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Thursday, May 3, 2007

When worlds rarely collide

This place continues to fascinate me. It can seem like hell on earth when you’re walking back to your hotel via Sabkha street where the pavement narrows into a stand off between chickens being kebabed and south Asian workers digging the Nasser Square metro stop. As you walk the narrow, furnace-like, gauntlet of where these two competing attractions meet, you could not be further removed from the Dubai conjured up by the ubiquitous image of the Burj al-Arab. You will often be accompanied by tourists, although these tourists are of a very different kind to those you would encounter in the five star hotels. Here the visitors are Russian shoppers, poorer Arab and Iranian tourists, and women working one of the newer routes of the oldest profession.

Yesterday I paid a visit to the Saudi-owned MBC satellite broadcasting network’s headquarters. Like a significant portion of the region’s media, MBC has set up shop in Dubai Media City, and it is from there its programming, including the Al-Arabya news service, is broadcast. This was a chance to bear witness to a phenomenon. There is a huge range of regional and international media corralled into a free zone which is regulation-lite. MBC is effectively in exile, operating in a cosmopolitan environment more in tune with the realities of much of the Arab middle class, where women are playing an active role and are not wearing hijab. This is a fascinating scene to witness. Tellingly, however , Saudis in general are not thick on the ground at MBC, and female nationals seemingly non existent. Domestically based media outlets in the kingdom will feature Saudi women broadcasters in conservative regalia but they rarely perform key roles behind the scenes. MBC is being run on a day to day basis by ex-pat Arabs, including a significant number of women. These ex-pat Arabs are of course working in the ultimate ex-pat enclave, Dubai.

I and a colleague chatted with a Lebanese manager of day to day business at Al-Arabiyya, and a Palestinian news editor, as well as a Sudanese interviewee booker who is threatening to draw on me, though possibly more for comment customs and currency union than Saudi foreign policy, which would be my preference. On our way to join another Sudanese reporter for “lunch” at around 4pm, we ran into the man whose job title suggests he is the hands on figure who directs the operation. Yet this Saudi national, with a background at the heart of the system back home, is more the PR voice of the Al-Arabiya news service, penning thoughtful pieces on the Kingdom’s direction and, it would seem, ensuring that the political slant of the news service doesn’t stray too far away from the al-Saud’s essential interests. He is a suave operator, in keeping with the impression I had previously garnered talking to him over the phone; he is also an efficient but considered analyst of regional affairs. I left impressed by the personnel I had met at the company, but reflecting on MBC’s operation as another contribution to the virtual reality of this emirate. In Dubai presentation is key. The realities of the physical environment in which the mass of foreign labour toil rarely intrude on the professional or social lives of those for whom Dubai is largely orientated. For many Emiratis or Europeans it is only when walking to a waiting vehicle or watching from tinted windows that this other Dubai can be felt or witnessed. The image of infinite progress continues to be nurtured by the buzz of media activity at DMC, and the seemingly infinite selection of shopping malls and residential blocs that continue to be built. The reality among the members of the service sector who are not seated at a computer is rather harsher.

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