ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — SeaWorld, the U.S. theme park chain notorious for mistreating killer whales and other marine mammals in recent years, has opened a new aquatic park in the United Arab Emirates, its first outside the U.S. one.
The $1.2 billion joint venture with state-owned developer Miral features the world’s largest aquarium and a cylindrical LED screen. There are no orcas here, but animals such as dolphins and seals are kept in the park, and captivity and training for profit and entertainment are often criticized as immoral by animal welfare advocacy groups.
The new facility, which opened to tourists last month, gives the Orlando, Fla.-based company a foothold in the fast-growing international tourist destination and a chance to continue rebranding after years of criticism and animal cruelty allegations.
SeaWorld and Miral declined multiple interview requests from The Associated Press. They also did not answer written questions or allow Associated Press reporters into the park.
Scrutiny of SeaWorld came to a head when the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” was released. The documentary focuses on the life of Tilikum, the 12,000-pound orca that killed trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 when he dragged him into SeaWorld Orlando’s pool. The video suggests that orcas become more aggressive in captivity.
The movie caused attendance at SeaWorld’s three U.S. parks to plummet. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. later agreed to pay $65 million to settle a lawsuit it accused of misleading investors about the documentary’s impact on its profits.
Faced with mounting criticism, SeaWorld halted its orca breeding program and live shows featuring the whales in 2016. That same year, it announced plans to create a killer whale-free park in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
The company’s promotional materials say it is committed to rescuing and rehabilitating animals, with full-time veterinarians making sure they are well cared for. Last year, its Orlando theme park opened a facility to care for Florida manatees dying of starvation in their natural habitat. The company says it has raised $17 million to support hundreds of research and conservation projects around the world.
“By utilizing fundamental SeaWorld design principles that put animal well-being and care at the heart of its design, SeaWorld Abu Dhabi will redefine the standard of excellence for marine life theme parks around the world,” company chairman Scott Ross, in a statement explain.
The park is certified by the international brand American Humane, the ultimate credit certification that no animals were harmed during film production. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, widely regarded as the gold standard for humane certification, has certified SeaWorld’s U.S. facilities, but Abu Dhabi Parks has yet to submit an application for accreditation, according to Jennifer DiNenna, the organization’s accreditation director.
The arrival of Sea World adds another major tourist attraction to the United Arab Emirates, home to the futuristic city of Dubai, the world’s tallest skyscraper, and the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.
The partnership with Miral adds to SeaWorld’s larger plan to transform Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island into a theme park hub to rival Orlando. The island already has a Formula 1 circuit, a water park and a Warner Bros. theme park, and celebrities such as Kevin Hart and Jason Momoa have been brought in to promote it.
“It’s a form of non-oil diversification and soft power,” said Christopher Davidson, a former professor of Middle East politics at Durham University in the United Kingdom. “A partnership with a big brand like this can serve as a ready import to the UAE and will automatically translate into increased visitor numbers.”
SeaWorld’s ‘Kingdom’, featuring traditional houses and sailboats, pays homage to Abu Dhabi’s cultural heritage, evoking a simpler time before oil was discovered, when the sparsely populated emirate relied primarily on fishing and pearl diving for its livelihood.
An in-house research facility will study aquatic life in the Persian Gulf and support the conservation of local species, including the endangered manatee-like dugong.