The Technology, Media and Telecommunications Review: United Arab Emirates

Overview

Following the 2020 slowdown, the United Arab Emirates' media and entertainment industry has slowly recovered throughout 2021, culminating in the opening of the largest event in the region, Dubai Expo 2020, which opened on 1 October 2021. Expo 2020 included a livestream of its opening ceremony that went out live, and saw a huge programme of content going out to the world.

The media and entertainment year started with a bang when it was announced that local music platform Anghami had been selected by Vistas Media Acquisition Company, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). This means that, when completed, Anghami will be listed on Nasdaq.

The music news kept on coming. Local music company PopArabia was bought by New York publishing giant Reservoir Music early in 2020, and Reservoir subsequently listed on Nasdaq in July 2021, again by way of a SPAC. More importantly, PopArabia established a rights management entity, ESMAA, in 2021, and is now actively seeking public performance licences. In fact, it has already acquired mandates from numerous rights holders globally and has closed several public performance licences with key regional entities.

With this sort of activity in the music space, the long -awaited government authorisation of a collective management organisation does indeed seem to be getting closer.

MBC is still the dominant free-to-air television player, and new content is being developed and produced for its free-to-air channels. In addition, OSN is working to develop content, while also exploiting its Disney content via a hungry market.

Platforms continue to thrive in the post-pandemic world, with Netflix, Amazon Prime and Starz Play expanding in line with global growth. Starz Play has increased its offering very strategically, with live sports events and more local content, and so manages to maintain its very strong audience share. It has taken on the live streaming of the T20 World Cup, showing that there might now be a new and growing market for live sporting rights after its demise in the region a few years back. Netflix has expanded its Arabic language catalogue, with new Netflix originals being commissioned from the region, including Al Rawabi School for Girls.

Industry interest has been focused on the growth of Arabic language platform Shahid, which was launched by MBC and rebranded in January 2020. Since then, it has seen a huge rise in subscriber numbers, and has a strong retention rate. It is focused on providing local and regional productions via Shahid original series and Shahid premieres, as well as offering local sports. It has also been distributing into international territories throughout 2021.

There has been some movement in the free-to-air radio market, which can lay claim to utilising the broadest range of languages across the spectrum, addressing the major nationalities that make up the country's population. Possibly the most interesting addition to the free-to-air radio market has been the launch of Ibiza Global Radio, which has made a splash with young listeners.

El Gouna Film Festival is taking place 'in person' this year for its fifth outing, and is rapidly gaining traction as the region's most prominent film festival, filling the hole left by the demise of the Dubai International Film Festival. The first edition of the Red Sea International Film Festival will take place at the end of 2021. The cinema sector has recently reopened following the pandemic, and is seeing a return to pre-pandemic levels, albeit slowly.

International film production returned to the region in 2021, with the US film Dune filming numerous scenes in Abu Dhabi, and the Indian films Love Story and Maestro both shooting in Dubai. Local content The Misfits and Al Kameen were filmed in 2020 and 2021, and we are seeing an increase in filming activity across the board. The local podcast production market is growing at a consistent rate, keeping local producers and talent busy, and indicating that podcasts have managed to retain the initial strong interest that was shown in them locally.

Gaming figures prominently in the government's plans for the region, with a division set up in twofour54, a media free zone, to deal with the development of the sector. Abu Dhabi Gaming was launched with the intention of developing the gaming and e-sports industry in the UAE, encompassing the views of players, developers and tournaments, and is designed to provide aid regarding all aspects of the commercialisation of this enormous sector. To back this up, the first Abu Dhabi Gaming Festival took place in October 2021, with an estimated 5,000 players. We believe that the sector will see an exponential growth trajectory in the region over the next five years, with hubs being created in three or four countries.

In M&A news in the gaming sector, Sweden's Stillfront Group acquired mobile gaming studio Jawaker for US$205 million in 2021. Jawaker develops mobile card games and has proved to be a huge success, with high numbers of monthly users in the region.

The Yas Creative Hub in Abu Dhabi, a vast and ambitious development, will be completed and operational early in 2022, and will house a vast number of the country's media, gaming and entertainment companies.

Finally, the UAE has announced that it will host the first Global Media Congress in 2022. This initiative is designed to open the gateway to future international media collaborations, and is welcome.

Regulation

i The regulators

There are two key regulators in the United Arab Emirates.

  1. The Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority (TDRA) was rebranded in 2020 to embrace the new digital transformation. Among its many tasks, it regulates all forms of telecommunications, manages and allocates spectrum, regulates all content that is carried over its infrastructure, and manages the two key telecommunications licensees (Etisalat and du).
  2. The renamed Media Regulatory Office has partially replaced the old National Media Council (NMC), and we are still waiting to see which parts of the powers designated to the NMC under Federal Law No. 11 of 2016 on the Regulation and Powers of National Media Council are to be transferred across to the Media Regulatory Office.

ii Main sources of law

Federal Law No. 3 of 2003 Regarding the regarding the Organization of Telecommunications Sector, as amended (Telecoms Law) remains the key law in the telecommunications sector in the UAE. This lengthy Law covers all aspects of telecommunications services from licensing through to spectrum management and marketing.

