Neil Stephenson, the man who developed the concept of the Dubai Film Festival as an attempt to bridge cultures in the turmoil of the post 9-11 world, talks to James Debono about his ongoing battle against his former employers, TECOM in Dubai
It could almost be the plot of one of the Dubai Film Festival’s movies: the lone, disgruntled former employee who turns his guns onto the giant multinational corporation which had hired, nurtured and – in his view, at any rate – eventually betrayed him. But this is reality, not fiction… and the ending is nowhere yet in sight.
TECOM may be better known in Malta for its involvement in the SmartCity project in Ricasoli. In truth, however, the Lm100 million local investment is only a tiny fraction of the Gulf telecommunication giant’s international portfolio.
Former CNN Time Warner executive Neil Stephenson is still smarting from the wounds of his own bitter experience with another TECOM investment: the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF), of which he was chief executive officer until last year.
Back in December 2001, Stephenson was flying from London to Dubai on holiday and as he sat on his Emirates flight, he was struck by a newspaper article with a headline: “Pope John Paul II calls for tolerance to be legacy of 9-11 attacks”.
“At that very moment an idea came in my mind: wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a film festival in cosmopolitan Dubai where Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims and non-Muslims, would come together to watch films and share their love of cinema and to build cultural bridges between them?”
Following his return to Atlanta where he worked at CNN Time Warner, Stephenson, who had previous experience working at the Toronto film festival, began to work on his project in his free time. In July 2002, he presented his idea to one of the sheiks in Dubai
“I presented my concept of a film festival as a cultural bridge; that of bringing cultures together to discuss issues and get to know each other.”
The sheik liked the idea. They met again in September and December 2002 for more meetings and discussions.
“The project was approved and I was then asked to go and work full time in Dubai.”
Stephenson originally planned to work directly with the sheik. But when they learned that TECOM was starting another separate festival, they had to change their plans.
TECOM was at that time working on a commercial festival with a completely different concept from that developed by Stephenson – a festival of Bollywood and Hollywood films which was for profit. The man behind the project was Abdulhamid Juma who at that time served as CEO of Dubai Media City. Juma, along with his manager Leila Alami, had hired Mahmud Sipra to run the new festival.
“The concept was completely different from mine. When they realised that there were two festivals, they decided to try to put them together and I was asked to oversee the effective merger of these two festivals and to work for TECOM.”
Stephenson viewed the proposal with some hesitation but agreed to start working for TECOM as a compromise to solve the two-festival problem. Attempts to merge the two festivals failed. Stephenson was then left alone to launch the festival.
“Starting this festival was the biggest challenge of my life because we had to start this festival from scratch. I proceeded to hire a large team of skilled and reputable people and put the festival on a sound footing.”
He claims that the people hired by Juma and Alami did not have any background in cinema and lacked credibility.
“Using my contacts, I brought all the best people in the world. We formed a really A-list team of professionals. I brought many sponsors on board for the festival and worked hard to put all the necessary pieces in place.”
From June 2003 to December 2004, Stephenson worked hard to launch the first festival which turned out to be a very big success.
“Among our guests, we had Desmond Tutu, Orlando Bloom, Morgan Freeman as well as many Arab stars. Everyone was satisfied.”
The second festival in 2005 was another big hit, attracting Adel Imam, Albert Brooks and Sumner Redstone, the chairman of media giant Viacom.
Yet, despite his success, Stephenson was forced to quit after he finished work on the third festival.
“My plan was to stay for five to six years as I wanted to hand the festival over to a local person. I was going to step down as I knew that was the right thing to do for the country… for Dubai.”
Stephenson claims that things started going for the worse as soon as Abdulhamid Juma returned as TECOM’s Deputy Director General. Juma had left TECOM shortly after the first festival and then went to another Dubai government job only to be rehired by TECOM as Deputy General Director and Chairman of DIFF in 2006.
“Unfortunately Juma never supported me because he had another festival in mind – the Bollywood Hollywood festival. When my concept was approved and took off and his festival was abandoned, he took offence and always bore a grudge.”
