Located between two of the world's fastest growing airports and a short distance away from the upcoming Expo 2020 site, Yas Island is about to go into overdrive, according to Miral's CEO, Mohammed Al Zaabi
About 35 kilometres from Abu Dhabi and just 10 kilometres from the city’s airport, there’s a chance that right this second Yas Island developer and Miral CEO, Mohammed Al Zaabi, is strapping himself into the front-seat of a roller coaster.
If not, he might have just stepped off one and is now heading to one of the island’s waterpark slides, or cycling on the Formula One racetrack, or cheering at a talent competition or maybe even looking at when the island’s next big attraction will appear this year so he can give it a try.
Yas Island is quite literally the Miral CEO’s office. Just as well, because Al Zaabi isn’t the kind to spectate from an office window. In fact, when Arabian Business visited him last month, he was shaking hands with visitors and staff in front the Turbo Track ride at Ferrari World before insisting on taking us to Mamma Rosella, the Italian restaurant nearby that he frequents at least once a week.
“It isn’t a five-star place,” he says, “but what they make here is unlike any other place in the city.”
To say Al Zaabi is hands-on would be an understatement, but that isn’t the point, according to the CEO. Abu Dhabi’s theme park destination, Yas Island, is “a very unique place,” he says. “You’ll want to stay here even longer.”
And that’s precisely the plan: to get people to come to Yas and then get them to stay.
Home to Yas Waterworld, Ferrari World, the Viceroy Hotel, Du Arena and the F1 races, Yas Island attracted in excess of 25 million visitors in the year before the last.
“We want to almost double that to 48 million by 2022,” says Al Zaabi.
Planning for growth
This is going to be a big year for Miral. Warner Brothers World Abu Dhabi, being built at a cost of $1 billion is getting ready to open its doors. Abu Dhabi’s latest theme park will have 29 rides across six areas, including those modelled on Gotham City and Metropolis, home to DC Comics icons Batman and Superman.
“We are very excited about this one,” he says. “It will bring a new dimension to the island, a totally unique experience.”
It’s sure to be a major draw, but there are more announcements to come. Yas Island will also unveil Clymb this year, a $100m adrenalin rush that will host the world’s widest flight chamber for those interested in skydiving indoors, as well as the world’s tallest indoor climbing wall. Ferrari World will also introduce two new rides, including one rumoured to be themed around the Mission Impossible franchise; Yas Waterworld will add another ride, too. And topping the year off is a calendar of over 420 events across the island, the most it has ever hosted, including celebrations for the tenth year of the Formula One race in Abu Dhabi.
The Island needs to be “buzzing with activity, always”, says Al Zaabi. And he spends long hours pushing his team to dream up ideas on how to get it to do just that.
“We have to think about what else we can do each time. There are rides and theme parks, yes, but what else? Shopping, golf, over 160 food and beverage outlets, yes. So what now? There should be something for everyone, from teens to families. We’re running talent competitions, winter festival ideas, concerts and community gatherings, each one with the intention of visitors taking memories back home and telling their relatives and friends about the fun they had on the island.”
By 2022, Yas will open the first Sea World outside the US, a marine-life theme park – pointedly, without any killer whales because of the controversy around any ill-treatment of animals that the initial announcement generated. With real estate developer Aldar, Miral has also begun appointing contractors for the $3.2bn (AED12bn) Yas Bay.
The development will focus not just on entertainment and leisure, but will include a new media city, residences for over 10,000 people, an 18,000-capacity indoor arena for concerts, conferences, weddings and sporting events.
But that’s not enough. Every aspect at Yas also “needs” to be integrated, says Al Zaabi, to create “a wall-less resort”. It’s why Miral has signed up transport solutions provider SkyTran to deploy a magnetic levitating transit pod system around the island.
Meant for four passengers at a time, the high-speed pods will function more like taxis than metro rails, creating point-to-point connections to multiple points around the city. That means visitors will be able to get from their hotel to a theme park without having to stop at any other place on the island in between.
With digitised and paperless access to every facility on the island, also in the works, “visitors will be able to get from the Hilton in Yas Bay to Ferrari World in two minutes, then head to Warner Brothers World, and be back at the hotel in time for dinner,” he insists.
Build it and they will come
Speak to Al Zaabi about Yas Island’s future and the conversation will quickly go from a picture of the Middle East’s equivalent of “Orlando and then some” to a Futurama-esque theme park, entertainment and conference destination that is not just near impossible to imagine but almost overwhelming in scale and ambition.
For instance, barely 100km away is Dubai, home to an array of theme parks, hotels and leisure attractions spread across the city, connected via a public transport system that features an automated metro system, public transport buses, and taxis. On Yas Island, Miral’s CEO intends to bring all that, and much, much more, to an island roughly 25 square kilometres wide.
Can the region handle so many theme parks? “It’s an interesting discussion, to be honest,” responds Al Zaabi, but he’s confident that there is room for more.
“You have to understand, that we are growing this organically,” he says, pointing to how there has been a gap between each time Ferrari World announces a new ride, or Yas unveils a new development. “All our businesses are profitable, and that has always been one of our most important priorities.”
Location, location, location “What we are building in the UAE will become the entertainment and leisure hub for more than just the region,” he says. “Think about it: a four hour flight away you have billions of people living in that circle. How do we ensure that people from India, China and Russia come here? I think we can offer much more. And we can become even more attractive for them so that they stay even longer.”
Domestic visitors are always welcome, but the impression is that it’s the international visitors that are the prize. Fortunately, the UAE is an eight-hour flight away from two-thirds of the world’s population.
But if the region benefits from its proximity to more than half of humanity, Yas Island won the ultimate jackpot. It’s just a stone’s throw away from Abu Dhabi Airport (AUH) and so perfectly positioned between the upcoming Midfield Terminal and Dubai World Central, which will soon begin vying for the title of world’s biggest airport.
“Nights spent in Abu Dhabi went from four million in 2012 to 12 million last year, showing how Abu Dhabi has evolved,” says Al Zaabi, adding that traffic at AUH is growing at more than 13 percent per year. “The new airport should help build that even further, and Yas, with more facilities, will attract even more tourists,” he says.
Yas is also a short highway drive away from the Dubai Expo 2020 site, and sure to seduce visitors to the island on business away from work.
“We’re super excited and looking forward to Expo 2020,” Al Zaabi says. “The barriers between business and leisure are disappearing. We want people to come to enjoy the conferences, then in the evening have fun at Ferrari World. And that’s what’s happening.”
Outside the region, the world worries about a soft global economy and how it could affect plans for development and progress. But Al Zaabi isn’t concerned. “Abu Dhabi has evolved,” he says.
“This is diversifying our economy. What I see is a lot of people spending time on the island and the UAE in general, which is obviously great for the economy,” he says. “That’s what I see.”