Safely tucked away from the war that has ravished Iraq for the last decade is Kurdistan. Often called 'the other Iraq', Kurdistan's beautiful snow-capped mountains and lush green forests offer an idyllic backdrop for Middle East production crew looking for respite from the harsh desert clime. The Kurdistan government and a UAE businessman are now cashing in on the political stability and the natural beauty of this territory by building a US $1.6 billion media haven for broadcasters looking to report on the Arab world from the safety of this environment.
The new media precinct, dubbed Erbil Media City, is being fashioned along the same lines as Dubai Media City (DMC) with all the incentives that are packed into a free zone including a tax-free policy and 100% foreign ownership.
"What Erbil Media City promises over and above other media cities is more space and less expenses for the tenant. It will cost you less than 60% of what you pay in DMC to operate out of Erbil," claims Anwar Al Yassiry, the Kurdistan government's Emirati partner and CEO of Dubai Sound & TV (DST), a production and rental firm which has its headquarters in Dubai and branches in different parts of the world including the Middle East, London and Europe.
As part of phase one of the project, two towers are being built in Erbil. Each tower can house 60 TV stations. Surrounding the towers will be residential buildings, luxury offices, hotels, equipment rental offices as well as support services from broadcast manufacturers, claims Yassiry, who was at IBC to showcase the project and encourage more manufacturers in the value chain to join it.
Yassiry, who is a 40% partner in the project, has already invested a whopping US $400 million into it. He has roped in all of the companies he represents in the region including Arri, Photon Beard, Panther and other brands to open their service centres in Erbil.
Already, 50 clients have signed up for offices at Erbil Media City, claims Yassiry, although he has declined from going on record with their names. By the end of this year, he confirms that 18 Arabic TV stations will be ready to begin operations from Erbil even if the facility is not completely ready.
"Phase one in its entirety is scheduled for completion only in 2009. However, we have already put in place most of the infrastructure necessary for TV stations to operate out of Erbil. Electricity, smart office connections and satellite uplinks are already established. We have signed on 18 Arabic TV stations so far including six Turkish TV stations, nine Iranian stations and some Iraqi channels. We can accommodate a total of 120 TV stations in the first phase. Each TV station can have, in addition to its office space, a 12mx12m studio, which is sufficient for music and news production purposes," explains Yassiry.
In addition to this, Erbil Media City will have four studios of 1200 sq.ms, each of which can accommodate up to 12 cameras. "Each of these studios will have a big store room where production crew can store their equipment. The freezone includes 75,000 sq.ms of landscaping and sets for outdoor shooting including cities, restaurants, buildings, sea and lakes," he adds.
According to the Emirati national, Erbil is an ideal location for a media city. "On the one hand, it is part of Iraq and close to it, and yet, paradoxically, it remains untouched by the country's political situation. The climate is also very pleasant so production crew will find this appealing. More importantly, Kurdistan is close to both the Middle East and Europe, has an international airport and visas are easy to get. This project will create a lot of employment in Erbil, where labour is fairly inexpensive and easily available," he adds.
Erbil's strongest point, however, is that it is very cheap compared to other media freezones. "A TV station can have an office, studio and all the connections that a smart office has for as little as US $30,000 per year. I can safely say that everything is about 60% cheaper than places like Dubai because labour and material is cheaper. Also, Iraq has many talented cameramen and editors and many may prefer to operate out of Erbil. If you look at many of the regional broadcasters here, some of their best cameramen and editors hail from Iraq," explains Yassiry.
The project has been downplayed so far and the reaction of most sceptics has been 'But who's going to go there?' or 'So many projects like this have been announced in the past but nothing's come of them'.
One can imagine a similar scene being played out five years ago when Dubai launched its Media City project. The same sceptics dismissed it and today, it is one of the most successful projects in the region.
Yassiry is confident that Erbil Media City will work. "You wait and see," he says. "When the project is ready and as the costs go up in these other places, broadcasters and production companies will see the benefit of coming to Erbil. Plus, we are building an entire city there and it will be self-sufficient. The government there has extended its entire support and is very forward thinking," he says.
Yassiry is not to be taken lightly. Seventeen years ago, the Emirati national returned to Dubai after taking various courses in film from Lebanon, London and Iraq to establish his own studio in Deira. Today, at 40, Yassiry has production bases in London, France, Spain, Germany as well as five Middle East countries.
He has tried to address the issues that older media cities have faced. "Power is one of them. When you look at TV stations and studios, they need a lot of power and we have built four power plants in Erbil to take care of our clients. Plus we are working with studio designers in Germany and the UK to build the studios at Erbil and ensure that issues like acoustics are addressed. Fifteen people from DST are presently in Erbil doing the fit out in conjunction with our local and international partners," Yassiry explains.
The Emirati says the studios will be equipped with state-of-the-art HD equipment.
Additionally, companies like ND SATCOM, which has a strong presence in Erbil, have been roped in for satellite uplink jobs. Ali Yassin, account manager for ND SATCOM's Iraqi projects, says the company has already implemented several TV uplinks such as Turksat and worked with PUKsat TV channel and Al Harraiya channels in Erbil. "We have a strong presence in Erbil and believe we will be able to provide everything the project requires of us," explains Yassin, who himself hails from Iraq.
Currently, Erbil Media City is targeting broadcasters in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Iran.
As part of its efforts to encourage more tourists, the Kurdistan government is also looking to host two separate festivals for music and cinema. "These festivals will bring more tourists in and gradually, other interesting projects will begin to draw more businesses to Kurdistan. This is only the beginning," says Yassiry.
Once Erbil Media City is up and running, Yassiry confirms that an Internet City and Knowledge City are also in the pipeline.
After two years of work, Erbil Media City still looks like a construction site. However, the buildings are beginning to take shape, the lights are on and the satellite links are being put in place.
In a couple of years, Yassiry is confident that he will see Erbil Media City fully operational. "I have dreamt of this for many years. We had tried a similar proposal with Jordan to do Jordan Media City but we didn't get the land and eventually, they did it themselves. But this time round, I'm certain that Erbil Media City will put Kurdistan on the map. It's just a matter of time."