Free zones for media and publishing boost sector in Sharjah

Home to the UAE’s largest Arabic-language newspaper, Al Khaleej, along with a growing number of local and regional television channels, popular radio stations, and a large publishing footprint when it comes to books and journals, Sharjah boasts a rich media environment. Despite all of this, in recent years, with the establishment of media free zones in the federation’s two largest emirates – Dubai Media City in Dubai and twofour54 in Abu Dhabi – there has been a sense that Sharjah needs to up its game in order to continue to compete with its neighbours.

To that end, the announcement in 2016 of a new media free zone to be launched in Sharjah and plans for a number of other media-friendly initiatives, could see the emirate’s role in the UAE’s media landscape experience a period of transformation.

Long History

Sharjah has a long history when it comes to the media industry, and has often been at the forefront of media development in the UAE. The first newspaper in what is now the UAE, called Oman, was launched in Sharjah in 1927, while the first stencilled newspaper, Al Diyar, was published in Sharjah in 1961. Meanwhile, Al Khaleej, today the largest Arabic daily in the UAE and in the Gulf, was launched in Sharjah in 1970. Al Khaleej’s website is one of the principle news sites in the region today, while its Sharjah-based publisher, Dar Al Khaleej, has expanded to also produce the English-language Gulf Today, as well as weekly Arabic titles such as Kul Al UsraAl Shu-rooq and Al Sehha Wal Tib.

Beyond print media, Sharjah Radio was launched in 1972, while Sharjah’s first television network was aired in 1989. In 2016 Sharjah Media Corporation (SMC) established Sharjah’s fifth television station, Al Wosta, which has a strong mix of local and pan-Arabic interests, along with sports coverage.

Governmental Support

In recent years the authorities have created a pair of organisations tasked with pushing Sharjah forward in the realm of media. SMC was established in 2009 as a governmental organisation focused on the development of the local media industry. The company is dedicated to expanding the expertise of both public and private media organisations, as well as the human resources needed to enable the emirate to keep up with its domestic and international rivals.

The second agency, the Sharjah Media Centre, was officially inaugurated in 2011. The centre acts as a conduit through which information about opportunities in the local sector is communicated to the rest of the region and the world, to build the emirate’s reputation globally. It also aims to train the current workforce as well as future generations of government officials and media and communications practitioners so that they can be at the forefront of media training practices, positioning Sharjah as the region’s leading media and communications centre.

Capital Of Arab Press

Sharjah was chosen to be the 2016 Capital of Arab Press by the United Arab Media Council, an independent, non-profit organisation working to strengthen cooperation between Arab media professionals. The title was awarded in recognition of Sharjah’s solid media sector growth in recent years, with the emirate following Manama in 2012, Riyadh in 2013, and Jerusalem for both 2014 and 2015 as previous capitals of Arab press.

In particular, the nominating committee highlighted the support given by Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, in establishing a vibrant media environment in the emirate, as well as pushing for the establishment of Sharjah Media City Free Zone and the overall promotion of cultural and intellectual work.

Print Media

Sharjah has one main daily newspaper, Al Khaleej, which had an estimated daily print run of 37,000 copies in 2013, the latest available figures. However, this was down from 60,000 in 2003, as more and more people transition to consuming their news online. In addition to having the largest Arabic-language daily newspaper in the UAE, Sharjah has a strong role in Arabic-language publishing.

“A lot of people just see print as newspapers, but we also need to consider books, magazines and journals,” Fagr Kassim Ali, manager of Sharqiya from Kalba TV at SMC, told OBG. “Sharjah has been in the forefront of many of these. Being named Capital of Arab Press is a kind of reward, and I think it was overdue for Sharjah,” he added.

The UAE’s publishing market is worth around $233m and is expected to triple in size by 2030, Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, told the Global Publishing Summit in October 2016. Sharjah is also home to the third-largest book fair in the world. The 35th gathering, held in November 2016, was the largest to date, with more than 2.31m visitors over 11 days and the volume of book sales reaching Dh176m ($48m), the highest in its three-and-a-half decade history.

Publishing Zone

To capitalise on regional demand, the emirate is creating a free zone, Sharjah Publishing City, which will be the first free trade zone for the publishing industry and is set to be launched in the first quarter of 2017. Previously referred to as Sharjah Book City, the zone aims to bring all aspects of the industry together in one location.

