The free-to-air (FTA) satellite TV market is leading the media charge in the Middle East, with 90 new channels launching this year alone. The total number of FTA channels on the Arab satellites stood at 290 by January, according to research from media and telecoms research house Arab Advisors.

Half of the region’s 211 FM radio stations are now private, many of them set up in the past few years as government regulations eased, says Arab Advisors. Print media is also growing fast. In Dubai Media City, for example, on average one in three companies produces a magazine – in a market of only 1.3 million people. Regional governments in Egypt, Dubai and Jordan have cottoned onto the enormous growth potential for general and entertainment media across the Arab world since the turn of the millennium.

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Mohamed Al Mulla, chief executive of Dubai Media City (DMC), says the centre has now attracted more than 1200 companies. There is also a waiting list of 400 firms, which on average have to wait a year to find accommodation, leading to spiralling rent inflation.

The good news for firms lining up to move in is that further space should be available by the end of the year. The completion of further office towers should raise the zone’s entire office space from 457,000 square metres (m2) by 150,000m2-200,000m2. The bad news is that, unless the landlord is DMC, which subsidises rent by 35% to help develop the media industry, rents will continue to soar, for at least the next two years until DMC-leased tower developments open. “I don’t see equilibrium emerging until two years from now, the waiting list is growing now – space is getting scarce,” says Mr Al Mulla.

Rapid change in the United Arab Emirates is also threatening to make obsolete the very essence of the free zone: 100% foreign ownership. The federal government in Abu Dhabi is considering a reformed companies law that would allow foreigners 100% ownership in industries that the UAE wants to encourage.

Attraction tactics

Although it is far from clear that media would be included, Mr Al Mulla says DMC is one step ahead of the game, planning initiatives to keep clients on site. It is planning to develop a media academy, offering media training to clients, and a media club. After attracting the Lynx Advertising Awards to Dubai in conjunction with the international advertising festival Cannes Lions, DMC will next year add a festival programme linked to the Middle East advertising awards held in Dubai in March.

Two other media city sister companies will branch out from TECOM, the parent of Dubai Media City, this year: one is focusing on the publishing industry, the other on film-making, illustrating how successful DMC has been in surfing the crest of Dubai’s business boom. Media has now become a core strategy of the city-state’s development plan, along with other services such as finance.

International Media Production Zone (IMPZ) plans to become Dubai’s hub for the printing and publishing industries, with a target of attracting investment worth A1bn ($272m).

Given the space demands of the printing industry, along with the rising value of land in central Dubai because of the property boom, TECOM invited key publishers to relocate to the dedicated zone nearer the industrial part of Jebel Ali. Three anchor clients in the printing sector include Saudi Research & Publishing Company, publisher of pan-Arab daily Sharq al-Awsat and Saudi’s Arab News, along with Dubai-based publishing giants Motivate and ITP, the latter of which plans to build its own headquarters on the site. Local TV, print and radio conglomerate Arab Media Group, which like IMPZ is owned by Dubai Holding, is also planning a move to IMPZ in August.

“We can offer them their own land – with no threat of the rental rates going up and up every year,” says Hamad Al Huraiz, IMPZ’s executive director.

Like its sister firm DMC, IMPZ is prepared to subsidise partially the costs of the printing, publishing and graphics companies it hopes to attract, while still covering costs and turning in a profit. The first tenants will arrive at the zone in the summer, further relieving some of the waiting list pressure on DMC.

IMPZ, which has spent A260m on the basic infrastructure ready later this year, has now leased 1.8 million m2 to anchor printing clients such as Ghurair Printing, Medad and Emirates Printing. The idea is to locate the publishers near their printers and ancillary services, further cementing the cluster concept.

Caught on film

Film, TV and advertising production is increasingly biting into the traditional dominance of print media in the Middle East, however. Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC), which at 10 years old is the oldest media free zone in the region, remains focused on film-making – which is proving popular as film makers bet on the continuing popularity of the Ramadan soap opera, along with features – boosted by this year’s highly acclaimed The Yacoubian Building.

The Egyptian movie industry produced 40 features last year, many of which were shot in part at EMPC’s studios outside Cairo. But it is the international segment that EMPC, and increasingly its competitors, the media cities, need to attract to continue growth.

Youssef Cherif Rizkallah, a veteran Egyptian film executive, was hired recently to raise the international profile of EMPC. Hollywood has taken to the region in a big way but has traditionally depended on shooting in Morocco, which retains the expertise and film-friendly government policies (the king is a movie buff). But Mr Rizkallah also notes competition from other neighbours such as Malta and Cyprus, as well as the Czech Republic.

The big-budget production Nefertiti is scheduled for production next year at EMPC. It is hoped that the John Heyman-directed film will realise EMPC’s ambition of attracting large Hollywood productions. “I hope this film raises interest in EMPC,” he says. EMPC is now seeking equity stakes in foreign film ventures.

Commercial space

Another DMC offshoot, Dubai Studio City, is also in the market to attract international film makers, as well as production houses from the swelling ranks of DMC’s tenants. Starting in the summer, 18 boutique offices will open, with a second phase of commercial space due in the second quarter of 2008, and huge sound stages will become available for filming in the first quarter of 2008.

On April 15, the zone was due to host its first feature film, Zenobia, at its bespoke area of desert. And it will host the Fourth Dubai International Film Festival in December. However, although feature films are a target for the city, DMC’s Mr Al Mulla concedes that projects still have to go through the national censor and Dubai is not keen on projects that do not represent the country in a good light.

RAK Media City, the media free zone in the rapidly developing emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, has also given film-making a starring role: this time, with a Bollywood slant. Already, two productions, Boom and Awra Daga Diwana, have been shot on location in the scenic emirate, says Junaid Sheikh, chief executive for investment and administration. The zone is building 600,000m2 of studio space with the first studios available in four months.

Satellite TV

Other zones are more tuned into the surge in popularity of satellite TV across the region: a form of access to information and entertainment that is highly valued in an area where state-run television is often limited.

Jordan Media City (JMC), set up in 2001 as the region’s only private media city, has grown its relationship with anchor client ART from eight to 32 channels through its uplink facilities. JMC, which has invested $50m on infrastructure and equipment, has now set up a joint venture with Arabset creating new Arabic channels devoted to sports, women’s interests and shopping, for example. It plans to build up to six small studios to facilitate further growth.

JMC director and chief executive Radi Alkhas says that Jordan’s skilled labour force and lower cost of living is attracting many players in the satellite business to Amman. He plans to open more space for production companies and create a media training centre, entering the same space as DMC.

State-owned Fujairah Media’s Creative City, a TV-oriented media zone that was licensed last month in Fujairah on the UAE’s Arabian Sea coast, plans to complete bespoke facilities by the end of 2008 – once a major road opens that will link the town to Dubai in a 40-minute journey. Already, about 37 TV and internet TV channels are operating out of temporary offices in the emirate, says Mekki Abdulla, director of marketing at Fujairah Media.

TV drama will be the city’s niche, both production and basics such as introducing dubbing into Arabic language, as opposed to the ubiquitous subtitles. Mr Abdulla says the city hopes to help build content providers for the underserved TV drama market in the Gulf. “We’ve seen dramas from Egypt and Syria, but this will be the decade of the Gulf drama,” he says.