Pulling Abu Dhabi into the limelight

A year ago, Abu Dhabi was asking the stars to come; now, the stars are beating a path to Abu Dhabi's door.

John Lickrish is the managing director of Flash.
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ABU DHABI // It is not clear when the tipping point was passed, but it was some time between the closing chord of Justin Timberlake's concert at the Emirates Palace hotel last year and the decision by George Michael to postpone his retirement to play a concert in the capital this December. A year ago, Abu Dhabi was asking the stars to come to town; today, it is the stars who are beating a path to Abu Dhabi's door. The Timberlake concert last December was the first time a performer of his stature had come to the capital and was the vanguard event of a carefully planned and determined campaign to raise Abu Dhabi's world profile through the medium of popular music.

The man charged with managing that campaign was John Lickrish, a Toronto-born events organiser who was asked by Mubadala to put the finishing touches to the Justin Timberlake concert. He was then briefed to "put Abu Dhabi on the map" and formed the management company Flash. In less than a year, success has followed success, as star has followed star, with Flash responsible for a parade of talent passing through Abu Dhabi that has seen the emirate's profile writ large around the world, through the traditional media of newspapers and television to modern internet youth channels such as YouTube. And, says Mr Lickrish, "there are artists coming to us as well now. We've been approached by 20 to 25 names so far".

In Mr Timberlake's wake have followed Elton John, Jon Bon Jovi and Christina Aguilera ? A-list artists who had never before performed in the region - and this week Flash confirmed rumours that George Michael, the British singer, would be performing in the capital on Dec 1, despite only a few weeks ago having announced his retirement after 25 years in show business. Mr Michael will play to an audience of 30,000 at the Zayed Sports City, in what will be the biggest event to have taken place in the UAE. Tickets, starting at Dh190, will be the cheapest so far, with the aim of attracting people from all over the world. The singer's fans from England and across Europe have already started making inquiries about what is being billed as his last performance.

The precise details of the negotiations that have persuaded such top performers to come to Abu Dhabi remain confidential - and no-one is confirming rumours that Mr Michael was offered as much as $4.5 million - but such is the stature of the stars flying in that money seems unlikely to be the deciding factor in their decisions to perform here. Mr Michael, who has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, is certainly not in it for the money, says Mr Lickrish. It is, he says, the "unique experience" of playing here which is drawing the big names.

Mr Michael was first approached a year ago to come here, and it has taken months of negotiation to secure the right package. Ultimately, says Mr Lickrish, for artists of Mr Michael's stature it is the appeal of playing in such uncharted territory, to a new audience, which will seal the deal. Whatever the motivation of the performers, the strategy is paying dividends for Abu Dhabi. "I was asked to help pull Abu Dhabi into the limelight," says Mr Lickrish. "It goes with the whole idea of the development of the tourism industry and to make people realise that Abu Dhabi is accessible to all different people from all over the world."

In parallel with Abu Dhabi's ambitions to bring the best of high-end culture to the capital ? such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim, due to open on Saadiyat Island by 2012 - it is "premium" quality that Mr Lickrish and his team are aiming for. "I want people to come here and know what to expect," he says. "Better quality, better organisation and better experience. "We're very fortunate that we can learn from the mistakes of other places as we're so new, making what we do much better."

Part of his brief, he says, was to try to help "break down stereotypes that exist, particularly in Canada and North America", as well as to change the face of Abu Dhabi and improve it for its residents. "We want to provide entertainment for the people who actually live here in Abu Dhabi," he says. "My goal is to make it a fun place to be. People don't just work all day every day. They need things to do."

Flash will not be concentrating on western artists exclusively - in time, there will be announcements about Arabic artists coming to town - but for now the team's aim is to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. "Abu Dhabi has already got quite a market for the Arabic language stars," says Mr Lickrish. "Amr Diab was here recently and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage bring people here a lot, so my focus was really those stars who would grab people's attention around the world, the ones who haven't been to this part of the world before."

But it will not be long before big-name Arab stars will be part of Flash's plan to transform Abu Dhabi into one of the region's leading cultural hubs, to rival more established countries such as Egypt and Lebanon. Flash keeps a close eye on cultural sensitivities; while it has not been necessary to set rules or conditions for the visiting artists, Mr Lickrish is sure to remind them of local customs - and the number of families who come to the capital's concerts.

"Abu Dhabi has the same moral standards as any other city," he says, "but we tell the artists that they need to be respectful... So far, we've found them very co-operative." Of the performers who have come so far, it is the first, Mr Timberlake, who has brought the emirate the most attention. The sell-out concert was such an instant success that organisers even contemplated adding another date. In the end, they decided against it to ensure it was fully attended and attended by his most loyal fans, but the demand was part of the learning curve. When Jon Bon Jovi played in March, Emirates Palace had already hosted Mr Timberlake and Sir Elton John so capacity was raised by 4,000. "Bringing these acts here makes the world think about Abu Dhabi," says Mr Lickrish. "It helps to open it up. It makes people think about what's really going on here. People have a very narrow view of the Middle East."

It will be a view that seems certain to broaden along with Flash's plans for the future. Its team of 10 people will expand to about 16 over the coming months and the company will shortly be announcing plans for a New Year event which will gather together Arab and international stars on a scale never before seen in Abu Dhabi. Flash will also be branching out to work with companies such as Fifa, the international football association, and Formula One, organising events including gala dinners and ceremonies.

Based for now at Mubadala's offices in the city, Flash will eventually relocate to the recently announced media zone, TwoFour54, next to Marina Mall. When the zone opens, it will host some of the leading names in world media, including CNN, the BBC and the publishing house Harper Collins. The zone will, believes Mr Lickrish, give more of a "local voice" to media coverage of the city, which is now lacking: "A regional voice has a different voice to a local voice. The local voice has to be heard and you're missing a perspective if you don't have people based here."