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When You Didn’t See What You’ve Seen

October 10th, 2016 · 1 Comment · Abu Dhabi, Dubai, The National

Going back to the Abu Dhabi days here.

In the UAE, daily English-language journalism is, 95 percent of the time, not dissimilar from English-language journalism in the U.S. or Britain. Timely, fact-based, well-sourced.

But then there is that 5 percent when things get a bit squirrely, and you didn’t really see what you saw — at least for purposes of publication.

The conversation, here in the south of France, went something like this.

“Did you know Dubai has an opera house?”

“What? No, it doesn’t.”

“Yes, it does, and it must be new. We would not have missed an opera house in Dubai for six years, would we?”

“Well, no.”

We did miss the opera house. Because, apparently, no media was allowed to talk about it until the government was ready.

This is at least the second incident of The National being told “you can’t write about that big, expensive building you saw being constructed” since 2009.

The first?

The huge stadium going up in Al Ain, the city about 100 miles east of Abu Dhabi.

I spotted it on a drive to the city in 2013. I drove around it a time or two. I went into the parking lot. I got out and stared. And it had to be a stadium. A big, impressive-looking thing.

My first thought was, “Nobody has written this yet! Seems impossible, but …” But we could be first!

I checked with a co-worker who lived in Al Ain. He said, yes, he had seen the building going on at the site and figured it pretty much had to be a stadium.

And it was. The soccer club in Al Ain had been talking about a new stadium for a few years, but we had not heard one word from them about where it was and how it was progressing — or even that ground had been broken.

So, I assigned the story to a veteran sports reporter, who has been in the country for two decades, and half an hour later he called and said: “No one can write about the stadium.”

I said, of course: “What?”

“The authorities have not publicized the Al Ain stadium yet, and we cannot write about it until they announce it.”

This is when working for a government-owned newspaper becomes relevant. If the government says you can’t write what you saw …

I took the story to a senior editor and explained the situation. “We know it’s there. Everyone in Al Ain must know it’s there. Every soccer club in the country must know about this. Can’t we write this?”

The answer was … “No.”

In May of 2013, the authorities got around to acknowledging the sprawling stadium (capacity, 22,700) on a prominent corner in the Al Jimi neighborhood of Al Ain. Via the official Twitter account of Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, actually.

Sheikh Mohammed jumped straight to what the stadium would be called: Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Stadium. Named after his brother.

This revelation came only five months before the first matches were to be played in the new stadium, officials said.

The next day, we ran a photo gallery on construction at the new stadium, and from that point forward we could write about it as much as we wanted.

The first match there was on January 14.

The country this year had another instance of “you’re not seeing what you see” in:re the Dubai Opera house.

It is possible that artistic types in Dubai knew what use was intended for the grand and glassy building going up near the Burj Khalifa … but English language media were not writing about.

Construction began in 2013, but the first mention of the Dubai Opera in The National was on March 28, this year: A time-lapse/under-construction video certainly approved by Dubai officials.

This must have required an even greater “we can’t write this yet” across the journalism spectrum, and for most of three years, because the opera house is in a very prominent place — as opposed to the Al Ain stadium, which ultimately is in a suburban city most visitors to the UAE never see.

Anyway, again, media were allowed to write their hearts out, once that first announcement was made, and the Dubai Opera now has something like 700 mentions on The National website.

The opera house opened on August 31 of this year — or barely five months since its existence was acknowledged — with Placido Domingo performing. (And this is what the building looks like from the stage, minus people, of course.)

And the arts crowd loved the building, which seats around 2,000 and does, in fact, fill a void in the UAE, as well as Dubai. It is the first opera house in the country.

Why, then, this apparent preference for secrecy, as buildings go up?

Part of it must be institutional. A previous editor of the newspaper described it with words something like this: “Nothing in this country is news until the government says it is.” You can be right there with the government story, but you can’t be ahead of it.

Part of it may be “in case something goes wrong, because sometimes we run out of money for this or that” … we never promised you anything.

Part of it may be a notion of a surprise. “You wondered what was going on at that building site … and now we will tell you!”

That sort of announcement does lead to a stampede of coverage.

There are limits to this, of course. The Burj Khalifa being the most prominent example.

Even if the government of Dubai might have liked to have a “big reveal” a few months before it opened, the building was already up in the clouds. Hard to hide a 2,722-foot structure that is the tallest in the world.

It is possible that right this minute another major something or other is going up in the UAE. And no one has written about it.


1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Gene // Oct 11, 2016 at 8:31 PM

    Even happens in the US—but not in the newspaper business I hope. Fifteen years ago or so I was the lead lawyer on a new and innovative financial product. Did the deal, got lots of publicity and the next morning an unnamed federal agency called and told me to show up at their general counsel’s office with my client that afternoon. When we arrived they said we had violated an unpublished rule of the agency, but because we had no way of knowing they couldn’t do anything about our violation and the deal we had done was fine. But we were now on notice and could never do it again AND neither we nor our client were to tell anyone why we would not do a similar deal for them.

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