LONDON — In a region more commonly associated with conflict and turmoil, Dubai has established itself as an oasis of calm and prosperity. That the Gulf metropolis has been able to avoid the instability elsewhere in the Middle East and turn itself into a vibrant media hub is largely down to its success in removing the curse of politics from its business model. Indeed, Dubai Intl. Capital, an investment firm owned by Dubai ruler Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has just secured a billion-dollar-plus stake in Sony.
This year, however, media execs in Dubai have had to contend with a series of political disputes ranging from the personal and local to international.
The fourth Dubai Intl. Film Festival, which unspools Dec. 9-16, has faced a particularly trying few months.
An unseemly public spat with former fest director Neil Stephenson was soon followed by the announcement of a rival fest in neighboring oil-rich Abu Dhabi, keen to grab some of the spotlight from its glitzier sibling.
The entry of Abu Dhabi’s inaugural Middle East Intl. Film Festival into the already-congested Arab fest calendar was further compounded by Marrakech’s decision to move its fest dates to Dec. 17-15, running virtually concurrently with those of Dubai.
Elsewhere, the decision by the United Arab Emirates’ National Media Council (NMC) to avoid greenlighting politically sensitive films from lensng in the country led to Dubai losing out on what would have been its most high-profile project yet, Ridley Scott’s terror drama “Body of Lies.”
Hot-potato pic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, follows an ex-journalist-turned- CIA agent who’s sent to Amman to track an Al Qaeda leader rumored to be planning attacks against America. Denied Dubai, that shoot moved to Morocco.
Similarly, incidents such as the NMC’s decision in November to stop two dissident Pakistani satcasters, Geo TV and ARY, from transmitting out of Dubai on the grounds they were affecting the neutrality of U.A.E. foreign policy have brought some unwanted and hitherto unheard of negative public scrutiny for the booming emirate.
What has been notable, however, is the way the authorities in Dubai have rolled with the punches.
At DIFF, for example, organizers upped their well-respected artistic director of Arabic programming, Masoud Amralla Al-Ali, to the position of overall artistic director in August. The result is DIFF’s strongest lineup ever in terms of Arab and world cinema, as well as attending celebs, including George Clooney, Sharon Stone and Samuel. L. Jackson.
DIFF officials have maintained their public dignity in the face of it any challenges, and moved fast to develop greater ties with other Arab fests.
In July, fest chairman Abdulhamid Juma announced the creation of the first-ever Arab film fest guild to increase co-operation during the increasingly crowded Arab film fest calendar and build up a comprehensive database of Arab films, filmmakers and industry execs to encourage the promotion of Arab cinema both in the region and internationally.
In November, the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority (TECOM) announced plans for a new Gulf Film Festival to unspool April 9-15 to showcase films from across the Persian Gulf, including the U.A.E., Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Yemen and Iraq.
“I actually think there are too few Arab film festivals,” says Al-Ali, who will also top the start-up Gulf fest. “Every opportunity for Arab filmmakers to congregate is an opportunity to exchange ideas and innovations and create a true, worldwide film community.”
While Dubai has strove to keep politics out, they’ve found themselves pulled back in. The recently increased tensions between the U.S. and Iran, only a short boat ride away from Dubai, has some overseas commentators looking wearily at what the future holds for the Dubai success story.
Not in the emirate itself though.
“We’ve been in the middle of this location for a long time,” says Amina Al-Rustamani, exec director of media at TECOM. “We’ve had the Iraq war, we had the Iraq-Iran war, we had many things happen in the region but so far we have not been affected significantly. There is huge commitment from the government to make sure that Dubai is a first choice location for companies to come and establish their businesses here.”
That commitment seems to be paying off. Dubai Media City remains filled to capacity, the partially-opened Dubai Studio City is receiving its first companies, and the traffic- a sign if ever there was one of a busy economy- remains on a par with Los Angeles.
Significant challenges still lie ahead.
The fallout of the U.A.E.-wide directive to nix films with controversial or political themes remains unclear in terms of Dubai’s ability to attract high-profile Hollywood shoots, with rival locations such as Morocco and Jordan coming out as the winners.
The insistence on putting the long-term vision of “Brand Dubai” ahead of a short-term buck may yet pay off, however.
Reps from MGM were recently in Dubai to scout locations there for the upcoming Paul Verhoeven-helmed “The Thomas Crown Affair” sequel.
Australian pic “The Cup,” about the epic boat race the Melbourne Cup, has also inked a deal to lense in Dubai in 2008.
“We are selective,” says Al-Rustamani. “Dubai has spent a lot of investment building its brand and its name. We’re really not in favor of movies that focus on terrorism and security in this region. We are interested in movies that will add value to the other industries we are building in Dubai, such as tourism.”
Dubai’s ability to handle the knocks it has received this year may be the ultimate proof of the emirate’s emergence as a genuine international media hub. One thing for certain, however, is they won’t stop trying to keep politics on the backfoot.
“A lot of their success has been down to keeping an eye out for avoiding political issues,” says Ali Jaber, managing editor of government-owned TV net Dubai Media Inc. “Those are the rules of the game.”