The Day Coldplay Put On The Middle East's Greatest Ever Concert in Abu Dhabi

28 March 2019
Coldplay, Abu Dhabi
ITP Images
Music fans who braved the thunder and rain 10 years ago today were rewarded with a show like no other at Emirates Palace

If you like Coldplay, step this way.

If you’re one of those people who rags on people that like Coldplay, we ask you to take your prejudice, put it a little box, tie that box with a little bow and stick it in a drawer where you can forget about it for a now. Then join us.

Ten years ago today, on the lawns of Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, Coldplay played the greatest, and argaubly most important, concert in the history of live music in the UAE, and maybe the Middle East. There, we’ve said it.

Those who were there, know.

All the ingredients that make for a great show came together spectacularly on March 28, 2009.

A band at the top of their game; thunder and rain; and, above all, a hungry, appreciative home crowd still unspoiled by the feast of acts that will play there in years to come.

“To this day, the 2009 Coldplay concert is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, show I have ever been to,” Mo Anabtawi, a Dubai resident and account manager, remembers. “This is coming from a hard rock and Metal fan. Everything stood out. The unique, moody weather changes, the fact that everyone at the venue was up for it. Chris Martin and co sounded great and played a pretty tight jam.”

Before 2007, the live music scene in Abu Dhabi, and the rest of the emirates, was practically non-existent. There had been some one-off acts. Sting had played Dubai in 2001. And Robbie Williams at Nad Al Sheba in 2006 was easily the biggest happening at the time. Otherwise, breadcrumbs.

Then, Abu Dhabi’s Flash Entertainment came along and changed the game.

Justin Timberlake at Emirates Place in 2007 set the tone. George Michael followed with a memorable gig at Zayed Sports City stadium in 2008, and on December 31, 2008, Shakira closed out a landmark year for music fans in the region.

In 2009, came Coldplay.

The British band had just finished their hugely successful Viva La Vida tour and had been convinced to play more concert in sunny Abu Dhabi on their way home. Not band or audience could have dreamed of what came next.

For many of us, the increasingly cloudy Saturday afternoon started with a drive down from Dubai. When we eventually made it to Emirates Palace, it was hard not to bump into friends from not just Abu Dhabi, but around the Middle East too. Everyone was buzzing, and already there was feeling that this was going to be a special night. Though not in any way we expected.

In the hours before the band were due to make it onstage, the heavens opened.

"The plan on the day was to go to AD with a group of friends who rented a mini-bus, and the journey was fun, full on singalongs," says Dubai resident Omar Abu Omar. "The weather conditions throughout the evening, thunder, lightning, heavy showers, were very British conditions, which is something Chris Martin joked. The walk to the massive lawn area outside Emirates Palace was long but fun, there were at least 15,000 people out there, if not more," 

The majority of the crowd, it became clear, was woefully unprepared for such unrelenting downpour. Some ran for whatever cover they could get. Others fashioned pitiful vests from plastic bags. And the rest of us simply suffered in anticipation.

But nobody left.

Speaking to The National newspaper last year John Lickrish, CEO of Flash Entertainment, and the man responsible for bringing Coldplay to Abu Dhabi, recalls the band being reluctant to play for safety reasons, and thinking the fans at the venue had been “bused over” to swell the numbers.

But nobody left.

“Chris looked over at the band and said, come on man, we gotta play,” Lickrish said.

And how they played.

In those tense moments before Martin, Will Champion, Jonny Buckland and Guy Berryman finally walked on stage, under the thunder and lightning, something had changed.

The crowd, soaked beyond the point that anyone could possibly care anymore, had grown in resolve. UAE crowds were not used to such adverse conditions. They were not supposed to put up with this.

But a crowd simply hoping to have a night to remember a few hours earlier, was now hell-bent on having one, come rain or more rain.

As the early bars of “Life In Technicolour” kicked in, on this greyest of grey days, the 18,000 crowd closed ranks, heat from the hive of bodies visibly rising into the damp early evening sky. They were about to have the night of their lives.

“Violet Hill”, “Clocks”, “In My Place” and “Yellow” were a barnstorming opening to the night, and the pace rarely drooped after that.

“Fix you”, perhaps Coldplay’s most poignant song, was the audience’s turn to shine, as ever.

