What do two businessmen, a filmmaker, a group of ex-accountants and a game developer all have in common?

Christine is a journalist from South Africa, who has lived and worked in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, covering everything from hard news to art to business & tech. Having been bitten by the travel bug as an infant, Christine finds it fairly easy to uproot herself in search of new adventures and stories. With degrees in both fine arts and journalism, she’s equally interested in visual storytelling as well as the written word. Having been part of three launch teams of three different media startups in her lifetime, she’s intimately familiar with what it takes to get a publication off the ground.

Neither Hani Ghaith nor Husni Khuffash considers himself artistic by any stretch of the imagination. It was, in fact, their unshakable enthusiasm for comic books that first brought these two businessmen together in a venture to foster the creation of original Arabic content.

Operating out of Egypt, their creative hub and flagship magazine, Magnoon, seeks to connect illustrators, designers and writers from the Arab world, to create
high-quality storytelling projects that they hope will be both pathbreaking and profit-making. The platform has attracted a slew of Arab talent, engaging in a variety of projects around the region. But it has only scratched the surface.

“Is it easy? No.” says Ghaith. “The industry is almost invisible. Getting artists interested in such projects is difficult, because most of them are looking for jobs in advertising and media, which they feel is the only way to monetize their creative activities. Over the last year, we have managed to get a lot of people on board. And because of our completed projects, we have been able to afford to get even more people on board. This is how we plan to expand our portfolio.”

The pair know that they are on to something here.

At events like the Middle East Comic and Film Conference (Comic Con), they were very quickly sold out of all of their magazines—even to non-Arabic-speaking customers. “There is a huge hunger for this type of content. People were even offering to buy our work that was not for sale,” says Ghaith, indicating the traction they are getting.”

“Growing the creative industry at a grassroots level is important because firstly there is a ready and waiting audience,” says Khuffash, “Yes, there are established media hubs producing quality content, but it is still very flat and commercial. It lacks innovation and the sincere storytelling that can only come from a home-grown, grassroots level.”

“Contrary to popular belief, the creative industry has a lot of money in it, but how it’s distributed is based on global, one-size-fits-all, commercial standards, and is not tailored to this region,” Ghaith adds.

There are many obstacles facing young  people in the region in their quest to startup on their own, and among them, are the creative ones, who face a few more than others. Despite this, if you speak to anyone in the design or media industry in the region today, you’d notice that they’re all singing the same tune as Ghaith and Khuffash—that the market is growing but there are gaps.

Creative collaboration

According to a report by Strategy&, the one thing that will have a positive impact on the regional media sector, besides increasing consumer spending and advertising, is the change in literacy rates. Another element is the adoption of technology—the digital economy is currently booming, with e-commerce and gaming being the major drivers.

“These changes give regional players an opportunity to reset their business models and explore investments in high-quality local content, and offer global players in particular a reason to reevaluate their presence in the region. With improved sector economics and an emerging talent base, the MENA region merits a fresh look,” the report says.

As the UAE’s first female game developer, Fakhra Al Mansouri agrees that the industry really does need a major overhaul. “I had the hardest time setting up my own studio,” she says, “It’s no surprise that investors are reluctant to provide us with funding, when even the licencing authorities had trouble understanding what kind of commercial licence to issue me with!”

After trying to convince the authorities that gaming is indeed a real industry, they eventually issued her with an IT licence to operate under.

Al Mansouri works a full-time day job in order to fund her game business; HybridHumans, a small studio based in Abu Dhabi that has produced two successful mobile games. “We are hoping to move into video games and virtual reality going forward,” she says.

In a similar boat are a recently formed Dubai-based creative collective, Supermeeps—a trio consisting of two former accountants and a graphic designer. Leilani Coughlan, (the graphic designer), has been working as an illustrator on her own steam since 2011, but in 2015, convinced Mansi Parmar (accountant-turned-artist) and Rushdi Rafeek (accountant-turned-writer/comedian) to collaborate on a project for Comic Con.

After what was a successful run, they decided to officially collaborate under a unified creative brand.

But even so, all three maintained a day job, understandably too, given that the payoffs for creative workers in this market can be too little, too infrequent.

Since then, Rafeek did take the leap and gave up his day job either gigging around Dubai. “It’s really difficult, but he’s hoping for the opportunities to grow,” says Coughlan, who is still working full-time.

“I love accounting, and I like the structure of a day job,” says Parmar who is working part-time, “but I have a real passion for arts and crafts. There is potential to take it to a professional level, if one is given the right circumstances.”

“This creative collective gives us an way to keep up our creative work under a unified vision. Instead of floating around on our own, doing bits here and there. It would be nice to have a purpose. Eventually, we would like to have exhibitions of our own work and be commissioned as a kind of unit to do different things,” says Coughlan.

Setting the scene

Besides the obvious lack of capital on both a funding level as well as an income-generating one, one of the biggest hurdles resident and expat creatives alike struggle to clear is a general lack of platforms showcasing their talent.

Also, as the majority of consumable creative activities are still largely western imports, local talent ends up waiting in the wings. However, with a growing number of students coming out of local art institutes and creative educational programs, the need for these community platforms has only increased.

On the film front, Lebanese-born, New York-based filmmaker Darine Hotait spends most of her time travelling the Middle East and Africa in search of stories to tell. Having recently released her new independent film I Say Dust, she says the problem the Arab world faces, in addition to a lack of platforms, is marketing and distribution.

“Most distributors prefer to show American or Hollywood movies. They attract more attention and make more money. To the distributor, putting out an Arab film is risky, because there’s not enough money that goes into marketing,” she explains.

“But there is an audience for Arab films! There is more awareness now for Arab films and other Arab creative fields, than ever before. People in the region are definitely looking for something that speaks more to them, than the average American film,” she adds

Investing in the creative industry is imperative, Hotait says. “This is what’s going to remain in years to come – the culture and the arts. Second, it develops the youth. The young need to express themselves, they need to tell their story, and be recognised for what they’ve been through. And art and film are a way to do that.”

But do investors think so? It is hard to tell, but with the noticeable lack of declared investments in creative businesses in this region, you would wager that the creative industry will be bootstrapping for some time to come.

With hope that a growing market size will finally attract the gaze of a new generation of investors, willing to take the risk of developing local talent—and by extension the region’s culture, heritage and value in the world.