Abu Dhabi's media free zone fosters artists, filmmakers and influencers


Abu Dhabi’s media sector has enjoyed rapid growth in recent years as a result of sustained emirate and federal government support as well as the increase in local content being created in its dedicated media free zone twofour54. The presence of major international media corporations in the free zone has underlined the quality of the facilities on offer, while efforts to cultivate the emergence of a skilled local workforce for the sector are paying dividends thanks to the various training and outreach programmes on offer. Strategic partnerships with regional and international media players alike should cement the emirate’s reputation as a leading media centre in the years ahead. Although media consumption patterns continue to move away from traditional media towards online, there is yet to be a major corresponding shift in advertiser revenue, although this is undoubtedly something local players will need to adapt to in the medium to long term.

Structure & Oversight

The UAE’s media landscape is regulated at the federal level by the National Media Council (NMC). The NMC’s scope includes everything from traditional print media to newer digital media platforms, and its responsibilities include issuing licences to all media institutions in the country, and developing and drafting media policy and legislation.

At the emirate level, meanwhile, there are various local media bodies whose work feeds into the broader vision of the NMC. The Media Zone Authority – Abu Dhabi (MZA) is responsible for overseeing all regulatory and licensing aspects of twofour54, the emirate’s media zone. The authority’s responsibilities include developing and maintaining the media zone’s regulations, codes and policies; incorporating and registering companies and branches; licensing companies, branches and freelancers; and providing content-related guidance to those operating in the zone.

Abu Dhabi Media

The establishment of Abu Dhabi Media (ADM) in 2007 proved a significant milestone for the emirate’s media sector. The move signalled the authorities’ intention to facilitate more comprehensive mass media development in Abu Dhabi, and transform the emirate into a regional media and cultural hub. The media giant, formerly Emirates Media, has grown rapidly, with its campus in central Abu Dhabi now home to 24 brands across its broadcasting, publishing and digital platforms. These include Arabic daily newspaper Al-Ittihad, National Geographic Al Arabiya magazine, Al Emarat TV and National Geographic Abu Dhabi TV. Building on its relationship with National Geographic, ADM announced in January 2018 that it was partnering with local telecoms operator du to launch a new Nat Geo Kids Abu Dhabi television programme.

In a February 2018 deal, ADM-owned publication Al-Ittihad linked up with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) as the US business-focused daily looks to broaden its readership within the region. Under the commercial partnership, subscribers to Al-Ittihad will receive a complimentary one-year subscription to the digital edition of the WSJ, while the partnership will allow ADM to access WSJ content and share it across its digital platforms in both English and Arabic.

While the move is undoubtedly aimed at widening WSJ’s reach, the partnership is also an indication of the increasing pressure media companies are under to maximise profits from their original content. A similar tie-up came in August 2016 when UK Daily Mail linked with official Chinese government newspaper People’s Daily. As a result, the Chinese publication has been able to translate and run up to 40 Daily Mail articles per week across its platforms, and vice versa.


Founded just one year after ADM, twofour54 is the emirate’s dedicated media zone. In 2017, 83 licences were issued to new companies, start-ups and entrepreneurs, bringing the current total to more than 470 tenants. Included in the 2017 cohort was local English-language daily newspaper The National which joins major international news broadcasters including CNN and Sky News Arabia already based in the zone.

Alongside these high-profile tenants, twofour54 has worked to curate a media ecosystem, choosing tenants who complement each other’s skill sets, thereby driving effective cross-pollination and collaboration. A key initiative has been creative labs, an online community that allows members to identify and track projects of interest, while also providing training and job shadowing opportunities, as well as funding for projects. twofour54’s success in attracting major international and local tenants has hinged on the array of dedicated production and post-production facilities that are available. The zone offers a 70,000-sq-metre backlot at Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi (KIZAD) thanks to an agreement inked in February 2016, while post-production facilities on site include 24 edit suites – 17 HD edit suites and seven 4k edit suites – as well as the region’s only Baselight and DaVinci colour grading facility.

In May 2017 it was announced that twofour54 would relocate to Yas Island, with developers aiming to hand over phase one of the site in time for the first tenants to move in at the end of 2020. Phase one will initially cover a gross floor area of 98,500 sq metres, is being built by Abu Dhabi development company Aldar Properties, and will eventually form part of Miral’s master development plan focused on the southern end of Yas Island. “Our plans for the future will give even more reasons for media businesses to set up or expand in Abu Dhabi,” Maryam Eid AlMheiri, CEO of Media Zone Authority – Abu Dhabi and twofour54, told OBG. “Everything at our new home on Yas Island is being designed for media business to encourage and empower partners to innovate, collaborate and create, while also ensuring operational and functional perfection for the industry. It will be the ideal base for the world’s most innovative media and technology companies.”

Economic Contribution

Another hallmark of the media sector’s success has been its flagship rebate scheme. According to the scheme, the Abu Dhabi Film Commission (ADFC) will reimburse international production companies up to 30% of all qualifying expenditure on projects made in the emirate. Since its launch in 2013, over 60 productions have come to the emirate and availed themselves of the rebate, including major Hollywood and Bollywood productions such as Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Tiger Zinda Hai.

The benefits of the scheme have proven two-fold for Abu Dhabi: on the one hand, it is estimated that some 1bn people have seen the emirate on screen as a result of the productions made there, thereby helping promote the emirate internationally and boost tourism inflows. Indeed, between them it is estimated that Star Wars and Furious 7 generated over Dh400m ($108.9m) worth of press value for Abu Dhabi.

