Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A Saudi media zone will only work if restrictions are loosened

For all of the talk about Saudi Arabia’s strong desire to play a larger international role and to bring in foreign investment, our country seriously lags behind our Gulf neighbors in developing a sophisticated advertising and news media industry.

That’s why recent talk of establishing a media zone in the King Abdullah Economic City and perhaps elsewhere in the Kingdom sounds so promising. Media zones, or Media cities, are something intrinsic in the Middle East, although London has its Fleet Street, and New York once had Park Row and more or less Madison Avenue where all the news and advertising giants were clustered.

Dubai’s media zone is probably the best example of news, public relations and advertising companies assembled in a single cluster in the Middle East. There, daily newspapers, business and trade magazine, and fledgling public relations companies rub shoulders with news bureaus for CNN, Fox, the Associated Press, Agence France Presse and Reuters among others to deliver Middle East news. It’s also the primary news venue for foreign journalists to report on domestic issues in Iran and other regions where access is difficult.

While the idea of a media zone in Saudi Arabia sounds promising and is a logical step in the country’s campaign to become more progressive, the question must be asked whether Saudi Arabia is ready to take this big step. If this is an effort to put lipstick on a donkey and call it a thing of beauty, then maybe we should wait for the media industry to mature some more.

And that is perhaps the key issue here. The Saudi media are incredibly immature. Public relations, for example, is a foreign concept. I’ve run into many Arab and Western businessmen and women who refuse to do business with Saudi public relations companies due to unprofessional behavior. Often the simple task of showing up for a meeting sees to be too much for some Saudi PR people. And I have yet to find a single government news source that hasn’t complained about the lack of professionalism among Saudi journalists. Providing office space in a state-of-the-art commercial building in a tree-lined neighborhood isn’t going to make the local media any more professional.

Yet the advertising industry outside Saudi Arabia has gained considerable ground over the past decade to capture the Saudi consumer market. Saudis are the most powerful consumer in the region and broadcasters like Rotana and MBC target the Saudi consumer with an extensive advertising campaign. The problem is that most of the content for commercials and print advertising are produced in Dubai, Cairo and Amman, Jordan. There are no Saudi actors or models used. Filming, editing and packaging content are performed outside the Kingdom.

To make a media zone work, government restrictions on filming outdoors and in studio production facilities must be loosened. Tolerance needs to be practiced in allowing Saudi actors and models to work in their own country. I find it irksome that I must watch Egyptian actors pretend to be Saudi and try to sell me dish soap for my Saudi household.

It boils down to economic growth. A fully functional media zone with production facilities provides jobs for technicians, editors and production supervisors. It will jump start Saudi’s stagnant and neglected artist community. It will create jobs for Saudis in support services. It’s all good that Saudis are pushing for more students to pursue professions in science and technology, but it’s equally important for Saudis to find media jobs not limited to newspapers.

If Saudi Arabia wants to project an image of a leader in business investment and science then it must invest in a broadcast media within its own borders that conforms to our religious and cultural obligations but remain relatively free. We must deliver that message ourselves. We are not fooling anybody by mostly using non-Saudis in front and behind the camera to sell Saudi Arabia as an business opportunity, whether it’s dish soap or a construction project.

When we talk about pan-Arab satellite broadcast television stations, we should not be thinking of a Cairo-based operation but Jeddah- or Riyadh-based facilities. We have a young educated population that wants to work. Commercial broadcasting, film production, advertising, public relations and broadcast journalism are fields ripe for the picking.

The Abu Dhabi Media Company, which owns the leading United Arab Emirates daily newspaper The National, is planning to be on the ground floor of the proposed media zone. The company announced plans to open offices in Saudi Arabia in 2011.

The Abu Dhabi Media Company’s sole reason for its presence in Saudi Arabia is to target the Saudi consumer with heavy advertising. That’s good for the Abu Dhabi Media Company. The UAE company will make loads of money and create more jobs presumably for Emiratis and expatriates. But it begs the question whether any of The National’s counterparts in Saudi Arabia media, aside from Rotana, have similar plans to cash in and to create jobs for Saudis.

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