In an unexpected shakeup, the Dubai International Film Festival has canceled its upcoming edition and announced a “new strategy,” signaling that the fest as attendees knew it – during its 14-year rise to become the top film event in the Middle East – is over.

After days of swirling rumors and unanswered queries, a nebulous press release has been issued announcing “a new approach” and stating that the festival, which became prominent in the industry thanks to its annual Dubai Film Connection Arab film market component, will now take place every two years in a different format. The new shape is unclear, but it seems that the festival will be under new management.

The release quoted Jamal Al Sharif, chairman of the Dubai Film and TV Commission, as saying that they are “seeking to redefine” the Dubai fest’s “approach towards nurturing growth, creativity and talent.” Nowhere did the names of festival chairman Abdulhamid Juma, artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali, and managing director Shivani Pandya appear on the release. They are the team that built DIFF from scratch and in the course of 14 editions turned it into a solid annual springboard for the Arab film industry which will be sorely missed.

“I think they did a fantastic job and it’s a huge loss for the Arab film industry,” said prominent Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy who was recently appointed president of the Cairo Film Festival which he is working to relaunch with a strong market component. “People might say this is good for Cairo, but I disagree. Honest competition is what makes us work better.”

Up to now, DIFF had managed to project an aura of stability within the volatile Middle East festival landscape, which has seen closures in recent years of the Abu Dhabi and Doha Tribeca fests. Last year the Abu Dhabi programming team partly resurfaced at the helm of Egypt’s ambitious new El Gouna event, which launched in September, and earlier this month the Cairo Film Festival announced its ambitious relaunch plans.

Saudi Arabia, which recently lifted a local ban on movie theaters has announced a new film entity, the Saudi Film Council, and ambitious plans to build an entertainment industry. Saudi Arabia could move in to fill the gap, possibly even with some collaboration with Dubai since Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have close relations. 

For its final edition in its existing guise last December, DIFF launched a rich selection of 18 Arab features, more than one-third of which were world premieres, as well as regional premieres of the cream of the global film crop, including “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which was the festival’s closer. The fest also hosted delegations from the the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Golden Globes, with which the DIFF team had forged close ties.