ACCORDING TO Tim Burrowes, former editor of British title Media Week and now editor of Campaign Dubai, pasty-faced Brits are hopping off planes every day at Dubai airport, enticed by promises of a luxury lifestyle and the chance to make a mark in a young media environment.
“The market is growing so fast there’s a huge demand for journalists, and that’s reflected in the salaries,” he says, a year after taking on editorship of the new launch at ITP, the Middle East’s biggest magazine publisher.
“The best thing is that it’s not finished yet,” he adds. “You can influence events, and see things unfolding so fast.” Dubai, part of the coastline-rich United Arab Emirates, has a population 84 per cent expatriate, with many of its overseas workers from the UK.
While Arabic is the official language, English is the language of commerce, and Dubai’s English language media industry has exploded in the past 10 years.
There are currently six English language newspapers and more than 200 English language magazines in production, including Ahlan! (Arabic for Hello!), women’s lifestyle title Viva, Grazia Dubai and Time Out Dubai, as well as newspapers such as the Gulf News and Gulf Herald — the latest being ITP’s Arabian Business Standard.
Although salaries are on a similar level to the UK, they are tax-free, and, combined with a low cost of living and relatively low (though rising) property prices, British journalists can get a standard of living in Dubai that is unattainable in the UK.
When you consider that the latest projects in the city include an underwater hotel and building a series of artificial islands in the shape of a map of the world, it is not surprising Dubai has such a reputation for luxury.
It is generally easy to find accommodation (although the islands may still be beyond budget), there is a ready-made set of fellow expats to get to know, and visas and work permits are usually sorted out by the employer.
One who has watched the media boom develop is Ben Smalley, who moved to Dubai 10 years ago to work at the newly launched newspaper, The Gulf Today. When he applied, he was a newly qualified reporter at the Macclesfield Messenger, a local weekly paper.
“I wasn’t even sure where Dubai was, so I went into a newsagent and saw sun-kissed beaches and palm trees and thought it was definitely worth the price of a stamp to apply,” he says.
He arrived at the start of the Dubai Sevens that year, a qualifying tournament for the Rugby World Cup Sevens, with Wales, Scotland and New Zealand playing.
As he was the only staff member who knew anything about rugby, he spent the first three days in his new job, he says, “basking in the sunshine at the biggest sporting event in the Middle East. It was a dream start to a new job and a welcome change from covering church fetes and 100th birthdays.” After a spell back in the UK, he returned to Dubai to work at the Gulf News, then went freelance and now runs his own media-related company, planning to remain in the city for another 10 years.
On the consumer magazine side, Dubai’s Ahlan! is edited by Brit Katie Heskett, who left the UK for the job after six years in contract publishing.
She says: “I wanted to move into consumer magazines, but the opportunities just weren’t there in London. Coming to Dubai meant not only getting valuable experience professionally, but having the chance to challenge myself personally.
“The media industry is booming and I’m constantly surprised and impressed with the quality and variety of magazines out here.” Another journalist, who asks not to be named, says the best thing about Dubai is “the opportunity to work in a such a vibrant cultural melting pot.
“Forget New York or London,” she adds, “Dubai has 150 different nationalities living there.
“There’s also the chance to ‘fast-forward’ your career. Because of the level of turnover and the fact that publishers prefer to bring in those with less experience, who are cheaper, you can get to work on magazines, particularly the international licensed publications, that you wouldn’t have a hope in hell of getting on in the UK.”
But although Dubai is certainly a land of opportunity for the eager hack, there are down sides, according to some journalists.
The same attitude that sees companies hiring less- experienced, cheaper staff, also sees them treating those staff in ways that would be less acceptable in the UK.
“Dubai frequently means brutal working conditions — 60-hour weeks aren’t uncommon and many are forced to work weekends,” warns the anonymous journalist.
“The publishing companies can be fairly primitive in terms of their treatment of staff — there are no proper HR procedures, no investment in training and development, and hardly any reward and recognition structures.
“As a result, the level of ‘churn’ or turnover would astonish companies in the UK.” “The worst thing is that the entire place lacks media savvy,” Burrowes adds. “On the whole, press officers are extraordinarily lazy and incompetent; companies and people in authority have no interest whatsoever in engaging with the press.
“The general standards of journalism in the market are appalling. You’ll often see press releases appearing in daily papers, word for word.
“But there have been some improvements, and the bigger publishers are beginning to invest in better journalism.” And finally, the UAE is not a democracy and the press carries out self-censorship on behalf of its ruling family, something which can be hard to swallow for British journos.
“In terms of magazines,” says one source, “you have to exercise caution with regards to areas such as bare flesh and alcohol references, while newspapers are forced to steer clear of controversial issues such as the high level of prostitution, money laundering and, most of all, terrorism and its potential impact on the United Arab Emirates.
“But I’d recommend a couple of years there to anyone, purely for the intoxicating experience of living and working abroad in such a rapidly developing city — it’s a genuine buzz.” And remember, in Dubai it hardly ever rains.