For all the black-tie bacchanalia and glitzy galas, it is Diff's main competition which forms the central focus around which all other activities take place.

The Muhr Awards for Excellence in Arab Cinema were introduced in 2006 as a way of drawing international attention to Arab film-makers (a 'muhr' is a young Arabian horse). "Arab cinema is programmed into the DNA of this festival," says chairman Abdulhamid Juma, "and will always strive to be the window for all quality Arab film. That is the niche we have carved for ourselves."

The competition awards up to $50,000 each to winners across categories including best feature, short film, documentary, actor, actress, script and cinematography, with winners chosen by a prestigious international jury. The inaugural jury (composed of industry figures from the Arab world, the US, Asia and Europe) honoured submissions from Palestine, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen and Lebanon.

Festival artistic director Masoud Amralla Al Ali says: "There have always been quality films from the Arab world but they have never before been exposed to the international community in this way. Last year, across the three categories, we had some 420 entrants. This year, the numbers are even better."

For its 2008 edition, Diff has introduced a new category, the Muhr Asia/Africa Awards, to honour film-makers from outside the Arab region.

"Being at a crossroads between Asia, Africa and beyond, we're in a perfect position to showcase cinema from both Asia and Africa," says Ali. "We feel this award embodies the cosmopolitan nature of our festival, as well as Dubai's diversity. Furthermore, some of the film communities within the remit of our new competition operate under extreme duress. Particularly in developing countries, artists need help and recognition to continue their craft. We have given Arab cinema a platform, and now, with the introduction of this new category, we hope to do the same for cinema from Asia and Africa."

For Ali, the awards are a prime example of Diff's mission statement - 'bridging cultures, meeting minds' - in action. "Since 9/11, I feel like we have been living in a dark age of cultural misunderstanding between Arabs and the West. Here is the perfect opportunity for people to come together and see how other people live. Even when politics fails, culture can be a bridge. For a long time, people have been manipulated by TV news and harmful portrayals of Arabs on film. Now, through that same medium, we have the perfect opportunity to change the stereotype."