Built to attract sports and entertainment tourists to Abu Dhabi, Yas Island’s Etihad Arena delivered its first ‘capacity’ event this weekend, hosting Maroon 5’s mid-Middle East tour between Cairo and Tel-Aviv.

“It was a great feeling to finally see this place rocking,” says an ebullient arena GM Brint Jackson (pictured) on a venue showaround the morning after. “Sure, we had our teething issues – and even though officially we could have gone to the full house capacity, we held it back at the on-sales cap of 90% to give us a bit of flexibility for physical spacing for the first capacity concert.”

Officially completed in January 2021 amidst pandemic-capacity restrictions, the gold-coated arena’s capacity had yet to be fully experienced. 

Local entertainment group Flash Entertainment is the venue’s operator, with the naming rights secured by Abu Dhabi’s national carrier through a deal negotiated by the venue’s  owner – Yas Island developer and management company, Miral.

Opening in the uncertainty of a global pandemic, the arena has had a gradually accelerating events calendar to date, while managing to showcase its diverse capabilities. Its first event – a UFC Fight Night back in January 2021 – welcomed 4,000 (socially-distanced) guests. The FINA swimming championships featuring two 25m pools constructed on the event floor – was successfully held and globally broadcast with robust hygiene measures in place.

DESTINATION BUILDING

The arena represents the latest addition to the Yas Island destination of hotels, residences, theme parks and entertainment options. Its waterfront location links directly to the Hilton hotel and is a stone’s throw from the island’s own conference centre.

The sound of motorsports fills the air as enthusiasts hire cars to test out the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix circuit, which snakes 5.5km through the hotels, the marina and grandstands. A bridge between the twin blocks of the trendy W Abu Dhabi Hotel spans the track, providing a host of raceday hospitality options. Scheduled to host the final F1 race of the season through to 2030, this is the another aspirational televisual landscape which provides the stage for F1’s stunning broadcast content – think Monaco GP but with a modern skyline.

Developer Miral has made no secret of its ambition for Yas Island. An hour down the road, Dubai has long been well known for its international tourism identity. Over the past few years, Yas Island’s 25 km2 of entertainment and leisure now defines a new era of tourism in the country’s capital.

Yas Island was named as the world’s leading tourism project at the World Travel Awards in 2009, hosting its first F1 race that year to deliver the initial global branding opportunity for the development. The island’s residential towers, modern marina and theme parks continue to add further ‘reasons to visit and to live here’. And now the new arena will cater for expats, nationals and the growing local population.

VALUE FOR MONEY

But in this landscape famed for high design, expensive builds, Jackson is quick to point out the value-for-money that the HOK-designed arena represents. The arena’s horseshoe ‘super theatre’ design has unmatched versatility, placing itself as an equal to NBA arenas in North America.

“This building was designed for touring and for flexibility. Trucks straight into the bowl. Rigging capacities. A configurable back wall that allows us to bring intimacy down to a few thousand,” explains Jackson, himself a veteran of the region after a decade running venues in Abu Dhabi.

The building footprint is compact, the concourses are tight. Branding and sponsorship is evident but not overwhelming. F&B options are bespoke, run by an exclusive in-house caterer. The main bowl is breathtaking, with unobstructed views all around. With the paint still fresh, the first impression is of a building just beginning its exhilarating life in events.

The arena now proudly hosts its resident MMA series, UAE WARRIORS, while its touring and guest shows will offer a star-studded and diverse yearly calendar. 

Jackson hints at musical theatre productions on extended runs and a growing list of Arabic and international artists in the months ahead. The arena was also this week confirmed as the host of the Arabian Gulf’s first NBA games.

A LANDMARK GIG

Critically, the Live Nation-promoted Maroon 5 mini-tour is noted as the “first routed run” in the Middle East, which the promoting giant says “means bands are able to play for even more fans, rather than playing one-offs that potentially take them out of the market for years.”

“We are thrilled to organise the first regional tour for an iconic band like Maroon 5 and finally get back to full capacity live shows,” James Craven, president, Live Nation Middle East told IQ Mag earlier this year. “This landmark event marks the dawn of a new era, and will ensure an easier process for bringing bands, global artists and festivals to the region.”

Jackson is optimistic for the calendar ahead: “We opened mid-pandemic. This weekend was the first opportunity for us to showcase Yas Island as a promoter’s destination. With the landowners, Miral, the developer, and our hotels and venues operating – in effect – under one banner, as one entity we can really help ‘de-risk’ shows in what has historically been a riskier touring market. The message is: Come and play Yas.”

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

Friday night was the first weekend after the region’s Eid holidays. And Maroon 5’s gig saw the island’s hotels full, bars and clubs bouncing – with an estimated 50% of the audience travelling in from Dubai and the Northern Emirates to see the band. Lead singer Adam Levine’s after-party at the W Hotel’s rooftop pool terrace would have ticked more boxes for the promoter checklist.

The morning after, Jackson’s focus is on a different celebrity. Peppa Pig brings her live tour to Etihad Arena later this month, delivering another diverse audience to the newest venue in the Middle East. And that, fundamentally, is the message from Yas Island: there’s something for everyone here.