The media industry is controlled by Federal Law No. 15 of 1980 concerning Printing and Publishing (PPL). The PPL, despite pre-dating most commonly used media technology, remains the predominant law, with the regulators both confirming its application across new media. Outside of establishing the rules applicable to those wishing to run a printing press or secure a free-to-air broadcast licence, the Law also sets out the basic tenets of content regulation: Section 7 sets out, in simple form, the restrictions that apply to media content.

Augmenting the PPL is Annex 1 of the TDRA's internet access management policy (IAM), which sets out the basis upon which the TDRA can block a website (i.e., a list of 17 categories of content that are not permitted to be transmitted over the TDRA network, and that will be blocked. The list contains the type of content that might be expected, such as pornography, the promotion of terrorism and criticisms of religion). The IAM allows the TDRA to block (in practice, to require telecommunications licensees to block) any such content. UAE residents are familiar with the 'surf safely' message that appears when they try to access content that is blocked.

In 2010 and 2012, the NMC passed further content laws under National Media Council Chairman Resolution No. 20 of 2010 on the Standards of Media Content and Chairman of the Council Resolution No. 35 of 2012 on the Criteria of Advertisement Content in Media. The status of these remains uncertain, as they have since been largely superseded by 2017 resolutions, the most important of which for the content industry are Cabinet Resolution No. 23 of 2017 Concerning Media Content and the related Board Resolution No. 26 of 2017 on Media Content. The latter, in particular, is extremely prescriptive as to content regulations and standards, and has expanded on the description of prohibited content to enable easier compliance by content producers. These regulations remain in force despite the NMC having been replaced and renamed.

A key associated law is Federal Decree by Law No. 5 of 2012 on Combating Cyber Crimes (CCL), which is noted as much for the severity of its penalties as the content of the Law itself. The fines thereunder were increased for several offences late in 2018, reflecting the UAE's concern about material that is related to terrorism or otherwise dangerous to its residents. Such obviously incendiary material aside, the CCL also covers areas of more content-focused issues such as privacy, defamation, pornography and gambling.

iii Regulated activities

The TRDA provides licences for the provision of public telecommunications services. Telecommunications services are defined broadly as the service of transmitting, broadcasting, switching or receiving by means of a telecommunications network of any of the following:

  • wired and wireless telecommunications
  • voice, music and other sounds;
  • visual images;
  • signals used in radio and TV broadcasting;
  • signals used to operate or control any machinery or apparatus;
  • the installation, maintenance, adjustment, repair, replacement, moving or removal of apparatus that is or will be connected to a public telecommunications network;
  • the construction, maintenance and operation of networks for telegraph, telephone, telex, leased circuits, domestic and international data networks, internet and wireless transmission; and
  • any other telecommunications services approved by the UAE TRA Board.

Resolution No. 6/2008 regarding the Licensing Framework adds that the operation of a public telecommunications network or provision of telecommunications services are regulated activities, and so would require a licence from the TRDA.

The process for obtaining a licence varies from category to category.

iv Ownership and market access restrictions

Certain categories are restricted.

v Transfers of control and assignments

There is no expectation that a third telecommunications licence will be granted in the near future.

Telecommunications and internet access

i Internet and internet protocol regulation

Regulation continues to evolve in its application, but regulation of the internet remains under the control of the TRDA and the Telecom Law. The main issue remains the inability of voice over internet protocol (VOIP) services to be used, causing confusion for not only those entities that supply VOIP services as a standalone service, but also for entities that supply VOIP services as part of other services, such as gaming or e-commerce. Nonetheless, there has been a gradual relaxation of the rules over time, with various services being unblocked, most recently Facetime. No announcements accompany such unblocking: it simply happens.

ii Universal service

The UAE has been building a state-of-the-art communications network since the mid 1980s, and currently has one of the highest fibre to the home ratios in the world (95 per cent). It regularly ranks highly in terms of mobile speeds and fixed broadband speeds.

iii Privacy and data security

Privacy and defamation are established under the Penal Code and the CCL, and because of that, citizens tend to take action by approaching the relevant police department and seeking its assistance. This means that the decision as to whether action is taken tends to fall to the police prosecutor rather than an alleged victim.

Private cases are rare, as they would, on the whole, require proof of damage, and in a jurisdiction where only direct and provable damage will be awarded (that is, no punitive damages or consequential loss are available to claimants), cases such as these tend not to proceed in the civil courts.

