Abu Dhabi Comes of Age
A thriving fest, lucrative incentives and a burgeoning media sector are transforming the United Arab Emirates capital into a gateway to one of the fastest-growing entertainment markets in the world. And it's just the beginning.
It may have taken some time, but Abu Dhabi finally has emerged from the shadow of its somewhat flashier United Arab Emirates' neighbors in Dubai.
The transformation began in 2007, when the capital city of the United Arab Emirates hosted the inaugural Middle East International Film Festival, the precursor of what is now the Abu Dhabi Film Festival and a direct challenge to the more well-established Dubai International Film Festival, which launched in 2004.
Long considered one of the most tolerant and diverse regions in the Middle East, Abu Dhabi is in the midst of a long-term strategy to lure Western business interests in an effort to become less dependent on its most lucrative export -- oil.
The emirate has plenty to offer, including access to an increasingly Westernized youth market, plenty of investment capital and a tax-free business environment.
A major component of Abu Dhabi's expansion plan is to bolster its media and entertainment sectors, and the strategy appears to be paying off. In 2007 the government announced plans for the Abu Dhabi Film Commission as a one-stop shop for regional film production, and Time Warner's Warner Bros. Entertainment unveiled a broad-based strategic alliance in Abu Dhabi to gain access to the greater Gulf region.
Much of the recent activity has involved twofour54, the government-backed media entity located on a sprawling campus on the city's outskirts. The local film festival, now in its sixth edition, was brought under the ever-expanding auspices of twofour54 earlier in 2012, as was the film commission.
At the Cannes Film Festival in May, twofour54 underlined its desire to attract productions to Abu Dhabi by announcing 30 percent tax-rebate incentives packages that went into effect this September. The initiative reflected efforts to "put into place all the key ingredients to reinforce our position as the regional hub and first-choice, go-to place for producers," says twofour54 deputy CEO and COO Wayne Borg, a native of Australia.
But it's not just about supporting the local film industry. Abu Dhabi's media sector was boosted in May when Sky News Arabia, a joint venture between British pay-TV giant BSkyB and the emirate's own investment vehicle, began broadcasting its 24-hour news service to compete with Al Jazeera.
Another big brand arrival was video games publisher Ubisoft. The French company behind such successful franchises as Assassin's Creed is collaborating on a gaming academy, which accepted its first students in March, and is setting up a development studio.
"Games is a huge sector in its own right," says Borg. "And clearly, a lot of skill sets can be applied in film production in terms of special effects and digital effects and increasingly in terms of content for tablets."
Time Warner's Turner networks unit launched the Cartoon Network Academy in partnership with twofour54 in 2010. It developed the curriculum and runs a series of creative workshops throughout the one-year course.
Meanwhile, in 2010 the company launched Cartoon Network Arabia, which targets a pan-Arabian audience in the Middle East and Northern Africa, with a broadcast operation in regional rival Dubai.
"Twofour54 in Abu Dhabi is about inspiring and nurturing creativity in the Middle East," says Michael Carrington, chief content officer of Turner Europe, Middle East and Africa and GM of Cartoon Network Studios Arabia. "We've certainly found there's no shortage in the flow of creative juices in the region."
News Corp.'s Fox International Channels made Abu Dhabi its regional hub for the Middle East and North Africa in July 2010. In the region, FIC has a presence on free-to-air satellite and pay TV, operating 13 channels across its Fox and National Geographic portfolio, and has partnerships with regional media powerhouses Rotana and Abu Dhabi Media.
"Abu Dhabi made sense as a base from where FIC could create and broadcast its dedicated Middle East and North Africa feeds and expand its presence in the region," says Rohit D'Silva, Middle East GM at Fox International Channels.
Adds Borg: "We will continue to attract companies to establish operations and create content here as they see the opportunity to serve a tremendously large marketplace. This region is underserved in terms of great quality content for local consumption and beyond."
Overall, twofour54 says it is home to more than 180 local, regional and international media companies including Time Warner's Cartoon Network and CNN, the BBC, News Corp.'s Fox International Channels and the Financial Times.
"Talent can be brought in from anywhere," says Mohammed Al Otaiba, head of Image Nation Abu Dhabi, the local production company that had its first Emirati feature, Sea Shadow, premiere at 2011's film festival. "Talent will learn, will get more experience and further develop the infrastructure here."
The region's demographics help support Abu Dhabi's investments and developments. The Arab world is one of the youngest on the planet, with an estimated 60 percent of its population under 30. With affluence and a growing desire for fresh content, there's business sense behind the bravado.
But there also is a realization that things aren't going to happen overnight and that development is essential before bold international aspirations can be realized.
"We need to get to that point where the UAE has a sustainable industry and has the infrastructure to handle the necessary steps to produce content," says Al Otaiba. Such a goal is not out of reach -- after all, he adds, Hollywood and Bollywood started from scratch.
ABU DHABI VITAL STATS: Everything you need to know to navigate the United Arab Emirates capital city
LOCATION: On the northeastern part of the Persian Gulf on the Arabian Peninsula, mostly located on an island that is less than 900 feet from the mainland. The emirate of Abu Dhabi is neighbored by Saudi Arabia and Oman.
ETIQUETTE: Should you be meeting locals of the opposite sex, wait for them to offer their hands to shake. If you're meeting in a restaurant, order juice. Alcohol is served widely across the UAE, but you may not know the stance on it of whomever you're meeting, which is why it's best just to avoid it. Don't expect to get anything done on a Friday -- it's the first day of the weekend and the Muslim holy day.
TYPE OF GOVERNMENT: Constitutional monarchy
MEANING OF NAME: "Father of Gazelle"
NATIVE LANGUAGE: Arabic (official language, but English is widely used)
POPULATION: 1.6 million. A large majority of the inhabitants are expatriate workers from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, the U.K. and across the Arab world.
CLIMATE: Hot with sunny skies throughout the year. Sandstorms occur, but during the fest the weather is likely to be warm and dry. November to March is cooler.
RULING FAMILY: Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan is the president of the UAE and the ruler of Abu Dhabi. Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan is crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
RELIGIONS: Islam is the main and official religion, but Christian churches, Hindu temples and other places of worship can be found alongside mosques. Abu Dhabi has a reputation for being more tolerant than the other emirates.
TIME ZONE: L.A. +11 hours; London +3 hours
CURRENCY: Emirati Dirham (AED). Exchange rate: $1 = 3.67 AED; 1 AED = $0.27
SAFETY: Abu Dhabi was named the Middle East's safest city in the 2011 Mercer Quality of Living Index thanks to its nearly crime-free environment and organized emergency services. Emergency telephone number: 999.
VISAS: Citizens of some countries in the region don't need a visa. Visitors from select countries including the U.S., U.K., Australia, France and Germany can get a free-of-charge entry visa upon arrival at Abu Dhabi International Airport. Citizens of other countries must apply for a tourist, transit or visit visa before their trip.