Men's magazines are stepping out

The UAE's first online men's magazine, Rex, quietly soft-launched last month, at about the same time the news leaked that Esquire plans a Middle East edition.

A customer looks at magazines at a news-stand in New Delhi, India.
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The UAE, with its conservative attitude towards media, may not seem to be the most promising market for men's magazines. But those often-racy publications seem to be thriving in the Emirates, enough to inspire newcomers to join the market, despite the economic turbulence.

The UAE's first online men's magazine, Rex, quietly soft-launched last month, at about the same time the news leaked that Esquire, one of the oldest and biggest international names in men's magazines, plans a Middle East edition. It would be published by ITP in Dubai by November. Jessica Kleiman, the vice president of public relations at Hearst Magazines, which owns Esquire, confirms that much of the rumour is true. "We do plan to launch a Dubai edition of Esquire, but the deal is still being finalised," she says.

Men's magazines were born out of hard economic times. Esquire was founded in 1932, in response to the runaway success of its longtime rival, GQ, which had launched the previous year under the name Apparel Arts. Initially focused on men's fashion, the magazines migrated over the years into the realm of lifestyle and literary publishing, with Esquire publishing writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald in the early days, and later helping to launch the literary careers of the likes of Raymond Carver.

Today, the rivalry between GQ and Esquire is as fierce as ever, and Hearst and ITP will be beating GQ's parent company, Conde Nast, to the Middle East in this market. At the moment, Conde Nast publishes only one of its magazines, Golf Digest, in the region. Hearst has been more aggressive when it comes to the Middle East, having launched its women's fashion title, Harper's Bazaar, with ITP in 2007. One company that saw opportunities for upmarket men's magazines in the UAE a year ago was the Emirates Neon Group (ENG). Primarily an outdoor advertising company in Dubai, ENG launched a raft of magazines last year. Among them was IQ, a weekly men's lifestyle magazine that gives a heavy nod in name, design and content to GQ. Graham Stacey, the group editorial director for ENG, remembers that before IQ launched, he and his friends had to rely mostly on imported magazines for a good lifestyle read. At the same time, men's luxury brands such as Hugo Boss and Armani did not have an obvious print vehicle for advertising.

"People here are relatively showy," he said. "They call it a rich man's playground. People have boats and they have nice suits. They're early adopters of gadgets. I do think it's relatively unique in that way. Traditionally, people have had more disposable income and they've spent it on looking and feeling good." However, the past year has been anything but traditional. IQ launched in July last year, just about the worst possible time for a magazine, Mr Stacey notes. It suffered through an advertising market that was down 7 per cent for magazines in the first half of this year, compared with the same period last year, according to the Pan Arab Research Centre.

But now he sees "a light at the end of the tunnel". "Revenues are looking good for bookings later in the year," he says. "In terms of advertising, people have been holding onto their budgets. Towards the end of the year, we've seen a pick up in terms of bookings." But while the potential rewards of running a men's magazine in the image-conscious UAE might be many, so are the pitfalls. "It's a fine line," Mr Stacey says. "I think self-censorship is a wise approach." To avoid falling foul of that line, Abbas Jaffar Ali, the publisher of Rex, the new online men's magazine, hired an IQ alumnus, Alex Ritman, formerly of ITP's Charged magazine, to edit its site.

"We have to make sure that we don't get a call from the Ministry of Information, which is one of the reasons we hired Alex, because he's worked on these magazines in the region and he knows exactly where the line is," he said. The online magazine is published by T-Break, which also has technology and gaming online publications, and is aimed at a male audience aged 15 and older. Mr Ali decided to publish online only, because that was where he believed the market was headed.

"I don't believe in print," he says. "I personally get all my information online."