While at the time of writing, the United Arab Emirates has no universal law covering the area of data protection, this is expected to alter very shortly, as a new law has been announced, but not yet published. There are two free zones that have developed their own systems, and it is anticipated that the new federal law will look similar to that found in these two systems. In addition, there are specific laws relating to protection of healthcare data, and for the finance sector.

There are also provisions of general application in relation to the processing and transfer of personal data, specifically Articles 379 and 380 bis of the UAE Penal Code, which prohibit the wrongful or unlawful disclosure of a secret, information or data in the course of business or professional activities.

Spectrum policy

i Development

The latest version of the spectrum allocation plan was issued at the end of 2020. In October 2021, the TRDA sought public opinion on spectrum allocation in certain frequency bands, mostly those in the international mobile telecommunications sector 'in light of the increasing demand for innovative wireless services such as 5G and WiFi6e, with the aim of facilitating obtaining the appropriate spectrum resources for wireless networks, maintaining sustainable and continuous growth and developing the use of new wireless services'.2

ii Flexible spectrum use

The spectrum allocation plan is applied consistently, and it is reviewed every few years.

iii Broadband and next-generation services spectrum use

As noted above, the UAE has been forward-thinking in building a modern, fast and accessible broadband network. This, coupled with the TDRA's review of the regulatory regime and spectrum allocation, means that the needs of businesses and users alike are met.

The rollout of 5G is well underway, with both major providers, Etisalat and du, speeding up its rollout to consumers. We do not envisage other providers being licensed to provide any of these services.

iv Spectrum auctions and fees

Spectrum attracts fees for usage. We are not aware of any plans to auction spectrum or move payment for usage to users.

Media

i Regulation of media distribution generally

The UAE has an extensive content regulatory environment, with varying degrees of control for various types of content; red flag issues include criticisms of the state, negativity towards the Islam or Abrahamic religions and pornography.

Freedom of speech and the right to information are protected by the UAE Constitution; however, exercising such rights must not contradict or violate other laws.

The UAE allows all speech except that which is prohibited under the content laws set out above. Basically, all speech must:

  1. respect God, Islamic beliefs, heavenly or monotheistic religions, prophets and messengers;
  2. respect the ruling regime in the state along with its symbols, organisations and interests;
  3. respect the cultural heritage, civilisation and national identity of the state;
  4. refrain from publishing anything that could be offensive to national unity or that could incite hatred or acts of terrorism;
  5. respect the policies adopted by the state;
  6. refrain from offending common social values;
  7. refrain from offending the economic, judicial and security system;
  8. refrain from publishing misleading or biased news and rumours;
  9. avoid offending children and women or any other group in society;
  10. respect privacy rules and the personal life of individuals;
  11. respect all rights, including intellectual property rights;
  12. refrain from publishing or circulating any content that could induce the committing of crimes;
  13. avoid material violating public morals; and
  14. refrain from publishing false news.

In addition, there is a specific law that prohibits hate speech: Federal Decree by Law No. 2 of 2015 on Combatting Discrimination and Hatred. This Law has been much discussed but remains largely untested in the courts. It specifically punishes hate crimes and discrimination with penalties including imprisonment (from six months to 15 years) and fines of between 50,000 and 2 million UAE dirhams.

These regulations are tech-agnostic; they apply across all media. There are no concessions for new entities.

ii Internet-delivered video content

This is not applicable in this jurisdiction.

The year in review

The announcement of a formal data regime will create both a lot of work and a lot of satisfaction for consumers in the UAE. With laws being introduced into more of the UAE's neighbouring countries, many larger players had already moved to a more 'compliance' data management system, but we know that smaller companies will need to have a close look at their previously unregulated activities in this regard.

Expo 2020 has provided the media and entertainment industry with a shot in the arm, with many local suppliers involved in, inter alia, providing music, videos, event logistics, marketing and special effects. This should sustain the industry for the next six months, only slowing down as the global market increases activity and settles into the post-pandemic world.

Conclusions and outlook

From a production perspective, the global appetite for foreign content should auger well for local production. The UAE is consolidating itself behind the Abu Dhabi rebate,3 and the Yas Creative Hub should see foreign companies eyeing the country with new enthusiasm.

We also feel that the music industry in at a tipping point, moving to a more professional environment and hopefully sending revenue down the chain to creators and labels intent on developing many local talents.

Finally, the big play will be gaming: we expect to see more tournaments and local teams, and much greater development of local content. At the moment the focus is on mobile gaming apps, but this will develop inevitably as developers set their sights on bigger ideas. The way the region deals with regulations in this industry will be incredibly important to its development, and we are watching this space with interest.

Footnotes

1 Fiona Robertson is a partner at Cedar White Bradley.

2 Eng Tariq al Awadhi, Executive Director of Spectrum Affairs, TDRA, in the press release announcing the consultation.

3 An incentive scheme that provides a refund of up to 30 per cent of Abu Dhabi qualifying production expenditure to companies producing part, or post-producing all, of a production in Abu Dhabi.

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