Dubai's Media Censorship Fuels 'Double Standard' It Denounces

The 'Envy of the West' Is Going Through Its Own Financial Turmoil -- and Is Squelching Its Press

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When last we heard from Obaid Humaid Al Tayer, at least in these pages, he was lecturing a group of international advertising executives about the evils of Western thinking.

In what was supposed to be a nice, friendly welcoming speech in his role as president of the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Al Tayer instead scolded delegates attending the International Advertising Association conference.

The gist of his message was that the West didn't understand or appreciate the Arab world. Mr. Al Tayer especially objected to what he saw as Western demands that Arabs "replicate Western ways."

I remember that Mr. Al Tayer drew applause (the IAA confab was in 2006) when he said that the Western media have created an image of an Arab as "womanizer, greedy, corrupt, lazy, illiterate, rich, anti-Semitic and male chauvinist." He asked whether the West "has something against Arab people."

Mr. Al Tayer is a man of many interests; in addition to his chamber of commerce position, he is managing director of the company that publishes the English-language Gulf News, which lately has been trying to sugarcoat the recent economic problems in Dubai (more on that later). He is also a partner and editor in chief of Motivate Publishing, a big magazine and book publisher in the region (and which put out the IAA conference daily, with his speech splashed all over the front page).

His talk also included criticism of the U.S. press. He said we have one of the "least free" media environments. "It's closed to others," Mr. Al Tayer said, "but they keep lecturing about freedom of speech. It's a double standard." He added that Arabs will address "the democracy question in our own good time; not something forced on us."

And he couldn't resist getting in a pitch for how Dubai "is the envy of the West." He urged Arabs to "have the courage to say yes and learn from Dubai."

That was then and this is now. Dubai in recent months was forced to turn to fellow United Arab Emirates country Abu Dhabi for a $10 billion "bailout" -- a word Mr. Al Tayer has forbidden in the Gulf News.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, reporters for the Gulf News were also urged to avoid the phrase "debt crisis" and asked to "ensure the following politically correct terminology is used" -- such as "financial consolidation" and "fiscal support" -- when writing about the deal with Abu Dhabi.

"This is a style guide," the editor at large of Gulf News told The Journal. "We're trying to restrict people from using financially incorrect terms."

Dubai's finance chief has blamed the media for spreading "blind panic" about Dubai's financial jam. (Back in 2006, I posted the following dispatch on AdAge.com: "They say that 25% of the world's cranes are here in Dubai, helping to erect high-rise after high-rise in the most spectacular orgy of building I've ever seen. I was just one more Crain trying to figure out who would live and work in all those buildings." I'm still wondering.)

News Corp., which publishes The Journal through Dow Jones, has been involved in a Dubai dust-up with its papers there, the Sunday Times and The Times. The Sunday Times was ordered off shelves on Nov. 29 after the newspaper carried a spread illustrating Dubai's ruler sinking in a sea of debt. The Times was censored for a story that described the Dubai ruler as a "benign dictator."

I got the feeling back in 2006 that things go smoothly in Dubai if you play by their rules. Mr. Al Tayer was angry that the West views Arabs in a stereotypical way, but he does the same thing to us. And even then he admitted that "time is running out for the region, and changes so far are neither fast enough nor big enough."

But hiding behind "politically correct" financial terms that have the effect of denying reality won't help bring the changes Mr. Al Tayer thinks are so necessary.

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