The United Arab Emirates was the first Arabian Gulf territory to set its sights on becoming a major international shooting destination, with early arrivals Syriana (2005), The Kingdom (2007) and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011) quickly endorsing it as a safe and viable location. Just under two decades later, the seven-emirate state is home to a thriving international production scene, catering to Hollywood, Bollywood and the burgeoning Arab film and high-end drama industry alike. Responding swiftly to the Covid-19 pandemic, Abu Dhabi Film Commission put in a place a set of production best practice guidelines to ensure production continuity for any films shooting in Abu Dhabi.
The territory’s key draws are its futuristic urban backdrops and its deserts. The former is constantly being renewed, with fresh grandstanding architectural projects including Dubai’s Museum of the Future and Infinity Bridge. The country’s deserts have been in the limelight thanks to Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-winning sci-fi epic Dune: Part One. It shot for 11 days in 2019 in the Liwa desert, some 150 kilometres southwest of Abu Dhabi on the edge of the Empty Quarter, the world’s second-biggest desert after the Sahara. Its rolling dunes and rocky outcrops stood in for the planet Arrakis.
Villeneuve and headliners Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya will be back to the dunes and rocky outcrops to shoot Dune: Part Two, backed by the Abu Dhabi Film Commission, for Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures. Villeneuve says he is looking forward to returning to film in the UAE. In the meantime, these desert landscapes will hit big screens worldwide again in 2023, as a backdrop to Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and Part Two, which shot there in early 2021.
Beyond Hollywood, the UAE has long been a popular destination for Indian film and TV productions. Bollywood superstar Hrithik Roshan spent a month in Abu Dhabi at the end of 2021, shooting thriller Vikram Vedha, while Ahmed Khan’s romantic action thriller Heropanti 2, starring Tiger Shroff and Tara Sutaria, touched down in the spring of 2022. In a virtuous circle, the UAE is a popular playground for Indian stars and celebrities, thanks in large part to the ease of access, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi just a three-hour flight from Mumbai. In a sign of the UAE’s cachet in India, the 22nd edition of the glitzy International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards took place Abu Dhabi in June, hosted by Bollywood superstar Salman Khan.
The connection between the UAE’s location sector and India’s film and TV world looks set to strengthen, following the signing of a comprehensive economic partnership agreement (CEPA) between the territories in early March. However, the UAE’s position as the Gulf region’s premiere shooting location is likely to come under pressure as Saudi Arabia steps up its drive to become a major film and TV hub, following the lifting of the country’s cinema ban in 2017. At the end of 2021, the deep-pocketed neighbouring territory announced a 40% cash rebate, which outshines Abu Dhabi’s current 30% incentive. It has also basked in the limelight of several major international shoots over the past 12 months, topped by Desert Warrior and Kandahar.
For now, though, the UAE looks well placed to retain its position in the region. Beyond Abu Dhabi’s 30% cash rebate incentive, the biggest emirates of Dubai and Abu Dhabi have worked hard to build film and TV production infrastructure and enlarge their pool of local and international technicians. In Abu Dhabi, the emirate’s twofour54 free zone, serving entertainment and media companies, began the soft launch of its new home, the Yas Creative Hub, at the end of 2021. It is being billed as a gamechanger, spanning 70,000 square metres of studio and post-production space, as well as offices, community spaces and accommodation.
As well as traditional studio spaces, the move into the Yas Creative Hub has also seen twofour54 expand its offering to include virtual production facilities. The holding announced a partnership with Canada-based virtual production specialist Ross Video. Under the deal, twofour54 will be able to offer virtual studios, virtual production services and extended (XR) features. In addition to the Yas Island hub, Abu Dhabi is building the Studio City complex as part of the redevelopment of the Mina Zayed port area. Running to 300,000 square metres, its offering will include outdoor sets, production offices, warehouses and virtual production facilities.
UAE is the filming hub connecting Asia and Europe. Within 300kms radius, you can find everything from modern cities to rocky mountains, and beaches and dunes.
Abu Dhabi’s attractiveness as a shooting location was clearly on display as the backdrop of Michael Bay’s slick action thriller 6 Underground. The production touched down in 2019 and shot in 25 locations across the emirate, which appeared both as itself and stood in for a variety of other places, including California, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
The high rises of the Abu Dhabi Global Market (ADGM) financial quarter and Al Reem Island stood in for Hong Kong. The landmark Etihad Towers, which also featured in Fast & Furious 7, doubled for Las Vegas, while an imaginary country called Turgistan was created in the backlot of state-backed media and entertainment hub Twofour54, which has provided infrastructure and incentives to more than 500 entertainment companies.
6 Underground via TwoFour54 Abu Dhabi
Other high-profile projects to shoot in Abu Dhabi include Denis Villeneuve's Dune, which shot against the backdrop of its deserts, the French and English language thriller Mirage, Sonic The Hedgehog, Mission: Impossible - Fallout (where they filmed the famous HALO jump) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Dubai is rich in its locations as it provides all types of scenery along with the trademarks of Burj Khalifa, The Palm, Burj Al Arab, and Bluewater Islands amongst others. The overall planning of Dubai can cater to scenes of a futuristic nature, urban subcultures, desert landscapes, luxury lifestyles and along with humbly lived areas that are full of stories and texture, says Dania Salha Quaglio from Camouflage Production, who have been servicing a big production from a leading sports brand.
