Noura Al Kaabi: 'We should feel responsible for our culture'

Noura Al Kaabi wants to change Emirati perceptions of media and culture. Saeed Saeed talks to twofour54's chief executive about her passion for film.

Noura Al Kaabi, the chief executive of twofour54. Lee Hoagland / The Nationale inside of her office is Twofour54 CEO Noura Al Kaabi. Ms. Al Kaabi sees a bright future for Arab language media in the Emirate, of which Twofour54 is the biggest player. Her company also plans to push its home town as a location for film studios around the globe.   Lee Hoagland/The National *** Local Caption *** LH0608_TWOFOUR54_008.JPG LH0608_TWOFOUR54_008.JPG LH0608_TWOFOUR54_008x.jpg
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For Noura Al Kaabi, it all started with The Goonies.

The 1985 Steven Spielberg-produced action-adventure triggered a love for cinema and storytelling within the young Emirati.

"Everything about it thrilled me and I was really taken with it," she says. "That really grabbed my imagination because it was not only fun but it was also a decent drama as well."

It was the film's futuristic bent that appealed to a young Al Kaabi, who describes her modern Abu Dhabi upbringing "as not of the typical girl".

"There were no dolls or teddy bears," she chuckles. "I remember playing the first [arcade game] Frogger, then I moved on to [the game consoles] Atari and then Sega."

Threading her passions together is the love of a good story; something Al Kaabi savoured during the 1980s when quality Arabic dramas such as Egypt's Ra'fat Al Hagan and Al Mal Wal Banoun were widely produced.

She says the regional drama market is nowhere as interesting as the golden days of the 1980s.

"I don't know what happened but after that period, the good Arabic productions just stopped," Al Kaabi says.

"I then started watching Indian films and for me they were too long. I then started focusing on watching American films and television but during all this time I was wondering what happened to the local film industry."

Completing her high school in Abu Dhabi - which included a one-year stint in the US state of Pennsylvania - Al Kaabi undertook her bachelor's in management information systems at UAE University.

After moving up the ranks to a management position in the Abu Dhabi government gas company Dolphin Energy, Al Kaabi's passion for photography, books and writing was seemingly destined to be a private affair.

Things changed in 2007, when she read a feasibility study to create twofour54, a large hub housing a range of entertainment and media companies.

"I remember reading this 200-page document," she says. "I was in the energy sector at the time so I was looking at it from a different perspective, but I knew straight away this was an important project for the UAE and its culture. I thought, 'why not?' I wanted to be involved."

Al Kaabi joined as the company's first Emirati chief executive; she has no qualms about balancing the organisation's artistic vision with commercial realities.

"There is simply no other way," she says.

"It has to be viewed as a business. Now - and even five years ahead - creative business will be more successful than anything else here. People should know that. Yes, there is a business and a public service side to what we do. But media should be viewed as entrepreneurship and not just a side job."

It is a message Al Kaabi is hammering home through frequent local school visits in addition to pioneering twofour54 initiatives such as its Gaming Academy and the Creative Lab for aspiring gaming developers and filmmakers respectively.

Al Kaabi cherishes the school visits. She says it's an opportunity to make direct change.

"I remember three years ago I went to a private girls' high school to talk about twofour54 and related it to music, games and application," she says.

"The next day I received two phone calls from a mum asking if the kids could be part of the summer internship programme. Once I got these phones calls, that's when I knew things were happening."

With more film and television projects on the way, twofour54 is destined to grow.

However, more than big-budget films and healthy bottom lines, Al Kaabi hopes twofour54 has an effect on changing fellow Emirati perceptions of the media industry and culture in general.

"I want people to believe in being part of building their culture through what they write, act or the music they compose," she says.

"They should feel responsible for being part of their culture. At the end, Abu Dhabi won't have a rich culture without those creative people working. It is about working hard and sending the message that Abu Dhabi is welcoming this culture and preparing for what's next."