Dubai remains the best launch-pad for media outlets that wish to flourish in a region dominated by government intervention and censorship, a top media official said.
This is one of the reasons why a large number of media outlets flourished out of the UAE and spread across the region where press are still subject to intense government scrutiny and freedom of the press is a far cry.
Dubai Government had launched Dubai Media City in the late 1990s, as part of its vision to create a knowledge cluster to transform the emirate’s economy to a knowledge-based one. Together with Dubai Internet City, Dubai Media City, Knowledge Village, Dubai Studio City and the International Media Free Zone (IMPZ) – that have been amalgamated under the Tecom Investment cluster – the emirate has attracted global media and information technology brands which now contributes to the emirate’s non-oil economy handsomely.
“That is one of the reasons why we decided to relocate our operations from London to Dubai,” Sheikh Waleed Al Ibrahim, chairman of MBC Group, told delegates at the second day of the two-day Arab Media Forum in Dubai.
Waleed Al Ibrahim – a Saudi national who studied in the United States – started developing video and television content on the Saudi society in the 1980s when Saudi Arabia was very closed. However, with the help of the Ministry of Information officials, his team was able to break grounds in developing documentaries.
Later, he took his expert team to set up the MBC Group from London.
“We launched the Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) Group as a pan-Arab media in 1991 in London – to be able to exercise freedom of the press – as most Arab countries were not open to the idea of press freedom,” he said.
“It was an uphill task initially. However, we remained committed to develop quality contents for the Middle East audiences.”
The problem faced by the team was to reach the audiences due to non-cooperation by most governments.
“We tried to enter Egypt and the government did not let us enter to protect the local television channels. However, when an invitation came from Dubai, we started to engage with Dubai government,” he said. “Initially, I was reluctant to relocate as we might have to compromise on the content – fearing that we might become subject to censorship and interference.”
Dubai provided the solutions to MBC’s problems and invited the channel with open arms to move to Dubai, assuring it complete freedom, he said.
“His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, convinced me. After our meeting with his team, especially H.E. Abdullah Al Gergawi and himself, I was convinced that we could shift our operations to Dubai.
“However, there were questions on sensitive issues and we needed to have the answers to all of them. He assured us of all sort of help and, believe me, there was no looking back. So, in 2001-02, we shifted to Dubai Media City.
“Since then, we were never asked by the government how we run our business and why we do what we do. There has been no government interference on our programme – this is due to the commitment and the vision of Sheikh Mohammed.”
Ibrahim said, he has learned a lot from Sheikh Mohammed in many interactions during the last one decade and has developed a strong admiration for his leadership.
“It is due to our faith and conviction that we later launched Al Arabiya news channel in Dubai – to cater to hard news, although we had our concerns on how the global community would react and if we would come under political pressure,” he said. “Once again, Sheikh Mohammed reassured us of all type of support and protection. He went on to inaugurate the channel.”
MBC Group has recently established a state-of the-art television studio – which has started functioning. “It is one of the best studios in the world and much better than many studios in Hollywood,” he said. “We are currently producing some important programmes that will be aired during Ramadan.”
He said, organizations in Dubai can’t fail, if they follow the footsteps of Sheikh Mohammed, praising His Highnesss for his wisdom and his vision.
However, the challenge remains in developing new talent, where institutions nurture them with the right skills needed to reshape the media landscape in future, he said.