Media headhunters see Middle East as the new media frontier in journalism

This article first appeared in Press Gazette

I have just come back from the burgeoning media market of the Middle East. Dubai is its poster boy: it has a well-established Media City (essentially, an economic free zone where media businesses enjoy liberties they would not enjoy elsewhere), and is the region’s centre for most large media organisations – including Reuters and the BBC. While some well-established media organisations have suffered during Dubai’s well-publicised problems, there is still opportunity to be exploited. There is always a need for experienced journalists, and it is amazing how many old hands (and new) turn up.

What does it take to work here? It probably helps not to have a family to convince: young journalists tend to come here and spend a few years before returning home, much the richer (most people pay no tax). For a family, it can be, er, taxing: one contact told me that most of his friends are divorced. It is a largely, but not exclusively, male environment. And if the heat is not your thing, don’t go (average daytime temperatures in the summer are 39 degrees centigrade; 28 degrees in the winter).

One publisher who has spent 20+ years in the region and has employed innumerable journalists across newspapers and magazines, says that subject matter is crucial. There is not a big market for niche specialist writers, but business and finance or a good track record in women’s interest always go down well. The ability to be flexible is crucial, as many mags and papers are produced with pretty small staff; photo-journalists, for example, are sought after.

 

The biggest advantage, he says, is to be a good writer: “Some of the writing is laughable.” Quality stands out from much Middle East journalism. However, there is an implicit compromise, particularly for hard news journalists. “A story that might be good in the West – say an exposé about a government department, or even lobbying – would not be acceptable here.” You have to be able to “accept the restricted editorial freedom” and get on with the job. It is slightly different for overseas news organisations working here; Reuters has more freedom to publish than a locally-licensed paper.

Two warnings from our experienced team of media headhunters: Dubai is no place for old Fleet Street-style boozing. Hotels are licensed, and non-Muslims can get liquor licences from the police for home consumption, but restaurants only serve soft drinks and unpalatable non-alcoholic lager.

The other big danger is entrapment: constantly good weather and a tax-free regime mean that many journalists find it incredibly difficult to leave. One editor told me: “I’d love to leave. But where would I go?”  Abu Dhabi, perhaps?