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The Dubai Digital Broadcasting Miracle

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.

There are also serious reports that a few Indian channels are talking about setting up in DMC. Something like 60 percent of the population of Dubai is Indian, and while that is probably the highest percentage in the Arabian peninsula, there are also large communities from the Subcontinent throughout the Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Some industry experts have doubts about the viability of DMC. They point out the scarcity of talent for a broadcasting industry that has at least as much to do with entertainment as it does with journalism and public affairs broadcasting. But Saaed Hussain Al Muntafiq, CEO of Dubai Media City, pointed out in a talk earlier this year at the UAE Higher Colleges of Technology Conference that Dubai is located midway between the talent pools of India and Egypt, and that this talent can be accessed at a fraction of the cost it would take in developed economies.

A similar point was made by Jack Pierce, managing director of Jack Pierce Associates and a man with more than 19 years of PR, journalism and marketing experience in the UAE. He notes that advertising agencies and production houses throughout the Middle East, including those in Dubai, all used to look to London with its pool of talent and technologies for post-production or even production for TV and print. But the business and social environment here in Dubai was so positive, according to Pierce, that groups like Saatchi and Saatchi and other major advertising agencies started to put resources into Dubai, and increasingly agency film and video productions have been created there. Saudi agencies realized it was cheaper to go to Dubai than to London. And more customers coming to Dubai has in turn has drawn more facilities and skilled expatriate personnel.

But Sheikh Mohammed is not content to leave the issue of talent simply to market forces or even to the intensive educational concentrations at Emirati universities that he has in mind. Dubai Media City's management has announced an Annual Media Students Awards program to encourage young media talent from universities in India, Lebanon, Egypt, and South Africa as well as the Emirates. According to the DMC release, media students from these countries will be encouraged to compete for awards in the fields of photography, journalism, radio, TV production, filmmaking, graphic design, and advertising. The awards will take the form of either scholarships for postgraduate studies or the payment of fees for intensive training programs at internationally recognized institutes. Lubna Alattia from DMC's commercial team will be taking what she describes as "a road show" to campuses in the five targeted countries to talk to students about the event, in what seems to be shaping up as one of the most intensive commitments ever made to stimulate university programs in mass media communication arts in the critical talent pools of that Afro-Arab-Asian land mass that Dubai Media City sees itself serving as a major, if not the major, broadcasting hub.

Many of Dubai Media City's future occupants are already in Dubai, drawn there by that same accommodating environment. In the late eighties, according to Pierce, there were only two PR firms in Dubai. Now "all the big players are here, some 25 firms, not to mention a number of one-man operations run out of a spare bedroom." Pierce noted that Dubai has become such a regional PR hub that agency specialization is already underway; one local agency with an expat owner has focused on IT, and the newest agency in town, Matrix, is specializing in IT and digital media, representing both Showtime and the new cable TV operator E-Vision.

Not only do all of the leading advertising agencies have their regional head offices in Dubai, but so do a number of international wire services. Reuters recently migrated here following a two-decade odyssey that took them from Beirut to Cyprus to Bahrain. All of the pay-TV transnational broadcasters have some sort of regional sales and/or production office here, including Orbit, Star, Showtime, and ART. The Disney Channel, which is part of the Orbit bouquet, has its regional headquarters here, and presumably it has no problem finding local talent and facilities to handle its complete Arabization; the channel dubs all of its animation and subtitles its live action product in Arabic. (Orbit carries the original English-language Disney channel as well.) The most successful Dubai operation is Showtime, which earlier this year opened its new offices in Jebel Ali, the first free zone in Dubai and geographically a threshold to the Dubai Internet City-Media City district.

Rawhi Abeidoh, who heads up the Reuters regional office in Dubai and who was the Reuters bureau chief in Cairo in the late nineties, remembers his first tour of duty in Dubai (1976-1989) when he headed the Emirates News Agency. Abeidoh says the visible changes in Dubai--the topography, the skyline, the new fashionable neighborhoods--are phenomenal and the pace is dizzying. Back in the late seventies, and even into the late eighties, to drive from Deira (the original concentration of new Dubai along the Creek, with its first fashionable hotels and office towers) to the Jebel Ali Free Zone "was to drive through desert."

