DUBAI — The most important part of a film studio is the gate. Take Paramount Pictures’ iconic double arches on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles — you need a grand entrance to mark the place where the real world ends and the dream worlds begin. So, I am not surprised when I enter Studio City in Dubai through two fake broadcasting towers separating us from the desert outside.
The idea behind the project was to transform Dubai into a film and television capital. Two sound stages built to the best global standards — among the largest in the world — and water tanks for underwater filming stand ready to welcome blockbuster productions. Moby Group occupies two buildings in Studio City. I have to cross the bridge connecting them before I am introduced to the group founder, Saad Mohseni.
It would be difficult to think of anyone else whose life has merged so perfectly with the greatest social and political forces of our time. The son of an exiled Afghan diplomat, Mohseni started his career managing investment portfolios in Australia before moving to London to oversee fixed income and derivatives trading. After the fall of the Taliban, he flew with a brother to Kabul, where they heard that radio licenses were being auctioned. Putting together their meager savings, the brothers started the first privately held radio station in Afghanistan.
Two years later, they opened their first television channel — Tolo — whose impact on life in Afghanistan can hardly be exaggerated. Suddenly, women and men were presenting the nightly news together, and soap operas from India and Turkey crossed every imaginable red line. Mohseni became a prime target for the Taliban and had to move around Kabul with heavy security. Some of Tolo’s journalists have been deliberately murdered, one on Monday in an attack by the Islamic State in Kabul. In 2008, the minister for information and culture told Mohseni that his way of making money harms society and he needs to take his shows off the air. Mohseni refused — but made sure that Tolo digitally pixilated bare shoulders and cleavage.
Since then, Moby has not stopped growing. When I visited Mohseni in his Dubai office, the screens on the wall were tuned to his channels in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, and Moby is also a growing name in India. The plans for the immediate future include Uzbekistan and a number of African countries. Moby has been specializing in drawing unexpected links, turning Indian shows into a success in Afghanistan or making Ethiopians fall in love with Turkish soap operas. The new global cultural center is no longer London or Los Angeles — it’s everywhere.
This is the arena in which the most exciting battles in world politics are being waged. China has just launched a new global film production hub, a sprawling studio complex in the northern port city of Qingdao that will cost an estimated $8 billion. When the project was first announced five years ago, it was meant as a commercial venture aimed at attracting investment from the big Hollywood studios, but political tensions and a looming trade war have turned that logic on its head.
Suddenly the new studio complex is being presented as a rival to Hollywood. A string of recent Chinese action movies such as “Wolf Warrior” and “Operation Red Sea” were massive box office hits, emboldening China’s ambition to challenge the United States in what until recently seemed its most inexpugnable fortress: the global entertainment landscape. China looks at what India was able to achieve with Bollywood — modern India’s great success story — and thinks it can surpass it.
For most of the twentieth century, we lived in a world where cultures all over the globe were revolutionized under the impact of the American entertainment industry. The influence of movies and television has certainly not slowed down, but it now flows in both directions or rather in all directions, all the time.
Mohseni has an uncanny ability to know what different cultures think and feel, where their soft spots are and what should not be attempted. He would make a great general in the coming global culture wars. How do different cultures clash? How do you introduce new experiences and ideas into a given culture? How do you break the hold of tradition? What kind of external influences can take root and what cannot? How can a country successfully export its culture worldwide?
Sitting at Moby’s helm, Mohseni might have a certain reputation for propagating Western culture, but his premise is simpler than that. He knows that the world is moving, that every culture is changing, but whither he does not know. “Western civilization has come to an end,” he tells me as a conversation opener. “This whole nativism we are seeing all over the world, societies want to be unique, individual — people want to shake things up, gives them a sense of excitement.”
“Still, you are a revolutionary,” I tell him. “You want to change societies. It will not do to tell me you are just running a business. The business is about changing cultures and societies. You sell ideas. If all you have to sell are ideas people already have, well, they won’t buy them from you. And if you sell them new ideas, their minds and their lives will never be the same again.”
Mohseni waves his arms: “We are very agnostic in terms of what ideas we take from where. And I am not sure if the changes we bring about are positive or negative. We are confident in the things we do, but not confident the impact is positive. What improvement means is different everywhere.”
The point, of course, is to change a given culture in unexpected directions, so Moby always starts from what is already there, in some cases introducing small and subtle changes or giving a new form to old traditions. The secret is to be a modernizer — to embrace cultural change — without believing in any single model or ideology.
As Mohseni tells me, Afghanistan was always a mishmash of different cultures and civilizations, the center of the old Silk Road. “The difference is that this mishmash used to be created by traders over a thousand years. Now it happens instantaneously. Everything is on speed now. I have no idea where we are going, but it will happen quickly. Media is the new Silk Road.”