To some it may seem contradictory that Abu Dhabi has perhaps the most thriving music scene of the Emirates and maybe even of the region, including comparison to the much more outgoing Dubai. Not only does or did it import some of the most prestigious music events, but it also fosters a contemporary music scene of its own.

Unfortunately some of the most successful music initiatives had to be terminated due to exterior factors, after ADACH de facto suspended many of its activities, including the very successful WOMAD Abu Dhabi, the prestigious Abu Dhabi Classics series, the Sounds of Arabia festival, plus a range of highly successful incidental world music concerts, including some of the major world music names, as well as the plans for a leading Arab music research center in Al Ain, under the directorship of Cherif Khaznadar (from the Centre des Cultures du Monde Paris). Some of these plans might be revived when the remains of ADACH will be merged with the Cultural Department of the TDIC. The Abu Dhabi WOMAD was a popular large-scale manifestation that had free admission and united all communities from all walks of life. In this, Abu Dhabi is or was the only city in the region to offer such events on such a scale. In Dubai, you will find none, and Doha is reluctant compared to Abu Dhabi. Neither Manama nor Muscat offer them either, at least not  on such a scale.

Some of these activities have been taken over by Flash productions as part of twofour54, such as the 2012 Beats on the Beach festival, on the occasion of the Abu Dhabi F1 races, in which Akon, Cee Lo Green, Missy Elliot, Egyptian superstar Tamer Hosny and Emirati upcoming singer Mansour Zayed performed for free (while Kylie Minogue, Nickelback and Eminem performed for paid admission on Yas Island).

In the field of big foreign pop stars, Abu Dhabi is the strongest in the region. twofour54‘s Flash organizes the UAE’s–and in fact the region’s–major pop events, Other global acts that performed in Abu Dhabi were Elton John, Shakira, Rihanna, David Guetta, Madonna, Metallica and Coldplay. Metallica’s 20111 October show saw around 20,000 fans turn up, and this year, Madonna’s 2012 June show was set to see around 45,000 people pushing their way through the turnstiles. Flash is able to pay up to a million dollar for Madonna: in an article entitled ‘Music for the masses: The UAE’s concert industry’ in the Arabian Business magazine, John Lickrish, the managing director of Flash Entertainment, explained its business model, which has been criticized in the past as other parties saw Flash as an extension of Mubadala, the investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi government.  “We do not have any back-up from Mubadala. Concerts were run out of there at one point, but not anymore. It stopped in 2008,” he points out. But as Flash is now part of Abu Dhabi’s government-backed media free zone, twofour54, one might still have questions about fair competition. Business magazine continues: “.. any potential competition to Flash would seriously struggle to match the fees that are being paid to some artists, let alone make a profit on the event”, which essentially means that the firm faces very little large-scale competition. Lickrick: “When you also factor in the fact that Flash will often stipulate that the artists they are interested in booking do not play anywhere else in the region, often for a number of months prior to and past their planned event date, things get even harder for the competition.” If that is the case, the magazine continues, then it seems that Flash has blown the majority of event organizers out of the water.

Regarding classical music, with the ADMAF’s Abu Dhabi Festival there is still a music festival in Abu Dhabi that can receive prestigious foreign orchestras and other major classical and world music artists for a wider audience.

Meanwhile, and mostly initiated through the immigrant communities, some of the major Asian stars perform regularly in Abu Dhabi, but this happens everywhere throughout the Gulf States’ cities that have palpable foreign communities. Usually such concerts aim almost hundred percent at their own communities, Indian stars from various regions even catering almost exclusively to their language community; many of Abu Dhabi’s Indian lower-mid and mid-level employees are from Kerala and bringing Kerala singing stars has become a regular business.

Nowhere in the Emirates is there a major professional symphony orchestra like in Oman and Qatar. There was an amateur classical orchestra, the UAE Philharmonic Orchestra, but that has stopped its activities. Another attempt, centered around Abu Dhabi, has been launched under the name of the United Arab Emirates National Symphony Orchestra

