Reorienting through rebranding: Hollywood film production in the UAE as post-oil investment and soft power

By Dale Hudson
Submitted to Session P5236 (The Politics of Art and Culture in the Gulf and Beyond, 2018 Annual Meeting
Media Arts
Gulf Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
An understudied effect of the Plan Abu Dhabi 2030 for a post-oil economy is investment in media production infrastructure and generous tax incentives for foreign film production in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Like neighboring Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the UAE also funds programs to educate youth on the importance of media literacy and skill in producing their own stories, and it finances features films by Emirati filmmakers, including Nawaf Al Janahi’s _Sea Shadow_ (2011), Ali F. Mostafa’s _From A to B_ (2014), and Majid Al Ansari’s _Zinzana_ (2015)—all of which are distributed in commercial DVD and streaming platforms. No other Gulf state has produced so many films, including Kuwait and Bahrain which have had much older film cultures.

Unlike other Gulf states, the UAE also encourages foreigners to tell their stories in UAE. Hollywood films increasingly include Dubai and Abu Dhabi as part of their stories. _Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol_ (2011) and _Geostorm_ (2017) are set partly in Dubai. _Contagion_ (2011) makes explicit reference to Abu Dhabi, and _Furious Seven_ (2015) is partly set there. Much like taxi placards in New York and advertisements on CNN International, the films promote the UAE as western- and business-friendly like New York, London, Mumbai, Tokyo, and Singapore. With the wider distribution, these Hollywood films promote a rebranding of the Middle East through a reorienting of discourse from terrorism to tourism, from desert bedouins to urban cosmopolitans, and religious fundamentalism to neoliberal capitalism.

A politics of film develops in a political economies of media through the construction of state-of-the-art production facilities and generous tax incentives to attract foreign film production and thus promote the UAE as business-friendly. The state simultaneously supports aspiring and emerging Emirati filmmakers and encourages their professional development through mentoring opportunities and workshops with foreign film professionals. This politics of film also develops through an element of discernment in the kinds of cinematic images of the UAE that foreigners can produce, thus marking a contrast from the sensationalizing orientalism of Hollywood films produced from the 1960s to the 1990s in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and, most egregiously, Israel. Cinematic representations frame the UAE as sharing common goals with western powers in defeating terrorism and promoting free trade, thus obfuscating complicity with western military and financial exploitation.