He's the world's most famous self-help guru, and this week the Tony Robbins show comes to Dubai. But, have his recent controversies raised questions about his techniques?
How much would you pay to make your life better? At least $400 if you’re a Tony Robbins fan in Dubai.
The world’s most famous self-help guru made his millions by “rewiring” everyone from Donald Trump and Nelson Mandela to Princess Diana and Oprah Winfrey.
His most exclusive annual membership programme will cost you an eye-watering $85,000 – a small price to pay to “transform your life”, which is what the 59-year-old self-professed life coach promises his over 50 million followers and 4 million fans who have attended his events.
And why not? The life coaching industry is an estimated $1bn business expected to grow 6.7 percent to $1.34bn by 2022, according to marketresearch.com. The average life coach income? Somewhere between $27,100 and $73,100 a year. All you have to do is complete 60 hours of training to become a member of the International Coach Federation, which means anyone can become a life guru for 8.5 hours of daily training in just one week.
You can start with Robbins’ Achieve the Unimaginable seminar in Dubai on September 3, where ticket prices start at AED1,499 ($408) and go up to AED19,997 per person in return for Robbins’ help to “discover your greatness, live your passion, attract wealth and abundance, achieve your goals and master massive success” – all in less than 24 hours (10 hours, to be precise).
Sounds impossible? Not in the astounding environment Robbins creates for attendees. His seminars come alive under dazzling club lights, pulsing club music and Robbins’ own riveting energy. These are events where crowd-surfing, roaring, crying, laughing, dancing and hugging are regular occurrences and can easily be mistaken for a concert, rave or mass fitness group class.
Love him or hate him, Robbins is a marketing genius. But even geniuses and life coach millionaires find themselves in trouble.
The self-development figure needed help himself in May this year, when Buzzfeed News revealed a year-long investigation based on leaked recordings, internal documents and dozens of interviews with fans and insiders who claim that the celebrity life coach “berated abuse victims and subjected his followers to unorthodox and potentially dangerous techniques. And former female fans and staffers have accused him of inappropriate sexual advances”.
He responded with an open letter to Buzzfeed News, where he claims the investigative piece is “inaccurate, agenda-driven” and “pierced with falsehoods”. He wrote: “It is intended to disparage me personally, my family, my life’s work, and the efforts of the millions of individuals around the world who have taken this journey with me over the last 40-plus years.”
Did he change something in me or at least my mindset? I would say no, but it was a motivational boost
Robbins’ techniques at his shows, which include shock value and aggressive and sometimes inappropriate language, have worked for him since the mid-1980s, with his popularity having continued to grow through the rise of social media platforms. But is the empire he built slowly unravelling at the seams?
The Buzzfeed investigation came a year after Robbins criticised the #metoo movement which encouraged victims of sexual assault and harassment to speak out. It encouraged high-profile responses from the likes of Uma Thurman, Jennifer Lawrence and Gwyneth Paltrow and ultimately led to the arrest of some of Hollywood’s most famous figures including American film producer Harvey Weinstein.
But at a three-day seminar in March 2018, Robbins claimed that many women in the #metoo movement were “victimising themselves” and did so in order to gain “significance”. He later apologised and said he has nothing but “profound admiration” for the #metoo movement.
It will be Robbins’ second time speaking in Dubai this year, as he took part in the World Government Summit (WGS) in February where he announced plans to feed 1 billion people around the world as part of a personal humanitarian project.
Alia Hussain Al Hammadi, the CEO of Emirati-led recruitment start-up Mesh, was invited to attend Robbins’ session by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Leadership Development (MBRCLD), but she tells Arabian Business that while most attendees enjoyed the February event, some left the session because of what she describes as “differences in UAE traditions and culture”.
“We were asked to attend as part of the leadership programme and to experience the whole motivational journey that Tony had… We received specific material because the MBRCLD programme were the organisers of the Tony Robbins event as part of the WGS so we received extra information as the participants of the programme.
“The whole session was high tempo from the beginning to the end. So one of the comments I received was, ‘Oh my God, the session is turning into a disco session, I need to exit ASAP’, although I know that the instructions that were given to Tony, since he’s coming to the UAE and the Gulf region, is you need to lower your tempo a little bit and not go outside the context where you use some words,” Al Hammadi says.
The CEO says she preferred the session with British-American author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek, who also spoke at the WGS.
