What it was like to attend Beyoncé’s explosive concert in Dubai

To stand out among all of the new luxurious hotels opening in Dubai, you’ve got to make a real splash.

Atlantis the Royal did just that, grabbing global attention by hiring Beyoncé to sing her first long-form performance since 2018 in front of an invitation-only audience of influencers, celebrities, and some of the richest people in the region. Plus journalists — like me. 

I got the first inkling that this wouldn’t just be any old fancy party late last year when Kerzner International, which developed the Atlantis, invited me to attend the “Grand Reveal” weekend. They were flying people in from around the globe to  show off the property, its 17 restaurants and bars, 795 rooms and more than 90 pools. At first, company representatives said I had to stay the whole weekend: No coming and going, for security reasons.

But after some back and forth, they said there would be a limited number of people ferried over to the property for the Saturday night event and concert. On yachts. In another unusual move, the hotel wouldn’t publicly confirm that Beyoncé would be performing. (But everyone knew.)

Beyoncé performs on stage at the Atlantis the Royal. (Pic: Mason Poole/Parkwood Media/Getty Images)

So I put on a fancy dress for the first time since before Covid, called a taxi and headed over to the dock. There, at the base of the Palm Jumeirah man-made archipelago, about 10 of us carefully got into the boat and chatted on the 30-minute ride, which took a lot longer than it seems like it should have. A similar car ride to the hotel  — which is on the “crescent” of the Palm, or an outer ring road — would take about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on traffic.

The Atlantis staff member serving as our host on the boat reminded us of the ground rules for the night: We could take photos and video anywhere in the hotel, but once “the lady” begins her performance, no phones allowed. “The lady?” I asked with a smile. “Whoever do you mean?” The staffer blushed and said it was still a secret. Right.

They didn’t want unauthorized pictures or videos of the performance to be posted online. (As it turned out, a scroll through Instagram the next morning proved that there were a ton of people who didn’t follow the rules.)

From the water, we got our first close-up look at the hotel. Its design is unique, and many people either love it or hate it. Designed by New York’s Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, the 43-story building is wide and looks like a bunch of boxes stacked loosely together, or like a Jenga game on its side. A large void in the middle is shaped like a buckle, the hotel’s logo. On approach, it dazzled, lit up blue and gold.

Inside, it was influencer heaven. Women in enormous gowns, men in tuxedos, taking content at every possible moment. And there was plenty to pose in front of. London-based design firm G.A Groupcrafted the interiors. Water features are everywhere: massive fish tanks and fountains that incorporate light, fire and sculpture. One recessed pool in the hallway is so well-incorporated into the space, it’s a wonder more people didn’t accidentally fall in. (In fact, by Sunday night, there were velvet ropes cordoning off the feature, and a staff member said there were plans in the works to somehow glass it off.) A towering, roughly 38-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture in the lobby is called Droplets.

The crowd gave some indication of how much Dubai has changed in recent years. There were men holding hands — and they weren’t friends. This, in a country where homosexuality is still outlawed and only recently it became legal for unmarried couples to live together, and yet rainbow flags still are frowned upon or not tolerated.

Guests flowed in and out of the restaurants, settling down for dinner among celebrities like singer Ronan Keating, who I spotted at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. That’s also where Kendall Jenner ended up eating. Chef Jose Andres was at his restaurant, Jaleo, greeting guests and making sure service was running smoothly. How was it going? “We’ll see,” he said. Ashley Park from Emily in Pariswas in attendance. At the end of the meal, guests were given small pouches for their phones during the concert. They were more of a branded reminder that you weren’t supposed to use your phone. You could keep it with you and access it whenever, but if you used it too close to concert time, a member of security would firmly but politely remind you of the rules. You also received a color-coded pin that designated which section they would be in for the concert. VIP, or VVIP. Possibly VVVIP.

Then, finally, the queen herself took the stage, for her first major performance in more than four years. Fittingly, she started off with the song Etta James made famous, “At Last.” Not going to lie: When Beyoncé emerged, wearing a golden gown by Atelier Zuhra, with fabric that soared above her head making a halo effect that made her look like a rising sun, I screamed my lungs out. A friend of mine standing next to me did the same.

Atlantis the Royal seen from the water on the night of Beyoncé’s concert. (Pic: Lisa Fleisher/Bloomberg)

But all around us, at least in the VVIP section we snuck into, most people acted as if they were at the New York Symphony Orchestra. And that was a bummer. They politely stood or sat listening, sipping on their free Moët. They weren’t in awe when Beyoncé’s 11-year-old daughter Blue Ivy Carter joined her mom on stage to perform “Brown Skin Girl.” Part of the fun of concerts is to dance and rock out with other people enjoying the music with their whole bodies and soul — not because they were invited and need to be seen. You could really understand why artists like performing to their true fans.

It didn’t matter then, that Beyoncé didn’t perform any songs off of her latest album, Renaissance, because so few of them had probably listened to it. (Here is the performance’s set list.) The album is full of tributes and references to musical history, including queer black artists. (I had it on all week in the leadup to the concert and even played a song for my 3-year-old before thinking twice about how often the F word was repeated.)

Beyoncé’s set lasted about 50 minutes. Her voice was, as usual, powerful and angelic. She was flanked by dancers from The Mayyas, a Lebanese group that was particularly appreciated in Dubai. And notably, most of the artists on stage were female. In a move that is now a signature feature of Beyoncé’s shows, dancers splashed around in water features, using the water to artistic effect. Three costume changes took place over a performance that had fewer high-energy dance pieces and more musical epics. She finished by essentially levitating high above the crowd on a sliver of a platform. When the set wrapped, fireworks (basically a nightly event in Dubai) shot off from all around us. The whole building sparkled.

To end the night, Swedish House Mafia took the stage while waiters continued liberally pouring bubbly — a 30% tax on alcohol purchases was just abolished, which I’m sure organizers appreciated.

Despite being told at first that I would have to take the boat back to the mainland, mercifully I was able to get a taxi home. And I woke up to more DMs on Instagram than I have ever received in my life. I didn’t realize how much people were talking about the concert. I reposted something from an Instagram account that said, “There are two types of people in the world. The people that are in Dubai right now. And us,” and asked, is this true? My friend and Bloomberg colleague James Coyle responded, “Whole internet is flooded.”

Wow. The Sun newspaper reported that Kerzner paid $24 million for Beyoncé’s appearance, though I have heard from sources who believe it was much more. Well, it seems that the company got its money’s worth. –BLOOMBERG