It is half a century since the first newspaper, Al Ittihad – The Union – was published in what two years later would become the UAE. In a relatively short period in the history of the modern-day media, Abu Dhabi – where that paper was printed – and Dubai have become thriving hubs for the industry in the region. The latter is this year's Arab Media Capital and hosts the Arab Media Forum in March.
It is not simply a matter of taking turns – Dubai has long meant business when it comes to communications and its place in the Emirates and the world. When the Arab Information Ministers Council designated the city the media capital for 2020, Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed paid tribute to his father’s media strategy, launched two decades earlier. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai, “aimed to position it a media hub through pioneering initiatives and projects", the Crown Prince said. Fast forward 20 years and there are around 4,000 local, regional and global media organisations either headquartered, or with a presence, in the emirate.
Dubai Media City, complemented by Dubai Internet City, another free zone helping to drive digital media’s growth in the region with the presence of Google, Twitter and Facebook, are now long established and – like the media industry in the UAE itself – maturing. As with TwoFour54 in Abu Dhabi, they provide a creative hub and foster a spirit of collaboration between neighbouring companies. They have become a pool of local and imported talent, and a focal point for the young Emirati and resident graduates hoping to break into the news, film and television industries, and all related enterprises that support them, including tech companies and public relations consultancies.
This is testament to the underlying trend in the country, namely one that champions an environment that can unearth and develop young talent and provides opportunities in many sectors. It is also true to say that Dubai, and the capital, are enormously compelling propositions for attracting talent from abroad, with quality of life and remuneration both attractive in global terms.
This might seem increasingly irrelevant as all corners of the world go online. But Dubai's demographics help, too. Its many Indian residents come from a country still steeped in a newspaper-reading tradition, even as internet access continues to grow across the subcontinent. With the city hosting so many printed publications, in line with global trends there has been some pressure on jobs in the sector. But the launch last month of the Middle East print edition of the Wired magazine is an indicator of this market's resilience, and another sign of external confidence in Dubai and the wider UAE as a place where the public wishes to consume the written – and printed – word, despite the slump in newspaper and magazine consumption elsewhere in the world.
The boom in the launch of niche magazines in Europe and the US, in part at the expense of established ones, was bucked with Wired – a major title – launching in Dubai. A broad-based American publication with the world of technology and innovation at its heart, it has print editions in the US, UK, Japan and Italy – and now the Middle East.
Let us put all of this into context. The first newspapers printed in the UK, my native country, appeared in the late 17th century and many of the leading titles still going today were founded over the following 150 years. In contrast, Al Ittihad was first published in 1969 and Dubai's two daily papers both started printing in 1978. The National was established in 2008. There is an outstanding tradition of poetry and word-of-mouth storytelling dating back centuries in these lands but in terms of the modern media, the Emirates has come an incredibly long way in a short space of time.
Dubai is renowned as a vast and impressive incubator for innovative start-ups. What will be fascinating to see this year – and in the 50 years beyond – is what innovations in publishing will follow. "Wired is where tomorrow is realised," is a slogan used by the magazine. Those involved in the media in Dubai and the wider UAE have every opportunity now to play a significant part in how we consume news, and all manner of journalism and filmmaking, long into the future.
Joe Jenkins is an assistant editor in chief of The National