x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Golden age of the media city

While Western media struggle to survive the internet onslaught, in Middle East they thrive.

The recent launch of the Media Zone in Abu Dhabi is just one indication that the industry is alive and well in the region.
The recent launch of the Media Zone in Abu Dhabi is just one indication that the industry is alive and well in the region.

The early 21st century, with the rise of the game-changing internet, is likely to go down in history for the West as the time that newspapers teetered on the brink of extinction, the six o'clock news stopped mattering and media companies were forced to change radically or die. In the Middle East, this same period may well be better known as the golden age of the media city. From Egypt to Jordan, Dubai to Qatar, zones dedicated to attracting clusters of media companies - usually with some combination of tax-free status, government facilitation and brand-name cache - have been rising out in growing numbers and with increasing ambition. And with every blockbuster announcement comes more pressure on each to carve a niche, or else risk losing the title of "regional hub" to a neighbour.

"It's the fashion now," said Radi Alkhas, the chief executive of Jordan Media City. "It's like airports. Everybody likes to have one." If Mr Alkhas sounds a bit world- weary, he comes by it honestly, as the leader of the oldest media city in the region - at least conceptually. Jordan Media City (JMC) was built in 1978 on government-owned land near the Jordan Radio and Television Corporation in Amman. It began operating in 1982 as the government-private Jordan Production Company but went under in 1991. The facility lay dormant until 2001, when Sheikh Saleh Kamel, the Saudi businessman behind the Dallah Al Baraka Group, provided the funds for a technological overhaul.

By the time JMC opened that year as the first private media city in the region, it already had competition in the form of the Egyptian Media Production City and Dubai Media City. So, from the beginning Mr Alhkas has had to emphasise what set Jordan's city apart. "The uniqueness of Jordan Media City is that it is privately owned, while all the others are controlled by the government," he said. "It makes the decision-making process much easier. Government-controlled media zones, they are controlled by the policies. When they ask you to close down a channel, you close it down."

But private ownership does not necessarily guarantee free speech. A free zone media law that was widely debated in Jordan's parliament around the time the city was launching has never been passed. JMC operates under the country's general free zone laws that are applicable to any commercial enterprise and "a press law that many regard as chilling", according to A Tale of Three (Media) Cities by Stephen Quinn, Tim Walters and John Whiteoak, published in the autumn 2004 issue of the Global Media Journal.

Like other media cities, JMC offers tax-free status and financial incentives to its clients. Initially, its facilities were entirely dedicated to Sheikh Saleh's own Arab Radio and Television (ART) network. Today, ART makes up only about 30 per cent of JMC's business, the rest consisting of work from 152 channels that are uplinked through the city. Mr Alkhas calls the smaller of these "sandwich channels", meaning low-budget channels that are trying to make a name for themselves in the pan-Arab satellite crowd. Although the city does not directly create new channels, by providing state-of-the-art facilities and staff to support them it in effect serves as a kind of incubator for new Arab voices, he argues. "They would not have started if JMC was not there. We made it very easy for them to get satellite."

Although it was conceived much later, Dubai Media City (DMC), which opened in Jan 2001, was the first in the region to open its doors, having taken only a year to build. "The facility shows the consequences of the brute muscle of money and a singular vision," wrote Quinn, Walters and Whiteoak, who estimated the initial cost of the project at between US$700 million (Dh2.57bn) and nearly $1bn. Superior infrastructure, combined with a pool of largely imported talent and multiple incentives, lured several major media companies to relocate their global or regional headquarters, including Reuters, CNN, CNBC and MBC.

"The move of MBC Group from London to Dubai in 2002 was a quantum leap for the group, not only because of the facilities and the help that was extended from the authorities - in time, in quantity and in quality - but also in terms of market proximity and the cultural relevance and closeness to the viewers," said Mazen Hayek, the group director of marketing, PR and commercial for MBC Group. "Dubai is an efficient business model, par excellence, and anything you would think of that as making your life easy, efficient, productive, profitable, Dubai has given it to us, without getting into details."

Dr Quinn, a journalism professor at Deakin University in Australia who co-authored the media cities report, noted that big names such as MBC, Reuters and CNN are being used to lure other companies, much the same way malls use big department stores to lure smaller boutiques. The strategy seems to be working. Since opening in 2001, the media free zone has grown to include more than 1,000 companies. But Dr Quinn said he was cynical about the impact of such media on Arab media as a whole.

"Certainly the one in Dubai was not about media, media freedom or expression, as far as I could tell - it was about real estate," he said. DMC declined to make a spokesman available for comment. If Dubai is a testament to the power of money to see bold visions realised, Egypt's media city's rocky start may be a reminder of how a weak currency can curtail regional ambitions. The Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC), located outside Cairo in 6th of October City, opened in June 2002 after a decade of work on land donated by the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. The depreciation of the Egyptian pound throughout the 1990s and early this decade has made funding difficult. But by the time it was completed, the city's 18 studios made it the third-largest production facility in the world, after Hollywood and India.

Designed primarily as a shooting location and tourist destination that could capitalise on Egypt's century-long film heritage, EMPC is also home to The International Academy for Media Sciences, an educational institute designed to provide EMPC and Egyptian media with workers skilled in the latest media production tools. With so many other media cities already operating in the region, the planners of Abu Dhabi's media zone, twofour54, knew they would have to offer something different.

"For all of us that are post-Dubai, we have to offer something complementary," said Tony Orsten, the chief executive of twofour54, which launched last month. "There's no point in offering something that is going to compete directly." So Abu Dhabi emphasised training and incubation institutions that could help to create a new class of Arab knowledge-industry workers, in addition to tying up with a list of global media brands including BBC, CNN, Thomson Reuters, the Financial Times, Random House and Harper Collins.

"It's much more expensive, and it's less commercially acceptable to the norms of business in the short run," he said, but in the long run he believes it will help to nurture a sustainable media industry in the Middle East, built with local talent. The next media city is likely to rise in Qatar, the country credited with kicking off the Arab media boom with its launch of Al Jazeera in 1996. Details have been scanty about the planned Qatar Media City, but the nation's press have reported that it will host about 25,000 people from around the world and be located in Lusail, outside Doha. The project is reportedly a joint venture between Al Jazeera Network, Qatari Diar and Qatar Media, with Al Jazeera taking a 50 per cent stake.

Al Jazeera declined to make a spokesman available to comment on this article, but representatives from Qatar's media city were among those at twofour54's launch last month, according to industry sources. Their presence signals that Qatar is keeping a close eye on Abu Dhabi's media zone, probably struggling with its own question of how to stand out from the crowd. "The model that we have is an innovative one," said a source in the Qatari press, adding that - like all the others - Qatar's media city would be different from others in the region.

@Email:khagey@thenational.ae