I am not a fan of his tactics, but a fan of his wisdom, the things he says, but I’m not a fan of his ways
“To me personally, Simon Sinek’s thinking and the pace lasts longer than Tony Robbins’… I agree somehow that there is a show, he is a performer, he’s a great performer, and this is his uniqueness [but] personally if I look at the topics, and depth of topics, we discussed with Simon Sinek, it’s much more in depth and it’s long lasting ideas, especially that I’m starting a start-up so I’m trying to shift my mindset into the entrepreneurial mindset. It was more relevant to me.
“Somehow [Robbins’ session] was a show because to me, he’s a performer at the end of the day. I did not come to see if he’s a real life coach. But the examples he shares through his videos on YouTube and the testimonials from celebrities show that he is a real life coach and has impacted and changed people’s lives. Did he change something in me or at least my mindset? I would say no, but it was a motivational boost. Sometimes you need to have energy and you drink vitamin C to get some energy – that was the boost [for me],” Al Hammadi says.
In a 2012 article, personal development consultant and author of The Subtle Art… A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, Mark Manson, said Robbins “knows how to market helping people”.
“I don’t watch much TV, but if there were a channel that played Tony Robbins seminars non-stop, I’d watch it like a teenage girl glued to an America’s Next Top Model marathon…” he said.
“A good friend of mine who is a psychologist and therapist refers to Robbins as the Batman of Psychology – sometimes he has to break the rules and do some unethical things, but it’s always for the greater good.”
Manson’s comments about Robbins are mirrored by Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Dubai-based community mental health and wellness clinic The Lighthouse Arabia.
“I am very familiar with him. I am not a fan of his tactics, but a fan of his wisdom, the things he says, but I’m not a fan of his ways and I have never been to any of his events, and I would never go to one of his events,” she tells Arabian Business.
Her argument? Robbins is “dangerous”.
You can’t compare someone who studied for four years to someone who studied for one week. I’m not [degrading] life coaching. I’m saying it how it is
“As a clinical psychologist, I find him quite dangerous in the way he approaches people, and obviously we will not hear the downsides to his ways. We will not hear about the people who actually lost it once they’ve been to one of his events… We only hear the upside. We don’t hear the downside, and as a clinical psychologist, when I see what he’s doing, he could actually be doing a lot of harm to a lot of people in that crowd when he approaches sexual abuse victims and doesn’t ask them if he can hug them.
“The things we saw in his documentary [I Am Not Your Guru], it can actually be quite triggering for other people in the crowd... There is no before or after care. He might have worked with celebrities and presidents, but I don’t think he’s worked with them in a crowd of 2,000 people, telling them off and almost humiliating them. I think he’s done it one-on-one so his ways with them I’m sure are different.”
Afridi says Robbins relies a lot on what she considers to be the ‘placebo effect’. A placebo, which is a substance that resembles drugs but is made of inactive material, is used in research studies and has been known to cure medical conditions and symptoms such as chronic pain, depression, anxiety and autoimmune deficiencies. It proved that patients with a positive opinion are more likely to respond favourably to placebos than those with a negative opinion.
Afridi says Robbins’ production elements, including music, sound and room energy, results in a placebo effect as attendees’ bodies release chemicals such as dopamine, which helps control emotional responses such as feelings of pleasure as part of the reward and motivation system; and creatinine, which is a compound produced by metabolism.
While the Dubai clinical psychologist acknowledges the strong placebo effect Robbins’ shows can have in the short-term, she says he is “absolutely not” qualified to deal with mental health patients.
She also believes that aftercare and continued growth is what is important, not a short-term fix.
“He is very charismatic and there is a seduction to Tony Robbins’ ways and his voice and his looks, and you just want to believe what he has to say. Some people just have that power of influence… I don’t think he’s interested in why you’re depressed or what led to that depression… He just says let go of that and move into another [state], which can actually – in short terms results – maybe fine, but long term results, [people] might actually be disassociating with that part of them.”
An Emirati counsellor and social entrepreneur who prefers to remain anonymous tells Arabian Business Robbins is “very dramatic because that’s what he makes money from, because he makes people emotional.”