Abeidoh is alluding to the "Fifth Avenue effect" along Sheikh Zayed Road, where an entire district radiating midtown to uptown high-rise Manhattan chic lines both sides of the highway: residential towers and office towers, malls, and the fashionable restaurants and nightclubs that fill the pages of the Emirates' own edition of "What's On" and keep the huge expat community occupied.

Still another equivalent building boom is underway close to the DIM-DMC complex, in Emirate Hills. What is envisioned here, and is already partially visible, is an incredibly well-landscaped suburban community of luxurious private homes with generous landscaped surroundings. Emirate Hills and perhaps other somewhat less breathtaking residential developments in the area are expected to house the 100,000-strong workforce that is expected to eventually man the DIM-DMC complex.

One Dubai-based independent production company, Network Productions, has already been given the green light to build a new $16 million production studio complex in Dubai Media City. $2.6 million of that investment will be spent on equipment. According to Digital Studio magazine (Oct. 2000), Network Productions, working with its technical partner Omnix International, will incorporate its current facilities into a new three-studio television complex that will support five TV channels and work as a production and post-production overflow facility for broadcasters working out of Media City. The modular design of the facility, which should be finished and usable by spring or early summer 2001, will enable Network Productions to expand to accommodate additional clients.

Network Productions managing director and founder Raid Abdul Hadi told Digital Studio that each of the three studios will be a four-camera setup. "One of the new studios will include retractable stadium seating that will be used for game shows and interactive programming. Another studio will have a virtual set while a third will have a full news production system. And that is just the beginning. The facility will also have a new telecine suite, a dedicated duplication setup and major outside broadcast capabilities." The entire facility will cover 1,000 square meters of land and will include five stories of office space, makeup rooms, and a prop store. Channels managed by Network Productions will be video streamed for web broadcast. The proximity of Internet City, with a big Microsoft presence there, makes Dubai Media City an obvious leader in developing media streaming for the entire region.

It is also apparent from Sheikh Mohammad's remarks that he sees the giant multinational media corporation with global interests as a force that must be served if Dubai is to be the "ideal center" for media that he envisions. He made note that AOL/Time Warner encompasses all aspects of media and by inference typifies the convergence of boadcasting, entertainment production and the Internet that the proximity of Dubai's Media City and Internet City will address.

Viacom's chairman Sumner Redstone recently visited Dubai at the Sheikh's invitation. As a shareholder and principal supplier of product, Viacom already has a stake in the region in Showtime, and after a tour of Media City during his visit to Dubai, Redstone told Interspace (Sept. 20, 2000) that DMC was a welcome addition to the facilities of the region. He reportedly told Sheikh Mohammad that his plan was "to discuss what I have seen with my top executives and probably have them come over here and share the experience I have had. As you have rightly pointed out this is a vast part of the world, with an enormous population that means great growth opportunities for Viacom."

One of the first international broadcast-related companies to identify Dubai as a natural location for its Arab regional sales and marketing office was Sony Broadcast. In 1981 Sony Broadcast set up an extensive--and expensive--shop in Cairo. In 1983 they opened an office in Dubai, and by 1986 they had decided to close the Cairo operation and to run everything out of Dubai.

Hassan El-Ghoul ran the Cairo operation for Sony and then moved to Dubai as general manager. "We moved here," he says, "because it was a very viable commercial center with the right infrastructure and a positive government attitude towards the private sector. Both were missing at that time in Cairo. What's happening now is quite similar. The same factors--the right infrastructure and a positive government attitude toward the needs of private sector broadcasters and production houses--is what is turning Dubai into a regional broadcasting center. And with the rise of the price of oil, everything in the region is back on the growth track, so Dubai is flourishing more than ever."

Two of the major developments in digital broadcasting that I mentioned at the very beginning of this article have at present nothing to do with Dubai Media City. But they have everything to do with the fundamentals El-Ghoul outlined that are attracting all sorts of business, and increasingly the broadcasting business, to Dubai.

It would stand to reason that of all the state-owned Dubai TV channels, the one channel that has managed to cut loose from that public-sector television quality that even informs Dubai TV (if less so than other national channels in the Arab world) would be the new Dubai Business Channel. A large part of the reason has to do with a certain autonomy granted this channel, which one suspects has to do ultimately with Sheikh Mohammed's vision of Dubai as the new media (and that includes digital satellite TV) center of the Arab world--even if he does not appear to be directly involved in managing the destiny of this amazing channel. But the channel's young director general, Rashid Murooshid, is typical of the new generation of Emiratis so often associated with Sheikh Mohammad. He is dynamic, fiercely competitive, charismatic and defied conventional wisdom by getting the channel on air more than a year ago in but a few months.

