By Ben Flanagan
What does a meeting between Sheikh Mohammed and the boss of the FT tell us about UAE media?
It may have been a short meeting, but it was doubtless one that could have gone on for a lot longer.
Yesterday, HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, met with John Ridding, Chief Executive of the Financial Times.
The official topic was today’s ‘FT China-Middle East Summit’ in Dubai, in which 200 senior decision-makers will discuss the ‘New Silk Road’ between the Gulf and Asia.
But one wonders whether the future of the FT – which is rumoured to be up for sale by publisher Pearson for a reported £650m ($1.3bn) – cropped up in conversation. The newspaper is now profitable again after four years of heavy losses.
There is no suggestion as yet that Dubai has expressed an interest in buying the newspaper. But such a move would be a typically audacious – albeit one with global political implications.
The Financial Times is, unarguably, the most prestigious financial journal in the world; Dubai has (arguably) one of the most exciting economies in the world. And buying such a publication would fit its ambitions – both in terms of business and media.
The Financial Times has a truly global reach; Dubai - with international acquisitions by state investment companies such as Istithmar and DIC, and its slowly expanding international stock exchange – is itself becoming a force to reckon with worldwide.
And while the FT was founded back in 1888, when Dubai city was little more than desert, the emirate has shown a considerable commitment to the expansion of its media industry in recent years. Take the formation of Dubai Media City, or recent newspaper launches, or the new TV stations on the cards.
So there is little wonder why Mohammed Abdullah Al Gergawi, Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs, was also present at yesterday’s meeting. Gergawi is the Deputy Chairman of the UAE’s newly-formed National Media Council, and Executive Chairman of Dubai Holding, which has media-related interests. The Chairman of the Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority was also present.
The UAE media faces increasing government control: there’s the aforementioned National Media Council, and also today’s decree in Abu Dhabi, which brings the interests of the (already state-owned) Emirates Media Inc – including the Al Ittihad newspaper – under the direct control of the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince's Court.
Such control is not necessarily inconsistent with a thriving press – the new Media Council could, for instance, set down firmer guidelines for journalists that may be unsure where the boundaries of acceptability lie.
But what is clear is that – for Dubai’s economy and stock markets to mature – an equally mature press is needed. This needn’t be a newspaper that dates back to 1888, but it should be a press that is hard-hitting enough to provide the information that businesspeople crave.
And that is why yesterday’s brief meeting – whatever was talked about – is telling in the future growth of this ambitious economy.
Audacious would be the word for an acquistion of the Financial Times, but I don't think Dubai Investment Capital is in the business of losing money on its acquisitions. Liverpool FC was attractive because the club was undervalued in light of the new TV rights deal signed by the Premier League. Travelodge was similarly good value. The FT is indeed one of the most respected newspapers in the world, but it is suffering a slow death as competition from free newspapers and the Internet eat into their market. It's never been DIC's style to invest in businesses that can't be turned around, and I don't see them starting with this deal.