“Sharjah Publishing City is attempting to disrupt a highly concentrated, traditional industry in which the top 10 publishing-export countries account for approximately 70% of all publishing goods,” Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, founding publisher of Kalimat Group and chairperson of the Sharjah Investment and Development Authority, told trade journal Publishing Perspectives, adding that Sharjah Publishing City will address several supply chain weaknesses by establishing the Middle East’s largest book distribution company.

Those involved hope the city will also act as a catalyst for the further development of the publishing industry not just in Sharjah or the free zone itself, but across the whole of the UAE.

Television

According to an April 2015 report by telecommunications consultancy firm Plum Consulting, satellite is the main technology for TV in the UAE, with 30% of homes subscribing to direct-to-home (DTH) services and 24% receiving free-to-air DTH. At the same time, 29% of households access Internet Protocol television, while only 3% of households rely solely on terrestrial television.

According to a 2015 report by Deloitte looking at the Middle East’s television industry, 68% of paid TV subscriptions in the UAE were for sports channels, followed by 55% for movies and TV series.

While television is losing significant ground to the internet in much of the MENA region, in the UAE daily television viewing rates have actually gone up in recent years. According to a 2016 report by Northwestern University in Qatar, the percentage of people watching TV on a daily basis in the UAE rose from 65% in 2014 to 70% in 2016. Of the five other countries the report focused on (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Qatar), only Tunisia saw an increase in TV viewing over that two-year period.

Technological Advances

In 2015 SMC was among the first media organisations in the UAE and the GCC to transition fully from analogue to digital terrestrial broadcasting, highlighting the emirate’s determination to remain at the forefront of media developments. In 2014 SMC also announced that it was increasing the storage capacity of its TV channels by 1600%, enabling it to add content from other news agencies from around the world.

The new capacity is equivalent to roughly 6000 hours of high-definition transmission and around 12,000 hours in standard definition. In total, SMC currently has five television channels, with the primary station being Sharjah TV. The company Television stations across the UAE, including in Sharjah, are hoping to benefit from increased advertising spends drawn by hard viewing data supplied by systems such as TV iew, an audience monitoring project set up in 2011. Funded by the UAE’s National Media Council with the assistance of sector companies like SMC, Emirates Telecommunications Corporation (Etisalat), Rotana Media and Abu Dhabi Media, it was endorsed by Paris-based media auditor Centre d’Etude des Supports de Publicité in 2016 and monitored approximately 3000 households across the UAE, chosen to represent a cross-section of the population. It aimed to give a more accurate picture of viewing habits, which could help push up advertising spending. “If you compare the UAE and the Middle East to the rest of the world in terms of wealth, the TV advertising spend here is remarkably low,” Keld Nielsen, regional managing director of Kantar Media told The National newspaper in July 2016, adding that current TV advertising spending in the UAE stood at about $1bn, but could double following the application of media monitoring methodology.

Local Content

Pan-Arab channels have long been the primary focus of stations in the UAE, supplying content from across the region in both Arabic and English. However, Sharjah, which is the third largest of the emirates, accounting for roughly 19% of the UAE’s population, has been pushing consistently for the use of more localised content.

In September 2016 SMC announced the establishment of a new television channel in the emirate. Al Wosta – the second local channel operated by SMC following the launch of Al Sharqiya, which focuses on the emirate’s eastern region, in 2014 – is aimed at residents of the central region of Sharjah. The new channel puts out content that promotes the heritage, culture and traditions of the region, as well as transmissions that highlight its natural and archaeological attractions. “The channel is a means for viewers all over the world to identify with the culture and identity of the people in this region,” Ashraf Ali, director of Al Wosta, told local press at the launch. “It will also cover activities in the region.”

Digital Media

The UAE has one of the highest internet penetration rates in the Arab world, which has a big impact on how the population consumes media. According to the fifth edition of the Arab Media Outlook Report, released in May 2016 and titled “Arab Media Outlook Youth… content… digital media”, time spent consuming media in the MENA region, in terms of total hours, grew by 2% between 2013 and 2015, with both internet and television seeing a 2% growth rate, radio staying flat and print dropping by 3%. The average media consumer in the region spent around 10.9 hours per day accessing media in 2015, up from 10.6 hours a day in 2013.

Meanwhile, according to the report, the total share of media views coming from mobile phones jumped from 11% in 2011 to 70% in 2015, highlighting the exponential growth being witnessed in the use and media potential of smartphones in the region.

At the 11th World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers Middle East Conference, held in Dubai in February 2016, Sheikh Sultan bin Ahmed Al Qasimi, chairman of Sharjah Media Council, highlighted the overall trend towards digital media.

