ABU DHABI - Unlike previous installments of the American space saga, the crew of "Star Wars: Episode VII"did not fly to Tunisia last month to start filming. They went to Abu Dhabi.
With many countries in the region facing political turmoil in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings, the woman in charge of the United Arab Emirates's media hub says filming there is seen as a safe option. "At a time when other regional centres are reducing their activities, Abu Dhabi is picking up and saying it's important to have that kind of funding behind Arab talent," Noura al-Kaabi, chief executive officer of twofour54, the commercial arm of Abu Dhabi's Media Zone Authority, told Reuters. "It's benefitting Abu Dhabi but also it is helping Arab culture," she added.
In the past year, the capital of the United Arab Emirates has attracted a host of foreign movies including Sony Pictures Entertainment's "Deliver us from Evil", Universal Pictures'"Fast & Furious 7" and the Bollywood feature film "Bang Bang"from Fox Star Studios.
This is despite Abu Dhabi being a newcomer to the industry in a region where Egypt, dubbed the "Hollywood of the Middle East", has more than a century of film-making history and, if not there, foreign producers often chose the deserts of North Africa over the Gulf to shoot movies.
Founded in 2008, the media hub provides a range of services including training, supporting UAE nationals and Arabs in the field and a host of production and post-production facilities.
Twofour54 is also the main force behind the Abu Dhabi Film Commission which is in charge of luring foreign film productions to the capital, the main incentive being a 30 per cent rebate. Twofour54 intaj, the media hub's production services company, facilitates work inside the emirate after deals are struck.
The rebate scheme offers movie producers 30 per cent back off everything they spend during their time in Abu Dhabi, from production costs to accommodation.
Still, Kaabi argues it is not just the rebate that closes deals, rather it's the whole package. "It's about how you facilitate the whole process," Kaabi said. "All other Abu Dhabi entities are supporting us from the municipality to the tourism and culture authority, they are all with us and see the importance of the process and how it benefits Abu Dhabi." Abu Dhabi is just three hours away from Mumbai, an added benefit to Bollywood productions. "It is as if they are flying within India itself, so it makes sense," Kaabi said.
But it's not just Hollywood and Bollywood that are going to Abu Dhabi, which is increasingly being viewed as a safe haven for neighbouring Arab production houses, including from Syria, torn by a three-year-long civil war. "We've had two Syrian production houses move here and we are also in talks with Syrian directors and production entities to help more with Arabic television dramas," Kaabi said.
Clacket Media, one of two Syrian production houses that have made Abu Dhabi their new home, has cast Arab stars from Egypt, Syria, Algeria and Lebanon in its series "Al Ikhwa" (the Siblings), airing on several pan-Arab satellite channels.
While Kaabi praises the technology behind "Al Ikhwa's" production with its "crisp and beautiful" images, some criticism directed at the portrayal of Arab expatriate life in the capital as ripe with adultery and alcohol raises questions on what plots are acceptable in the conservative Gulf.
Kaabi said scripts of foreign films are reviewed prior to granting approval to make sure they are in line with local culture and do not contain political content that might be deemed offensive. "We have a religion and a culture that we need to respect but that's never a disabler," Kaabi said. "Star Wars wasn't screened prior to approval though, there's nothing too political about it," she said.