A Trip to Abu Dhabi's Creative Industries Cluster

Abu Dhabi Media Zone - P 2012

Abu Dhabi Media Zone - P 2012

The emirate has over the past four years developed a media zone to establish the capital of the United Arab Emirates as a regional content creation hub.

ABU DHABI -- Right at Abu Dhabi's Khalifa Park, just off a wide road that leads through the city, there are three identical modern buildings with a half-dozen floors. They are distinguishable by pink, blue and green coloring around their respective entrances.

A couple of minutes down the road, there is a similar building with lime green coloring. All four carry the logo "twofour54 Abu Dhabi."

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This is the media, entertainment and technology campus, or office park, that the capital of the United Arab Emirates hopes will make it an industry power hub for the whole Persian Gulf region and an increasingly global player in the creative industries.

Named after the geographical co-ordinates of Abu Dhabi, it is a subsidiary of the Media Zone Authority here and tasked with attracting international and local companies in the broader media space and building the emirate's media and entertainment prowess.

Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Media Summit and chairman of the Abu Dhabi Media Zone Authority, reminded the industry in his opening remarks Tuesday at the third annual Abu Dhabi Media Summit that the emirate's government launched its media and entertainment growth initiative four years ago this week.

"Speaking at this launch four years ago, we outlined our visions: to generate new education and career opportunities in the creative industries, to contribute to a thriving media sector in the United Arab Emirates and across the region and to produce a generation of media consumers with greater access to content in this part of the world," he said.

Or, as the organization says on its website, twofour54's goal is "to enable the development of world-class Arabic media and entertainment content, by Arabs for Arabs, and to position Abu Dhabi as a regional center of excellence in content creation across all media platforms, including film, broadcast, music, digital media, events, gaming and publishing."

The buildings are situated in a part of the city that isn't particularly bustling with energy. The Social Hub, the main restaurant/cafe of twofour54, seems to be the main meeting point for people working here. Except for a few people in the restaurant, not many seem to be sticking around the neighborhood after work anyway -- around 7 p.m., a group of taxis waits outside the buildings, ready to bring home people who have no cars.

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Overall, the scene in Abu Dhabi and its media zone is more mindful of spread-out, car-centric L.A. than New York City, where industry folks can walk to nearby restaurants and bars after work.

The current setup might be replaced by a new longer-term home for the media zone in a few years. But it fits the layout of the city, which is geared toward a car culture.

In explaining one benefit of the media zone, CNN's Abu Dhabi bureau chief Phil O'Sullivan says the emirate doesn't have one central business district, "and media companies tend to cluster a bit anyway."

O'Sullivan moved here earlier in the year from Hong Kong, where he observed some of that natural clustering. "It's quite nice to have that here," he said from his office on the penthouse level of the media zone's blue building. "I know colleagues at the Financial Times and Bloomberg who work here, for example, and that's helpful."

Beyond providing a sense of community and business contacts, the twofour54 grouping also has started to put Abu Dhabi on the map of entertainment, news and video game and other advertising companies, among others, providing foreign companies with an opportunity to go about their business in the emirate's safe environment and in a tax-free media zone.
CEO Noura al Kaabi and deputy CEO and COO Wayne Borg oversee twofour54.

How is Abu Dhabi's approach different from others trying to attract the entertainment industry? "We haven't come across another proposition that brings all these elements [and industries] together to support the industry and talent development and encourage content creation," said Borg. "We believe ours to be truly unique in providing an integrated approach."

The goal is to build a sustainable industry rather than rush things. "The best way to incentivize is to help the industry to develop here and the ecosystem to form and become entrenched" and give young people confidence that they can pursue a career in the creative industries, said Borg.

Indeed, people of different ages -- including younger ones fiddling with their mobile devices -- walk in and out of the twofour54 buildings.

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The blue building is home to the training facilities, including the Cartoon Network Animation Academy and the twofour54 Gaming Academy, as well as such companies as Bloomberg, Fleishman Hillard, HarperCollins and -- on the penthouse level -- CNN. Other companies in the building have such names as Filmworks Productions, Eventquest, Mist Digital, Flip Media, The Producers Films, Alpha Apps, Gulf Advertising, The Edge Picture, Appologist and Assembly Studios.

The pink building includes staff for the likes of Sky News Arabia, Fox Channels Middle East, The Financial Times, Apple and Capital Business Channel TV.

The dark green building is home to, among others, Sports Revolution, Edelman, Constantin Entertainment, Atlas Media and ad giants Havas and PublicisLive.

And the lime green building farther up the road houses the twofour54 corporate offices, ad firms TBWA/RAAD and OMD, outdoor ad firm JC Decaux and companies with such names as Apps Arabia, Qabeela, C Sky Productions.

Overall, twofour54 currently has more than 180 companies from across animation, production, gaming, marketing and advertising that employ nearly 3,000 people.

While local leaders say that more most be done and there is more upside, they are content with what they have reached so far.

"We have made significant progress in the last four years," with the media zone's companies "contributing to the establishment of a dynamic media sector in the United Arab Emirates," said Al Mubarak. "The local and regional momentum of the media industry is clear -- and it is one of the main reasons why at this year's Abu Dhabi Media Summit, more than 55 percent of delegates our joining us from our own region."

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai