Meet the man behind the biggest new attraction of the year

May 21, 2023, 11:21 PM · If you ever have wondered if another company would step up to challenge Disney and Universal in building a world-class, multi-gate theme park resort, here is your answer. It's Miral. With Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, Miral has created a diversified vacation resort to rival other great destinations around the world for themed entertainment fans.

It all started with Yas Marina Circuit, the annual home of Formula 1's final race of the season. Around that track, visitors now will find Etihad Arena, an 18,000-seat indoor stadium that has hosted major sporting events, concerts, and touring shows. There's Yas Bay Waterfront, a Disney Springs-style dining promenade, and the massive Yas Mall, which is next to CLYMB, an indoor wall climbing and skydiving attraction. There's golfing, a marina, a beach, residential developments, office parks, the Yas Waterworld water park, and now, three theme parks: Ferrari World, Warner Bros. World, and the new SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, the first indoor SeaWorld theme park and one that redefines what a SeaWorld-branded park can be.

I was invited to sit down in SeaWorld's new Tropical Ocean realm for a one-on-one interview with Mohamed Al Zaabi, Miral's CEO, who talked with me about the development of the new 1.97 million-square-foot park and its place within Yas Island's portfolio of attractions.

Mohamed Al Zaabi and Robert Niles

RN: Congratulations to you and the entire team, this new park just looks spectacular. Now, here on Yas Island, Ferrari World brings the thrills. Warner Bros. World brings the storytelling. What do you see SeaWorld adding to the mix?

MAZ: Our goal here, Robert, is to put Yas Island on top of the map as one of the top destination for leisure and entertainment. We want to have a comprehensive, full experience for our customers that caters for all segments and suits different needs, from nationalities, age, point of view, segments. That's what we are doing here on Yas Island. You have noticed that we have Ferrari, Yas Waterworld, Warner Bros., CLYMB, and now SeaWorld. We have been building gross assets over the years. We could have done it all at once, but we know that this will help us to organically grow and attract more tourists. That is supported also with different events and different attractions that we have in almost a weekly basis. I'm sure you're aware of the Etihad Arena that we opened two years back and try to bring different events to. Hamilton is our latest announcement, that we announced two days back, and the series has been doing great.

So that's from a vision point view. Then we thought, okay, if you want to build a marine life facility here on the island, who would be the right partner? Of course, there's no doubt SeaWorld was at the top of that list with their experience - more than 50 years of animal care and 50 years of managing such facilities. We thought they are the right partner. We both share the same values of animal care and conservation. And here it is. We are very, very proud of what we have achieved. Tomorrow we have a grand opening celebration, and then on Tuesday we will welcome the first customer.

RN: And one of the things that people will see when they first walk in is Abu Dhabi Ocean. Having been to Ferrari and Warner Bros. before, here we start with Emirati history and culture, which is something that we've not been exposed to as much in the other parks. Why did you feel it was the time to bring Yas Island's home into the theme park experience for your guests?

MAZ: It was always in our plan, Robert, to educate and show our guests about our culture and about heritage here. We did that with the Yas Waterworld through the pearl diving story. And here with SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, there's no doubt this is part of our culture. It's part of our heritage - marine life, pearl diving, fishing always have been part of our heritage and our culture.

In SeaWorld Abu Dhabi, we have a different brand. [It] will talk about different parts of the world in themed realms, so of course there's no doubt that we [Abu Dhabi] will be the first one to see. I think the team did amazing job of touching on the pearl diving experience, where there will be a performance show of diving in very authentic, old-fashioned way. And there will be an opportunity for people to learn more about different marine life animals from this region - the Arabian Gulf as well as Indian Ocean.

RN: You talked about the realms (SeaWorld's name for themed lands) and for my followers who are very familiar with theme parks, I think it's important that they understand that this is not the same design as other SeaWorld parks in the United States. It's indoors, and there's a focus on these themed realms. What did you see as the appeal of going with this different design concept when creating SeaWorld for Yas Island?

MAZ: We call this SeaWorld second generation, which focused very much on conservation and focused very much on education and awareness. If you ask, 'Mohamed, what's your main goal here?' I want people to leave this facility feeling in love with animals. We will give our customer unique opportunities to closely observe and learn more about different animals, so they can they can associate themselves with these animals and they can learn more about them.

There is sort of a connection that will build between humans and animals. The design of this park is behind us. We believe that we are living in different land areas with different lives, but we are all actually connected to one ocean. The whole planet is connected with one ocean, and the design is based on this element. That One Ocean is in the middle of SeaWorld Abu Dhabi - that's the hub that is connected to different realms.

Abu Dhabi Ocean is very much about the Arabian Gulf, about fish in this region, about pearl diving. Then we go to MicroOcean and in MicroOcean we magnify everything by 10 times or 100 times, so the kids feed that they're big in this ocean, they can enjoy different terms.

They can be the big ones for a change.

MAZ: Exactly, exactly. And then from there we go to Endless Ocean, which has the largest aquarium in the world - more than 25 million liters of water and 68,000 marine animals will be at that aquarium. From there we go to a Tropical Ocean, where we have dolphins and flamingos, and of course, different birds. From there we go to the Arctic area with sea otters and then Antarctica's area, and, of course, Rocky Point where we have sea lions.

RN: Animal care is nothing new for SeaWorld, but this is the first experience with this for Miral. How did you bring that experience into the organization that's going to allow you to be the custodians of all of these animals going forward? You're also now taking on a role with research and rescue in the region. What were some of your thoughts in in taking that direction with the company?

