DUBAI // Thousands of Arab Idol fans of all ages packed the World Trade Centre to see this year’s winner take to the stage.
Palestinian Mohammed Assaf, 23, took top billing in the show, which also starred finalists Farah Youssef, from Syria, Morocco’s Salma Rachid, and Egyptian Ahmad Gamal.
Judge and singer/composer Ragheb Alama completed the line-up of Thursday night’s show.
The Dubai stop of the Arab Idol World Tour was a sell-out, attracting about 2,500 fans – from grandparents to infants in strollers.
Rachid got things started, followed by Gamal and Youssef, before this year’s Arab Idol took to the stage at about 11.30pm.
After Assaf’s crowd-pleasing set, Alama gathered all the singers on stage for a final performance.
Fans were vocal in their praise for the singers.
“We followed the show from the beginning to the end,” said Emad Al Baya’a, a Palestinian lawyer who attended the concert with a large group of family members.
“It was an excellent season. The contestants were much more talented than last year.
“What made this season special is that they concentrated on national pride and Arab unity in the songs they picked.
“There wasn’t any of those nonsensical songs – there was meaning behind them. That’s what we came to hear tonight. We want songs that will bring us together as Arabs, especially during these tough times.”
His sister-in-law added: “We are here for Mohammed Assaf, not just because he is Palestinian, but he is our neighbour and extended family as well.
“The finale was our favourite part of the [television] season. Mohammed’s song paying tribute to Palestine was very moving. I really want to hear that song tonight.”
When Assaf finally took to the stage, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause.
Paying tribute to his fans and greeting special guests, including Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa, , Assaf kicked off with Wounded Al Aqsa, a tribute to Palestine.
Assaf’s journey to the top has been marred by difficulties, with the singer reportedly having to plead with Hamas officials to allow him to travel from the Gaza Strip to Egypt, where auditions for the TV show took place.
Days before he was crowned Arab Idol, Assaf was appointed the first regional youth ambassador of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East. He now has a UN passport, which allows him to travel the world.
Majd Ismail, a fan at the concert, said he had not followed this season of Arab Idol from the start, but soon became hooked.
“I wasn’t interested until I suddenly found everyone talking about how good it was this year,” he said. “That’s when I tuned in and got hooked.”
The 18-year-old Syrian was outside the venue with six friends, waiting for another friend to arrive with the tickets. They had come to see Youssef perform, he said.
“There was a very good sense of competition, I wanted Farah to win but I’m happy Mohammed won, he earned it,” Majd said.
Throughout his performance, Assaf had the crowd on their feet and, at times, standing on their chairs.
Performing Aali El Keffiyeh (Raise the Keffiyeh), the song that won him his title, portions of the crowd began waving their scarves in the air in solidarity.
In the standing area, groups broke into Dabka, traditional and highly energetic dancing.
Nagwa Saleem, 17, was at the show with three friends.
“We all came to see Mohammed and Ahmad, we support the Egyptian and Palestinian people in their struggle for freedom,” Nagwa said. “We are Egyptian, Palestinian, and Syrian, but we just see ourselves as Arabs.”
Near the exit, an elderly woman sat in a wheelchair surrounded by roses she was selling to the crowd.
Mouthing every word Assaf belted out, she said: “I just want to meet him and shake his hand, but the security won’t let me.
“But I’m very happy I got to see him perform live, he has a way of make every word touch a chord in your soul.”