Desert Full of Stars

Sure, there's a credit squeeze. And it's been a while since A-list stars have been able to command $20 million salaries at the box office.

But there's a celebrity feeding frenzy half a world away from Hollywood, as I found out on a recent trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. 

Almost every night in this tiny, oil-rich country, there's another celebrity appearing before a small group of Emiratis and foreigners at concerts and cabarets, at film festivals and other cultural events. 

On one recent night at the Emirates Palace Hotel, the ornate, $5 billion edifice around which much of Abu Dhabi's social life revolves, Jeremy Irons presented a musical tour of the world in a plush concert hall below ground: gypsy musicians, an Egyptian group from down the Nile, and a German jazz troupe were among the top performers, for the pleasure and edification of the local Emirati residents. 

Meanwhile, Christina Aguilera performed a couple of floors above him, at a packed, if less edifying cultural event. For that single concert, she was paid $700,000, I was told by a cultural official who declined to be identified. 

This kind of money is even more than Manhattan bar mitzvahs for hedge fund honchos, money that has evaporated along with Wall Street firms.

The same official told me that Madonna had negotiated $3 million for an upcoming one-night concert. (I don't see a date on her public schedule, but these concerts are not always announced outside the Emirates.) 

Money can buy a lot of good will. George Michael is out on a concert tour ahead of retirement, but he added a last-minute date to perform in Abu Dhabi on Dec. 1, lured by a reported $1.7 million fee for the night. That will be, he says, his last concert.  

And even Meg Ryan – a former box office darling now regarded as too plastified for the A-list — was able to command $150,000 to show up and host the Abu Dhabi film festival last month. 

While the trough is full, the celebrities will feed. 

This young country, which struck it rich in the 1970s after surviving for centuries as pearl divers and date farmers, is on a mission to become an international cultural hub. Glittery names and high-class culture are tops on the agenda to lend cultural substance and high profile status to a faraway place where few Americans have been. 

Last year celebrity news outlets were set aflutter over reports that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had bought a manmade island in a new development in the planning stages in Dubai. Pitt's publicist promptly denied that the stars had bought a spot in "The World," a collection of manmade islands in the shape of the continents.

The word on the street in Dubai? Pitt and Jolie didn't buy the island. They were given it as a gift.