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We should empower regional creative content industries to take center stage

Fans cheer for Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf, Gazan winner of the Arab Idol talent competition, in The Hague. (AFP file)
Fans cheer for Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf, Gazan winner of the Arab Idol talent competition, in The Hague. (AFP file)
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06 Aug 2023 05:08:11 GMT9
06 Aug 2023 05:08:11 GMT9

Creative-content industries are experiencing an unprecedented boom worldwide. With an ever-expanding and riveting repository of content to choose from, whittling down a list in which to immerse oneself is no easy task.

Yet, with this influx comes the joy of stumbling upon those serendipitous examples of creative works that shine as outlets for entertainment, education, and cultural expression. As such, it is vital that the Arab region devises its own ambitious vision for directing promising artistic expressions and contemporary social narratives toward content-centric productions.

Creativity is key to producing the streams of content that fuel film and television, music, publishing, gaming, performing arts, and knowledge information industries. From an economic viewpoint, these industries can generate substantial revenues in economies that are seeking to diversify, create job opportunities for local talent, attract tourists from fan-centric communities, and capitalize on the enormous potential for exports to global markets.

They can also play an influential role in representing regional cultural heritage, raising awareness about important issues, and inspiring positive personal change. Many governments have taken action to capitalize on this creative wave. South Korea and Japan in particular serve as useful examples of eminent creative powerhouses.

South Korean creative content continues to garner global appeal and accolades, so much so that the video-streaming company Netflix recently announced a $2.5 billion investment in films and television shows from the country over the next four years.

In recent years, several South Korean productions have topped streaming charts and three of them appear on Netflix’s list of the 10 most-watched TV shows not in the English language: “Squid Game,” “The Glory” and “Extraordinary Attorney Woo.” Meanwhile, the South Korean film “Parasite” made history at the 2020 Oscars by becoming the first non-English-language film to win the prestigious Best Picture award.

A recent report published by the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism highlights the value of the creative-content industry’s successes. In 2021, total revenues reached a whopping $107 billion, with an average annual growth rate of 4.9 percent between 2016 and 2020. Exports rose to $12.45 billion.

About 109,000 businesses are active in the South Korean creative-content industries, employing 611,000 people. A mix of official policies that support the creation, financing, production, distribution and overseas expansion of creative content have been credited for this success, along with investment in cutting-edge technologies and training for promising emerging talent.

The Japanese creative-content industry has gained immense popularity over the years, domestically and internationally, thanks to its innovative and distinctive style and a devoted fan base. At the forefront of this we have anime (animation), manga (comics), video games, music, films and TV shows, which contribute significantly to the national economy, backed by numerous strategic policies, programs and events.

For example, CoFesta, the Japan International Contents Festival, showcases the best of Japanese gaming, anime, manga, music, film and fashion. The Cool Japan Fund, a public-private partnership founded in 2013, promotes unique products and services that reflect the Japanese lifestyle and culture, and showcase the talent and imagination that fuels the country’s creative-content industries.

In 2022, the Japanese government launched a research project to explore the roles content creators can play in Web 3.0 and the metaverse.

The Middle East and North Africa region similarly has a rich historical and cultural heritage from which to draw creative inspiration, and in recent years many Arab countries have provided growing support for a variety of artistic endeavors and creative platforms. Take, for example, the strategic investments by Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea Film Fund and a $38 billion investment in the gaming industry, or the establishment of the Emirates Literature Foundation. 

Arab talents have the potential to be at the forefront of creative content, if they receive sufficient support to bring their artistic visions to life.

Sara Al-Mulla

Considering the clear momentum in these sectors, Arab governments should calibrate their interventions to focus on helping them develop and thrive. Establishing a dedicated agency that can take the lead in developing the creative-content industry would be a wise decision, as it could focus on ensuring a robust sector while also monitoring key trends and performance statistics. The introduction of a suite of sector-specific funds, grants and incentives could help ease the financial constraints that could hamper the development of high-quality content, and allow talent to focus on the creative process.

It is also important to invest in world-class studios, incubators of talent, innovative digital technologies, and co-working spaces. At the same time, governments should aim to provide universal broadband coverage to ensure as many people as possible have adequate access to regional digital content. Regulations need to be strengthened to safeguard intellectual property rights, and to ensure fair pay, reasonable working hours and occupational safety.

Perhaps the most important investment in this regard is in the development of creative talents in various roles so that they can lead successful commercial projects. A focus on the integration of arts education from the early-years stages in schools and, later, in universities and vocational schools, is fundamental for cultivating the interests, knowledge and skills required to work and succeed in the creative sectors.

Special attention should be paid to nurturing “soft skills” such as imagination, curiosity, conceptualization, emotional intelligence, tolerance, storytelling and teamwork, which can spark boundless creativity and pave the way for authenticity. It is also important that talent scouts are strategically placed in institutions to identify promising talent.

Meanwhile, government agencies can play an influential role in positioning and exporting locally produced creative content, presenting its unique voice on the global stage and widening audiences.

Moreover, cross-cultural exchange programs for students and professionals can help to unleash their wild imaginations and encourage them to explore new perspectives, by fostering the creation of collaborative networks and the representation of diverse voices.

In the same vein, the staging of festivals, book fairs, trade shows and other relevant events that showcase the work of the creative-content industries is important for creating networking opportunities among stakeholders.

Arab talents have the potential to be at the forefront of creative content, if they receive sufficient support in bringing their artistic visions to life. Given the many many exciting developments in the sector, and seemingly inexhaustible demand, it is increasingly important for Arab governments to consider ways to ensure that they can become leading global hubs for the creative-content industries.

• Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature. She can be contacted at

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