While the world may have been gripped by race-day dramas on the track, for many more casual UAE motorsports fans Sunday’s prime attraction was a live appearance by pop superstar Rihanna at du Arena as part of the Yasalam after-race concert series.
There could be far more fitting acts to take this coveted closing night slot – previously filled by music legends including Prince, The Who and Paul McCartney.
Contemporary hitmaker Rihanna’s own credentials however stand tall, having racked up an incredible 14 US Billboard No 1 hits over an engaging decade-long career – one more top slot than even Michael Jackson, a record bettered only by The Beatles and Mariah Carey.
An electric atmosphere spread across du Arena ahead of the gig by the Barbadian, despite the memory of previous Abu Dhabi concerts, at the Yas Island venue in 2013, and ringing in 2010 with a New Year’s Eve concert at Emirates Palace.
“Who is not a Rihanna fan?” asked Tanya Vidmar, a Russian who lives in Dubai. “She has genuine talent. She can really sing – unlike so many other stars today.”
“She obviously has a huge appeal amongst the kids,” chimed in her friend Mike Daniel, a 40-year old Canadian expat.
“She is a role model. She represents female empowerment and she is a very talented young lady.”
But this was a very different artist to the Rihanna who appeared three years ago amid her globetrotting Diamonds World Tour, the now 28-year-old having renewed her critical credentials with this year’s antagonistically edgy eighth album Anti.
Student friends Dana Rodriguez and Silvia Mazza describe themselves as super-fans.
“This is a highlight of the weekend for us,” said Dana, an 18-year-old Columbian who lives in Dubai.
“She’s really matured over the course of her career and I’m really interested to hear her new sound live.”
Their wish came true when Rihanna emerged on the stage shortly after 9.40pm, opening her set in suprisingly sedate form with the serious and subdued 2013 single Stay.
Dressed in a far less subtle get-up of a gold-sequined jacket and trousers, plus dark glasses, her silhouetted figure commanded instant attention with imposing intent and stagecraft.
“Abu Dhabi,” Rihanna announced soberly, before continuing with the pained anthem Love the Way You Lie (Part II), segued swiftly into the abrasive beats of Birthday Cake, joined now by four theatrical dancers clad in blonde wigs.
On the basis of this, and performances from Lionel Richie and the Chemical Brothers earlier in the weekend, promoters Flash Entertainment have set the bar high for next year’s Grand Prix entertainment.