Dubai woos stars for way more than a song


Those who fetch $130 for a barrel of oil can call the tune these days. And it seems the tune is becoming so catchy that even Madonna, the original Material Girl, might be singing soon in this rich Gulf city-state.

Flush with oil dollars, Dubai is no longer satisfied with being just a business, tourist and sports mecca. It's trying to boost its prestige by pouring money into entertainment to lure the music industry's priciest stars.

Santana's February concert in Dubai was sold out. Last week, Jon Bon Jovi performed in Abu Dhabi, the Emirates' capital just a short ride down the coast.

Justin Timberlake, Elton John, Pink, Aerosmith, Destiny's Child and the Gypsy Kings have entertained Western, Asian and Arab expatriates in the past few months in this string of seven semiautonomous states in the Persian Gulf. Music fans regularly fly in from Cairo, Beirut and elsewhere across the Middle East to hear their idols.

But a Madonna concert — if it happens — would take the musical glitz to a new level.

This month, the Dubai-based Gulf News daily and the tabloid 7 Days reported that the pop diva would come to Dubai this year on a tour organized by Live Nation, the Los Angeles-based events company, to promote her new album, "Hard Candy."

Madonna might perform twice, the newspapers reported, citing event organizers familiar with the plans — at a public concert and at a private party, a first in her decades-long career. The price tag for the performances: more than $20 million, the papers said.

So far, however, Madonna's publicists are publicly staying mum.

Nasim Tabatabaei, marketing and public relations manager for Live Nation Middle East, based in Dubai, said Madonna still was putting her tour together.

"She had offers from everywhere, and that could include the Emirates," Tabatabaei said.

The mania over the possible Madonna concert is a reflection of the fact that the Emirates have seen "a huge jump in events here, both in the number of people attending concerts and in the significance of artists performing," said Thomas Ovesen, managing director of Middle East AEG Live, the regional arm of an international company that produces live events worldwide.

The music boom fits in with the Dubai ruler's ambitious plans to make the city attractive for the rich and famous, and to fuel mass tourism. Glitzy top-level sports, like March's Dubai Tennis Championship, are another factor.

In terms of the concert scene, Dubai has people and firms that can pay top dollar "even though the event might not be commercially viable," Ovesen said.

Artists who perform in Dubai expect to earn "twice as much" as they do in the U.S. or Europe, Ovesen said. He refused to disclose how much Bon Jovi walked away with after his performance for a crowd of 17,000 in Abu Dhabi. His company helped organize the concert in one of the most expensive hotels ever built, the Emirates Palace.

Not everyone is happy about the high production costs.

It's "good that Dubai is on the radar screen of the world's major promoters," said Abdullatif al-Sayegh, CEO of Arab Media Group, which along with Viacom's MTV Networks International owns MTV Arabia.

But it's "not so good that we are paying twice or three times as much" for concerts as do promoters in the U.S. and Europe, he said.