The most obvious question to ask Mohammed Al Zaabi, the energetic CEO of Abu Dhabi theme park developer Miral Asset Management, is whether he is as much of an adrenaline junkie as his customers are.
“I like it, yes,” he says, more cautiously than one might expect. But he continues: “Actually, when we open a new rollercoaster, I want to be the first person to go on it. Nobody else. I want to be the one to test it for my customers.”
That is the sort of gusto one hopes to get from the man in charge of transforming Abu Dhabi’s 25 million sq m Yas Island into a world-renowned adventure playground to rival the theme park mega-hub that is Orlando, Florida.
Yas Island is 40 percent developed and the third phase started in December — the island is a far cry from the sandy no-man’s land it was before work began in 2006.
Today, it is home to theme parks Ferrari World and Yas Waterworld as well as the Yas Marina Circuit (which hosts the Formula 1 Grand Prix), Yas Mall and a plethora of shops and eateries at Yas Marina, including Italian restaurant Cipriani’s.
But that still leaves 60 percent of the island untouched, and Al Zaabi tells Arabian Business he has his work cut out for him for at least the next five years. Miral was set up by the Abu Dhabi government in 2011 to manage the entertainment components of the island alongside Aldar, which is overseeing the residential and retail strategy.
Asked whether Miral has plans to develop other parcels of land in Abu Dhabi in the coming years, Al Zaabi says: “We are so busy with Yas Island; we call it the dream, we are lucky to be a part of its story.
“Look back to 2006, it was empty space, literally an empty island, and now 11 years on we have a world-class asset bringing all these [components] together in a unique proposition.”
Al Zaabi considers Yas Island crucial to help Abu Dhabi meet the objectives set out in its Economic Vision 2030, which identifies the leisure, tourism and entertainment sectors as key drivers of future economic growth in the emirate.
To drive that growth, Yas Island is targeting 48 million visits by 2021. It recorded 25 million visits in 2015, the last year for which figures are available as the 2016 figures are due to be released this quarter.
Planned new attractions are part of the growth strategy, including Warner Bros World theme park and the Middle East’s first SeaWorld marine park, planned to open in 2018 and 2022, respectively. There are also plans to launch the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall, Clymb, and a 36-seat 5D cinema at Yas Waterworld this year.
Al Zaabi says in the meantime Miral has yet to finish its expansion of Ferrari World. Two new rides are to be completed by the end of this year, he reveals, both of which will be indoor rollercoasters, bringing the total number of rollercoasters at the theme park to five.
The first will be launched in the summer and the second by the end of the year. That will bring the total number of rides in Ferrari World’s portfolio to 39 by the end of 2017 and 43 by the end of phase four, set to complete by 2020. The first three phases cost AED700m ($190m), but Al Zaabi will not be drawn on the cost of the fourth phase.
The first new ride is “scary as usual”, he says, “but not higher than the others. It’s indoors, it’s in the darkness, it’s a totally different experience and the technologies, the story behind it is really wow.”
The last rollercoasters to open at the park were Turbo Track, the park’s highest attraction at 64 metres, which opened in March, and Flying Aces, which opened last year. “My son went on [Turbo Track] and it was the first time in his life he’d been on a rollercoaster. He was so happy we stayed from 11am to 9pm,” says Al Zaabi, who talks at the breakneck speed of one of his rides, and gathers momentum as our interview progresses.
He says the park’s main selling point for visitors is that it is indoors, set at 25 degrees and cushioned from the heat of the UAE summer. Eventually, he wants visitors to be able to move around the entire public space of Yas Island without having to go outside.
“We want to reach a point where people can park their cars somewhere and enter air-conditioned corridors to jump from one place to another. So Yas Mall can be connected to Ferrari World, which can be connected to Clymb.
And people will be able to buy tickets for attractions via their phones and move between them. That will be a fascinating proposition.”
A sophisticated way of moving around the island is via futuristic aerial pods. Al Zaabi says talks are still ongoing between Miral and California-based skyTran, which has developed an elevated, Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system it claims can ferry people to different places at high-speed and with minimal environmental impact. The two parties signed an agreement in 2016 to explore plans for a Yas Island PRT. “We are still in the early stages,” Al Zaabi says.
The most controversial element of Miral’s masterplan has been the SeaWorld aquatic park. Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has repeatedly attacked the plans, particularly in December after Miral and SeaWorld Entertainment Inc announced their partnership to develop the marine-themed park in Abu Dhabi.
PETA said SeaWorld’s 11 parks in the US staged “deplorable displays” that represented cruelty to the marine animals involved, in particular orcas. However, with a new CEO on board since 2015, the New York Stock Exchange-listed firm has pledged to stop its controversial orca breeding programme and curtail future shows involving killer whales.
Al Zaabi confirms: “SeaWorld Abu Dhabi will not have orcas, aligned with the CEO’s new directives, which I understand will mean parks also have a bigger educational element.
“Our park will be a next-generation SeaWorld. The first was built 30 years ago and technology has changed, customer needs and demands have changed, and we are catering to different people. We believe SeaWorld is the right partner for us and the right product.”
Abu Dhabi is not the only GCC state seeking to develop its entertainment sector, with neighbouring Dubai also rolling out schemes, such as IMG Worlds of Adventure and Dubai Parks and Resorts. Saudi Arabia, too, has made headlines in recent months for staging entertainment festivals such as Comic Con, and for the first time starting to build up a leisure and entertainment culture in the kingdom.
Al Zaabi says he is not worried about competition within the Gulf. Increasing Abu Dhabi’s entertainment offer will give people yet more reason to visit the emirate if they were planning to go anyway, by tapping into the diverse needs of holidaying families. “The way I see it is the big picture. Put yourself in the shoes of a tourist from China, Russia, India, Europe, the GCC — the list of reasons to visit becomes longer and more attractive.
“Let’s not forget, the UAE overall is becoming a more attractive destination. Six or seven years ago, it recorded only around 1.5 million tourists; in 2014, that rocketed to 4.1 million and last year it was around 4.4 million. In Abu Dhabi alone, we had 25 million passengers passing through the airport, so there is significant opportunity for growth.”
With Yas Island recording 8-9 percent year-on-year growth in visitors between 2014 and 2015, Al Zaabi says he is confident the 2016 figures will show a rise. “Our goal, our dream, is to have a wellness resort, so once you step in everything’s there for you. Imagine Dad doing morning golf with a nice view over the water, Mum doing her shopping in the mall, the kids enjoying Yas Waterworld or Ferrari World, and in the afternoon they all go to Yas Beach. Then later when the kids are sleeping, Mum and Dad go to Cipriani’s for a romantic dinner.
“That’s what we’re working to create and it’s not just about the hard things, the buildings and infrastructure. It’s also about enriching the customer experience and being a pioneer in this space.”
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