When Dubai won the bid to host Expo 2020 in November 2013, celebratory fireworks lit up the Burj Khalifa and Dubai’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed al-Maktoum, waved the UAE flag from the top of the tower. It was a moment of pride: the first time that a World Exposition would be held in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia region.
In a statement at that time, UAE Vice President, Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, said: “We renew our promise to astonish the world in 2020. Dubai will bring to life our vision: connecting minds, creating the future.”
With the participation of more than 190 countries, the expo was forecast to attract 25 million visits. Nearly 70 per cent of visitors were expected to come from international markets.
A study conducted by Ernst & Young in April 2019 highlighted that Expo 2020 Dubai and its legacy were expected to contribute AED122.6bn ($33.4bn) of gross value added (GVA) to the UAE’s economy in 2013-31.
On 22 October 2019, a year ahead of its opening, the organiser of the event announced that handover of Expo 2020-owned facilities and structures was expected by the end of 2019, while country pavilions had their own deadlines for completion that would run from July to September 2020.
However, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic is poised to stymie all that as the number of confirmed cases continues to grow. On 15 February, in the UAE there were eight Covid-19 cases; by 15 March, this number had grown to 98; and on 30 March, the number had reached 611. On 15 April, the figure stood at 4,933, with the global total at 1,981,239 cases and rising rapidly.
International travel has come to a halt and global business hubs are at a standstill. The global economy faces the prospect of the worst recession since the Great Depression, and the Washington-based IMF has revised its GDP growth rate for the Middle East and North Africa region in 2020 sharply downwards.
Since the 2014 collapse in oil prices, Dubai’s real estate market has witnessed a slump in demand. For that sector, and for industries such as aviation, tourism and hospitality, it was hoped that Expo 2020 would bring a surge of activity thanks to the nearly 11 million visitors that are anticipated. The impetus provided by the expo – and related infrastructure projects, such as the expansions to the Dubai Metro Red Line, Al-Maktoum International airport and Jebel Ali Port – was expected to help shore up the economy.
However, ratings agency S&P Global said in February that in the GCC, Dubai’s hospitality industry faces the biggest risk from the current coronavirus-related travel restrictions.
With nearly 41,000 workers on site, the organisers of Expo 2020 have been forced to make some tough calls.
On 30 March, the Expo 2020 steering committee – comprising officials from the UAE and other participating nations – held a virtual meeting at which it was recommended that the event be delayed by a year.
Following this, the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the intergovernmental organisation supervising World Expos, announced that it would hold a virtual meeting of its executive committee on 21 April to discuss rescheduling the expo.
BIE said that it had been proposed that the event should run 1 October 2021 to 31 March 2022, but that “a final decision on a change of dates can only be made by a two-thirds majority vote of BIE member states, as stipulated by article 28 of the 1928 Paris Convention”.
A positive spin
It is arguably better to decide to postpone the event than to live with the uncertainty that would linger otherwise.
By hosting the event in 2021, the expo would allow its visitors and participants time to recover and come to grips with the upheaval caused by the pandemic.
The hope is that by late 2021, the threat to health will have passed; countries will have made some headway with their post Covid-19 recovery strategies; and traveller sentiment will have improved to the point that international tourism is once again thriving, with visitors willing to travel to the UAE, to Dubai, and to the expo.
It is arguably better to decide to postpone the event than to live with the uncertainty that would linger otherwise
For Expo 2020, the deadline extension offers another year for organisers and participants to plan to do things even bigger and better. By taking place after the pandemic, Expo 2020’s organisers could redefine the way expositions are conducted, through the adoption of new social practices and the latest technologies.
“As technologies evolve, they can be harnessed in different ways to enhance the visitor experience, as well as allow for new experiences through innovative uses that perhaps are not currently foreseen,” says Ziad Matar, founding partner of digital advisory network Meditari and president of the Dubai chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE).
“Expo 2020 would benefit from the catapulting of [technologies such as 5G, robotics, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things] into the mainstream, to widen their reach beyond the 11 million expected visitors, to instead include hundreds of millions – if not billions – of participants, even ahead of the start of the expo.”
Most of all, Expo 2020 Dubai could position itself as a vital component in the post-pandemic economic recovery plans of participating nations, building on the opportunities the event offers to shape new business relationships and strengthen existing trade. This would support the UAE’s goal for the expo to “create a meaningful legacy that will benefit generations to come”.
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