The Dubai Business Channel is the first exclusively global business news service broadcast free-to-air in the Arab world, and it presents a picture of world economic events as well as regional business news from a unique Middle Eastern perspective, in both Arabic and English. DBC correspondents generate professional field reports on business developments from Cairo and other Arab capitals, in addition to in-studio programming. According to critics it is rivaled only by Al-Jazeera for the most professionally designed and paced Arab channel broadcasting today.

Tamer Abdalaal, who was hired by Murooshid to take over as production manager this past year, describes the entire production staff at the channel, approximately 70 people, as "a kaleidoscope of nationalities and backgrounds, from seasoned professionals from the famous Financial Times Television in the UK to recent Emirati college graduates who will be trained in TV production." The DBC, according to Abdalaal, has "the perfect mix of experience and vitality which will make this a very unique and fulfilling career-building environment."

DBC also has the technological right stuff. It was the first TV operation in Dubai to have 100-percent digital non-linear post-production and transmission facilities, based on various solutions from both Sony and Quantel, DBC's main suppliers. The post-production facilities include Quantel's Editbox, Paintbox, Picturebox, and Hal Express. Being all digital and all from the same manufacturer, it creates a seamless network inside the station. The studio is equipped by a digital system from Sony and features a blue screen virtual studio in which the image prospective in the background is connected to the cameras so that when the cameras zoom in or out or pan left or right, the background changes accordingly.

But the backbone of the operation, according to Abdalaal, is the Avstar Newsroom System manufactured in Wisconsin, USA. This is a system networked throughout the station (including the studio control room and post-production facilities) that allows journalists to retrieve all the news wires such as Reuters and AFP in real time, write their scripts, chose their captions, and even cue their presenters when to be in or out of vision during the live broadcast. "This is even the tool our studio directors use to cue their directions during broadcast. Our chief engineer, Dave Richards, has even developed software that automatically writes the captions on the Aston Motif character generator in the studio. Just think, the journalist can write his or her story, choose and request their graphics, and it is produced automatically on the character generator. This system is vital to our operation in that it controls all aspects of a TV newsroom. Thank God there is still a need for production managers," says Abdalaal, with a smile that is just a bit wistful.

The other Dubai digital triumph is E-Vision, the first real cable TV operation in the Arab world. What is usually described as cable is either microwave-relayed "wireless cable" as in Qatar, or, like Egypt's CNE and the Dubai Cable Network, an encrypted terrestrial UHF retransmission. Cabling homes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi (and eventually the rest of the UAE) with hybrid fiber and coaxial is viable, even if difficult, because E-Vision is owned by the UAE telecom, Etisalat. It is typical of the Emirati spirit that Etisalat recognized its opportunity and is taking it. It is also symbolic of Emirati recognition that Dubai is the media center as well as the most dynamic business center within the UAE, even while Abu Dhabi is the political capital: Etisalat is headquartered in Abu Dhabi, but its subsidiary E-Vision is headquartered in Dubai.

Only a few months after its launch, E-Vision now offers its viewers 60 channels of English, Arabic and various Indian language programming, with both ART cable and Showtime cable as its premium packages. Basic and premium packaging can still be increased as the digital cable system has plenty of channels to spare. But it is the interactive possibilities of cable, with its remote control having return path capabilities, that most excite E-Vision's management team headed by CEO Humaid A. Rashid Sahoo and Programming Operations Manager Ali Abdulla Saeed Alzaabi.

The E-Vision launch of a pay-per-view movie facility is imminent, and Alzaabi says it will be the first full pay-per-view in the region. E-Vision is also looking to take the lead in providing an EPG (electronic program guide) that does more than allow the viewer to navigate between the different channels and their different programs. E-Vision's EPG will be interactive; it will program viewers' preferences by program category or actor and inform the viewer when his favorite type of show or actor is coming up. It will be, according to Alzaabi, the first step in the region to personal TV. This advanced EPG is scheduled to be introduced before the end of the first quarter of 2001, to be followed by interactive games, interactive sports, and interactive advertising.

