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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Dubai’s Radio: A quiet revolution (of sorts) for openness and change

Walking down the old port in Dubai, one still sees remnants of the former Emirates: a slice of the Arabian Gulf coast, a sleepy settlement of palm-fronted wind-towered houses, and Bedouin encampments – its few thousand inhabitants mostly subsisting on fishing and the pearl-diving trade. But since the 1980s, Dubai has morphed into a modern capital of hotels and high rises, fulfilling the economic vision of UAE’s (United Arab Emirates) ambitious late founding president, Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahayan.

The UAE is a loose federation of seven city-states, or Emirates, each run semi-autonomously by its own ruling family. Dubai is the flashiest of all seven Emirates, well-known to be culturally and politically progressive when compared to its Middle Eastern neighbors. Today, Dubai boasts the world’s tallest building, Burj Dubai (which remains under construction), is home to the world’s largest man-made island which houses hotels, resorts, and theme parks, and a place where major media and financial companies come to do business with the region.

The ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Makhtoun, inherited what he considered was a fairly boring place and since has focused on transforming it into an international hub – a Hong Kong or New York on the Arabian Gulf – so that even without the oil fields like its cousin Abu Dhabi next door, Dubai can be one of the world’s great cities.

Some dismiss the Xanadu-style changes as a mere tourist development in which art, history, and regional identity are reduced to marketing commodities. But those who view it as an exercise in global branding or a feel-good story about an Arab country willing to embrace the values of Western modernity are missing the point. Underneath the veneer, there is a quiet revolution taking place.

James Piecowye opens the door to the radio station, DubaiEye 103.8 FM, part of Arabian Radio Network — which is also one of the largest media conglomerates in the Middle East and owned by the ruling family of Dubai. The station appears to be a sleek but modest operation. His show, “Nightline,” broadcast nightly, is creating a benchmark in this part of the world.

Piecowye, who is Canadian and has a doctorate in Communication from the University of Montreal, arrived in UAE ten years back to teach at Zayed University, an all-women’s college for Emirati women.

“I got into radio by chance and tenacity,” he says when we meet for coffee the day after I appear on his show to discuss journalism ethics. “When I first started listening to English radio here, it was a wasteland. Except for the usual, classic rock, pop, and top 40 music, there was nothing else on air.” Piecowye, who grew up listening to CBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio, which has a rich history of independent news and programming, wanted to try the CBC experiment in Dubai. “What I wanted to try was a current events show, in between music or the news of the day, from a more intellectual perspective,” says Piecowye.

Piecowye, who did not have any experience in radio before arriving in Dubai and acknowledges that he received “on the job training on how to host a talk show”, has been hosting Nightline for three years; his selection of guests and topics have been broad: ministers, scholars, and professors, discussing sanitation, traffic, environmental problems, education, and migration.

Radio and, in particular Talk Radio, is a new format in Dubai. Prior to 1971, there was no locally operated radio in the region; residents had to depend on programming from BBC, Radio America, and signals from nearby Lebanon and Jordan. Because of the newness of the format, a lot of the style and content is imported; stations also lack reliable methods of collecting ratings and demographic information about listeners.

“There is an education process going on here, as more people like me get on radio, there is more exposure to how radio can foster a dialogue,” says Piecowye. By its very nature, being highly interactive, talk radio is changing people’s perceptions. Unlike in the West, talk shows in Dubai don’t have a seven seconds delay, people instantly appear on-air and they can use SMS (instant messaging), cell phones, and email to contact hosts and guests. 

But, as elsewhere in the Middle East, changes in UAE, and in Dubai, are slow to come. While one hears incessant economic success stories, from cab-drivers to residents, Dubai has historically never welcomed the sort of journalism that one finds in the West and other democratic countries. It’s a thirty-seven-year-old absolute monarchy with a dismal record on human rights. In 2008, Reporters Without Borders ranked UAE sixty-ninth in the world when it comes to press freedom. In principle, the UAE’s constitution guarantees a free press. However, the National Media Law, which is currently under revision, restricts journalists from crossing a number of poorly-defined red lines, the most important being that the reputation of the country cannot be tarnished. There is no criticism of the government, the ruling families of any of the emirates, and the governments of neighboring Arab countries.

The government exerts considerable influence over media and telecommunication services including telephone and internet; incoming internet sites are closely monitored by the service providers and sites which are pornographic or discuss homosexuality are excluded. Voice-over-internet protocol telephone services such as Skype are illegal, newspapers are federally licensed and there is virtually no news broadcast on radio and one nightly news broadcast, Emirates News, on Dubai One TV.

“There is a definite resistance from the government and the bureaucracy to use the medium of radio,” says Piecowye. It is a new experience for people in UAE to have the kind of open ended discussions that listeners and guests are accustomed to in United States and in Canada. Sometimes Piecowye has been asked to submit questions beforehand, especially if the guest is a high government official. “There is no media culture here that one can ambush or attack guests on the show,” Piecowye observes.  

While topics like drugs, prostitution, dating, abortion, stem-cell research, homosexuality, and religion are often off-limits, Piecowye has found a unique way of addressing them. “All these exist in UAE but instead of stating, for instance, that there is a drug problem, the more subtle way of approaching the subject would be to invite to the show the head of the narcotics department, as I have done, and let him talk freely about what the government is doing about drugs,” says Piecowye.

More than 80% residents of Dubai are non-Emirati citizens from countries of South Asia and Africa. For years, UAE has been able to build so much so quickly by luring hundreds of thousands of South-Asian workers, many of whom pay large amounts of money to middle-men for arranging jobs, with the promise of good wages. 

However, when the workers arrive, they find the reality of their situation quite different from what they were led to believe. Many are forced to toil in the desert heat for long hours. They’re housed in squalid camps and paid a fraction of the wages they were promised. The plight of these workers became an international news story in 2006 when Human Rights Watch issued a report alleging the death of hundreds of migrant laborers every year in UAE.

The National, based in Abu Dhabi and considered one of the most reliable English newspaper and independent voice in UAE, has done series of news reports about the conditions in labor camps and about labor laws. These stories have been both lauded and criticized.

“We just can’t cover labor camps like The National can,” says Piecowye. “The reality is that, at the end of the day, you have to buy the newspaper, whereas you can just turn on the radio. It is much more accessible as a medium. There is still a belief that the spoken word has the ability to influence people and a lot more responsibility is placed on us.” 

Besides English talk radio, there is the parallel development of Arabic talk radio. The sister stations of Arabian Radio Network, Al Arabiya and Al Khaleejiya, broadcast several Arabic talk shows. It appears that the Arabic media has more leeway when it comes to questioning ministers and governments since their primary listeners are citizens of UAE, whereas the English media mostly cater to the expatriate community.

Radio in UAE continues to be commercially centralized and primarily based in Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi. Piewcowye believes true change will come with the establishment of local community radio, mostly in AM, to link the other Emirates like Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, and Fujairah and make it possible for UAE to develop a defined national identity.

“Change is coming,” says Piecowye. “All of what makes for democracy, all elements of democratic institutions are in place. There is a President, a Prime Minister, a Senate, with more radio, TV, and now internet. Changes will happen but it will be a slow process and it will take time.”

SHAKUNTATO RAO is Professor of Communication at State University of New York, Plattsburgh, USA. She was a visiting lecturer at Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas and at La Universidad del Zulia in Maracaibo in November 2008. In June 2009, she presented a paper titled, “Understanding Local and Global in Global Media Ethics” at the Global Studies Conference held at Zayed University in Dubai, June 2009. She also appeared on “Dubai’s Nightlight” radio program to discuss global journalism ethics.

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