On the other hand, the rebate has fuelled the growth of a sub-sector dedicated to providing ancillary services for film crews such as site-specific catering, accommodation and transport. According to a report published by PwC in 2013, for every Dh1 ($0.27) paid out by ADFC for the rebate, an average of Dh3.10 ($0.84) is contributed to Abu Dhabi’s economy. Less hard to quantify, but still significant, are the many networking opportunities presented to nationals working in the industry as a result of the numerous international film and production companies coming to film in the emirate.

International Partnerships

In 2016 Image Nation Abu Dhabi and China Intercontinental Communication Centre came together to form a $300m fund aimed at boosting collaboration between the two entities. Known as the Culture China – Image Nation Abu Dhabi Content Fund, the entity focuses on increasing investment in commercial film and television programming from Hollywood, China and other countries worldwide. The fund has enjoyed early success, with its first feature film collaboration Roman J. Israel, Esq. picking up a best actor nomination for lead actor Denzel Washington at the 2018 Academy Awards.

The MZA has also been involved in international tieups and in 2018 signed memoranda of understanding (MoUs) with both Saudi Arabia’s General Commission for Audiovisual Media and the Gulf Radio and TV Organisation. The MoUs are aimed at furthering collaborative efforts to develop the region’s media industry, fostering job creation and expanding the number of regional SMEs operating in the sector. “Collaboration is one of the keys to the success we have seen in building a thriving industry in Abu Dhabi over the last decade, whether that is working with the public or private sector in the UAE or abroad, and we will continue on this path in the future,” AlMheiri told OBG.

Social Media

Abu Dhabi and the wider UAE have one of the highest rates of social media usage, not just regionally, but in the world. According to a 2017 report by social media management platform Hootsuite and global social media agency We Are Social, the UAE has one of the highest social media penetration rates globally, with the UAE’s 9.2m users equating to a penetration rate of 99%. These numbers are underpinned by similarly high figures when it comes to smartphone penetration – by far the preferred channel for accessing social media – with the UAE’s smartphone penetration rate of around 70% one of the highest in the world. Facebook remains the most popular social media platform in the UAE, with the total number of users growing from 3.7m in 2015 to reach 7.5m in 2016 and 8.7m a year later. In 2018 the total number of active Facebook users in the country totalled 9m.

The exponential rise of social media in recent years has been accompanied by a corresponding shift in the way that information is disseminated to end users, with many news corporations and retail companies alike turning to popular social media platforms to broadcast their messages and promote their brands. In the Gulf region social media and direct messaging are increasingly becoming the go-to sources for accessing news and information. According to the 2017 report “Media Use in the Middle East 2017: A Seven-Nation Survey”, published by Northwestern University, approximately 87% of UAE nationals will turn to direct messaging services for their daily news, while 83% will turn to a social media platform to do likewise.


Advertising spending in the UAE dropped 10.7% year-on-year from Dh7.5bn ($2bn) in 2016 to Dh6.7bn ($1.8bn) the following year. Notwithstanding this, the country’s total ad spending still represented the lion’s share of ad spending in the GCC in 2017 at 48%. Outdoor advertising made the biggest contribution in terms of total receipts, with 38% of the total advertising market at Dh2.5bn ($680.5m), down slightly from Dh2.6bn ($707.7m) in 2016. This was followed by UAE newspaper-based ad placements with 33%, or Dh2.2bn ($598.8m), down from Dh2.9bn ($792.1m) in 2016. Radio placements, meanwhile, accounted for 18% of the total, or Dh1.2bn ($326.6m), up from Dh1.1bn ($294m) in 2016, while TV ads accounted for only 7% of total ad spending, falling from Dh631m ($171.8m) in 2016 to Dh488m ($132.8m) a year later. Movie ads equalled Dh239m ($65.1m) in 2017.

Online ad spend figures vary for the region. However, according to the 2016 report by Orient Planet Research, “GCC Online Advertising Market 2016”, online advertising share in the UAE stood at 12%, slightly above the report’s GCC-wide average of 11.4%.


In 2018 the UAE’s National Media Council (NMC) announced that from June any UAE-based social media user who promotes goods and services via their social media platforms in return for financial gain will be required to take a licence. This move aims to professionalise and regulate the industry, and licences are similar to those issued to newspapers and magazines. Speaking to local press in March 2018, NMC director-general Mansour Ibrahim Al Mansouri said that “the new regulations are part of the council’s plan to promote and develop an advanced legislative and regulatory environment for the UAE media sector, keeping it up-to-speed with regards to all technological developments that have transformed media in recent times”.

This development comes as little surprise considering social media’s use for marketing. Research conducted by BPG Cohn & Wolfe in 2017 revealed that 94% of the UAE’s in-house brand marketers believe social media influencer marketing is central to their success, while 43% spend up to $10,000 per influencer campaign.


Abu Dhabi’s media market has continued to expand and mature throughout 2018. The local government’s sustained support for the sector is doubtless largely attributable to the success of the emirate’s free zone twofour54, which continues to attract major media companies. At the same time, the zone’s many outreach and training programmes aimed at attracting young talent are paying dividends, and helping economic diversification targets.

The zone’s expansion plans on Yas Island, meanwhile, bode well for the sector, as do the various international partnerships that are enabling media firms to extend their regional and worldwide reach. As is the case around the world, print media continues to cede ground to the digital medium as more consumers come to rely not just on their digital devices to access news and information but also their social media platforms, something that digital media players and local marketers alike will be keen to capitalise on in the years ahead.

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