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Middle East 2013 in Review: Saudi Arabia Enters Oscar Race, De Niro's Tribeca Breaks From Doha

Egypt's industry self-destructed, Dubai's boomed, and Arab filmmakers won some of the world's most prestigious awards in cinema.

The Middle East film industry had a year of change in 2013. Doha broke away from Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival, but cozied up with Participant. Saudi Arabia made its first Oscar bid, while Egyptian cinema went to the dogs.

Meanwhile, a wave of Al Jazeera staffers quit over the news network's perceived biases, while Dubai attracted a slew of foreign productions. And Arab filmmakers made their presence felt on the world stage with a litany of top cinema honors. 

Here's THR's closer look at some of the big media and entertainment stories of 2013 in the region:

Doha Moved Out of Tribeca
After four editions of the Doha Tribeca Film Festival, the Doha Film Institute and Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Enterprises announced they were going their separate ways in April.

At Cannes, the DFI announced that it was changing its format to include two festivals. The first, Ajyal – based around Italy’s Giffoni festival and focused on youth – had its inaugural edition in November.

The second, March’s Qumra, is focused on first- and second-time filmmakers. Renowned Palestinian director Elia Suleiman was later added as artistic advisor for Qumra.

Saudi Arabia Made Its First Oscar Bid
Saudi Arabia – a country famous for not having any cinemas – submitted its first-ever film to the Academy Awards in the best foreign language film category.

Wadjda, the only feature to be wholly shot in the highly conservative country, was made by its first female director, Haifaa Al Mansour. It was originally among the favorites to make the Academy's shortlist for the category, having picked up a host of awards and acclaim since it premiered at Venice last summer and going on general release in the U.S. and parts of Europe. However, it failed to make the Oscar cut.

Doha Partners With Participant
It may have lost Tribeca, but the Doha Film Institute announced a deal with Paticipant Media in February for a $100 million revolving fund to help finance 12-16 films over the next five years.

The partnership, which came into effect as of the start of 2014, takes over from a deal between Participant and Image Nation in Abu Dhabi, which had been rolling since 2008 and was behind a number of prominent titles, including The Help and Contagion.

Egypt’s Film Industry Remains as Rocky as Its Politics
Things continued to go from bad to worse for Egypt’s film industry, once the region’s leading cinematic light.

Blighted by bureaucracy, mismanagement and censorship under former leader Hosni Mubarak, it was perceived as worse under the Muslim Brotherhood, which stipulated films had to be approved by the country’s foremost religious authority, al-Azhar.

Things don’t appear to be improving at all under new military rule. Recently, the director of the film Asrar Aa’eleya, a relatively conservative drama dealing with homosexuality, was asked to remove 13 scenes, more than the request made when the Brotherhood was in power.

Arab Films Nabbed Top Honors at Major Film Fests
It was a good year for Arab films and directors at film festivals across the world. Hany Abu-Assad’s Palestinian thriller Omar won the Un Certain Regard sidebar jury prize in Cannes, the best feature film honor at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and the top prize at the Dubai film festival.

Moroccan director Abdellatif Kechiche picked up numerous prizes for Blue Is The Warmest Color, including the Cannes Palm d’Or and FIPRESCI honors.

In addition, Egyptian revolution documentary The Square by Jehane Noujaim scored audience awards at both Sundance and Toronto, plus the best feature prize at the IDA Documentary Awards.

Dubai Continued to Attract International Productions
Thanks to help from its relatively new Film and TV Commission, the United Arab Emirates city of Dubai is welcoming more international productions to its shores than ever before.

According to a report published by the Commission in December, the city saw 27 films shooting in 2012, up from just three in 2005. Many of these come from Bollywood, with Dubai often doubling as India.

Al Jazeera Came Under Fire
As Egypt’s latest uprising rattled the streets of Cairo, Doha-based TV news network Al Jazeera was slammed by critics in the region for allegedly offering a bias towards the Muslim Brotherhood. They cited incorrect figures and unfavorable coverage of protests.

In July, there were reports of up to 22 staffers resigning from the network in protest of being forced to take a pro-Muslim Brotherhood stance.

Meanwhile, the news channel launched Al Jazeera America in the U.S. in late summer, competing with the likes of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.