No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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The Dubai Digital Broadcasting Miracle

By TBS Senior Editor S. Abdallah Schleifer

It seems like it all has happened in little more than a year: the launch of Dubai TV's cutting-edge digital satellite channel, the Dubai Business Channel; the opening of the extraordinary Dubai Press Club with its vast expanse of Internet-connected computer stations and large overhead TV screens tuned in to every conceivable news channel (earphones at every chair to guarantee a working environment) and its breathtaking twin-towers view of Dubai Creek; the launch of E-Vision, the first digital cable television network in the Arab world; and the press launch of Dubai Internet City (DIC), followed less than a year later by its opening.

This 700 million dollar investment by Dubai in state-of-the-art facilities and world-class infrastructure, housed in an Arabian palm tree lined equivalent of a vast Silicon Valley style campus, will--in the words of that visionary force behind almost all of these developments, General Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and UAE defense minister--confirm Dubai as the new economic hub of the region. And only a few hundred meters away, separated by the tranquil architectural classicism of the new American University in Dubai (or, if one prefers the view and ambiance from the highway, by Dubai's Hard Rock Cafe) is the site, with building already underway even before any press announcement, of Dubai Media City.

On November 4, 2000 Sheikh Mohammed officially launched Dubai Media City, to quote Gulf News (and his own website), "with a promise of freedom of expression and no censorship." Like DIC, DMC will accept 100-percent foreign ownership and offer a 50-year corporate and personal tax exemption to "individual media people" as well as corporations. The vision here is of a media community that will bring broadcasters, TV production companies, publishers, ad agencies and PR companies as well as individual journalists together in one area (to be spread over nearly 500 landscaped acres) creating what has been described as a "media ecosystem."

Dubai's investment in the Media City is approximately 800 million dollars, slightly higher than its investment in DIC. Again the promise is cutting-edge technology, including production and transmission facilities. Again the goal, according to Sheikh Mohammad, is "to attract international and regional media businesses, providing a center for communications and serving as a media hub for the region. Media business people who shift their operations to the city can take advantage of the strategic position of Dubai at the crossroads of the Middle East, Africa and south Asia to target an audience of nearly two billion people."

Typical of Dubai's ongoing success story, this latest development does not take place in an infrastructural vacuum or even in what can be barely characterized anymore as a stretch of desert. Sheikh Mohammed's press conference launch of DMC took place at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, the first of three incredibly luxurious hotels that run along the beachfront towards DIC, Media City and the American University. The university, presumably, will play a leading role in what the Sheikh described as a "greenhouse program" organized in association with leading UAE-based educational institutions to train a new generation of UAE nationals who will join the many expatriate specialists expected to settle down in and around Media City.

From an investment perspective Media City is the third point completing a triangle of concentration linking DIC and DMC with the recently announced Dubai Ideas Oasis, which appears to be a consortium of venture capital investors designed to stimulate the launch of e-businesses.

Sheikh Mohammed also told the press that 82 percent of the space in DMC had already been booked by local, regional and multinational companies, among them TV producers, record companies, post-production studios and freelance service providers. It is expected that Media City will also take the position of regional hub for printing, publishing and packaging, but it is the increasing technological convergence of Internet interactivity and satellite broadcasting that makes Dubai's Media City/Internet City complex so fascinating and the prospects for success so high. DIC has already reportedly leased out 95 percent of its space, with IBM already breaking ground in DIC for a regional headquarters that will serve the Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan, and with Microsoft, Oracle, Compaq, MasterCard, Sun Microsystems, and Hewlett-Packard among the more that 190 companies already licensed to operate in DIC.

But it is obviously the international satellite broadcasters that Sheikh Mohammad has most in mind--and first of all the Arab regional satellite broadcasters. "Growth is vital for business. As I look across the region at today's existing media capitals, we see trade legislation and practices that inhibit the growth of business. Media owners should welcome a new and free business environment in which to grow and expand free of the constraints they might encounter in other locations."

Over and over again at his press conference Sheikh Mohammad returned to the idea that freedom of expression is a "fundamental point…an integral part of the subject of media. This awareness and practice of freedom is the foundation of the creation of Dubai Media City. I am aware of the vital importance this holds to the media world. I guarantee freedom of expression to all of you and the right to be completely objective in your views and reporting. Let us do so responsibly, objectively and with accountability and in the spirit of the social and cultural context in which we live."

It would appear that within limits--the same conventional limits in the West guaranteed by libel laws, plus a sensibility that draws more conservative lines of restraint in sexual content by Arab broadcasters transmitting from Europe than is to be found among European broadcasters--Sheikh Mohammad was pledging that Dubai Media City would provide the same attraction of an environment free of political censorship for the private sector Arab satellite broadcasters that Rome, Avezzano, London and Marbella (Al-Andalus Channel) now provide. Interspace, a European satellite industry bulletin, reported on September 20 that Dubai "has already examined the British ITC broadcast media regulations and sees itself adopting a similar broadcasting structure" for Dubai Media City.

It was as if Sheikh Mohammad was openly addressing the owners of MBC, ART, Orbit, ANN and the other European-based satellite channels (and even the satellite-transmitted newspapers Al-Hayat and Sharq al-Awsat) when he declared: "This freedom will allow and encourage the Arab media to return home to broadcast and publish once again from Arab land and contribute to this new regional media industry." According to Dubai sources, MBC has already signed up in principle, and London sources say MBC has already put its Battersea transmission, production, and management center up for sale. continued

Next page: "All the big players are here."

Copyright 2000 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo