New Year’s Eve performance that will rock du Arena on Saturday night. That major shows put on by world-class acts such as The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake were not always the norm in the UAE.
The country has become such a regional entertainment hub in recent years that big-name tour stops are now expected. The question these days is not whether U2 will come to the UAE, but more a matter of when.
Wind the clock back almost a decade, and such A-list performances were an anomaly at best. This is why George Michael’s Abu Dhabi Zayed City performance in December 2008 was such huge news across the region.
If Timberlake’s sold-out 2007 show at Emirates Palace was the night Abu Dhabi launched announced itself as a bona fide concert destination, Michael’s Abu Dhabi performance more than confirmed it.
Along with Shakira’s New Year’s Eve concert, Michael’s appearance book-ended a significant year in UAE concert history – 2008 began with a gig by Elton John, (who is returning to perform in Dubai on January 20), Bon Jovi in May and Christina Augilera in October.
At the time, Michael’s Abu Dhabi show was billed as a one-off performance and marketed as what might be the final concert of the pop legend’s career – only for him to reconsider his decision and launch an Australian tour two months later.
The concert, presented by Flash Entertainment, was part of the UAE’s National Day festivities, complete with obligatory fireworks and a laser display.
It was a last-minute addition to Michael's 25 Live world tour – a series of 25 performances to celebrate a career spanning 25 years and described by Michael as his "retirement tour".
The tour had concluded in Copenhagen in August, but Michael chose Abu Dhabi as the actual finale of his run. It was also his Middle East debut. With more than 30,000 fans snapping up tickets that started from as little as Dh190, it was a coup for the region and his fans.
Flash Entertainment founder and chief executive John Lickrish says Michael’s show was an important milestone for Flash and the wider UAE entertainment scene. He remembers the show as the highlight of a year in which the events company was established.
“That was the first time Zayed Sports City was used for an event like that,” he recalls. “That is a huge space and some people were sceptical about if it would be full and whether it could operate professionally.”
Lickrish said the success of the show “sent ripples” across the international entertainment industry and went a long way in convincing promoters that the UAE, and the Middle East in general, is a viable a touring destination.
“A lot of people were shocked by the success of the show” he says. “And that was one of the goals that we had, to change the perceptions of what Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates represented.”
As for Michael, Lickrish says that he did not actually get to meet he singer, but worked closely with his management.
“I spent three days working with his production team, as well as his agent and manager,” Lickrish says. “George just flew in and flew out very quickly. He came on a private jet, which was part of the deal – that’s not so bad since he was coming from the UK. But that’s normal as most of the big artists don’t have a lot of time. George had a lot of things on, so we were actually lucky to get him.”
Recalling his time with the production crew, Lickrish admits certain visuals used as part of the show had to be omitted to cater to cultural sensitivities.
“There was a video thing with Dita Von Teese doing a burlesque show,” he says. “She wasn’t naked but she might as well had been. Me and the boss were like, ‘Yeah, this is not going to happen’. But they were, overall, very respectful.”
I moved to Abu Dhabi to join The National a few months before Michael's show, and it was my first big concert here. He was supported by a then up-and-coming Alicia Keys.
Michael’s energy rippled through the crowd, and everyone was dancing and singing from the get-go.
It was more lively than the subdued reaction to Keys’s laid-back, more soulful performance.
The set-list was a welcome mix of hits from Michael’s years with Wham! as well as those from solo years.
He came on stage at about 11pm, and opened his set with a beautiful acoustic version of Waiting. Husky as ever, Michael's voice drifted to us from behind the stage before he walked on, clad in all black. He then launched into an upbeat remix of Fast Love.
Scenes from the music video were projected on the huge screen behind him.
This was followed by the first mass singalong of the night, Wham's I'm Your Man. After a short interval, he returned to the stage with Faith, only to be completely drowned out by the roar of the crowd.
By the time his cover of The Police's Roxanne and the propulsive Amazing came along towards the end of the set, I was completely hoarse.
Michael's encores of Careless Whisper and Freedom remain some of my favourite live-music moments. Talking about the start of his career, Michael described his drive as coming from a desire "to be loved". He said "it was an ego satisfaction thing".
One thing is for sure, Michael was definitely loved in Abu Dhabi.
Thank you George Michael for choosing to perform in our capital city – you sure put us on the map and helped to set the stage for many more legendary musical acts to come.
Were you there George Michael's Abu Dhabi performance at Zayed Sports City on December 1, 2008. If so, you would have remembered that you were treated to an 18 song greatest hits set. According to a French fan page dedicated to the late singer, George Michael News, below is the set-list from the Abu Dhabi performance.
Fast Love/I’m Your Man
You Have Been Loved
Everything She Wants
One More Try
Spinning The Wheel
Kissing A Fool
With additional reporting by Saeed Saeed