It’s all to play for in UAE media



The media scene in the UAE is booming, and this week will see a veritable explosion of interest in the Emirates as the world’s attention is focused on the country’s media as never before. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the UAE media industry will be under an intense spotlight over the next few days, which will highlight the progress the country has taken towards developing the media industry that it deserves – as well as showing what more needs to be done to reach the highest global standards.

As His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai has often said, the UAE must measure itself by these high international criteria, in whatever sector of business, be it finance, property, banking, construction – or media.

This week will see the launch of a new English language newspaper, The National, published in Abu Dhabi but to be distributed throughout the UAE. Other English language press launches are also rumoured.

Simultaneously, two of the world’s biggest broadcasters are also in town, with visits by senor executives and editors from the American TV giant CNBC, and from Sky, the British-based satellite group owned by media-mogul Rupert Murdoch.

At least one other big US corporation is also believed to be in discussions with an Emirates media group with a view to expanding its presence here.

I would like to think that we at Emirates Business, the region’s first business newspaper launched last year, were part of the early wave of this media transformation, and that Arab Media Group, the parent company that has ambitious plans for all parts of its business, was at the forefront of this modernising trend.

Why is this happening now? As the UAE, and Dubai in particular, began to develop a higher world profile, it attracted a more sophisticated audience for all forms of media, among nationals and expatriates alike. They expected higher standards of media content, and more modern forms of media access and presentation.

The launch of Al Jazeera in Qatar showed Middle East media could successfully develop its own brands in a western-dominated industry. And at the heart of it, there was a simple realisation, which I do not think had always been part of business thinking in this region, that there was big financial value to be had in the media industry. The multi-billion dollar deals involving Dow Jones and Reuters last year were surprising to many in the Gulf – they had not realised that media assets could command such huge amounts.

The recent financial and market troubles affecting the west have also made the Middle East more attractive. As the advertising industry in New York and London has downgraded its forecasts for the next couple of years, the indicators in this part of the world show a very different picture. From a relatively under-developed base, ad spend in the UAE will grow rapidly over the next two years. One recent report puts it at $2 billion by 2010 – a 54 per cent increase. In simple language, UAE businessmen are starting to realise that media makes money.

In Abu Dhabi, they are also trying to prove that money makes media. With the backing of Mubadala, one of the world’s wealthiest investment funds, the Abu Dhabi Media Company, the state is launching an English language newspaper to take on the UAE market leader, the Dubai-published Gulf News, in a bid to capture the region’s high-spending expatriate readership and the advertisers who follow them.

The editor-in-chief, Martin Newland, is an accomplished newspaper man, having launched one title in Canada and been a successful editor of London’s Daily Telegraph. As Telegraph editor, he steered the title through a high-profile corporate scandal, a potentially unsettling takeover-battle, and a change of proprietor, so he knows all about the intense politicking at the top of the media business.

One challenge for him – and that of the near-200 staff members he has hired from around the world – is to show the same skill in negotiating the equally delicate relationships at the upper end of the UAE power structure. Quite simply, Abu Dhabi has never seen anything like The National before, and it will take some time, and maybe some teething troubles, before the two get used to each other.

The other challenge is to raise the standards of print journalism in the UAE. Much has been done in this respect, but a substantial amount more is required before the press can claim it has reached the “international best practice” levels advocated by Sheikh Mohammed and others. If The National under Newland can help “raise the bar” of editorial standards, it is good for everybody – journalists, readers, advertisers and proprietors.

The interest of the TV moguls currently doing the rounds in the UAE is similarly motivated by the twin opportunities of financial gain and editorial challenge. They see the advertising forecasts – and the fact that press advertising still dominates the total spend – as a sign of potential for real growth; they see the daily stream of news of all kinds coming out of the region as a sign that the world wants to hear more about the social and economic dynamism of the Gulf.

The expanding media plurality of Dubai has been based on the strategy of using “free zones” as the bases for the international media to operate, and I have found it surprising that no big international group has so far taken advantage of Abu Dhabi’s newer but equally ambitious media zone strategy as a base for its Gulf regional coverage.

Maybe Murdoch, who has already shown his interest in the region through the publication of The Times of London in Dubai last year, will finally demonstrate large-scale commitment to a region he has sometimes regarded as too difficult to justify serious investment. Perhaps CNBC will want to expand the coverage it has already initiated in UAE business affairs.

Outside the “mainstream” media of press, radio and TV, there are enormous opportunities in the “new” media, with internet and mobile access growing at a rapid rate from a lower base than in the west. All international groups have committed firmly to the new media revolution, and their interest in the Gulf will ensure traditional and new media are developed side by side.

The UAE has the infrastructure for the new generation of media services, but what it lacks is editorial content, especially home-grown content. This is what the big international groups can bring to the party – their own extensive access to content generated around the world, and a commitment to use their proven expertise to produce new Gulf-specific content.

There are big challenges ahead – not least the inevitable frictions that arise when an expansionist and dynamic industry lives side-by-side with a power structure protective of its traditional role as media regulator. But that is what makes the media scene in the UAE so exciting. It is all to play for.