After rapid growth throughout the last two years, the region's publishing industry was making headlines itself this week in Dubai, as leading newspaper and magazine executives gathered for the inaugural Middle East Publishing Conference.
Yet despite the healthy signs of recent times, conference participants were also on the look out for ideas on how to take the industry to a next, more profitable and more open level.
Held under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai, the conference ran January 17-18 at the Knowledge Village in Dubai.
Bringing together the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and the world magazine publishers association FIPP, these two organised the event in conjunction with the Dubai Consultancy, Research and Media Centre (DCRMC), the International Media Production Zone in Dubai (iMPZ), and Dubai Media Incorporated (DMI), via its daily, al-Bayan.
"This conference will provide press executives in the region with many new and profitable ideas to improve their services to readers and advertisers," said WAN Director-General Timothy Balding at the beginning of the event.
Certainly, publishing has become a lot more viable a business in the Emirates in recent years. Since 2003, the sector has seen 42% growth, according to Ahmad bin Byat, director-general of the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone. This is the kind of figure that tends to attract the investor, as demonstrated during the conference itself by the announcement that a new Publishing Pavilion, costing some Dh260m ($71m), is to be built within the iMPZ in Dubai
The iMPZ is itself also a statement of faith in the industry. Due for completion in 2006 at a total cost of Dh1bn ($272m), it is the first free zone of its kind anywhere that is entirely dedicated to the media. Companies and organisations setting up within it are granted full ownership of their projects, free of tax and customs tariffs, and also benefit from a world-class infrastructure. At the same time, the zone prides itself on a top-of-the-range local transport infrastructure, likely to develop still further with the new airport development at neighbouring Jebel Ali Free Zone.
"By gathering all print-related companies, from equipment manufacturers to suppliers and printers, under a single umbrella, we aim to synergise and accelerate the growth of the industry," explained Byat at the conference.
The Publishing Pavilion is to occupy 1m sq feet of workspace, housed in 14 multi-storey buildings of different sizes. Publishing companies will be able to lease or rent according to their needs and programmes.
However, as Byat told the Gulf News on January 18, taking the Emirates' - and the region's - publishing sector forwards requires tackling a number of problem areas. One of these is the regional transport infrastructure, which he said was a major stumbling block to growth. Not such a difficulty for the iMPZ, but certainly a problem with distribution elsewhere.
At the same time, he said, "At the legislative level, countries in the region must establish the right balance between cultural sensitivity, freedom of expression and business growth issues."
This touched on a major issue in Middle Eastern publishing - that of press freedom. On this score, most conference participants and organisers were agreed that things were changing.
"The time when the media and publishing industries' sole job was to serve countries and governments has passed, or is at least about to vanish," Ahmad al-Mansoori, president of the Dubai Consultancy, Research and Media Centre, said in his opening address. "This development will clear the way for the emergence of an industry where the trust of the reader and of the advertiser are key."
Going still further, Balding commented that, "Freedom of expression is a pre-condition for the creation of better and more prosperous newspapers and magazines."
Yet, while supporting greater media freedom, delegates were also keen to stress the importance of sensitivity to cultural, religious and other distinctions and feelings.
"The UAE doesn't have a censor's scissors hovering over its press," said al-Mansoori. "There is no censorship when it comes to publications. In a global city such as Dubai, however, we have learned all cultures have their own specific sensitivities, and there is a need to respect those sensitivities."
Meanwhile, delegates also agreed there was a need to embrace the latest technologies and media structures.
Solid standards of operation were required, most attendees agreed, with this implying changes in a variety of fields. One highlighted by Byat was the lack of any reliable figures on which to base assessments of the industry's fortunes. Media research needed to be improved, he said, with proper accounting of circulation and sales.
At the same time, much is getting lost in translation, Byat claimed. Moving from Arabic to English or vice versa is being done at a level of quality below that obtainable between other languages, also impacting on quality and sales.
Yet if the balance is got right, the conference had a highly positive message for Dubai. Aroon Purie, chief executive and editor-in-chief of The India Today Group, told the conference that the emirate now had the opportunity of becoming a regional printing hub.
"Dubai now has the opportunity to take on this position," he said. "You are in the right place at the right time. Now, you just need to do the right thing."