Dubai weathering tough economy

Despite a global financial crisis that gets worse by the day, Dubai's vision of becoming an international media powerhouse remains on solid ground.

Dubai has been good to producer David Pritchard.

As president of L.A.-based GigaPix Studios, Pritchard co-produced "Captain Abu Raed," a major contender for a best foreign-language Oscar nomination that premiered at the Dubai International Film Festival last year. For Pritchard, who began traveling to the Middle East in the '70s as an oil executive ("I was in Dubai when there were less than 1,500 people there," he says), "Abu Raed" and DIFF are similar: Both represent the kind of cross-cultural exchange between East and West that he clearly relishes -- the movie, as a co-production between an American company (GigaPix) and a Jordanian one (Paper and Pen Films); the festival, as a magnet for Westerners who are then exposed to Arab cinema.

"This film came completely out of the Arab experience," Pritchard says of the picture, about a janitor who masquerades as a pilot and tells tall tales to a group of kids. "This is what we should do in other (emerging) industries. The more we do that, the closer we get, which means more understanding will exist between cultures."

Pritchard isn't alone in his enthusiasm. Recent deals between the United Arab Emirates and Hollywood -- including an alliance between Warner Bros. and Abu Dhabi-based property developer ALDAR, and the purchase of a 4.9% stake in Citibank by Abu Dhabi Investment Authority -- illustrate just how significantly Dubai's international profile has grown in the last decade.

That, of course, was before the onset of a global economic crisis that shocked the international business community and shows no signs of letting up. Even in opulent Dubai -- the jewel in the crown of the oil-rich UAE and home to the world's only seven-star hotel, an indoor ski slope and, eventually, the tallest building on Earth -- a harsh economic reality is setting in. Late last month the New York Times reported that Dubai is $80 billion in debt, which amounts to "one and a half times the nation's gross domestic product."

Add to this the recent terror attacks in Mumbai that saw Islamic militants reportedly singling out Westerners, and a question arises: Amid rising debt and simmering geopolitical unrest, can Dubai fulfill its desire to become the vibrant, glittering new city in the sand that it aspires to be?

Pritchard sees the current financial climate as an opportunity.

"As a financier of media, I think the world economy is in trouble," he concedes. "Dubai and the Emirates are going to suffer, but they will suffer a little less than the rest of us. The real issue for the Arab investment community is that they will have to be a lot more selective about what they invest in. They no longer have a license to invest so freely, but that could be a good thing."

Similarly, Dubai International Film Festival regular Mahyad Tousi -- who's also CEO and co-founder of U.S.-based BoomGen Studios, which specializes in facilitating media content about the greater Middle East -- suggests the economic crisis could help correct longstanding misperceptions between the Mideast and the West.

"I am not an economist," he says, "but I have found great relief in the fact that this economic crisis has made real the idea that we are all connected in this world and that we will sink or swim together. Dubai will be affected like everywhere else, and it will hopefully recover like other places. I doubt that the world will look the same after all is said and done, but I am hopeful that overall it will be a better place."

Indeed, despite the challenges currently facing Dubai, the swiftness with which it has established its entertainment infrastructure -- including the development of the ambitious Dubai Studio City, which promises to be the biggest and most high-tech film and TV production facility in the Middle East -- puts it in a strong position to ride out the current economic storm.

For ICM's Hal Sadoff, who oversees the agency's international and indie film division, this is a testament to the disciplined, meticulous planning that went into Dubai's transformation from day one.

"I've been going (to Dubai) now for years, and the growth is amazing," he says. "I think it is already becoming the hub of the media industry in the region. Hollywood will always be the global center of media entertainment in regards to the television industry, but I think for entertainment in the region, they are well on their way for that. With the infrastructure they are building, it takes time for skills to transfer, and they are being very clever with the way they are going about that. They are bringing in experts from around the world to help educate and bring a knowledge base to the region."

As for the recent Mumbai attacks, Sadoff dismisses the notion that rising fears about international terrorism will scare Western interests away from Dubai, thanks to the great lengths the local government has gone to assure its burgeoning tourist trade and business interests that security is a major concern. "I've always felt safe in Dubai," he declares. "They are incredibly well-organized, and in all the years I've been going there, I've never experienced any problems -- nor has anyone I know."

Adds Pritchard: "It's a high-end destination, so I don't think high-end tourism will be dramatically affected by this. Terrorism is a fact of life in the 20th century. It's incumbent upon those of us in the business community to continue to go to these places and not be fearful of where we go."

Echoing Tousi, Pritchard stresses that Dubai's ultimate success or failure should be viewed in a much larger context, adding that if it is to secure its position in the global media landscape, the impact will be felt in ways far more significant than mere economics.

"We have become a completely interdependent world," he says. "The things that will get in the way are not economic. Dubai is really the demonstration of the Arab world's capacity to transform all of us into partners. And I want that to flourish. This is why I want to make movies over there. We screened 'Abu Raed' to a group of school kids in Ogden, Utah. When they came out of the film they were saying Arabic words. After one screening. In Utah! When these things happen, you can see how quickly cultural barriers can break down. Imagine that experience on a much larger scale."