Dune filming in Abu Dhabi via Warner Bros
Beyond its wealth of locations, other major draws are the emirate’s 30% cashback rebate for all productions and the burgeoning services and facilities offering that Abu Dhabi has worked hard to build over the past decade.
“Creatively, Abu Dhabi offered us what the script called for and the great tax incentives and overall infrastructure was appealing,” says 6 Underground executive producer Garrett Grant.
The neighbouring emirate of Dubai is also drawing international productions with its futuristic buildings and luxury hotel complexes, such as the palatial Atlantis, The Palm. There are plenty of locations to choose from and the weather is constantly good, says Rafic Tamba, CEO at local production service providers VIP Films. It is also one of the safest places to shoot these days as it has put very strict rules in place from the start.
One of the most desired locations for filming this year is the World EXPO 2021 site, for which filming permits are managed by the Expo event organizers, says Jax Donaldson, executive producer from local production service providers Filmworks . Plus, there's also Dubai's amazing landmarks, such as the Burj Khlifa, Downtown district, and the world deepest swimming pool at Deep Dive Dubai, say Jay Nehme and Gabriel Chamoun, partner and CEO, respectively, at local production service providers The Talkies, who recently shot a 60” car ad in the city with 20 cars moving in full sync round a hero vehicle using a Russian arm.
“Producers use Dubai and Abu Dhabi to shoot commercials (and features) for the wide, clean roads and bridges with ultra-modern city backdrops, and police support for road control is always excellent,” enthuses Ian Ross, owner of local production services provider Central Films, who are busy shooting car commercials in these Covid times. “But there are also deserts in Sharjah and Dubai with various shades of sand, and dramatic mountains that meet dunes up to an hour outside the city.”
One of the most stunning locations just outside Dubai is Hatta, which offers massive desert mountains, with turquoise waters calmly resting between them at Hatta Dam. There’s also the Wasit Nature Reserve in Sharjah; the Hajar mountains; and the desolate Snoopy Island in the Emirate of Fujairah, where the mountains meet the sea.
To prove how much can be taken in on a shoot, 6 Underground filmed in 24 locations across Abu Dhabi over the course of a 27-day shoot, as well as the oasis city of Al Ain and the northern emirate of Ras Al Khaimah.
“The region can also double for any modern city in the US, and other parts of the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia,” adds Chamoun at The Talkies.
Examples include George Clooney’s Syriana, which doubled Dubai for the Iranian desert, Brad Pitt’s Netflix film, War Machine, used Abu Dhabi to represent Afghanistan, and Bollywood film Baby used the city as a double for Turkey.
“The UAE also has a very cosmopolitan population, so it’s possible to cast for most nationalities,” adds Jana Barnard, a line producer at VIP Films.
Just be aware that a sub-tropical, arid climate dominates the United Arab Emirates. Summers tend to be hot and humid, and there’s only marginal respite in the winter months. Thunderstorms can also strike during the summer and sandstorms are an occasional threat, which can have a dramatic effect on visibility.
Permits are easy to get provided you have a local based production service provider, insists Tamba.
In Abu Dhabi, there are two classes of permits for filming: ground permits and aerial permits. While in Dubai, the Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) is the sole entity authorised to issue media shooting permits.
Most locations are easily accessible. Price and permission depend on the location and the type of production. For more details on procedures and costs in Dubai, go to… http://www.dubaifilmcommission.ae/filming-in-dubai/how-to-film-in-dubai/permit-fees
Jarvinen from Filmworks also makes the important point that the UAE requires an entire script to be approved by the releveant authorities, not just the segments to be filmed in the UAE.
In Abu Dhabi, twofour54’s international production services team can provide studios, production support, post-production, and playout and broadcast capabilities. Twofour54 is currently moving into its new facility on Yas Island, while Studio City at Mina Zayed is also nearing completion. Its vast Kizad backlot has also been upgraded with the construction of six new sets, offering in-demand stock backdrops such as a police station and an airport.
Dubai’s main facility — Dubai Studio City — includes production services, three soundstages, backlots, water tanks, production offices and recording studios. On crew, the pool of freelancers with specialist skills, including make-up, visual effects and stunts, is growing, particularly in Abu Dhabi. Abu Dhabi Film Commission runs an online local crew directory and last year launched a five-year visa allowing audiovisual professionals to come and go with ease.
Abu Dhabi covers more than 67,000 square kilometres and is the largest of the UAE’s seven states. It is a two-hour drive to Dubai and a 40-minute drive to the city centre from Abu Dhabi International Airport on a modern road system. Dubai is the second‑biggest emirate at 3,900 square kilometres. It is an international transport hub and well connected to the rest of the world.
First person to contact
Abu Dhabi: Jassim Al Nowais, manager, Abu Dhabi Film Commission: jassim.alnowais@
Dubai: Iman Al Zaabi, assistant manager, Dubai Film and TV Commission: iman.alzaabi@ filmdubai.gov.ae