The Abu Dhabi Media Summit, which runs Nov. 18-20, is tackling some timely subjects just as extremists in the region are making headlines with their social-media skills.
There is a session, in tandem with CNN, called From the Arab Spring to the Summer of Reckoning: The Transformative Role of Social Media in the Middle East, which, besides being a useful anti-propaganda primer, stands as testimony to the UAE’s prominent role in the war on Isis.
“We are in the middle of a region that is now facing many difficulties,” says Noura Al Kaabi, CEO of Twofour54, the Abu Dhabi media and entertainment entity that organizes the summit. “We can’t just sit there and let certain fundamentalists deploy the media the way they do without putting it into perspective.”
Al Kaabi hopes that a discussion be- tween top-level local, regional and international players on how Isis social-media manipulation is affecting geopolitics might prompt some concrete measures against the trend, something even the U.S. State Department seems to be lacking.
The Abu Dhabi Media Summit’s so-called CNN Segment will examine why social media is such a particularly potent propaganda tool for Middle East movements, with panelists Becky Anderson, CNN’s Abu Dhabi-based anchor; Faisal Abbas, editor-in-chief of Dubai-based pan-Arab news channel Al Arabiya News, which is Al Jazeera’s top local competitor in the region; Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, a founding member of HuffPost Live; and Ayman Safadi, a former deputy prime minister of Jordan who currently heads Abu Dhabi-based communication strategy group Path Arabia.
The day’s closing keynote interview will be New York Times Co. president and CEO Mark Thompson, who is likely to provide some insight on how Isis is getting its message across in the Middle East and North Africa where, as Al Kaabi notes, 60% of the population is under 25. And what, if anything, can be done about it.
The UAE has notably been taking a strong stand in the fight against Islamic fundamentalism. Recently it trumpeted sending the first female Emirati air force pilot, Maj. Mariam Al Mansouri, on an F-16 jet in airstrikes against Islamic state militants in Iraq as part of the U.S.-led campaign. Emirati’s moves in the media and entertainment sector also reflect ambitions to take on a greater role in the moderate Muslim world.
Speakers at the summit include “Waiting for Superman” director Davis Guggenheim, working on a docu about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani student activist who survived a Taliban assassination attempt and recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. Abu Dhabi’s government-backed Image Nation is among co-financiers, along with Participant Media, of the docu being produced by Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald.
But of course, the main purpose of the Abu Dhabi Media Summit is business, not politics.
“We would like to develop the media industry here because it’s going to be an important non-oil sector (of our economy),” says Al Kaabi.
Accordingly, the summit’s theme this year is Driving and Sustaining Future Media in MENA and Beyond, with plenty of panels and speakers on topics including Wired Women, featuring, among others, China Interactive Media Group CEO Hung Huang, known as the Oprah Winfrey of China. Imax topper Richard Gelfond will hold forth on the Next Big Thing for Big Screen.
A session on Accelerating Start-Ups will include Nina Curley, who heads the recently established Abu Dhabi unit of Flat6Labs, a U.S.-style accelerator. It aims to support Emirati companies at an early stage with a focus on media and content.
Al Kaabi, who will be the event’s closing keynote speaker, says efforts to turn Abu Dhabi into a media hub for the region will involve UAE regulations and policies to make the Emirati capital “more of an enabler” and to “protect companies.” She bemoans the fact that Yahoo recently closed its office in Amman, Jordan, after purchasing Arabic-language portal Maktoob in 2009. It was largely run out of the Jordan office.
“It’s a shame, but I don’t blame them,” she says. “Ours is a market where you need someone to hold your hand; there are bumps that you are going to face, but this (the summit and support initiatives) is how we are going to make it happen.”