Twenty years ago, Abu Dhabi's cultural cachet in the West was as a punch line in the cartoon Garfield. Today, backed with petrodollars, Abu Dhabi is fast becoming an international cultural hub and attracting American media companies.
On Sunday, a new influx of companies announced plans to set up shop in Abu Dhabi, an island city that is the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
The companies are CNN, the book publishers HarperCollins and Random House, the BBC, The Financial Times and the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charity arm of the financial news company Thomson Reuters.
Officials from these companies joined local officials in Abu Dhabi to announce they would take space on a new campus that the government is building for foreign media companies.
The campus, covering 200,000 square meters, or about 2.1 million square feet, is intended to be an incubator that will mix Western media companies with billions in Middle Eastern oil money.
The complex will offer training programs for journalists and filmmakers from the region.
But, more important, it will be a base for Western companies to do business in the region - and at the same time help the Abu Dhabi government reach its goal of becoming a cultural and media center of the Middle East.
"For most Western content companies, this region has not been fully engaged with," said Wayne Borg, a former Universal Studios executive who is the chief operating officer for the complex, to be called twofour54 Abu Dhabi, a reference to the city's geographical coordinates.
"There is certainly a market opportunity here. This region is a growth story."
This is the third major investment in media undertaken by Abu Dhabi recently.
Another arm of the government, Abu Dhabi Media, last year agreed to a $1 billion deal to make video games and movies with Warner Brothers, the Hollywood studio owned by Time Warner.
More recently, the company announced that it would spend $1 billion to start a film financing offshoot that will invest in Hollywood-style movies for English-speaking audiences.
For CNN the move amounts to a significant investment in the region - a big step beyond its announcement last year that it would expand its international news gathering and add a correspondent in Abu Dhabi.
CNN plans to move about 30 employees to the city and begin broadcasting a daily prime-time news show from Abu Dhabi on CNN International.
Abu Dhabi becomes the fourth international outpost for CNN in which it can produce studio broadcasts, the others being London, Hong Kong and Mexico City.
"News organizations, for a variety of reasons, have been cutting back," said Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide.
"We think it's critical to invest. This is a pretty sizable investment for us."
HarperCollins, the book publishing division of News Corp., is establishing a presence in Abu Dhabi to capitalize on what the company says is growth in the sale of English-language books in the Middle East. Erin Crum, a spokeswoman for HarperCollins, said the book publisher signed on to "explore the potential of the area and forge relationships."With credit markets tight, the Middle East could become an increasingly important source of funds for Hollywood. Last week, as tumult continued on Wall Street, the Abu Dhabi government held its second annual Circle Conference, a gathering of investors, movie executives and producers in which the Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman, Jim Gianopulos, gave the keynote speech. That conference was followed by the Middle East International Film Festival, in Abu Dhabi.Michael Young, provost for the New York Film Academy, which opened a campus in Abu Dhabi in February, said, "I can't think of a place where there's more enthusiasm for film and film education."Nor, perhaps, a place where there is more money to be spent by the government in creating an environment for the arts. In addition to the $2 billion the country has committed to Hollywood through Abu Dhabi Media, the country has lured the Louvre and Guggenheim museums to establish outposts there, and established The National, an English-language broadsheet newspaper in Abu Dhabi.All of this raises questions of the government, which is building the state-of-the-art facility, exerting control of media - an idea antithetical to traditions in the United States and Western Europe. "Creatively, I have not seen any kinds of limitations," Young said. Walton said CNN was paying for its space. "We're very mindful of protecting the CNN brand," he said. "We can't have anyone influence our editorial." Borg, who runs the media center's day-to-day operations, said the government offered space "at negotiable rates."Monique Villa, the chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, which will use its space to teach journalism skills to participants from around the region, said she was not worried about the country's lack of press freedoms. Last month, journalists there held the first UAE Press Freedom Day, seeking more openness from the government and more access to information."What we would expect is that we would be able to train them like we have in other parts of the world," she said.
6 months ago