Hollywood goes to Abu Dhabi with 'Star Wars VII' and 'Furious 7'

Hollywood goes to Abu Dhabi with 'Star Wars VII' and 'Furious 7'
J.J. Abrams, director of "Star Wars: Episode VII: The force Awakens," talks to the fans from the movie set in the desert in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Lucasfilm / Disney)

The recent premiere of "Furious 7" in Abu Dhabi looked more like a U.N. delegation gathering than a film opening.

Arab men in long kandura cloaks and headscarves, South Asian women in saris and at least one British expat in a suit mingled in the VOX cinema lobby before show time.


It was a pivotal moment for Abu Dhabi, which is on the Persian Gulf next to Dubai, its splashy sister state in the United Arab Emirates. A significant part of the latest film in the "Fast & Furious" franchise was shot in Abu Dhabi, making it one of the largest Hollywood productions so far to take advantage of the state-run Film Authority's push to make the emirate a media hub of the Middle East.

The oil-rich region is vying to become a leader in high-quality film and TV production over the next few decades, luring foreign productions with competitive rebates while growing its own media industry in the process.

The government has invested millions, if not billions, in developing an infrastructure that includes new studios, post-production facilities, vendors and trained crew.

J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” recently wrapped up a shoot in the Rub’ al Khali desert two hours outside the city. Previous American films shot in Abu Dhabi are “Deliver Us From Evil,” “The Bourne Legacy” and “The Kingdom.”

Beyond Hollywood, many Bollywood productions from nearby India now film in Abu Dhabi. Unstable Arab countries in the Middle East are also moving TV productions to the emirate. This includes a Syrian production of one of the Arab world's most popular soap operas.

During the "Furious 7" premiere in the Yas Mall theater earlier this month, the crowd cheered when Vin Diesel and crew proclaimed mid-film, "We're goin' to Abu Dhabi!" The city's skyline, the turquoise sea and the vast desert that leads to Saudi Arabia all figure prominently in the film. Diesel and his cars race past ultra-modern skyscrapers, around the iconic Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and out the window of the 75-story Etihad Towers.

A hotel housed in the Towers, the Jumeirah, now offers packages inspired by the film shot on its grounds. These include the "Fast & Luxurious" offer, where lucky (and affluent) guests are treated to an Aston Martin GT4 racing experience at the Yas Island racetrack and given the choice of renting a McLaren, Ferrari or Aston Martin during their stay. "Let your imagination run wild and follow in the steps of an action star for two days full of adrenaline," reads the offer on the hotel's website. The price? Please inquire.

When the film was shot, Abu Dhabi residents, who aren't used to the onslaught of a big film production in their neighborhoods, were apprehensive. The five slender Etihad Towers house apartments, shops and offices as well as the hotel.

Aerial scenes had to be shot with helicopters that hovered unnervingly close to the glass walls of the Jumeirah hotel.

"Even though Abu Dhabi is a very safe place, it's the Middle East so people get alarmed when they see helicopters that close," said a representative of the hotel. "We made sure to inform everyone ahead of time. It's a movie, a big one, and we can't tell you what it is. But please trust us, it's a planned event."

Abu Dhabi's next claim to fame, "Star Wars VII," is due in theaters later this year, and it too is sure to be celebrated in the region where it was shot. The Rub' al Khali desert is one of the largest on Earth and features some of the highest sand dunes anywhere. To build the challenging sets, crews were brought from India (a three-hour flight) instead of Los Angeles (a 16-hour flight).

Perhaps there will be some sort of "Star Wars Spa" package at the Qasr al Sarab desert resort when the film arrives, but for now, it's all about "Fast & Furious."

As one Emirati man said at the "Furious 7" premiere, "Vin Diesel was here. Now everyone will know we're here too."

Follow me on Twitter at @lorraineali