Inside the Middle East’s private gig gravy train for musicians, from Beyoncé to Michael Jackson
It was a pop concert that reportedly lasted for just one hour. And yet Beyoncé’s decision to perform a glitzy show in Dubai on Saturday night has drawn stinging criticism from fans who felt the decision fell foul of the Emirates’ draconian stance on gay rights.
The pop megastar’s first live concert in four years – a ‘private’ affair for 1,500 invited guests to mark the opening of Dubai’s vast Atlantis the Royal hotel – certainly sounded like a humdinger. Billed on the invitation as a “once-in-a-lifetime performance”, it featured three costume changes, an appearance by Beyoncé’s daughter Blue Ivy and dancing by the Mayyas, a Lebanese all-female dance troupe who won the last series of America’s Got Talent.
Guests included Kendall Jenner and Rebel Wilson. At one point, 41-year-old Beyoncé was reportedly propelled 16ft into the air in the middle of the hotel’s vast Skyblaze fountain while it breathed fire around her. The singer is said to have earned just under £20 million – equivalent to a cool £333,333 a minute – for the gig, which kind of makes sense at a place where a suite can cost almost £4,500 a night.
What’s decidedly less cool are the politics. Observers pointed out the hypocrisy of Beyoncé performing in the United Arab Emirates where same-sex relationships are illegal and punishable by imprisonment or death. The musician is an icon in the gay community. Her latest album Renaissance is a celebration of club culture and therefore LGBT culture. Thematically it revels in escapism, body positivity and self-expression. Bev Jackson, co-founder of advocacy group LGB Alliance, said the performance “casts a shadow over her support for lesbians and gay people”.
Many fans took to Twitter to compare Beyoncé with David Beckham, the former footballer paid millions to promote Qatar, another country which forbids same-sex relations, during the recent World Cup. Worse, many of Beyoncé’s collaborators on Renaissance – from which, it should be said, she didn’t play any tracks – are vocal advocates of LGBT rights. A representative of Honey Dijon, the transgender DJ who produced some of Renaissance and has been nominated for a Grammy next month, did not reply to my request for comment on Beyoncé’s gig. Neither did Beyoncé’s UK representative provide comment.
It's not the first time Beyoncé’s performances have drawn ire: in 2010 she gave at a private concert for one of the sons of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi on the Caribbean island of St Barts, earning a reported $2m for five songs. (It was later reported that she donated the money to charity.)
But Beyoncé is far from alone. In reality, the private concert gravy train – which sees the world’s most famous musicians performing one-off or behind-closed-doors shows for individuals or corporations for fat pay cheques in lavish locations – has been chugging along comfortably for decades. Almost every successful musician does it, from Sting and Lenny Kravitz to Katy Perry and Andrea Bocelli.
It’s hard to pinpoint when it started in earnest, but the benchmark for modern private concerts was set in 1996 when Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah celebrated his 50th birthday. Spanning a fortnight, the celebrations included not one but two concerts by Michael Jackson. The ‘smaller’ of these took place at private dinner party in front of 3,000 guests including, it was reported, the then-Prince of Wales. The larger one happened in a specially constructed stadium in front of an audience of 60,000 people. Jackson was said to have been paid a $17 million for his performances, or $32 million in today’s money.
The Persian Gulf is fast becoming the go-to region for private or corporate concerts. It used to be Russia. But since oligarchs were hit with sanctions last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the axis has shifted south to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar. High profile sporting events like the Qatar World Cup and Grands Prix in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi have helped raise the oil-rich region’s profile. And now it’s party time.
Bob Van Ronkel spent over two decades arranging appearances in Russia and other former Soviet countries by Western acts such as A-ha and Tom Jones via his Los Angeles-based Doors to Hollywood company. After the Ukraine invasion he switched his attention to the Persian Gulf, where he now has five people working on the ground. These people are “very connected with princes, ministries of culture, and owners of the biggest projects and land developments” and they’ve also “networked 1,300 new contacts on LinkedIn”, Van Ronkel says from a Beverly Hills office bedecked with photos of him with the likes of Katy Perry, Kanye West and Kiss’s Gene Simmons.
The result is a booming Persian Gulf private concert scene that reminds him of Russia in the early 2000s. “I’ve got somebody that’s asking for Adele. I’ve got a lot of requests for bands for concerts. A lot of these people seem like they’re first-timers who have money behind them. Someone called me last week about doing Cher in Dubai,” he says.
The kind of parties that Van Ronkel has arranged in the past sound mind-blowing. He once took Kanye West to Kazakhstan for a party for the grandson of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev (“they tried to get Jay-Z, who was extremely expensive”). West performed in a small club for 100 of the grandson’s best friends. The rapper’s fee, while high, was “much less” than the $3 million reported at the time. “It’s incredible to see the kind of money that was spent for 100 people, but Kanye wrote something that was important to them and I was lucky enough to be able to deliver,” says Van Ronkel. He once convinced Tom Jones to sing What’s New Pussycat? at the 80th birthday party of an oligarch’s mother in Turkey. “I took Paul Anka to Mongolia…”
As this last comment suggests, not all performers are strictly red hot A-listers. One-hit-wonder Chesney Hawkes performed in Qatar during the World Cup. Van Ronkel gets regular requests for the Backstreet Boys. A member of US band Sugar Ray, whose biggest hit was in 1999, recently told Rolling Stone that he earns roughly half his annual income from such events. And why not? Income per gig can be seven times the usual rate. Nostalgic hits from yesteryear can be milked. And milked.
Not that it’s easy. Dust off your smallest violin here but bands still have to rehearse, travel across numerous time zones, soundcheck, pay their agents, their managers and their production costs. And – back to Beyoncé – there are plenty of arguments in her defence. In playing in Dubai, she was simply yielding to market forces. Many fans have pointed out that while Beckham took money from a state, Beyoncé took money from a hotel chain. There’s a difference. Besides, no rules were broken. She was doing what hundreds of other acts have done before.
Then there’s The Robbie Williams Defence. The British superstar was criticised for playing a show in Qatar during the World Cup. He argued that if he refused to perform in places where there were no human rights abuses, the list of locations where he could play would be very short indeed. “I don’t condone any abuses of human rights anywhere. But, that being said, if we’re not condoning human rights abuses anywhere, then it would be the shortest tour the world has ever known: I wouldn’t even be able to perform in my own kitchen,” Williams said in November.
He also suggested hypocrisy on the part of people who criticised him via technologies owned by China, a country hardly known for its pristine human rights record. In a likely reference to Chinese-owned video hosting platform TikTok and Huawei mobile phone handsets, he noted that “anybody leaving messages saying ‘No to Qatar’ are doing so on Chinese technology.”
So the players gonna play whether we like it or not. Van Ronkel believes demand in the Middle East will continue to rise. “I have five people on the ground now, I hope in the next couple of months I’ll have five more,” he says. But it seems that inflation isn’t merely hitting our weekly shops and energy bills – the cost of megastars is going through the roof. While a Jennifer Lopez or a Rod Stewart might have cost a million dollars in 2000, Beyoncé’s reported pay packet takes the fees to dizzying new heights. “These people are really hot,” says Van Ronkel. That’s as may be. But somehow I’m sure people will find the money somewhere.