SeaWorld Dubai: Will it happen?

As a petition against the park nears 110,000 signatures, will it be enough to prevent SeaWorld from opening in Dubai? EDGAR investigates.

Peter Iantorno September 16, 2015

After years of uncertainty, it is now pretty common knowledge that Dubai will have at least three brand new theme parks, with the first, Montiongate Dubai, set to open in October 2016.

With the emirate making such rapid progress in installing these new parks all of a sudden, speculation is rife as to what the next big name to enter the Dubai entertainment scene will be.

Top of the list of suspects is US-based SeaWorld, which last year released a statement claiming that it had reached an agreement to “assess the viability of a multi-park development in the Middle East”.

Although the statement did not go on to identify which country the agreement was with or give any indication of where the potential parks would be located, and the company has not commented on the issue since, speculation still abounds that Dubai is the entertainment giant’s destination of choice.

In fact, one Dubai resident is so convinced that SeaWorld will choose Dubai as its next destination (and so opposed to the idea), she has started an online petition calling for the Dubai government to axe any plans it may have to bring SeaWorld to the UAE. 

“SeaWorld is already one of the worst cases of wild animal abuse in the history of the United States and SeaWorld should not be allowed to exist in Dubai as well,” writes petition author Melanie Barrett in an impassioned open letter to the Dubai government.

“Dubai has a great reputation as a popular tourist destination for beautiful architecture, beautiful nature and kindhearted people, thus you should not tarnish your great reputation by allowing SeaWorld to open a SeaWorld park in Dubai,” she continues.

So far, almost 110,000 people from around the world have signed the petition, adding their own comments such as “It‘s so cruel and barbaric to keep such huge beautiful creatures in tiny surroundings!” (Pamela Comerford, UK), and “It is shameful to treat the animals in this way.” (Daniel Cherry, UAE). Another petition has been started on the PETA website, too, which has garnered more than 90,000 signatures.

But why has there been such a strong reaction? Well, according to Barrett, SeaWorld “feeds the whales and dolphins drugged fish to keep them docile and brain dead and they starve them as a tool to force them to perform tricks.”

She also accuses the park of separating whale calves from their mothers at birth and housing them in inappropriately small tanks, and points out that the orcas won’t be able to escape the blistering Dubai sun as they will be trapped in shallow swimming pools.

If SeaWorld were to bring its brand of massive marine-based entertainment to Dubai, it wouldn’t be the first time the emirate has stirred up controversy for keeping large animals in captivity.

In 2010, environmentalists successfully campaigned to free a whale shark named Sammy, after it spent 18 months in captivity in Dubai’s popular Atlantis The Palm aquarium.

Of course, SeaWorld categorically denies any wrongdoing with regards to the treatment of its animals. “We are a leading theme park and entertainment company that blends imagination with nature and enables our guests to celebrate, connect with, and care for the natural world we share,” reads the mission statement plastered front and centre on the ‘about us’ section of the official SeaWorld website.

Fred Jacobs, SeaWorld Vice-President Corporate Communications, was also quick to jump to the defence of his company in an interview with Gulf News earlier this year. “Animal rights activists have targeted SeaWorld for many years and their allegations about how we care for our animals are unfounded,” he said.

“We are among the world’s most respected zoological institutions. The US government strictly regulates animal care at SeaWorld, with frequent random inspections by federal veterinarians and other officials. We pass strict licensing requirements every single year.” 

One thing Jacobs wouldn’t be drawn on was the possibility of SeaWorld opening in Dubai. “I am unable to discuss our international expansion plans beyond what has been reported in our public filings and other investor communications,” he said.

The company’s profits dropped by 28 per cent during the last financial year, so a big-money expansion to Dubai would certainly make financial sense as the company looks for ways to boost its revenue away from the US.

However, with such negative publicity already surrounding any potential move, it is the cost to Dubai’s public image that might ultimately prove too great for SeaWorld Dubai to ever get off the ground.