Over the past three years, the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi — once virtually unknown within the entertainment biz — has emerged as a source of funding and a center of operations for key segments of the industry.
Today there’s hardly a media or entertainment conglomerate with which Abu Dhabi hasn’t formed some kind of partnership in its quest to become a media hub not just for the Gulf region but for the world.
This rapid and radical change is the result of a government policy, outlined in the emirate’s Economic Vision 2030 plan, which calls for the diversification of its economy while creating a base for a new kind of storytelling about the Arab world.
At the heart of these plans is twofour54, a media zone and creative center named after the city of Abu Dhabi’s geographical coordinates. In a year and a half, it has managed to become the regional broadcasting locus for operations such as CNN and Fox Intl. Channels, while signing deals to become a training and production center for Arabic content creation with outfits like Cartoon Network and Comedy Central.
Like the more established Dubai Media City an hour and a half up the road, twofour54 offers foreign media companies the ability to set up in the United Arab Emirates while avoiding the country’s law requiring them to be majority-owned by a UAR national.
But twofour54’s mandate goes far beyond that of a renting property or handing out licenses.
Companies that come must participate in the zone’s primary function as a place to train Arab talent. While the bulk of this training takes place at the twofour54 Tadreeb training academy, led by instructors from the BBC, Thomson Reuters Foundation and Thomson Foundation, opportunities for internships and job placement are also available at the zone’s 65 resident media and communications companies.
These programs are supported by state-of-the-art studio facilities and a business incubator designed to form the infrastructure of a sustainable content creation industry. “There is a mandate from the government to create a vibrant cultural community in Abu Dhabi, which media is a part of,” says twofour54 topper Tony Orsten.
Working alongside twofour54 is Abu Dhabi Media Co., another government-owned venture spun off from the emirate’s information ministry in 2007. ADMC turned heads by launching Imagenation Abu Dhabi, a billion-dollar film fund, in 2008 and tying up late last year with the likes of Universal, Sony and EMI to create Vevo, the online video jukebox that aims to be the YouTube generation’s answer to MTV.
Abu Dhabi’s global ambitions in media were on full display in March, when ADMC hosted a high-profile media summit with keynote speeches by News Corp. topper Rupert Murdoch and Google chief Eric Schmidt. The confab, held in the hotel arching over Abu Dhabi’s freshly completed Formula One racetrack, quickly earned the nickname the “Davos of media,” thanks in part to the fact that it was organized by PublicisLive, the events company with a long-term contract to mount the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The event generated buzz around the opportunities media companies can tap in the Middle East, with its market of 340 million Arabic-speakers, 65% of whom are under 25, and its expanding broadband penetration. It also touched on the challenges. Media is not yet widely considered a desirable career in most of the Arab world, where prestige comes from having children who grow up to be doctors and engineers. In the oil-producing countries of the Gulf, young people often have lucrative and stable jobs awaiting them in the public sector.
And the media still faces widespread censorship throughout the region, even in the relatively liberal UAE. Last year, the sequel to “Sex and the City” was denied its request to film in the country because of concerns over its racy title.
Murdoch diplomatically nudged his hosts on this point when speaking in Abu Dhabi. “Certainly each nation and culture has the right to insist that the people they allow into their countries to do business respect their national values and traditions,” he said. “This is best administered, however, with a gentle touch. Human creativity flourishes in freedom.”