The ruling sheiks cannot stop the global economic crisis from intruding on their lofty dreams.

They can, however, try to keep it off the front pages.

A draft media law could give authorities wider powers to regulate increasingly gloomy economic reporting after years of basking in coverage of hyper-growth and glitterati just as dazzling and gossip-worthy as Hollywood's.

Dubai is the Middle East's business and entertainment capital, home of the world's tallest tower and a flashy archipelago of man-made islands.

The final version of the media rules still requires presidential approval, but journalist groups have made pre-emptive strikes _ accusing officials of trying to muzzle the press and force news outlets to become part of the country's image-building machine.

Government officials insist the draft law is in "no way a response" to the economic turmoil and work on it began during the boom times two years ago.

"It's merely a coincidence that the legislation has reached the stage of review ... when our economy, like that of every country, is facing complex problems," said Ibrahim al-Abed, the director of the National Media Council. He said the proposed law will not affect the foreign media.

But that hasn't quieted journalists' concerns. In their view, it's another glimpse at the friction that occurs when the Emirates' experiments in Western-style openness _ led by cosmopolitan Dubai _ butts against the Gulf traditions in which high-level decisions are rarely questioned.

"Dubai has an economic threat going on," said Timothy Walters, head of the journalism and mass communications department at the American University of Sharjah. "When a society feels threatened, people who manage it try to regulate the media because they know media has the power to change."

Nearly all Mideast countries pose challenges for local coverage of sensitive topics, such as the rulers' private lives or political dissent.

For years, the Emirates crafted a good image. Money was flowing. Each new building seemed more indulgent than the last.

But as the downturn hit, stories shifted to canceled projects and layoffs. Officials were put in the unaccustomed role of denying reports that Dubai's population was shrinking as jobless foreigners left.

The draft media law, passed by national lawmakers in January, can impose fines up to about $136,000 for "carrying misleading news that harms the national economy" and for "deliberately publishing false news."

It also includes fines of about $272,000 for "insulting" members of the ruling elite.

"The new law has no reference to imprisonment," al-Abed said. He said it protects reporters against revealing their sources and obligates ministries to disclose information.

It is not known if the law will be approved by the UAE's president, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

The proposed law has sent a chill through some local media, which have typically avoided stories that could anger ruling officials.

"We reject this law," said Mohammed Yousef, the director of the UAE Journalists Association, saying journalists were puzzled by the vague wording of offenses such as "false news" and misleading information on the economy.

"You could interpret every news item as misleading ... particularly since the economic indicators are unpredictable," Yousef said.

But some Emirati journalists favor the law, saying it protects their industry.

"It's not to stop bad news," said Abdullatif al-Sayegh, who heads the Arab Media Group, a Dubai-based media conglomerate. It is to prevent journalists "digging for bad news," he said.

A front-page commentary last week in the Sharjah-based Al Khaleej newspaper _ owned by an influential family with close ties to the rulers _ complained about the "tone of exaggeration and panic" in the international and Arab media coverage of the Emirates' economic stumbles.

"It is derived either from ignorance ... or it suggests the existence of a malicious campaign whose masterminds are trying to make use of the current situation to undermine" the country, the paper said.

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