Abu Dhabi has some highly interesting musicians of its own in the pop and youth culture field. Rapper The Narcicyst, alias Yassin Alsalman, an American-Iraqi by origin, is an emerging name. Hip hop duo Desert Heat made a successful album. Rapper Khalifa Al Romaithi, alias K-Multi, a student at Abu Dhabi Men’s College, has come to the limelight, with for instance the song ‘Ana Emirati’ on the occasion of UAE National Day and ‘The World’, dedicated to world peace, along with female rapper Manal Al Ahli, on the occasion of Education Without Borders sponsored by Higher Colleges of Technology. The ibtikar section of twofour54 produced these songs and clips, which both got considerable amounts of hits on YouTube. ‘Think’, another feel-good rap-song and YouTube clip by Khalifa Al Romaithi, also produced by twofour54, was used to introduce the Abu Dhabi Festival of Thinkers to students, intended to introduce a new generation of participants in this event that otherwise might risk being dominated by ‘grey hair’. This is all feel-good rap, but when it comes to harder core music the official attitudes are more reserved. Which comes as no surprise, as in his reelection campaign US President Obama rather would team up with Jay-Z than with Mos Def. That the UAE’s rap culture indeed is not welcome to mirror the widest variety of aspects of the symbolism of their US and European counterparts may be concluded from the fact that Dangour, a Sharjah based rapper, who was said to have promoted a gangsta-rap lifestyle among the youth, was arrested. According to the article Khalifa Al Romaithi, who himself had opened for the UAE concert by US rapper Snoop Dogg (one of the icons of gangsta-rap, although at the same time its friendly face), was quick to condemn Dangour’s implicit messages. “I felt Dangour offended the whole country because of what he did. He lives in an illusion, his own fantasy,” he was quoted as saying.

An emerging Abu Dhabi singer in the more conventional Arabic pop-heartthrob sphere is Mansour Zayed, who was a main act in the Beats on the Beach festival. Another Emirati singer, Hussein Al Jasmi, born near Fujairah but often based in Abu Dhabi, has become a household name by now in mainstream Arabic pop music.

With the wide accessibility of digital music reproduction and recording equipment, and a nation full of adolescent people taking examples from international youth music culture, more emerging artists in urban music culture can be expected. Abu Dhabi, more than other cities apparently, has already produced young founding fathers and an incidental founding mother in this field.

Meanwhile, around the Bait Al Oud, other young people are studying more traditional Arab music. As the Bait Al Oud is the sole music-training institute in the UAE for traditional Arab music, it also attracts students from elsewhere. Ali Al Obeid is a graduate from the Bait Al Oud, originating from Al Fujairah, who is making a name now with his ensemble the Takht Al Emirati (translating into Emirati classical Arabic music ensemble). While the music is mostly based on models from Cairo and Damascus, Al Obeid, with or without the ensemble, increasingly wants to distinguish itself by integrating elements from the local traditional Gulf music cultures, which, though very rich, were until now somewhat neglected.

Another oud player making a name for himself is Faisal Al Saari, who is an Abu Dhabi native and a graduate from the Bait Al Oud too.

Traditional music from the Emirates

The Emirates’ indigenous music has a rich tradition, although it has been somewhat ignored. Several folkloric traditions have always been present in the different Emirates, connected to the various communities living on the sea and on land in the emerging cities, the Bedouin communities, and the mountain and inland oases dwellers. In this respect, the music traditions run parallel to those in the surrounding countries. Originally the traditions were strong, but under the influence of modernization, first from the side of Egyptian culture, then from globalization, traditions risk extinction. This may partly be due to the fact that at least what has been preserved may seem less diverse and refined than the traditional music of Oman and Bahrain. The fact that these two countries are poorer per capita and their populations were less quickly catapulted into the late 20th Century certainly correlates with the better preservation of their traditions. However, there are some associations that try to prevent the traditions from being lost.. Affluent Emiratis increasingly neglect traditions; in fact there is a tendency to denial. But it is even more the influence from Cairo, Beirut and Damascus with their traditions of urban 19th and 20th Century music than the influence from the West that make Emiratis feel almost embarrassed about their own traditions, which they consider more ‘primitive’. On the contrary, the world music culture in the West might even welcome such manifestations of pure folkloric music, as it has embraced so many types of traditional music from the Maghreb and Egypt. But, other than is the case for the many Egyptian and North African musicians that frequent the European stages to earn a living, there are few Emiratis who depend on music for a living. The neglect and even denial of these traditions are somehow in contrast with the efforts to set up these national museums in Abu Dhabi and also Qatar, where the situation is comparable.

It seems there are not that many restrictions when it comes to hosting major Western acts, including the dress code.  There were no restrictions on Rihanna’s wardrobe for the Abu Dhabi gig, and though Madonna omitted her ideas about the catholic church as she would do in Europe, or on Marine Le Pen, the ultranationalist French politician, as such statements would make little sense in Abu Dhabi, she brought all the rest of her recent show.


Wagner Gala in the Emirates Palace Hotel, with Nina Stimme, Petra Lang, Thomas Hengelbrock, April 2010. Photo NeilvdL.

British Bangla Desh choreographer, dancer, singer Akram Khan in the Abu Dhabi Theater March 2010. Photo NeilvdL.


WOMAD festival on the Abu Dhabi Corniche 2010. Photo NvdL.

Written by: Neil Last modified: 16th Nov 2012