“The accelerated rhythm of life does not allow people to read as they once did,” he said. “We must work with that future in mind. But we are also responsible for protecting the heritage and history [of newspapers].” In 2016, following on from the success of its Arabic-language version, the Sharjah Media Centre launched an English-language version of its news portal, www.sharjah24.ae.

Sharjah Media City

The most significant development in recent years in terms of development of Sharjah’s media sector is the launch of the first media free zone in the emirate. In January 2016 Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi announced the establishment of Sharjah Media City, which aims to rival more established free zones in neighbouring emirates as the media free zone of choice for domestic and international media companies as well as for freelance media professionals working in the Gulf region. According to its official objectives, the media city aims to become a regional leader in the field of media education, training, creativity and the development of high-quality, innovative content. Companies and individuals based in the free zone will be exempt from taxes and local fees; according to the official decree they will not be liable to pay any taxes in Sharjah, including income tax related to their work in the media city for a period of 50 years, which can also be renewed at a later date.

The project’s stakeholders are highly optimistic about its potential given the opportunities currently present in the sector. “With media evolving to a direct-to-consumer world, and the boundaries of technology and media blurring further, there are multitude of investment opportunities,” Khalid Omar Al Midfa, chairman of Sharjah Media City Free Zone Authority, told OBG. “We are aiming to create an environment where people can work, live, learn and entertain. The focus is on attracting talent to explore opportunities and manifest them in tangible products and services,” he added.

According to Al Midfa, the free zone will offer 100% foreign ownership, 0% corporate tax, 0% personal income or capital gain tax, no restriction on capital repatriation, no currency restrictions, 0% import or re-export duties, and no restriction on hiring practices regarding foreign talent or employees.

Those involved in the establishment of Sharjah Media City also believe that one of its crucial selling points is the emirate’s well-maintained status as one of the cultural capitals of the Arab world. They also hope that changes in the way media works will aid the development of the free zone in the coming years. “The media sector is changing, with content being produced by smaller players and being acquired by the big broadcasters,” Al Midfa told OBG. “Hence, bigger corporations need to work with freelancers who can work from Sharjah at competitive operating costs. It can be a place to produce the next big media companies,” he added.

Speaking at the Sharjah FDI Forum in September 2016, Al Midfa added that the free zone will begin issuing licences to companies, freelancers and entrepreneurs working in the media, technology and creative industries in the first quarter of 2017. “We will be calling for investors to come from every part of the world to start their media and technology and creative company related businesses,” he said.

One potential advantage that Sharjah’s media city will have over its older rivals in the region is the fact that it is being specifically designed and set up for today’s digital environment. “We hope that Media City will be born digital,” said SMC’s Kassim-Ali. “If you are born digital there are few boundaries. Companies don’t need to be fully in Sharjah – parts can be based here, and parts elsewhere,” he added.

Workforce

The consensus among sector stakeholders is that there is no shortage of media talent in Sharjah. This is especially true in light of recent growth of the higher education sector in the emirate.

“There is enough talent, and more talent is coming along, but there haven’t been enough media organisations to nurture talent in Sharjah, which is why Media City is so important,” said Kassim-Ali. “If we can create the platform then we can become a centre for creativity. There are some media-related small enterprises that are already established in Sharjah but the need is greater – we need more,” he added.

Advertising Expenditure

In a 2014 analysis PwC forecast that the UAE would record the highest growth in internet advertising globally in the 2013-18 period, with a compound annual growth rate of 34.6%. This has been born out in recent times, with UAE ad spending reaching $1.5bn in 2015, the highest in the Gulf region (not including pan-Arab media), according to the Pan Arab Research Centre. In the first quarter of 2016 alone UAE advertising spending hit $531m, again the highest in the GCC, though far behind pan-Arab media, which recorded $2.18bn of advertising spending in the same period.

The regional context is less reassuring. Elie Khouri, CEO of Omnicom Media Group, said that total investments in MENA advertising dropped by 10% in 2016, with a similar decrease expected in 2017.

Outlook

While some challenges do still exist, Sharjah’s media sector appears to be set for a period of strong growth and development, with the arrival of Sharjah Media City and Publishing City, both representing significant leaps forward for the emirate’s media landscape. If the initial buzz surrounding these zones can be followed through with consistent investment in the sector, the emirate’s media star looks set to rise significantly in the years to come.

 

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