Stephenson claims that when Juma came back to TECOM he wanted to take over his job and push him aside. Stephenson wanted to leave immediately.
“I wanted to resign. But I was asked by people whom I respect in Dubai not to resign in order not to harm the festival, I decided to stay on the understanding that I would leave after the festival and that Juma and TECOM would treat me fairly and with dignity after negotiations in good faith. TECOM promised to negotiate with me after the festival was over.”
The former CEO of the Dubai Film Festival wanted two basic things from TECOM.
“I wanted a fair financial settlement for all my efforts for the previous five years in conceptualising, planning and developing the successful festival and also some form of recognition for my founding role in creating the festival. This could have simply been an honorary emeritus title and an invitation every year to the festival.”
TECOM refused to negotiate with Stephenson despite their earlier promise and offered him the equivalent of two months’ salary and absolutely no recognition.
“I said no thank you. When I did not accept their offer, they just terminated my contract, and I received nothing. I said that I was going to hire a lawyer and speak out freely about what happened to me.”
In order to clear his reputation and tell his side of the story, Stephenson organised a press conference in Egypt’s capital Cairo – a centre for Arab culture and media.
“I held a press conference to tell the truth. Juma became very angry and hired a PR company in Cairo to send out false information about me. They said horrible things about me including that I was a racist and an Arab hater.”
Despite his bitter experience with Juma and TECOM Stephenson still loves Dubai.
“It will be unfair for me to say that Dubai is a bad place because of the actions of one or two people who acted very disgracefully. I have many Arab friends there. It is a very interesting and wonderful country.”
But Stephenson would now like the entire world to know about his experience with Juma and how he was cheated.
“I feel that I was not treated properly by the Deputy Director General of TECOM. For him to put out something so vicious and low, to say that I am a racist and that I hate Arabs…it is really disgusting. However, I will continue to fight for justice and for compensation for all my contributions to TECOM.”
Contacted by MaltaToday, a spokesperson for Tecom’s Dubai International Film Festival declared that Tecom honoured its contractual obligations towards Stephenson.
“Talks on the termination of Stephenson’s contract had been in progress for several months prior to DIFF 2006 due to misalignment between DIFF’s vision and. Stephenson’s personal objectives, style of management and leadership.” According to TECOM the decision to move forward with a new management had the full support and approval of the DIFF board.
He also expressed his regret that Stephenson has launched a “malicious campaign” against the DIFF Chairman, Abdulhamid Juma, by conducting press conferences in Egypt and other countries.
“DIFF helped Stephenson establish himself in an industry new to him, and his attitude towards an organisation that nurtured him is in itself a clear indication of the reasons we felt it best to end our relationship with him.”
Asked why Stephenson’s demand for fair financial settlement was denied, TECOM insists that it adheres strictly to Dubai Technology and Media Free Zone Authority’s (TECOM) employment terms and the Labour Law for the Private Sector in the UAE, which stipulate respectful and fair treatment of all employees in the workplace.
“The Authority has honoured Stephenson’s contract to the letter with regard to compensation, benefits and terms of severance. He was offered an additional severance amount over and above his contract for his contribution to the festival, which he declined requesting a far greater amount against professional norms.”
TECOM also denies that Stephenson played a founding role in the festival, insisting that he was employed after the idea had been conceptualised by TECOM.
He points out that DIFF was announced by Dubai Media City in Feb 2003 with . Abdulhamid Juma as its CEO. According to TECOM the first meeting between DIFF and Stephenson took place in April 2003 leading to his subsequent hiring as festival director.”
“While acknowledging Stephenson’s contribution to DIFF. It is important to remember, however, that DIFF is a tremendous team effort, and no single individual can claim responsibility for its success.”
TECOM firmly denies Stephenson’s claim that it had hired a public relations firm in Cairo to discredit his reputation.
“It is very surprising that someone employed by an organization for four years would not be aware of its operational ethics and values.”
According to TECOM, press reports in Cairo that Stephenson “hates Arabs” were opinions expressed by the individuals and did not originate with either TECOM or DIFF management.