If 2001 was the defining year for Dubai's media industry, then 2008 belonged to Abu Dhabi.
Abu Dhabi grabs headlines
From the launch of The National newspaper in April to the kick-off of the emirate's first media zone in October, at times working the media beat in the capital seemed to be one long stream of well-catered launch parties.
But behind the disorienting sparkle of sequined dresses on the red carpet and the fog of fake smoke wafting from the rock legends' stage was a clear and disciplined business strategy: Abu Dhabi had decided that it wanted to be a global media hub and had the resources to do it quickly.
So, the emirate went about creating the institutions and hiring the people to make it happen with a speed that took more than a few industry veterans' breath away. In less than a year, it has transformed itself into the regional address of many of the world's most respected media and entertainment brands.
To be fair, though, many of the ducks were put in a row before last year technically started. The Government laid the framework for the media boom in the summer of 2007, when it re-invented the old Emirates Media as the Abu Dhabi Media Company (ADMC), a public joint stock company owned by the Government with holdings in television, print, radio, and printing and distribution.
At the same time, it created the legal entity that would emerge a year later as a free zone for media companies. ADMC's first big launch in a year of big launches was The National, the English-language broadsheet led by Martin Newland, the former editor of the London-based Daily Telegraph.
With an initial staff of about 200, a substantial roster of foreign correspondents and a printing press hastily assembled just in time for the first print run, it was a big, ambitious, classic newspaper - ironically, the first of its kind in the region and probably the last of its kind in the world.
Later in the spring, ADMC launched the technologically forward-looking Getmo, a portal for legal music and video downloads created in partnership with the Bertelsmann subsidiary, Arvato Middle East Sales. Four months later, Edward Borgerding, the former Disney executive who had been hired in March as ADMC's chief executive, announced the formation of Imagenation Abu Dhabi, a billion-dollar film fund set up to make as many as 40 feature films in the next five years.
Throughout much of the autumn, at nearly regular intervals, Imagenation announced tie-ups with high-profile Hollywood partners: Participant Media (An Inconvenient Truth); National Geographic Films (March of the Penguins); and Hyde Park Entertainment (Dreamer, Shop Girl and The Other End of the Line). In the midst of these announcements came the show-stopping news that Abu Dhabi was going to launch a media city of its own, called twofour54, named after the geographic co-ordinates of the capital.
Like Dubai Media City, the list of those signing on was formidable - including CNN, BBC, Thomson Reuters, Financial Times, Harper Collins and Random House - but the aim differed slightly from Dubai's.
Yes, there would be a tax-free zone where media companies could set up outside of the country's business ownership laws. But there would also be a training academy and a business incubator designed specifically for Arab journalists and other media professionals, and those businesses that were planning to set up in the zone would be expected to hire the newly trained Arab talent.
The zone's creation was celebrated under three igloo-shaped tents set up in the sand behind one of the capital's flashiest malls. Psychedelic projections of branding images swirled on the domelike walls, and Duran Duran reproduced all their hits with remarkable accuracy.
The zone had been sold with the help of a PowerPoint presentation showing the soaring rates of advertising spending expected in the region. Looking back, it was a high point of the sense of possibility for media in the capital - and it happened just as the stock markets had begun to crash. Within a month, the financial crisis had hit the shores of the Gulf, bringing with it reductions in advertising spending.
The property sector, being the worst affected, pulled its ads first, and by mid-November newspapers and outdoor advertisers - both heavily propped up by property ads - were reporting 30 to 40 per cent declines in advertising. But as Joseph Ghossoub, the chairman and president of the International Advertising Association, told a crowd at the Media and Marketing Show in Dubai in November, the declines were more of a normalisation following an unsustainable boom than anything to really worry about.
"Instead of going extremely fast, we are just going fast," he said. He predicted a 25 per cent drop in property ad spending as well as a shift towards more tactical ads, but ultimately expected the region to weather this storm the way it weathered the Gulf wars and other shocks.
By the last quarter of the year, media companies were making plans for slower growth. ITP, the country's largest publishing company, had been launching magazines rapid-fire through much of the year. But by last month it had closed two business-to-business titles and gently applied the brakes to its plans for growth this year.
"We won't be launching as many magazines I think next year, because economic conditions have changed," said Andrew Neil, the chairman of ITP. "But for any company that has grown as quickly as we have, just like Dubai itself as a city-state, there comes a time when you have to pause, draw breath, consolidate and go on again."
Just how much of a pause the industry will endure is the looming question going into 2009. On Dec 17, both Fitch Ratings and Standard and Poor's downgraded their credit ratings for Dubai Holdings Commercial Operations Group, which owns Dubai Media City.
"The medium-term risks to Dubai's economy have, in our view, increased as demand in the all-important real estate sector shows clear signs of abating, raising the possibility of a sharp correction in the real estate market and an associated contraction in development and construction," wrote Standard and Poor's.
However, it does not seem to be halting the growth plans of media and marketing companies in Abu Dhabi, which has so far been less exposed to the economic downturn. The capital got its own weekly magazine, Abu Dhabi Week, in November, and several leading advertising and communications companies are planning expansion in the capital. One of them is The Brand Union, a brand consultancy that will move to Abu Dhabi in March and hopes to more than triple its staff this year - provided it can find affordable office space.
Toby Southgate, the managing director of the company's Abu Dhabi office, said even his property client, the Abu Dhabi-based developer Sorouh, had not pulled back business in the downturn.
"A business like Sorouh is a little bit of a microcosm of Abu Dhabi," he said.
"There's a real understated confidence about what they do. A little bit like Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Sorouh has sat back a little, deliberately, and others have stolen the limelight... Their projects are very well thought through. They don't take too many risks, and the risks they do take are incredibly well-educated."