I’ve always been against overcharging people who are desperate and in need of knowledge
“Some people sell you la la land and dreams. I don’t want a nice talk to make me feel good or high when I’m in a lecture. I want to apply what you teach me in my home, office and life. A lot of people go to lectures and they feel high for two days [then] when they try to apply it, it doesn’t work. Then they find another lecture and feel high, then it becomes an addiction.”
She adds that “everybody now thinks they are life coaches”, calling the title “overrated and given more weight than it should”.
She says she helps people organise their lives, but doesn’t promise to change them.
“You go for a course then you go coach a few people and you get the certificate. How can you coach someone if you’re not qualified to help people? I’m against thinking you’re a life coach and a psychologist. You can’t compare someone who studied for four years to someone who studied for one week. I’m not [degrading] life coaching. I’m saying it how it is.
“Mental health is not my field. Anybody who comes to me with a mental health issue, I direct them to a psychiatrist.”
Dr Afridi agrees that the life coaching industry has become a business, rather than a responsibility, arguing that psychologists have to pick up the pieces where life coaches have done damage.
“There are people who go to these one week certifications, [but] regardless of what your inner gifts are, that is just not enough credentials for you to be guiding people through a difficult period in their lives. People need to be careful. It’s a huge responsibility. We go to school for years and have thousands of hours of supervision before we can sit in front of someone and say, ‘listen, you’re in a bad place, I’m going to sit with you and get you through this bad place.”
“Everybody has just made this a business rather than something that is actually a huge responsibility. There are a lot of people who come to us after they’ve been to a relationship coach. They didn’t need a relationship coach. They needed a psychologist because they have a history of trauma or a personality disorder. I can’t tell you how many people come to us because damage has been worsened because a coach used maybe the Tony Robbins way and said, ‘what did you do to attract this abuse?’ You don’t ask things like that. You don’t unravel a person unless you know they have the resources to focus on something like that and it’s really dangerous. It’s not just irresponsible. It’s actually dangerous.”
But fans of Robbins quickly come to his defence. “Certifications [don’t] really make one qualified to do certain things. I do listen to his podcasts and I do find it very interesting,” one fan tells us.
Another fan, psychologist Hiba Balfaqih and founder of The Smash Room – a warehouse in Dubai which allows you to break up everyday items in order to release your aggression – says Tony Robbins is the “man who changed my life”.
“My first ever [Tony Robbins] event was UPW in 2017 and it was life changing. I cannot describe the environment in words because it was phenomenal. 15,000 people in a room full of energy, love and a common goal of creating a better life for love and a common goal of creating a better life for themselves.
“Some people like boot camps, where somebody is screaming at you to do 100 burpees, and some people like yoga… both methods work, neither is right or wrong. Tony might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but he certainly is mine. He’s the man that changed my life. I enjoy his courses, workshops and events. I’ve also walked on fire and that by itself was life changing,” she says.
Balfaqih stumbled upon Robbins five years ago after battling diabetes and depression, and losing AED1.5m [dirhams] in a business deal.
“I hit rock bottom and then one day I accidentally stumbled upon Tony on YouTube. For the first time, I felt like somebody understands me and was talking straight to me. I quickly started binge watching everything he had on YouTube, moved on to his audio books and then three years later graduated from his master university. After his first event, I quit my job, started three successful businesses, and started living the life of my dreams. I’ll forever be grateful to him.”
Nido Abdo, business coach at Dubai Mastermind, says Robbins “opened his eyes” to alternative ways of thinking and dealing with problems.
“2005 was a very difficult year for me. I had every imaginable problem you can think of. Going through school, I played soccer and my biggest problem was that I had a big injury so I couldn’t play anymore... I spent two months in my attic because I didn’t know how to deal with my problems. I was going through a challenge and I didn’t know who to talk to…
“But my encounter with Tony and his material empowered and helped me come out of that state. I can speak from personal experience that whatever message he shared helped me today. I can’t give him all the credit because I did a lot of the work, but today I can handle a lot of the things I couldn’t handle, so I do feel he’s qualified to help people,” he says.
Abdo says while he is a fan of Robbins’, he wouldn’t spend $85,000 for his platinum coaching programme.
“No I wouldn’t spend that much... I love [Cristiano] Ronaldo but me paying that much just to meet him? A lot of people pay for that close relationship and a lot of people love the guru that they’d pay any amount of money to be close to him, because they’re hyper fans of his. I’m not, because everyone is different. I’m an Arsenal fan but I’m not going to fly to London. I’m happy to watch them on TV. It doesn’t make me less of a fan,” he says.
