Middle East As Venue Gets Praise, Criticism

For the past 65 years, film festivals and television markets have been held in such glamorous corners of the world as Venice, Italy; Cannes, France; Antalya, Turkey and Los Angeles, California, as well as other market spots such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Singapore and Monte Carlo. These days, however, it seems like film and TV event organizers are looking to conquer new ground with their entertainment-themed conferences by holding them in some of the globe’s newest centers of commerce, such as Africa and the Middle East — more specifically, Senegal, Africa and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Josh Elbaum
Josh Elbaum

But while Senegal — which, like the UAE, is a predominantly Muslim region — is garnering accolades for markets such as DISCOP Africa, other locales such as South Africa, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are being griped about by some members of the Dallas, Texas-based Meeting Professionals International (MPI), an organization for meetings and events professionals. The concern is over the perception of unfair treatment of women and Jews, and the local government stances on Israel. South Africa, on the other hand is being criticized for its support of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, who is known to employ terror tactics.

Recently, MPI came under fire for its decision to move forward with programs in the Middle East, including the Gulf Meetings and Events Conference (GMEC), which will be held March 28-29, 2009 in Abu Dhabi in the UAE, and the Global Certificate in Meeting Operations (GCMO), which took place in Qatar in November.

Didier Scaillet, vice president of Global Development at MPI, said that he has not been able to reconcile attendees’ actual, positive experiences in the region with the fearful comments of a minority that has never visited the area. Scaillet acknowledged that while there are certainly concerns about operating meetings in the Middle East, it all depends on where such an event is happening. “We’re very cautious about where we go,” he said. “The UAE is one thing. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are something else entirely.” These are regions that MPI will avoid due to alleged overt prejudice against women and Jews. “There’s a huge amount of misperception about the Middle East,” said Scaillet. “It’s an extremely diverse place with different religions and different levels of tolerance.” Scaillet also insisted that Israel is always in the running as a possible MPI event venue.

While Scaillet was somewhat surprised by the level of outrage at MPI’s decision to hold conventions in the Middle East, he said that it was a necessary move for a company expanding from a North American-centric firm to a global contender, and maintained that the Gulf region is poised for growth. Scaillet also contended that while a handful of individuals have expressed concern about the Middle Eastern venues, it hasn’t been enough to warrant an organized response from MPI. Plus, he added, “It’s really a matter of respect. Same way if you go to the Vatican, you don’t go in half naked, be respectful here. In certain periods of the year, namely Ramadan, don’t eat in the streets. It’s respect, no more no less.”

Regardless of many misperceptions that may revolve around the region, it still seems ripe for occupation by Hollywood-types. “The Middle East, now almost synonymous with the Arab world, is a huge media market of over 250 million people with well over 200 television channels,” said Josh Elbaum, managing director of Los Angeles-based Media Investment Group, a financial and strategic advisory firm that provides services to the global media and entertainment industries, and who has extensive knowledge of the Middle East region. Explained Elbaum: “It’s also crucial to understand that this market is a young one — about two-thirds of the population is 25 years or younger. Geographically, it’s vast. Culturally, it’s diverse with significant differences in customs, speech and traditions.” Elbaum went on to note that the entire region shares an appreciation for good storytelling, making it a great place for creators of film and television.

However, many would-be Middle East market attendees allege that if you’re the wrong kind of person — namely a Jew, a woman or a homosexual — you may be denied entry into a number of Middle East countries or if allowed in, treated like a second-class citizen

 “I did not encounter any specific difficulties from either a logistics standpoint or the government,” commented David Tomatis, an organizer of Monte Carlo-based SPORTEL, which held one of its sports programming markets in Dubai in 2004. “I didn’t see any difference between that event and the events we organize in Monaco or Asia.” Tomatis said he was unaware of any specific restrictions or the mistreatment of females, Jews or anyone with an Israeli stamp on his or her passport, contending, “there are rules and regulations in a number of countries around the world — not just the Middle East.” However, he did acknowledge that there seemed to be more “security policies within the U.S. companies themselves, which I believe were linked to insurance issues.”

While SPORTEL has yet to schedule another event in Dubai, Tomatis was optimistic that it could happen again. “We determine the venue of the market based on the results of a regular survey taken by our participants.” Right now, said participants seem to prefer a regular rotation between North America and Asia. Regardless, said Tomatis: “Our Dubai event was a success, with strong participation from many countries, including the U.S. As a SPORTEL organizer, it would not be a problem to organize another event in Dubai or elsewhere in the Middle East. Today, our main obstacle in Dubai is financial. Hotel rates and cost for rental space is very high because of strong demand, which proves that everyone is going to that part of the world.”

Elbaum concurred with Tomatis that business is booming in the Middle East, but was somewhat less emphatic about the positive aspects of attending events there. “An Israeli stamp precludes entry into Lebanon,” he said. “I’ve also heard it tends to invite questions from the authorities elsewhere. Similarly, Arab stamps will ensure questions from Israeli authorities.”

For years, Elbaum has spent a large chunk of time in places such as Beirut, Amman and Marrakech, attending entertainment festivals such as MEIFF (Middle East International Film Festival), which was held in Abu Dhabi in late October. “I make four-to-six visits annually,” he said. When asked if he, a man with an overtly Semitic-sounding name, has ever encountered the problems that face Jews and women in entering certain Gulf region countries, Elbaum said: “None that I’ve experienced,” before going on to say that he completely understands the reason that market organizers have opted for Middle Eastern venues. LHR.