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By | September 20, 2000

      Dubai is rapidly turning itself into the technology hub of the Gulf, but it has a larger vision. Already under construction is the $272 million (E318.64 million) Dubai Internet City, where Phase 1 is almost complete with the likes of Microsoft, Oracle and Compaq already signed up to take space. Some 180 companies have been licensed to operate within the designated tax and duty-free zone. It opens officially next month.

      The next stage is alongside and dubbed the Dubai Media City. It will sit between the Arabian Sea and a huge man-made inland lagoon. The total area extends some 25 square miles, and together with Emirates Hills, a planned housing and condominium area, will provide homes and jobs for 100,000 people over the next eight to 10 years. Local officials are coy of revealing too much ahead of the official October launch, but Viacom’s chairman Sumner Redstone was given a VIP tour of the area by Dubai’s crown prince Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Such is the value of the Viacom name.

      Redstone, speaking to Interspace, said the Media Zone was a welcome addition to the facilities of the region. “As far as this area is concerned, my plan is to discuss what I have seen with my top executives and probably have them come over here and share the experience I have had. As you have rightly pointed out this is a vast part of the world, with an enormous population that means great growth opportunities for Viacom. My ideal scenario would be to have people here invest in Viacom and Viacom then invest in this region and bring the elements together.” Viacom is already backing Showtime, a local pay-TV platform.

      That’s all good news. However, while the Internet City is shaping up to provide real advantages, at least on a regional basis, the Media town is seen as a tougher sell. One local TV executive, who declined to be named, said entrepreneurial publishing companies might find a welcome home in the zone, which besides the tax benefits also allowed 100 per cent foreign ownership, something not usually permitted in the region. However, “I cannot see any of the majors coming here with the possible exception of MBC, which has been rumoured to be interested,” said our source. Dubai has already examined the British ITC broadcast media regulations and sees itself adopting a similar broadcasting structure.

      As to the ‘majors’, Rome-based Orbit is already committed to nearby Bahrain, while Arab Radio & Television has recently opened an office and call centre in nearby Jebel Ali, another ‘free zone’, and has also invested heavily in new studios and ancillary facilities in Cairo. Local broadcasting outfit Dubai TV is working out of the existing broadcasting centre, while the new Dubai Business Channel is operating out of a purpose built – but already cramped – facility alongside a local shopping mall. Indeed, the media rush extends well outside Dubai’s immediate border, with Jordan, Kuwait and the nearby Emirate of Sharjah, all promising attractive incentives to incoming media players.

      Mohammed Al-Abbar, director general of Dubai’s all-important Economic Department, speaking exclusively to Interspace, said, “There is no tax. No corporate tax, no income tax. And within the special zones there is 100 per cent [foreign] ownership. And you have the full backing of the government, and the resources of our local population. This is why Microsoft has based here, and Oracle, MasterCard and hundreds of others make Dubai their regional headquarters. We believe media will do the same.”

      He said Dubai had identified seven key media-related areas, although he declined to be more specific. However, he said as far as 35mm film production was concerned this was not necessarily one of these seven topics. Neither did he want Dubai’s efforts to be compared to Egypt’s 6th October City-based Media Production City.

      “We are different from 6th October City in Cairo. Our strengths are that we represent this region. We are very smart and sophisticated in the use of technology. And we know that it will play a major role in our future. It is also the will of the government that we prepare for the role of the hub.”

      Censorship is frequently a very real risk for media companies in the region. Indeed, the Kuwaiti government is currently in Doha, Qatar, seeking to start a local legal action against Al Jazeera, a satellite news channel, arguing that the channel has falsely accused Kuwait of civil rights abuses.

      Al-Abbar said this sort of problem would not occur in the new Media zone. “In today’s world censorship doesn’t exist. We can pick up hundreds of channels here plus the Internet. The world is changing. We are already a global city, travelling the world, and we know exactly what is happening around the world and we cannot hope to stop, nor would we want to stop whatever is happening. So censorship is no longer an issue. We want the same freedom to operate as if a channel was in London, Atlanta or wherever.”

      While few can predict precisely how events will shape up in the future once the Media zone exists, the fact remains that even in Dubai, which in Arab terms is a liberal and highly tolerant society, censorship – as far as incoming media is concerned – is very real. While broadcast stories themselves are not usually cut or blacked out, there are ample signs of the censor’s heavy black ink in ads or illustrations.

      However, Dubai has made progress in the area of copyrights. Al-Abbar said, “We took a decision to become a city that was respected throughout the world, by the international companies which actually run the world. Certainly as far as the Middle East is concerned, and even for the Far East, we were the first city to take these laws on board and implement them. Now we find major international companies involving us, training our staff. We are very, very serious about it and want to be more serious about it.”

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