Today the Middle East, tomorrow the world

The Arab Media Group launch two papers tomorrow. But MD Abdullatif Al Saygeh tells Tim Burrowes, that’s just for starters

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By  Tim Burrowes Published  September 18, 2005

Today the Middle East, tomorrow the world|~|al-saygeh200.jpg|~|Al Saygeh…‘I want to see myself sitting in New York in two years from now. I want us to have an office in New York’|~|Football fan Abdullatif Al Saygeh is talking enthusiastically about his fondness for the beautiful game. “I love to play as a midfielder — to be at the heart of the team, linking the defence to the rest of the team.” Actually, it quickly becomes apparent that he talks about everything enthusiastically. But his love of a roving midfield role is appropriate for a man leading a team of 1500 on a major undertaking. And as we chat in a meeting room so new that it still smells faintly of its fresh coat of magnolia paint, it’s clear that he’s already looking beyond the imminent launch of his two new newspapers. “Within the next six months we’re going to reach the capacity of this market and the only way to expand things is to move outside,” he says. “ The dream is to build a media empire and be a big player in the international market. New York, London, Paris, Tokyo. “I want to see myself sitting in New York in two years from now. I want us to have an office in New York. I want to have a newspaper in London. We want to be in Tokyo; we want to be in China.” Not that many people will have heard of the Arab Media Group just yet. It’s the newly branded parent company of the Dubai Radio Network, whose portfolio includes pop station Dubai 92, talk station Dubai Eye, Arabic channel Dubai 93.9 and Asian station Awaaz. And it also has under its wings the Arabian Radio Network channels City 1016, Al Arabiya, Al Khaleejiya and Hit 967. There is also an outdoor arm, an events arm and plans for online and magazines. But, more to the point, is the fact that the group has the money behind it to grow through acquisitions as well as launches, both in the region and further afield. He says: “The investment is available. We don’t mind spending, even if it gets up to hundreds of millions of dollars. We’re still going to invest. We could be talking billions, if the opportunities are there. “We want to move outside the UAE and we want to build projects all around the world.” At just 32, Al Saygeh is very much the Emirati role model. Hard working — he regularly works weekends and 16-hour days — and self deprecating — he tells how during his career as a football commentator he got the teams the wrong way round for the entire first half — he is also known to have the ear of Dubai leader Sheikh Mohammed. Much of his early hands-on experience of media came at Tampa University in the US, where he majored in communications. And after he returned to the UAE he got a job presenting on Dubai 93.9FM before making the transition to television and, eventually, on to Dubai Sports Channel. Soon he was a familiar face to the Arabic audience. And then came what was to be a decisive career moment. He had decided to study film-making at UCLA back in the USA. He says: “I was that close to packing up and leaving when I received a phone call from a shareholder starting a new radio station. “I went the next day and I sat with him for five minutes exactly. He told me the train is going fast and I’ve got to jump on. I asked him how long I had to decide. It was noon. He told me I had until four o’clock. My family said I was crazy but I decided to make the move.” He helped launch Al Arabiya for what was to become the Arabic Radio Network. “Then I was asked to take over Dubai Radio Network, so we took over Dubai radio stations and called it DRN and that was another success, and we turned it round in four months and added two new channels. But the dream did not stop.” Which is what we’re talking about today. “If we do something, we want to be big and that’s why we decided to go for two licences at the same time. We’re going to go for a big bang from day one. “It has been seven months of really hard work. We did contact some consultants before we started, to see how long it should take. Each one told us we needed at least a year-and-a-half to two years.” Finding a base for the 140-strong launch team was a battle too. At one stage they were set to do it from a vast tent in the grounds of Dubai Media City. Fortunately, at the last moment, they found old warehouses in the Al Quoz industrial area of Dubai and converted them. However, his very closeness to Dubai’s leadership is what doubters believe will prevent his papers from being challenging enough. They fear that when stories reflect poorly upon Dubai, the papers will sanitise events. “A lot of people think we are connected to Dubai Holding,” says Al Saygeh. “We are not connected to Dubai Holding. We are for everyone. Anyone in Dubai will respect us.” So will the newspapers be free to criticise when those in authority get it wrong? “I would say definitely if there was a mistake by someone we will attack him and go after him and make sure he won’t repeat it. But we are going to do that in a reasonable way — get his explanation. “I’m told by Sheikh Mohammed: ‘Be responsible, be as aggressive as you want to be, just don’t run after rubbish’. What we are going to do is give readers the news they cannot get elsewhere, give them views and analysis. What they are going to see is completely different.” And his print ambitions go beyond newspapers. “We also want to get into magazines. I will be very frank. We are going to spend time and money to ensure the quality. We feel there is a market for good products.” He identifies consumer, business and contract publishing as all being areas where there are opportunities. This would not necessarily be a welcome challenge for the larger established players, including Motivate and Campaign Middle East’s owner ITP. But Al Saygeh claims there is room for everyone. He says: “A lot of people think that a group like us wants to take over this market. That’s not true — we want to help everyone else. “The two leading companies, ITP and Motivate, I want their market share to be bigger. They’ve done an excellent job in bringing international names into this market and I want to be a support and help to these companies. We have to think as a region. I would like to have some form of alliance with the correct group.” So, if he could, would he buy them? “Absolutely. We are very open.” His management ethos is also less painfully macho than is the cliché for the region. He admits: “I often wake three or four times in the night and stay awake just thinking. It’s not that I’m worried, but I never get a chance to think in the office because there is always something to do. Just revisiting, building strategy. Being responsible for 1500 people is not easy. They are in your hands.” So why the rush to launch everything at once? “ We started everything at the same time because of the opportunity overseas. First we have to have a strong base here in Dubai in order to make that work. The base is almost done and now we are nearly ready to go overseas and we will be more than ready to move outside.” And what of those who believe that the Western media behemoths already have everything sewn up? “There is always a space. The world is changing. It all depends on how you see things. You are a loser if you think the deal is already done. In two years we are going to be leading this region. In five years we are going to be well known in the world.”||**||

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