If both Dubai Business Channel and E-Vision are digital broadcasting examples that bear out El-Ghoul's analysis, his theme of Dubai building upon a solid reputation as a regional commercial center that fosters private enterprise, accommodates rather than harasses companies that need to employ skilled expats, simplifies startups, and is constantly improving infrastructure was echoed in dozens of conversations I had with both expat and Emirati executives during my two visits to Dubai this past year. A typical issue of the Paris-based Arabies Trends, a slick business and cultural monthly, devotes a page to new appointments in the Middle East. Three of the six news items in the June 2000 issue involve companies (Tag Heur, the Swiss sports watch manufacturer; United Technologies Corporation; and Fidelity Investments) moving to or opening their Middle East regional offices in Dubai. A report in the same issue on the struggle for the Gulf computer market quotes the regional directors of the leading international PC manufacturers in an article datelined Dubai, and takes note that the Taiwanese company Acer has just invested over $3 million dollars in setting up a modern complex in Dubai to assemble 600,000 PC units a year.

It is not a coincidence that the first purely Internet tabloid newspaper (or "webloid") in the region, newsofthegulf.com, has been launched in Dubai. Its publisher is Monal Zeidan, general manager of the new specialized PR company Matrix (and TBS's Gulf correspondent.)

Both the Dubai boom and the rise of Arab transnational satellite broadcasting go back to the same historic event: the 1990-91 Gulf crisis, or Gulf War II. Multinational and Arab regional business had migrated from war-torn Beirut in the late seventies and tried Cyprus or Greece, which were too far away physically and psychologically. A few tried Cairo, which then had seemingly impossible problems with infrastructure and an indifferent-to-belligerent bureaucracy. Most ended up settling for Bahrain with its offshore banking facilities and a modestly relaxed social life possible for expats. But Bahrain has "island fever"--a sense of no place else to go--and when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 it just seemed too close to the action. Dubai, by contrast, looked good: it's next door to Saudi Arabia but far from the danger zones, has equally good or better airport facilities and infrastructure, and has an excellent approximation to potential markets like Iran and India as well as Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

But if you asked Sheikh Mohammed he would say it all began more than 40 years ago, when the dredging of Dubai Creek by his father, the ruler Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al Maktoum, was the first step taken to convert Dubai into a regional business hub. There is still an extraordinary hustle and bustle about the Creek--traditional dhows outfitted with motors carrying re-exported product, typically Indian or Ceylon tea headed to Iran--that recalls Dubai's beginnings as an import and re-export center not only for Iran and India but for all of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, which is served by road and by air.

It also has to do with esprit: with the unique way everybody accommodates each other; with the small Emirati elite whose male population tends, refreshingly, to prefer private enterprise to government service, and whose traditionally dressed young women are heavily enrolled in the Sheikh Zayed University and Higher Technological Colleges and who quite efficiently and politely handle the passport controls at the international airport; with the particularly large community of Indians visibly dominating small and medium sized retail trade; and with the Arab expats and the British expats, all of whom can aspire to the highest positions in (or own) private sector companies and now can own property outright.

It is a spirit of ease and accommodation that makes acquiring a visitor's visa to Dubai the easiest in the Gulf (with a few days notice one's hotel will arrange for the visa to be waiting at the airport). And it is most typified in contemporary terms by the prize-winning Emirates Airline operating out of Dubai International Airport's new Sheikh Rashid Terminal, which opened last April and incorporates within its seamlessly smooth operation (and universally polite staff) a duty-free shopping complex of 5,400 square meters--conceivably one of the largest, if not the largest, airport duty-free operation in the world. As an Oct. 24, 2000 report in the International Herald Tribune noted: "With passenger numbers expected to top 12 million in 2000, it seems as if the entire world is passing through Dubai airport, and all the world's goods can be found in Dubai Duty Free."

Just days after my last visit in Dubai I flew on from Cairo to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport, and struggled there to board a connecting flight to Washington DC carrying hand luggage and laptop up and down stairwells and wheeling them across potholed tarmacs, past generally incoherent and unhelpful JFK staff. And I thought: "Welcome to the Third World."

About Abdallah Schleifer

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S. Abdallah Schleifer is editor-at-large of  Arab Media & Society. He is the former director of the Adham Center and now professor emeritus in journalism and mass communication at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Prior to joining the AUC faculty, Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo Bureau Chief and Middle East producer/reporter based in Beirut, and has covered the Middle East for American and Arab media for over 20 years. Schleifer is honorary and former chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Cairo.

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