CAMPAIGN REPORT ON WORLDWIDE ADVERTISING: Middle East media - Arab nations are aiming to preserve their cultural heritage in the face of new-media expansion, with policies based on zones of free enterprise for the media and the easing of government contro

By STEVE SHIPSIDE,, Friday, 09 June 2000 12:00AM

While the sweeping wave of globalisation is undoubtedly making itself felt in the Middle East, anyone expecting it to break over the region in a spray of Anglo-Americana is forgetting the unique culture and conservatism of the area.

While the sweeping wave of globalisation is undoubtedly making

itself felt in the Middle East, anyone expecting it to break over the

region in a spray of Anglo-Americana is forgetting the unique culture

and conservatism of the area.

The past year has seen revolutionary steps forward, including the

liberalisation of previously government-dominated media, the creation of

so-called media free zones, and a doubling of internet usage. This

growing media exposure is unlikely to translate to a deluge of Disney,

instead the emphasis is one of upgrading local media to compete with the

offering from other countries.

The policy, as Egypt’s minister of information, Safwat al-Sherif, sees

it, reflects the ’cultural sovereignty theory’. The idea is that instead

of trying to censor or shut out foreign TV, Egypt, historically the

leader in Arab film and television production, should concentrate on

expanding its own output to meet demand.

To that end, the country has created a media free zone in Media

Production City (itself the largest filming lot and production area

outside of Universal Studios). ’The media free zone means free-to-air

transmission, freedom from censorship, and exemption from tax and

customs clearance for any equipment that companies need,’ Zaki Ghazi, an

advisor at the Egyptian embassy and a former director-general of the

Cairo Press Centre, says. The response has been rapid, with three TV

companies having signed up almost immediately, including the Qatar news

channel, Al Jazeera, and a Lebanese joint stock company.

A further boost to the industry is expected with the launch of the

second Egyptian broadcasting satellite, Nilesat 102. ’When Nilesat 102

is launched in July, it will carry to Egyptian and Arab viewers new,

strong and distinguished Egyptian, Arab and foreign channels capable of

facing competition,’ al-Sherif asserts. With satellites 101 and 102,

Egypt will have a total of 24 transponders transmitting 180 television

channels and, with the news that those channels will be available to

private companies, the era of government-controlled media in Egypt would

appear to be drawing to an end.

Nor is Egypt alone in this. Dubai in the United Arab Emirates has also

created a media free zone. The first ’independent’ channel to announce

its move there is Future TV, a Lebanese channel noted for providing

Western-looking Arab programming. Future claims to offer the first truly

Arab channel for the 12-35 age group, which is astonishing considering

that more than 50 per cent of the Arab population falls into that

bracket. It will begin to broadcast in the autumn and is expected to

herald a new wave of broadcasting free from outside interference.

However, these new freedoms don’t mean the Arab world is about to

partake of the delights of Baywatch or topless darts. Censorship is

likely to remain, albeit along the lines of the Egyptian moral code -

while banning nudity and obscene language, Egypt does permit belly

dancing, chorus girls, miniskirts, bathing suits and scenes of clubbing

and drinking. Nor does ’media free zone’ mean ’media free-for-all’.

Investors in Egypt point out that they are not allowed to broadcast

their own terrestrial TV channels and, for all the fanfare about Future

TV’s freedom, it still remains the private property of Prime Minister

Hariri of Lebanon. That said, the opening up of Arab media to the

private sector was unthinkable even a year or two ago, and the expected

boost to both the media and advertising industries is potentially one of

the most exciting developments in decades.

Along with satellite TV, the other fast track to the future here, as

elsewhere, is expected to be the internet, and it is no accident that a

dollars 200 million internet free zone has also been created in Dubai,

and is already working in partnership with TV companies in the country’s

media free zone. Most Middle Eastern internet service providers work on

a system of filters and ’proxies’ that serve up only the palatable

portions of the internet. In an interview with PC Magazine Middle East,

however, His Highness, the Dubai Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Rashid al

Maktoum - the man responsible for ’Internet City’ - suggested that such

restrictions would be lifted. ’We are looking at restriction-free access

for resident companies of Dubai Internet City, while at the same time

protecting young internet users from undesirable websites,’ he


Last year saw Saudi Arabia overcome Wahabi wariness of the web and lift

its ban on ISPs - just one of the factors that has seen internet use in

the Arab world double over the past year. According to a survey by the

Research Unit of Internet Arab World Magazine, the user base is now

pushing the two million mark and it is predicted to grow rapidly,

reaching 12 million by the end of 2002. Egypt, never a slouch when it

comes to media and creativity, leads the way in terms of numbers, and

the government has responded by drawing up (though not yet implementing)

laws protecting intellectual property and e-commerce. Bearing in mind

that only half a dozen other countries worldwide have such legislation,

the region is clearly alive to the possibilities of new media. The new

freedoms and new media may also be sparking off a new wave of

consumerism: a survey from the Dabbagh Information Technology Group

suggests that Arab consumers used the net to buy goods to a value of

dollars 95 million last year.

Heady stuff, although before the dotcom hype kicks in, it should perhaps

be remembered that those two million internet users represent fewer than

1 per cent of the 280 million population of the Arab world.

The effects of media globalisation, privatisation and proliferation are

all evident in Arab media but the desire to resist cultural

homogenisation remains as strong as ever. What seems to have changed

over the past year is that the cultural and financial leaders of Dubai

and Egypt have opted to come out from behind the barriers of legislation

and fight fire with fire. Just how far the rest of the Arab world will

follow remains to be seen, but the possibilities of the new-media

environment should make for an unexpectedly exciting entry into the new


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