Talib Hashim, founder of TBH boutique consultancy for workforce and business localisation, has never been to a Robbins seminar but says the teachings in his book Awaken the Giant Within were “profound”.
“Some of the stuff he wrote about were quite profound to me personally, for example how you can suddenly change and adapt your behaviour, especially when he talks about the pianist who has to atone the piano strings so they can play the right tune, it’s the same thing when it comes to our habits.
“I also tried to follow some of his morning routines like self-information physical exercise and visualisation in the morning and meditation in the evening,” he says.
However, Hashim says Robbins is “not my number one go-to person when it comes to personal development teachings” and agrees that his style is “unusual and eccentric”.
“I realised that when he started making people walk on fire or charcoal. People I spoke to would always point out how loud he was and animated he has been. Where it started being funny is the recent accusations of bullying and harassment… These are allegations so far… As a person who’s interested in personal development, if I ask myself, ‘would I stop consuming Tony Robbins content, would I stop citing him?’ At this moment now, I wouldn’t because the allegations are not confirmed.”
While Hashim says the allegations are based on a small percentage of people, “the damage is already done” to his reputation.
Hashim says he will not attend the Robbins show in Dubai due to the high ticket price.
“I’ve been in this field, I’ve run my own workshop, not in coaching but in my own niche, and I’ve also run programmes to train university students and fresh graduates, and I have a belief that when you are a provider of knowledge, when you’re in that position, there has to be a point where you say, ‘okay, do I want to actually take advantage of people’s need of my knowledge by charging them exorbitant amounts of money?’ Yes it has to be profitable but there has to be a balance.
“But Tony Robbins last time I checked he is almost a billionaire in UAE dirhams value. He obviously didn’t get that by charging low amounts. So, for me, as a matter of principle, if I’m going to invest, I’m not going to invest that much. I’ve always been against overcharging people who are desperate and in need of knowledge,” he says.
Joining Robbins on stage in Dubai are New York Times bestseller and motivational speaker Nick Vujicic, who was born without arms and legs and has inspired millions around the world to overcome their physical and mental challenges; singer songwriter Alicia Keys, who has sold over 40 million records and won 15 Grammy awards; and Prince EA, a keynote speaker and poet.
Hashim says bringing a line-up of celebrities is “spreading the risk” of bringing someone as controversial as Robbins to Dubai.
“The first thing that crossed my mind when I heard about Tony Robbins coming to Dubai and the UAE was, ‘yes we are a multicultural society but we are still unlike the US’. Some of his techniques and style of coaching are very animated. I was a little sceptical if it will actually resonate with a lot of people so him jumping around and doing the exercises. This is a multicultural society so you will have people from different nationalities who are used to consuming knowledge in a certain way.”
Afridi of The Lighthouse Arabia says she will be interested to see if this show differs to the version he uses around the world.
“He can’t approach certain women, he can’t hug them or high five them. There’s a way of being that he does that is extremely invasive. He gets right up in your stuff, hugging and touching. He asks everyone to hug each other. All of that is happening so I don’t know how some of these things which drive a lot of the energy in the room [will happen]. I’d be interested to see how he does without them,” she says.
Dr Afridi says Robbins’ popularity will not be affected by the recent allegations.
“Anyone who wants to trust him will trust him regardless of what he says. They will defend him and say he’s just a straight shooter, this is just how he is. There are people who think it, but don’t say it. Anyone can come to his defence if they really are a Tony Robbins fan, so I don’t think his popularity will be affected by that because everyone needs something or someone to believe in and he’s someone to believe in.”
Robbins has refused several requests by Arabian Business for an interview ahead of his September 3 event, for which 8,000 tickets were sold so far, organisers said last week. People from 46 countries are expected to come and listen to him speak.
While Robbins will handpick people from an estimated crowd of 10,000 in Dubai and hold them responsible for their actions, the question that remains is, who will hold the self-help guru millionaire accountable for his?
*Arabian Business sent a list of questions to Tony Robbins’ team, but did not receive any response at the time of publication.
Born Anthony J. Mahavoric in California, on February 29, 1960, he is an entrepreneur, bestselling author and philanthropist and regarded as the world’s number one life coach.
Here are some of his big achievements: