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Dubai, World Expo 2020 and the challenges ahead

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Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs

Tag: United Arab Emirates
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By the time the news emerged from the Paris headquarters of the Bureau International des Expositions that Dubai had successfully secured the right to host the World Expo in 2020, there was a sense that it had almost been a foregone conclusion.  The international media had been predicting victory for Dubai for many weeks in the run up to the announcement on 27th November, and Dubai-based commentators and officials alike had been talking of Dubai as if the decision was already decided.  However, as the 2005 vote to stage the 2012 Olympic Games in London rather than Paris and last years surprising selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup have shown, confident predictions ahead of final decisions concerning these types of global events are all too often proved wrong.
Dubais bid team is therefore to be congratulated on maintaining its focused pressure and supporting Information Campaign right up to the day of the announcement.  As the Turkish team responsible for Izmirs rival Expo bid complained, Dubai was a relatively late entrant in the competition, only committing formally in November 2011.  But once Dubai had done so, the bid team led by Reem Al-Hashemi delivered HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoums vision.  Their success seemed to be predicated on generating and maintaining an aura of success, emphasising all the positives while at the same time recognising the few potential weaknesses and addressing these head on.  The outcome seems all the more remarkable when one considers that only two years before Dubai confirmed its candidacy, the emirates exposure to the global economic crisis had led commentators to write its obituary as an economic model for the future.
The manner in which Dubai celebrated its win will also have encouraged the BIEs executive.  They are likely to be reassured that the host city for 2020 will remain genuinely excited about the opportunity it provides and deliver the spectacle and lasting legacy they will be hoping for.  Moreover, Dubai seems to have persuaded the member nations that the UAE as a whole will be strengthened and enhanced by the experience of hosting what is widely regarded as the third most important global event after the Olympic Games and the World Cup.
All that said, Dubai will undoubtedly face challenges as it starts the hard work of realising its vision for Connecting Minds and Creating the Future.  As Qatars preparations for the 2022 World Cup and Abu Dhabis development of Saadiyat Island have illustrated, the physical development of the World Expo site will provide a highly visible stage on which international human rights campaigners are likely to protest against the UAEs alleged exploitation of migrant workers from South Asia and Africa.  Environmental campaigners may use the Expo to protest against the UAEs heavy carbon footprint.  Security analysts will doubtless warn that the first World Expo to be staged in the Middle East will become a prime terrorist target.  And all the while, critics of Dubai will remain eager to criticise the emirate for alleged failure to learn from the lessons of the recent past and to control the recovery of its economy.  As international media coverage in recent days has already illustrated, cynical observers have been quick to warn that Dubais success in securing the World Expo is likely to drive real estate prices even higher, risking another cycle of boom followed by bust.
Dubais challenge is therefore to confound these would-be sceptics and naysayers.  Indeed, perhaps the greatest challenge is to use the opportunity that securing World Expo 2020 affords to address these threats and to demonstrate that Dubai is not the apogee of unbridled capitalism that its critics claim it to be.  Instead, it is compassionate, responsible and still very much an economic model for the future of the 21st century.

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