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Dubai’s strategy as a global content hub

Over the last decade, Dubai, the location of January's IBC Content Everywhere MENA event, has successfully reinvented itself as a production and media hub, according to Dubai Media City and Dubai Studio City’s MD, Jamal Al Sharif.

Over the last decade, Dubai has successfully reinvented itself as a production and media hub, according to Dubai Media City and Dubai Studio City’s MD Jamal Al Sharif (pictured).

Speaking at the IBC Content Everywhere Europe Hub during IBC2014, Al Sharif explained that TECOM Investments, owner of Dubai Media City, has played a big role in Dubai’s knowledge-based economy strategy over the past decade.

“Our strategy has been aligned with that of the Dubai government, moving from the oil-based economy of 1966 to a diversified economy,” he explained. “Dubai Internet City opened in 2000 and TECOM Investments has played a large role in Dubai’s strategy since then, helping decrease our dependency on oil.”

Al Sharif noted that the digital world has expanded rapidly in the Middle East. “135 million individuals are using the internet in 22 Arab countries and 71 million are using social networks actively, so there is a big appetite for such content,” he said. “In the long run, events like Dubai Expo 2020 and the Olympics 2016 in Brazil will play a big role in further content requirement.”

Making the most of Dubai’s geographical location is key to Al Sharif, who describes it as only eight hours away from the vibrant markets of North Africa, Asia and Europe. “TECOM Investments plays a big role in attracting international business partners and organisations to choose Dubai as a hub,” he said.

The 9 TECOM free zone business parks cover four clusters, ICT, media, education and science. “We have attracted over 5,000 companies in 10 years and cover nearly 1 billion square feet of land area, covering around 30 per cent market share of commercial space,” said Al Sharif. “The free zone benefits include tax free, foreign ownership, no custom duties, no restrictions on capital and profits, it’s an attractive model for ICT and media.”

He notes this is crucial to Dubai’s economy, to make business easier for foreign companies through help with licensing or real estate facilities among other things. “The regulatory part is very important and we had to adjust policies and regulations to accommodate the media business and ICT and to develop the industry.”

Dubai Media City was the first of the three TECOM media brand initiatives, started in 2000. Dubai Studio City was then launched in 2005, followed by the International Media Production Zone which focuses more on print media, newspapers and magazines not just for e-market, but global markets outside of Dubai.

Some of the top media companies who chose Dubai as a location to expand their businesses include the ITP Publishing Group, Forbes, McGraw-Hill on the publishing front, BBC, OSN, MBC, CCTV, CN, CNN on the broadcast front and Endemol and MediaPro on the production front.

“Dubai’s government wanted to develop this initiative further and support media content developers in the Middle East,” explained Al Sharif. “There’s a big thirst for content creation in the Arab world and more particularly in the Arabic language.”

To address the demand for content in the Arab language, the Dubai Film and TV Commission was launched in 2012 to attract film and TV content to the Middle East and especially to Dubai, by providing incentives and funding and acting as a ‘one-stop shop’ to reduce the cost of media production in the region.

“Mission Impossible 4 was one of the latest film productions that happened in Dubai in early 2010, followed by many Bollywood films as well,” explained Al Sharif who is also the chairman of the Dubai Film and TV Commission. “In addition, the launch of our 15 square foot sound stage in Dubai Studio City, including the large green-screen initiative in partnership with MBC and Stargate, also attracted a lot of Middle Eastern TV makers from Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.”

He also noted the big role played by the Dubai International Film Festival in the past decade in distributing this content not only in the Middle East but internationally. “We celebrated our 10th edition last year with 174 films, with participation from over 57 countries in 43 languages.”

Addressing wider Middle East media trends, Al Sharif noted that the use of social media by the youth of the Middle East splits at 45 per cent in Arabic and 48 per cent in English.

“A lot of Turkish content is being dubbed to Arabic and shown in the Middle East, driven by this demand from the young and by social media,” he concluded. “Half of the population in the Middle East is below the age of 25, so the thirst for content on social media is aggressive, especially around news and current affairs.”

Positioning Dubai as a leading media hub and production destination is going to be key in the long run, according to Al Sharif, particularly to address content demands around Expo 2020 in Dubai and the Brazil 2016 Olympics.

“The UAE ranks number one in smartphone penetration, people walk around with two or three phones,” said Al Sharif who notes that the expanding digital world in the Middle East involves 135 million individuals using the internet in 22 Arab countries, with 71 million using social networks actively.

“There is a big thirst for content, the penetration of the internet in our region is high and we know that 14.5 million hours per day are spent viewing YouTube channels in the Middle East,” he added. “Despite all of this, we lack in content production compared to other markets, therefore there is a need for ecosystems to promote local content.”