Fast and Furious: Abu Dhabi, the Hollywood of the Middle East


The cast of Furious 7 on the steps of the Etihad Towers. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

The Etihad Towers, five gleaming skyscrapers that range from 55 to 75 stories high, linger over the Abu Dhabi skyline. They’re nestled together, each only about 100 feet apart, alongside the Persian Gulf, the desert sun constantly reflecting off the windows in cinematic fashion. It’s these buildings that brought the production of Furious 7, the seventh installment in Universal’s The Fast and The Furious franchise, here in April of 2014. The film, now the fifth-highest grossing movie of all time, centered on the exotic decadence of the city, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

“There’s misconceptions all over Fox and CNN because when something really bad happens, like September 11th or ISIS or any type of terrorism, it’s so heavily publicized all over TV and newspapers,” Tyrese Gibson, one of the film’s stars, says. He’s taken to coming to Abu Dhabi since Furious 7 wrapped production there and has befriended many of the city’s notorious billionaires. On this trip, in honor of Furious 7’s upcoming digital release on August 25 and Blu-ray and DVD release on September 15, the actor has donned the traditional garb with great pride. “That does exist,” he adds. “A lot of stuff is happening, but there’s so much beauty that’s independent of these hate groups in the Middle East.”


Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. (Photo: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque)

Abu Dhabi, the more business-like sibling of its neighboring metropolis Dubai, represents a facet of the Middle East that is, in fact, unlike the one we see daily on the news. It’s heavily Westernized, although still ruled by Islamic moral codes, and safe. It has five-star resorts, long beaches, and malls filled with every high-end designer imaginable. It’s a place the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority hopes will occur to travelers from all over the world as a glamorous vacation destination. That visibility is aided, of course, by its inclusion in Furious 7, which used the Etihad Towers and nearby Emirates Palace hotel as primary shoot locations.

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Emirates Palace, with Etihad Towers in the background. (Photo: Craig Strydom for twofour54)

“I don’t think people go to a movie like Furious 7 and rush out and say ‘Let’s go buy tickets to Abu Dhabi,’” admits the film’s production designer Bill Brzeski. “But what I think it does is makes it an accessible place in their brain. Some people feel less nervous about going to a place if all these American movie stars went there. It becomes part of the background of the world to people. It might be really hard to measure, but anytime you can show a community in a positive light it sticks into people’s brains.”

In the film, against all physics, two characters, Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto and Paul Walker’s Brian O'Conner, drive a Lykan HyperSport sports car across three buildings of the Etihad Towers, leaping it from one to the next. It’s a moment that is both implausible and spectacular, a breathtaking defiance of gravity. The setting was the primary motivation for selecting Abu Dhabi over Dubai, which often pulls in the Hollywood productions. “The idea of doing the car jump from building to building just couldn’t be accomplished in any city in the world,” Brzeski notes, “because there isn’t a whole lot of places where you would have five buildings like the Etihad Towers sticking up. The buildings were there and you were capable of believing that you could drive a car between them.”


Etihad Towers. (Photo: Emily Zemler)

Of course, the film’s director James Wan and his crew didn’t actually send a car soaring across the Abu Dhabi sky. The interiors of the shots, including the penthouse party scene, were done on constructed soundstages in Atlanta and the crew used actual exterior shots of the Towers to digitally create the effect. Still, it’s a memorable visual, and the towering presence of the city and its infrastructure in the film has urged a sizable boon of tourism. That’s especially true for the Jumeirah hotel, which is situated in the tallest building of the Etihad Towers. “Jumeirah at Etihad Towers has experienced great interest from many countries since the release of Furious 7,” notes Stefan Fuchs, general manager of Jumeirah, who calls the hotel a “major ambassador” for the destination. “The increased visitor interest, which we’ve seen throughout the last months, proves how wide spread the popularity of the film is.”

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A view from the lobby of Jumeirah at Etihad Towers. (Photo: Jumeirah at Etihad Towers)

The hotel is now banking on that interest with two special package offers, Fast & Luxurious and Fast & Fabulous. The first, an adrenaline-based experience that includes an Aston Martin GT4 racing experience and a helicopter ride over the city, runs $2,722.46 for two nights. The latter, a more relaxing experience that features cocktails dubbed the “Diesel Sour” or “Flying Machine,” runs $653.39 for two nights.

Across the street, tourists can go to the same high-end beach club used in the film at the luxe Emirates Palace. The Yas Marina Circuit, located at Abu Dhabi’s Grand Prix track, offers driving experiences, where you can drag race or drift, just as the characters do onscreen (and, for the record, the experience is worth it).


Drag racing on the Grand Prix track. (Photo: Craig Strydom for twofour54)

In a study led by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), the number of visitors in the first four months of 2015 increased 20 percent compared with the previous year. The TCA Abu Dhabi is in the process of studying the specific effects of Furious 7, particularly following its theatrical release on March 16, but it anticipates an even larger growth, thanks to the destination awareness generated both by that film and the upcoming Star Wars sequel, which shot scenes in the nearby Rub’ al Khali desert.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, helmed by J.J. Abrams and out December 18 in North America, will only add to the city’s allure. In the past few years, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission has increased efforts to draw Hollywood movies to the city, boasting a high tax incentive and experienced local crews. The Commission is currently working on building soundstages and increasing the available equipment in hopes of encouraging even more production there.

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On the grounds of Emirates Palace. (Photo: Craig Strydom for twofour54)

“Look at how the film business around the world leads tourism,” says Michael Flannigan, head of the Abu Dhabi Film Commission. “We’ve commissioned studies on this. New Zealand is a great example when you think about Lord of the Rings. Real film fans are always going to try to find out where movies are made. We know, in the studies we’ve commissioned, that it leads to visitors. With Star Wars, we know we’re going to have tons of people out scouting around looking for the Stars Wars sets.”

Those sets have since been pulled from the desert shooting locations, but it sounds like there are plans to create something akin to the Lord of the Rings sets in New Zealand, where fans could potentially visit. “I can’t say too much about that, only because there’s something in the works around that,” Flannigan notes. “But you’re going down the right road. Something might go back out [to the desert].”

Tyrese Gibson at Emirates Palace. (Photo: Craig Strydom for twofour54)

Even Tyrese wants to bring Hollywood to the UAE. The actor has a long-winded plan that involves the creation of a film production company named Voltron Studios in Abu Dhabi. “Voltron Studios is going to be on the level of Universal Studios with a tourism element, a hotel, and all of the above on one campus,” the actor claims. “It’s a very big vision. So for me I’m not looking to just keep coming out here, flying on helicopters, going to visit royal palaces, and [staying] at big hotels if I’m not able to move this vision forward. What I’m looking to do is looking to change whatever perceptions I can about the Middle East because of so many personal moments that have changed my life.”

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