The band momentarily disappeared before popping up on a second, secret stage among the now delirious fans.

By that point the rain had mercifully eased off.

As Martin settled behind his piano, a group of fans in the front row pleaded with him to invite a birthday girl to the stage. Sure enough, he pulled up a chair for the disbelieving young fan before getting stuck into “The Hardest Part”.

 

Then, “Viva La Vida” and “Lost!”, two of the biggest hits from their latest album, were followed by yet another stage change for an acoustic set.

An unexpected cover of Neil Diamond’s “I’m A Believer” (made famous by The Monkees), was gleefully received, “when I needed sunshine I got rain” an apt summation of the conditions.

Martin ended the song by serenading the various section of the crowd; “are you in love?”

The people in front. The people in the middle. And the “rich people at the very back in the VIP section, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude and indeed money, are you in love?”.

“Ooooh, I’m a believer” the crowd sang back.

 

And then it was all over.

But of course, nobody left.

Two encores followed.

“Thank you everybody,” Martin said. “As audiences go, and we’ve had a few, I can tell you that the official results are in, and you guys are ranking No1 in the world. For putting up with the weather, and the band.”

“The Scientist” and Life In Technicolour II” played out the show.

I can hear it coming,
Like a serenade of sound,
Now my feet won't touch the ground

“Thank you very much everybody, Ma Alsalama,” Martin said, showing off his Arabic mid-song.

Gravity, release me,
And don't ever hold me down,
Now my feet won't touch the ground

“Happy 2009 everybody,” he added. “Shukran, shukran, shukran. Thank you, thank you, thank you, goodbye everybody.”

Susan Parker, now living in her native Scotland, remembers a show like no other.

“It remains, to this day, one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to,” she says. “I’ve seen Coldplay again since and it wasn’t quite the same. The venue, the atmosphere and, maybe especially the weather, all made it a very memorable night."

Parker is no stranger to concerts in stormy conditions but this, she says, was different.

“I’m Scottish, so, of course I’ve been to many a gig in the rain,” she adds. “There is nothing that binds an audience more than getting absolutely soaked through whilst singing along to your favourite song. There were torrential downpours that night in Abu Dhabi, yet it only enhanced the incredible atmosphere of the night and mood of the audience, rather than put a dampener on it.”

A concert in danger of not even taking place earlier had lasted two and half hours. 

“It was probably one of the greatest moments of my life to see… our team be able to get the event done in such adverse conditions,” Lickrish told The National.

Coldplay would go on to say the Abu Dhabi show was the best of their whole tour. The fans were equally gushing.

“It was the best concert I’ve ever been to,” says Samer Hamadeh, the man behind Stereo Arcade and Akiba Dori and a rock music fanatic. “But calling it a concert is an understatement; lightning streaking across the sky, the sound of thunder drowned by the sound of the crowd; and Chris Martin drenched in the rain like the rest of us. It was like being in a movie.”

 

Some have been waiting years to experience a repeat of the magical night.

“I don't think I wanted that night to end,” adds Anabtawi. “The fact that 10 years on people still reflect on that gig as a benchmark speaks volumes. Now, I hope we get a similar, if not better, experience with the Foo Fighters. Bring them here.”

The Foo Fighters have yet to make it to Abu Dhabi, but following Coldplay’s appearance, the live music scene would experience an explosion rarely seen around the world, and never anywhere else in the Middle East.

Thanks to the launch of Formula One racing in 2009 at Yas Marina Circuit, and its concert holding arena, the likes of Aerosmith, Kings Of Leon, Beyonce, Jamiroquai, Kanye West, Linkin Park, Prince Britney Spears, Paul McCartney, Kylie Minogue, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, Metallica, Snoop Dogg, Madonna and Guns N Roses would all play in Abu Dhabi in a few short years. 

Many others followed, and no doubt the now-savvy crowds sometimes take their good fortune for granted.

But not those who experienced the one night 10 years ago that changed everything. Those who never left, and got rerwarded with one of the best nights of their lives.

“At the very end of the gig, they released huge balloons into the audience and to the backdrop of the rain and Emirates Palace, it was an incredible scene,” Parker says.

That’s how we all remember it.