The UAE has had exceptional growth across all sectors in the last decade but the media and broadcasting industries probably represent one of the most exciting areas of development currently. Perhaps the developments are not so much legal developments but the growth within the region is now having considerable impact on the commercial approach being adopted in pulling deals and market strategies together in these sectors.
The UAE government has been highly supportive of the media and broadcasting industries, which is why it set up Dubai Media City (DMC) six years ago. Since then, DMC has won itself a name for being the media hub of the region.
The business friendly legal requirements, the advanced technological and real estate infrastructure have prompted reportedly more than 1,200 regional and international media companies to set up operations in DMC.
Likewise, Dubai Studio City has also been designed to cater to the increasing demands of the TV commercial, music, film and broadcast industries. The value proposition makes some sense. TV and film content production and distribution represents one of the fastest growing media industries in the world today so to cater to that industry need would seem to make sound business sense. Again, the benefits of 100% foreign ownership, flexible labour laws and fast-track immigration process (usually a problem in the Middle East) should make it easier for professionals and talent to come here. The response has been very positive.
But looking closely at these initiatives, has the government through DMC really delivered on its promise? Launched in January 2001, DMC was developed as a creative community for the media industries, designed to give media businesses the "Freedom to Create" but "in accordance with the law".
There are many cases in the last four years that remind us of the limitation of that freedom of expression. However, we see that change, albeit slow, will come eventually.
Of late, the UAE has been aiming to create a world-class film industry here with the launch of the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) more recently, the Middle East International Film Festival (MEIFF). From next year, there will also be a Gulf Film Festival that will give Arab filmmakers a broader platform to showcase their films. This is good news for filmmakers and the industry. However, some issues need to be ironed out.
These film festivals should ensure that they do not compete with each other; rather, they should complement each other. In fact, for the film industry to thrive, MEIFF and DIFF must work together.
There is a lot of activity happening at a local level as well including, for example, the first ever home grown and produced animated television series, Freej. This project is so notable because it is a great example of the growing talent that exists within the region. It has also come to surface because of the support it received from the government, be it in the way of funding from the Sheikh Mohammed Establishment for Young Entrepreneurs (SME), a government initiative specifically to support young Emirati talent, but also from Dubai Media City which has firmly put itself behind the Freej project to promote it and to provide it support in terms of procuring sponsorship and broadcast partners for the project. However, there is much more talent here and for the film industry to pick up, three things need to happen:
- The creation of a Film Fund for local (not restricted to Emirati nationals) filmmakers based in the region.
- The opportunity for international movies to be made here. Dubai got its first claim to international fame with the first big budget Hollywood movie, Syriana, shot largely on location here. However, Dubai may have passed up other opportunities to host the production of Hollywood movies and drama series due to concerns over content.
- There needs to be funding for international movies in the region. MEIFF received a host of international directors in search of opportunities and this is a clear indication that interest is generated in the international scene. That interest should be harnessed and brought in.
Although we can speak of local production, we still have quite a long way before we can speak of a proper film industry in the UAE and proper parameters will have to be set by the Government (going back to the freedom of expression point).
With regards to broadcast, new things are coming into the region for the first time like the set up of the first collecting societies to collect royalty for playing music. This is big news for the broadcasters, one that they have to account for in their 2008 budgets as the last bits of regulation regarding the operational requirements of such societies is being currently set by the Ministry of Economy.
There are some other issues that need to be ironed out. For instance, we have seen indications of possible opposition from the federal authorities over the content shown on some music channels although no official statements have been released about this. With some music channels showing risquÃƒÂ© music videos, where Arab artists are wearing less than they might have in the past and gyrating perhaps more than they might have in the past, there seems to be an unofficial moratorium at the prompting of the Federal Government preventing any further broadcast licences being issued to music channels in the UAE until the regulatory environment is clearer. This inevitably will be a short-term thing and already, we have seen signs of this relaxing. It does reflect the limitations on the Freedom of Expression, which need to be defined if the industry is to move ahead.