MAZ: As I told you before, we only want to select the right partner who can work with us. We did that with Ferrari. We did that with Warner Bros., and we're doing the same with SeaWorld. You go to the right partner who can bring bring the know-how and the knowledge. SeaWorld has more than 50 years of experience in animal care. A number of people from SeaWorld have joined us and become part of our team, and those scientists and zoologists will help us to transfer that knowledge and know-how from that team to a future generation of zoologists and scientists in this region. I'd love to see one day a scientist or zoologist from the UAE, either a resident or local, that becomes part of the team and works hand-in-hand with our team here to secure animals and raise the awareness of animal care.

I should touch on Yas SeaWorld Rescue and Research. That is a dedicated research center that we built. We're very proud of that center. This will be the first of its kind in this region - more than 8,000 square meters and more than 60 zoologists and scientists will be working at that center to rescue, rehab, and release animals. That's one pillar of what we are doing here. The second pillar will be doing research dedicated to the Arabian Gulf. For example, we have some challenges with some of the species [in the] Arabian Gulf. How can we work with local authorities to increase the population of those animals? The second challenge we have is reefs and sea grass - how we can work with them do some research to find solutions in that area? The next thing that is very important is raising awareness, so on a weekly basis or monthly basis, we will have different sessions to raise awareness of animal care and knowledge and information about marine life in this region. That is our mandate.

RN: One of the things since you started development of this project here with SeaWorld in Abu Dhabi is that back in the United States, it seems as though SeaWorld's attention has driven a little bit more towards roller coasters and thrill rides in recent years. As you're looking at the future of SeaWorld on Yas Island, is that something you see, adding more thrill rides? Or do you think this is a park that's going to stay more focused on the animal environments and education?

MAZ: I'd love to see it focusing more on to animal care, and that's the vision. We want to focus more on conservation, education, awareness, animal care. That will be our focus. When we design, we look at Yas Island in general. So we want to have the right product for different segments of customers. Through the annual pass and through different packages, our guests will have the opportunity to experience different parks. Let's not forget that SeaWorld Abu Dhabi is seven minutes from Warner Bros. and five minutes from Ferrari. That's a very unique masterplan. So if you want to enjoy coasters, you can go to Ferrari, or if you want to enjoy different attractions with well-known characters, you can go to Warner Bros. If you want to enjoy a water experience, you go to Yas Waterworld. If you want more adventures, you can go to CLYMB where you can do skydive or climb in the tallest indoor wall in the world.

RN: So looking at all the things you're trying to accomplish here, what do you see as the benefits that SeaWorld Abu Dhabi will be bringing to Yas Island, to UAE, and to the region over the next year, five years, 10 years? What are your goals for this?

MAZ: At Miral, we want to be the most impactful and influential entity in tourism and this industry. We have been focused on this industry for last 12 years and that will be our focus in the future. We want to play a role in supporting Abu Dhabi in achieving its goal to diversify its economy and achieve the 2030 vision. Seeing the changes from 2007 to today, I think we're in the right direction. I'm sure you know this Robert, but in 2007 Yas Island was an empty canvas - empty land. There wasn't a single building on this. Last year, we celebrated 12 Formula 1 races, the 11th year of operating Ferrari, and now we're opening SeaWorld. I really love the way we took Yas Island from empty land to become one of the top destinations around the world.

And to achieve that, of course, marketing will be always a key pillar. Last year we had Kevin Hart to promote Yas Island, and this year, Jason Momoa. From other countries, we also bring different celebrities to support and promote Yas Island. We also try to create different reasons to visit Yas Island, so it's not only for theme parks you can come to visit. You can enjoy events, either a Maroon Five concert, or The Lion King show, or Disney On Ice, or Hamilton that's coming in January next year.

RN: It's a diversified experience.

MAZ: Exactly, exactly. We want to give you a comprehensive, full experience. We put ourselves in customers' shoes. Sometimes I go myself and experience different experience here on Yas Island to see what we can improve. From a transportation point of view, having a shuttle available for free, from 8am to 10pm. Information, website education, even a technology point of view - now we have implemented a FacePass, which is a facial recognition system that you can enter the park using facial recognition. You can pay, you can transfer your money to your kids, your kids can pay using facial recognition. We want to have we want to deliver a very frictionless experience, a convenient experience for our customer. They can enjoy different things.

Our vision is, I want Mom to enjoy her time in the spa, Dad play golf at morning, kids enjoy their time in the park and at night enjoying a nice dinner at Yas Bay Waterfront, enjoying a family dinner.

RN: I don't know how frictionless an experience can be if it involves my kids getting money from me (laughs), but I understand where you're coming from. To wrap this up, how are you feeling about all of this? Are you happy with how things are going?

MAZ: We are very proud. To be honest, I think proud is the right word to use here. Achieving such a facility, it's amazing. And that can work only by having the right team. That's number one. The right team will share the same ambition, the same values, the same goal, and work very hard to achieve this high standard. Second would be having direct support from your leaders on the board. And the third thing is to have the right partner with you - partners like SeaWorld, like other stakeholders on the island, and even partners like even travel agencies who support you by promoting the destination worldwide.

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Replies (3)

May 22, 2023 at 2:33 AM

Given what they’re doing I’m surprised they didn’t go with Merlin’s sea life.

May 22, 2023 at 11:00 AM

Good interview and insight on this part of the world. I hope to visit Abu Dhabi and Yas Island sometime in the future and I hope it continues to grow and improve. The Sea World park looks awesome but unfortunately it seems as if there won't be new rides added to the park in the future. That's a bummer.

May 24, 2023 at 10:27 AM

I wouldn't read into his response that there will be no new rides in the future, just that the focus will remain on animals rather than trying to become a coaster park. That's Ferrari's job, next door.

That said, the next big addition on Yas Island will be Harry Potter to Warner Bros. World. So SeaWorld likely won't be getting anything new until after 2025.

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