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Dubai’s Expo 2020 Isn’t Futuristic, It’s Retro

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A logo of the Dubai Expo 2020 is projected during the opening ceremony, on Thursday.
A logo of the Dubai Expo 2020 is projected during the opening ceremony, on Thursday.Credit: Giuseppe CACACE / AFP

The first thing that comes to mind as Dubai launches its Expo 2020 extravaganza on Friday is, “What the hell are they thinking?” or alternatively, “What are they smoking?” The world remains firmly in the grip of the coronavirus, yet the tiny Gulf emirate went ahead with its fair. Dubai is even counting on it to help lift the country out of the deep economic funk created by the pandemic.

Hard times cause people to look for wacky solutions to difficult problems. The Great Depression brought fascism, the 2008 financial crisis brought populism, and COVID has brought too many inanities to count, including conspiracy theories that dismiss the pandemic as a fraud, and “miracle cures” for the virus. Dubai is counting on Expo 2020 to be the miracle cure for its depressed tourism and property markets.

I can have a degree of sympathy for the emirate. To its great credit, it built itself into a global tourism destination on a strip of desert with no natural advantages. It, in effect, created an entire country out of scratch just like Walt Disney created Disney World on Florida swampland. Dubai is home to the world’s tallest tower and islands in the shape of palm trees and a map of the world. It’s a mall-shopper’s paradise and sports all kinds of “world’s most,” like the biggest Ferris wheel and the deepest swimming pool – 60 meters in depth.

Dubai is also a logistics center and and has aspiring financial and high-tech sectors, but tourism and property development is what makes Dubai what it is. The catch is tourism and property demand constant expansion – new real estate development, and new attractions. They can’t run in place.

Dubai’s Expo 2020 is supposed to be the latest attraction-cum-development –  an opportunity to build ($7 billion of construction), lure more tourists (14 million over six months) and make a hefty contribution to the economy ($33 billion over 20 years from construction, tourism and continued use of the site when Expo is over).

It’s also meant to showcase the city state’s aspirations to be a global center for innovation. Hence the theme “Connecting Minds and Creating the Future” and districts dedicated to sustainability, mobility and opportunity. (Israel’s pavilion is in the opportunity district, which I assume is because our spotty environmental record and chronic traffic problems would make us a stretch for the sustainability and mobility districts).

When black swans swarm

Dubai’s problem is that the real estate/tourism model keeps getting disrupted by so-called black swans – unpredictable and unforeseen events with extreme consequences. The Great Recession of 2008, from which the Dubai model never quite recovered, was one; COVID is another.

The Dubai event is called Expo 2020 because that was when it was originally scheduled to begin, before that blackest of swans, the pandemic, made it impossible. The expo was delayed for a year but kept its 2020 moniker, even though it saddles the whole future-looking enterprise with a kind of retro label.

A few months ago, when it looked like vaccinations were poised to conquer the coronavirus, the new October 1 opening date for Expo 2020 looked like a reasonable proposition. But it’s the nature of black swans to frustrate the best prognosticators, and COVID is back big time due to the delta variant.

The tepid recovery that had been underway in global travel and tourism is already in retreat –  the IATA estimates in July that international travel was still down 74 percent from the same time in 2019. China, which is supposed to be a major source of Expo visitors, has effectively shut down international air travel for its citizens, and that is expected to remain the case for the life of the fair.

The Expo organizers are still sticking to the forecast of 25 million visitors – 14 million foreign visitors and 11 million locals, although it seems they are now including virtual participants in Expo events in the number.

The Israel pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020Credit: - - AFP

But not only are the tourist estimates a long shot, the local ones are no less so: By some estimates, Dubai lost more than 8 percent of its population last year because so many expats quit the country after they lost their jobs.

Far from giving new life to the tourism and real estate sectors, Dubai Expo 2020 may mark the end of an era. The emirate seems to understand that, even if its good-news PR machine remains in overdrive. Its leaders may politically be old-school authoritarians with little tolerance for free expression, much less democracy, but they seem to have a pretty good sense of how to manage the economy.

The future of Dubai will be more geared to tech and finance, two industries that are much more sustainable than real estate and tourism. No doubt its high-tech aspirations were one reason why the United Arab Emirates, to which Dubai belongs, was willing to establish relations with Israel a year ago and quickly begin making business deals.

There are other signs of change, too. Earlier this month, it announced an economic-stimulus program and new rules that will make it easier for expats to remain in Dubai and establish roots. This is crucial. If Dubai is going to build real finance and tech sectors, it needs people who will make Dubai their home rather than use it as a way-station along their career paths. Expats, who make more than 90 percent of the population, and without them Dubai can’t create a more sustainable economy.

It’s not at all certain Dubai will succeed. It has competition from the other Gulf countries and more recently from Saudi Arabia, which is trying to transition out of oil into a more diverse economy by making itself into a tech and finance center, among other things. Dubai is laxer about enforcing Islamic strictures than Saudi Arabia, but it isn’t much less autocratic, which will limit the number of foreigners ready to make the city-state their true home and make many entrepreneurs wary of starting up there.

The good news is that the lines at Expo 2020 should be quite reasonable and with Dubai in charge there will be plenty of spectacles to enjoy. A few Israelis will no doubt spend an extra day or two checking things out for a prospective startup. That would make them really welcome.

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