Hollywood to build in Dubai

Studios rush to partner with developers

If there’s one thing Dubai does better than anyone else, it’s construction. So the marriage of entertainment and real estate is the next step.

A slew of film-related theme park deals have been inked over the course of the past few months.

In April, U.A.E.-based real estate company Al Ahli announced a deal with Marvel Entertainment to bring Marvel’s full library of superheroes — including Spider-Man, the X-Men and the Incredible Hulk — to Dubai for a new $1 billion theme park, set to open in 2011.

Mere days later, Al Ahli unveiled another long-term partnership with Nickelodeon that will see such Nick properties as “SpongeBob SquarePants” and “Dora the Explorer” join the Marvel characters in the park.

Not willing to be outdone, fellow real estate company Tatweer announced in May a $2 billion deal with Universal Parks and Resorts to build Universal City Dubailand. The 505-acre development, which will include a 149-acre Universal theme park along with a range of hotels, restaurants and retail outlets, will open in 2010. Given near-year-long soaring temperatures in Dubai, much of the site is likely to be indoors.

Paramount inked a licensing deal in June with Ruwaad Holdings worth $2.5 billion to turn Par properties such as “Mission: Impossible,” “Top Gun” and “The Godfather” into a series of Dubai-based, tourist-friendly parks and rides.

Turning Dubai’s land into a valuable real-estate commodity has been a key part of ruler Sheik Mohammmed Al-Maktoum’s vision for diversifying the emirate’s economy. Aware that its oil resources are finite, the sheik has sought to make Dubai’s land a precious resource. The result is an almost unprecedented construction boom that has seen anything from 5% to 15%, depending onwhich source you believe, of the world’s cranes being used in Dubai.

“There is no doubt that the new projects will contribute to highlighting Dubai as a global tourist destination, providing the tourism sector — one of Dubai’s most active sectors — with a strong drive to diversify the economy,” says Saeed Al-Muntafiq, exec chairman of Tatweer.

While attempts to transpose Hollywood entertainment overseas have had a spotty history — one need only remember the troubled early days of Euro Disney — Dubai’s reliable climate, security and close proximity to the economically booming regions of China and India — not to mention reputation as an oasis of stability in a region more commonly associated with strife — could see tens of millions of tourists descend in the years ahead.

It was inevitable that Hollywood, ever searching for new revenue steams, would seek to get a piece of the pie.

“The U.A.E. is a spectacular center of growing commerce, tourism and entertainment and we look forward to working together to bring a taste of Paramount and Hollywood to this dynamic market,” says Michael Bartok, exec VP and head of Paramount Licensing, which handles licensing for Par, DreamWorks, Paramount Vantage, Nickelodeon Movies and MTV Films.

Further, the family-oriented entertainment on offer is likely to prove a hit with some of the more socially and culturally conservative households in the region, unlike some other more far-fetched attempts to cash in on the construction craze. For example, an attempt this year to open a Dubai branch of eaterie Hooters, replete with scantily clad waitresses, hit a roadblock after local concerns over its inappropriateness.

The theme parks are not likely to face such problems.

“Family destinations have not evolved in pan-Arabia, and it’s time that we cater to that demand and make the investment required for global tourism,” says Mohammed Khammas, CEO of Al Ahli Group.

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