Financial Crisis in the UAE - A Paralysis of Analysis
Issue 10, Spring 2010
Central Dubai by night
At times during the global financial crisis the international press has been ruthless in its analysis of the impact felt by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and in particular Dubai. Yet in the country’s local press, its problems were tackled with kid gloves – when they were tackled at all. For a long time, the local media were loath to even admit the UAE was affected. Many observers suggest that the government exercised censorship over the issue, instructing media outlets to toe the line or else. But the truth is more subtle, as contributor Sam Potter explains.
It’s a comparison that’s barely worth making. One is a globally famous newspaper of 225 years' standing, headquartered in one of the world’s great capitals (population 7 million plus), and, though recent years have seen a decline in circulations, it still boasts a paying audience of more than half a million. The other is a mere 32 years old. It is published from a city with some 2.5m inhabitants, and reaches an audited audience of 115,366.
Yet the difference in the respect afforded The Times of London and the UAE’s Gulf News is not only due to history and circumstance; it is also closely related to content. The Times enjoys and employs the freedom you’d expect from a country in the top twenty of the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index 2009, while the Gulf News appears to suffer from the constraints of a country which ranks 86th on the same list.
The contrast between the two titles has been graphically illustrated throughout the global financial crisis. On the one hand, the Times has provided a detailed, urgent and continual commentary on the world’s economic woes and the problems Britain has endured as a result. In some eyes, its work has on occasion crossed the line into hysterics, but the fact remains that its coverage has been extensive and for the most part thorough. On the other hand, Gulf News – like all the local papers in the UAE – has provided decidedly poor coverage of the crisis.
In December 2009, for instance, at the height of the Dubai World debt crisis, the Times published more than 40 articles explaining the Dubai World situation and the ramifications being felt across the global financial markets, while Gulf News published less than half that number – just 20 articles. So a key newspaper in the local media scene, based just a few miles from the Dubai World offices, paid the story less attention than a foreign title almost 3,500 miles away. No wonder the watching world pays little attention to local media within the UAE.
The assumption is generally that the UAE government has had a program of censorship in operation, whereby local media outlets have been forced to toe the official line (that the UAE is fine, that there are no problems, and so on). But in fact this is a half truth: the UAE government has no need to enforce a program of censorship, because it has, over time, fostered an environment in which the media will censor itself. The problem it has just discovered is that a censored media (self-censored or otherwise) is a weak media.