Fireworks in the UAE: how every whizz and bang is planned down to the last detail

How do you make sure New Year’s fireworks go like clockwork when it’s impossible to have a rehearsal? Hala Khalaf finds out how every whizz and bang is planned down to the last detail

Burj Al Arab, Dubai during New Year 2016 Celebration. Getty Images
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Tonight, whether you'll be watching fireworks in the midst of the crowds expected along Abu Dhabi's Corniche or somewhere else across the UAE – perhaps along Galleria's promenade on Al Maryah Island, Sharjah's Al Majaz Waterfront, from Dubai's Madinat Jumeirah overlooking Burj Al Arab, or near Al Marjan island in Ras Al Khaimah, or simply from the comfort of your balcony – you'll be one of billions of people across the world craning your neck back to stare upwards in rapt awe at the pyrotechnics lighting up the night sky.

Fireworks are as much a part of New Year’s Eve celebrations as the midnight countdown.Dubai’s New Year’s Eve fireworks extravaganza to herald the start of 2013 became a Guinness World Record when 479,651 firecracker shells were released over the Palm Jumeirah and World Islands in the six-minute show. The spectacle took 10 months of planning and 5,000 man-hours to pull off.

And yet, despite all that, the UAE isn’t even the world’s number one customer when it comes to fireworks. That distinction goes to the Walt Disney Company, which is often touted as the largest consumer and purchaser of fireworks in the world.

Regardless of who is setting off the explosives, it’s a huge production every time, with several months of planning going into pulling off an impressive fireworks display – everything from conception to design to production. Not to mention the simple fact that there’s no dress rehearsal to guarantee the final result.

“There’s no way to rehearse what the final fireworks show will look like,” says Jakub Kencho Skalski, general manager of Flash Art. Skalski’s company, founded in Germany about 20 years ago, provides fireworks worldwide, organising shows from Singapore to Monaco, and from Hong Kong to the Maldives.

The Dubai office is in charge of fireworks for the Middle East, organising about 100 shows a year, and Skalski has been in charge of the office since 2000, providing fireworks for National Day, for the Formula One, and even for Dubai's Global Village.

This year, Flash Art is behind the elaborate fireworks display that will be lighting up Abu Dhabi's sky come midnight tonight. The company has spent months producing the show for the Department of Culture and Tourism, which is overseeing the Corniche festivities.

"A rehearsal is impossible because once those fireworks are set off, then that's it, they're gone," says Skalski. "You cannot check to see how the final show will look, as you can with a light or laser show. We cannot see the final effect except for that one time, at show time. So, we have to trust in our designers and producers that they will achieve the effect desired."

Shows as big as those held on New Year's Eve incorporate multiple elements and fireworks are just one of those. There's also the music to be considered, and this year, there's a flame show near the main stage set up in the shallows off the Corniche.

“Our job is to design the fireworks display, depending on the colours and shapes of the resulting bursts, and designing that into sequences, so that specific colours and shapes launch at specific times along with the music,” says Skalski.

The end result is discussed with the client – in this case, it’s the city of Abu Dhabi – and the fireworks become part of the bigger picture.

This year, three months of preparation went into the New Year's Eve show along Abu Dhabi's Corniche, says Farah Al Bakoush, spokeswoman for the DCT.

“The fireworks will last for 10 minutes, synchronised with music, across a 2.2 kilometre stretch over the Corniche and released from the water, from 15 barges,” she says. “The show will be visible from most of the areas across the Corniche.”

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And where did all those fireworks come from? “Almost 90 per cent of fireworks in the world come from China,” Skalski says. “It’s a big manufacturing country with a big tradition of fireworks over there and China is our
main source.”

Indeed, the Chinese invented fireworks somewhere around 960 and 1279 AD. They shot off fireworks to ward off evil spirits and used them during celebrations like the emperor’s birthdays and Chinese holidays, and they refer to the celebratory sky lightening demonstration as a “fire drug”.

Flash Art also sources fireworks from Spain and Italy. “We travel to see demos and choose based on quality and safety,” says Skalsgi.

Safety is always of the utmost concern, with Abu Dhabi Corniche being luckier than most venues in that the fireworks are released far away from the crowds, from the sea. And these days, safety is basically guaranteed because it’s not humans who are responsible for releasing the fireworks.

"We use special computerised systems, nothing is done by hand," says Skalsgi. "You cannot achieve this kind of synchronisation by hand, because every firework is connected to a specific output and timed to the millisecond for when it has to go off. There are literally thousands of metres of cables, and setting it all up is a very time-consuming job. Something like this, a 10-minute show, can easily take 15 people and require two weeks of preparation."

For a mere 10 minutes, expect anything between five to six thousand fireworks to go off, resulting in close to 15,000 shots – or “bursts”, as Skalsgi calls them – to go off in the sky.

Elsewhere in Abu Dhabi, on Al Maryah Island, another 10 minute show is being prepared, with 15 crew members working for four days, up until the last minute on New Year's Eve, to set up tens of thousands of fireworks that will be shot up into the sky.

Tim Griffiths, the show designer from Pains Fireworks and the person overseeing all the rigging that's taking place, says that for a show this size the preparations begin with the music.

“We start off by talking it through with the client and deciding on the music. It all starts with the music. It’s always pretty important because without the music, we can’t do anything,” Griffiths says. “It controls the show and the sequences and the types of products we use. Then that’s where it takes off, with choreographing the show. We prep months in advance,” which is an impressive feat, considering that Pains Fireworks puts on shows across the UAE almost every week, and has designed the Galleria’s New Year’s Eve show twice before.

This time around, the show is mostly made up of Spanish fireworks rather than the usual Chinese products.

“It’s going to look spectacular,” says Griffiths. His team is rigging the buildings on the island, as well as the bridges connecting Al Maryah to the mainland; fireworks will be going off from everywhere.

In terms of safety, that concern is that the public do not access the areas where the fireworks are scheduled to be set off.

“We work with the police and with security to make sure the bridges are closed and can’t be accessed,” says Griffiths. “Otherwise we’d have to stop in the middle of the show. So again, there will be two coastguard boats patrolling the area so no boats sail close by either.”

What fireworks companies have no control over, however, is the wind. “It’s our one concern usually, as it makes smoke and debris drift a long way, but we calculate that and make sure we are prepared for it,” says Griffiths.

And if it rains, it’s really not the end of the world, says
Al Bakoush.

“​The fireworks setup is built to withstand rain of any severity,” she says. “Humid weather, and rain in particular, cause smoke to thicken and stay in place for longer than usual.​ So in wet conditions, smoke takes some appeal away from the final effect.”

For now, however, the weather forecast looks like it will be the perfect night for pyrotechnics, with no rain on the horizon. Both Griffiths and Skalsgi have one piece of advice for revellers.

“Even if you can see it from your window, it’s not the same as being there,” says Griffiths. “You need to hear the music while you watch the show. It’s really all about the music to get the full effect.”

And as Al Bakoush put it, the end result will be whatever the viewer takes away from the experience.

“Fireworks are a purely abstract medium, very much like music,” she says. “They interact with the spectator’s emotions in ways which cannot be replaced by words. Our goal is always to allow the audience to leave reality behind for the duration of the display and let themselves ​become immersed in the pure, unexplainable joy given to them by colours and shapes exploding in front of their eyes. It provides the emotional depth to the experience.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 1, 2016:    New Year fireworks above the skyline of Al Maryah Island in Abu Dhabi on January 1, 2016. Christopher Pike / The National

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New Year fireworks over Al Maryah Island, Abu Dhabi in 2016. Christopher Pike / The National