An ill-advised car commercial attracted negative publicity in the UAE recently, leading to the dissolution of the board of a local football club. The incident, widely reported in local media, highlighted the importance of adopting processes for clearing advertising content from both a local law perspective and a local cultural perspective.

In summary, the TVC showed a well-known local sports team singing the national anthem in a stadium before a game. Part way through the song, the music comes to an abrupt halt, and the players run off the field and out of the stadium to drive off in the sponsor's vehicles. This was considered to denigrate the national anthem, and caused a significant storm on social media channels.

There are several key laws, resolutions and regulations relating to content and advertising in the UAE. These create a complex landscape with a commonality in themes. Local law advice would have enabled the agency responsible to conclude that there were serious risks in producing and airing a commercial that denigrated national symbols, such as the flag and the national anthem.

The primary source of regulation for commercials is contained within the National Media Council ("NMC") Resolution on the Standards of the Media Advertisements Content. The NMC Resolution determines the standards and controls placed onto advertising content that is published in various print, audio and visual media in the UAE, including on-line. Relevant to the present matter are prohibitions on content that disrespects the symbols and the cultural heritage of the UAE, and the state's efforts to enhance national identity, as well as content that fails to comply with the conditions and controls related to the flag, national emblem and national anthem.

The relevant penalties for non-compliance with the NMC Resolution or the Publishing Law would vary on a case by case basis, depending on the degree of the breach and the basis for any action taken in respect of such breach, with the decision as to whether to proceed resting with the NMC itself. At one end of the scale, there could be an invitation to explain, or a warning, through to a temporary closure of premises or cancellation of a trade licence, through to significant financial penalties and possibly imprisonment.

The UAE criminal laws, including the UAE Penal Code and the UAE Cybercrimes Law, also set out specific provisions relevant to this type of activity. For example, Penal Code provides that anyone who publicly insults the flag or the national emblem of the State, shall be punished by detention. The Cybercrimes Law provides that the on-line publication of information for harming the reputation, dignity or status of the State, any of its institutions, leaders, flag, anthem, slogan or symbols, shall be punished by temporary imprisonment and a fine of up to an amount of about USD365,000.

We regularly assist clients by providing an on-the-ground risk assessment, and in light of this recent case we cannot emphasise enough the importance of taking this approach if you are going to run commercials in this region. Issues such as the denigration of the national anthem are just a sample of the types of inappropriate content issues that advertisers need to consider when planning their advertisements for the Middle East.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.