The regional touch

A look back at Executive’s overseas adventure

From September 2009, Executive started producing two issues per month

The story of Executive’s first 200 issues would be incomplete without the regional angle. While the magazine was conceived with a clear focus on the economic development of its home country, the fortunes of the Lebanese are entwined with many host countries. The notion of expanding into a regional business publication was compelled by relational, journalistic and market rationales.

In relational terms, the long-standing presence of Lebanese in Arab countries made it a natural objective that the magazine would cover the stories of these expatriates, represent their concerns and at the same time provide them with analyses of the business stories that mattered at home.

In journalistic terms, the region offered far wider hunting grounds to capture exciting corporate tales than an ambitious business writer could uncover in Lebanon – plus, from an angle of development journalism the region was, and still is, thirsting for quality media to the point of total dehydration.   

Covering a boomtown

From the market’s perspective, finally, the undeniable truth is that Lebanon is but a tiny sliver of the regional landscape. Target audiences of anglophone business leaders and academics, institutions offering business curricula in English, commercial and advertising opportunities, and just the plain size of Arab economies in the Levant, the Maghreb and the Gulf region represented greater potential than Lebanon in every direction that no alert publisher would overlook.

There also was the lure of Dubai as the new regional business hub. When Executive was founded, Dubai was still a locale with very limited attractions. The transportation and hospitality infrastructures were unimpressive, sand was the dominant element as soon as one ventured out of town and in terms of business temptations, it was a one-tradeshow town where the technology fair Gitex was the single event of note.   

But, with then-Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum announcing the Dubai Internet City project at the 1999 Gitex on a one-year development agenda, Dubai became a Klondike on the Creek. With its free zone, high rises and mega-mall projects, it entered the third millennium as a boomtown with a dynamism which the Middle East might not have seen since those medieval days when Baghdad and Damascus were top centers of culture and science, more advanced than Paris and London.

With the increaseing prescence, our way of independent yet passionately pro-local business writing started to draw attention

As Dubai soared, it became the automatic target for opening a second editorial base of Executive. So from November 2006, the magazine first added more stories from around the region and then, from September 2009, went two-track, producing two editions per month under a common issue number with partly distinct, partly shared content lineups. Regional stories were initially covered by Beirut-based writers and several freelancers. Executive opened its Dubai office and dynamic staff member Soraya Darghous moved there from Beirut as bureau chief to build contacts and arrange for coverage opportunities. A Lebanese-owned media agency on Sheikh Zayed Road represented our advertising interests in the Gulf Cooperation Council and from 2011 journalistic work was coordinated on the ground by yours truly. 

Slow growth, home and away

With the increasing presence, our way of independent yet passionately pro-local business writing started to draw attention. Some advertisers wanted to communicate their messages into the high-end niche we serve. Magazine sales at newsstands showed healthy increases in percent, although from low counts. And the Dubai bureau chief’s efforts resulted in some exclusive coverage projects where our brand of journalism could prove itself. 

This is not to imply that the market was easy. Editorial efficiencies still needed a way to grow, selling ads was bone-crunching work and the two-track production at an unchanged headcount put extra strains on the magazine’s staff. Also, Dubai was not everyone’s darling in the editorial ranks back in Beirut. Some team members felt no affinity whatsoever to the emirate’s Simcity aspects; others felt outright antipathy because of unhappy work experiences in the boomtown. 

But in the end it was the tie-in with Lebanon’s fortunes that forced Executive to refocus on the core coverage market and put the GCC edition into suspension in February 2013. Lack of growth in the economy and slowing growth of advertising revenues in the home market meant that funds became tighter and tighter. We learned that leveraging our approach into new markets is intrinsically linked to our ability to splice passion for these markets into our editorial DNA. All reasons for realizing a greater regional reach for our publication remain valid and the changes and non-changes of the past three years underscore the need for journalism that can help in contributing towards equitable business growth. For the moment, we need all our efforts focused on attending to the unsolved problems of the Lebanese economy. While repetitive and not in sight of any solution, they demand as much attention as a patient in the emergency room. 

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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