The UAE and the British media

The planned takeover of Telegraph Media Group & The Spectator by UAE backed Redbird IMI has caused a stir in the British media in recent months.

The notion of a major media outlet being purchased in-part by the UAE, who have a poor record on press freedom, has raised questions over Emirati influence, impartiality and editorial independence.

Redbird IMI, a consortium of Redbird Capital, an American investment management firm, and International Media Investments (IMI) of Abu Dhabi, outflanked rival bidders by agreeing to repay the debts of the original owners (the Barclay family) in a £1.2bn ‘debt for equity’ deal.

IMI, headed by UAE vice-president and Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is funding approximately 75% of the £600m purchase, with Redbird staking 25%.

The takeover was halted in November when the Culture Secretary, Lucy Frazer, issued a Public Interest Intervention Notice (PIIN) to Redbird IMI, triggering investigations by the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) and Ofcom.

Redbird IMI tried to restructure their acquisition, using RB Investico ltd, a company wholly owned by Redbird IMI, for the takeover.

A further PIIN was issued to RB Investico ltd in January.

The headquarters of Telegraph Media Group (TMG) London
Tom Parnell, Daily Telegraph BuildingCCSA2.0

Frazer cited concerns over foreign state influence and censorship, given the UAE’s domestic interdict on criticism of the government/royal families, and imprisonment of their critics.

It’s important to note that IMI is an extension of the UAE state.

A source who was a journalist in Abu Dhabi described to me the censorship reporters work under.

Any criticism of the government, their work, and their perspective is banned. Criticism of foreign states friendly with the UAE, including China, Russia and India is banned too.

The source said: “Everything in Abu Dhabi, everything in the United Arab Emirates, is at least in part state owned.

“The state, with all its power, influence, and oversight, is enmeshed in every aspect of its citizens’ – and its visitors’ – life.”

This is evident in the blackout of reporting on migrant worker conditions in the region.

There are few stories about governmental failure or embarrassment.

Public interest is different when viewed through the prism of a tribal autocracy that values social cohesion and national reputation above pretty much everything else.

Freedom of speech isn’t enshrined in law and there are no democratically elected officials with a debt of accountability to their electorate.

The ruler of Dubai, and Prime Minister of the UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, inflicted “exorbitant” domestic abuse upon his ex-wife, Princess Haya, according to Sir Andrew McFarlane, England’s most senior family court judge.

Details of their divorce, custody battle and the Sheikh’s treatment of his wives[sic], go unreported in the UAE.

The source continued: “There is no freedom of speech, no freedom to remain within the country, no freedom of movement.

“I was told ‘just drop it’ when trying to cover a story that reflected poorly on a UAE ally…stories were dropped for political reasons.

“We were told that issues like domestic violence, sexual assault and drug abuse ‘didn’t exist’ in the UAE…you couldn’t report on them.”

They continued: “After I left, the [title they worked for] was taken over by IMI.

“I heard from friends and former colleagues that things got worse.

“Where before you could report on tough subjects, as long as it reflected well on the UAE, now they are dismissed out of hand.”

This shows that IMI is not a more lenient, westernised organisation.

It’s as censorious as any predecessor.

Western journalists in the UAE are afforded some protection from their passports.

Should they overstep the mark, they are deported.

UAE nationals are not so fortunate; there are countless examples of bloggers and tweeters being sentenced to years in jail for criticising the powers that be. Others are simply detained incommunicado.

The laws allowing this are guised as protecting national unity and social cohesion.

They are exercised ruthlessly and often, meaning journalists who know what’s best for them choose to self-censor.

UAE GDP 1990-2022, US$billions. World BankCC-BY 4.0

Is a state that uses these tactics to instil fear and obedience really fit to own The Telegraph?   

Ownership of the British press is dominated by a small number of wealthy individuals, including Lord Rothermere and Rupert Murdoch.

They can exert editorial influence and push political agendas.

But crucially, they understand press freedom; they grew up with it, profited from it, and advocate for it.

Rival outlets can disagree with their perspective; they understand that a democratic system is strengthened by journalists working without fear or favour.

The Emirati rulers have never had press freedom. It’s as alien to them as gender equality or gay rights. Theirs is a government incapable of being held to account.

The chief executive of IMI, Rani Raad, claims that UAE ownership would lead to unrivalled investment, in a sector that is more accustomed to job losses and spending cuts.

He cited 8,000 redundancies in journalism throughout the UK, Canada and the US last year, and claims that the UAE can reverse the tide.

Fellow proponents of the IMI takeover argue that Britain has already sold much to the Middle East, so what difference will a few papers make?

Saudi Arabia own Newcastle United and Sheffield United football clubs.

The Ritz is owned by Qatar, the Savoy by Saudi Arabia.

The UAE own Manchester City FC, and swathes of property in Mayfair, Kensington and Knightsbridge, postcodes outwith the reach of most Londoners, pushed further by the influx of Middle Eastern cash.

Just 4 of the UAE’s properties in Mayfair. Their portfolio is worth over £5bn in total.

This isn’t a defence for allowing the British media to be purchased too.

Pervasive foreign ownership of national institutions shouldn’t excuse the sale of more institutions.

It should make us question the status quo; London has consumed Dirhams and Riyals like smarties, to the detriment of its inhabitants.

Homes lie empty, now owned by wealthy foreign speculators, predominately from Russia, China and the Gulf.

These foreign investors soon graduated to buying Hotels and Premier League football clubs.

 Tony Hisgett, The Ritz (owned by Qatar) – CC BY 2.0 

The UAE have been a considerable part of this corporate raiding.

It would be wrong to condemn foreign investment, and its large contribution to the UK economy.

But the step into media is more questionable.

The UAE is making the step.

They’ve purchased All3Media, the UK’s largest independent TV production group, for £1.15bn.

Now they’re trying to expand into historic papers and magazines like The Telegraph and The Spectator.

Are they really investing in media?

Does a prudent ‘investment’ involve outbidding your competitors as prodigiously as they have?

It’s obvious that All3Media and Telegraph Media Group are worth considerably more to the Emiratis than anyone else.

It’s worth more because it buys them influence. Influence that can only harm a free press and a liberal democracy.

International Media Investments were approached for comment but did not respond. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport did not respond for comment.

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